Why Dropping Out Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

Posted on December 2, 2010

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At the end of 2006 I was a wreck.

I was bowed down by financial commitments, a huge workload and deadlines. I felt time poor and hugely burdened by household chores. I also felt like I was drowning in the advice, advertising and admonishments the modern world sprays at every consumer, like a police riot squad using water cannons against G20 protesters.

At the time, I thought things were relatively normal. Just a career girl getting on, up the ladder one hard-won rung at a time. All my friends were similarly exhausted, similarly shining at their jobs. Same old, same old.

In hindsight I see there were a series of wakeup calls. I’m so grateful that I finally heard one, or the echo of one. Whatever. I changed my life. I walked the plank and jumped into my dream.

Some of the events that led up to this change included:

  • My mum, after a party with all my glittery successful friends, saying in kind of sad wonder: “Having a career these days just sucks the life out of you, doesn’t it? Look at all your friends, so intelligent and funny and beautiful but they’re all in their 30s with no kids. All they do is work.
  • Reading yet another “lifestyle” article and feeling like I just couldn’t cope with any more advice. When do you get a spare moment when there’s so much to do?And how soon til you die an agonizing death because you didn’t floss, do thirty minutes of exercise a day, eat five serves of fruit and vegetables a day, tofu once a week to protect against breast cancer, salmon once a week to ward off Alzheimer’s, five superfoods, low fat, low carb, low GI, cardio, stretching, weight-bearing exercise, yoga, boot camp, mixing up your routine, sticking to a routine, meditation, eight hours sleep (always at the same time), 30 minutes of sunshine while staying out of the sun to avoid premature wrinkles and skin cancer, steam cleaning your soft furnishings to kill dust mites, slow food, counting food miles, eating seasonal foods, farmers markets, new beauty products to keep you looking young… you get the point. And then there’s the shopping. What’s a girl do when she feels overwhelmed. Well, a new pair of shoes will cheer her up. But a new pair of shoes, bought with a credit card of course, causes blisters and unsightly red marks. Naughty new shoes. Must buy a more comfortable pair. Too tired to cook. Buy takeaway. Pants getting tight. Buy new pants and begin a new exercise routine that cuts into valuable sleep time. Too tired to cook again. Buy takeaway. Scold yourself, slack lazy cow. Try to watch tv over your ballooning stomach. Too tired to exercise, too tired to eat properly, just work, eat, sleep, work, sleep, eat. Maybe meet up with friends on the weekend to complain about work. Procrastinate at work by reading motivational articles like “7 Steps To Enjoy Your Job More” and “10 Ways To Improve Your Life”. And always, in the background, the niggling thought: “how are you supposed to do this and have kids?” The weeks slip by, suddenly it’s your birthday and you’re another year older, feeling another year more ripped off.
  • I realized that I had been complaining for the same thing for more than 15 years – that I never had the chance to participate in a student exchange program and live overseas, learn a new language and experience a new culture.
  • I remembered some advice a former colleague gave me – “if you don’t like something there’s three things you can do about it. You can complain about it, you can do something to change it or you can shut up and put up with it.”
  • I thought about the last funeral I’d been to and I thought about what I wanted people to say at mine, how I wanted to be remembered. And I didn’t want to be remembered as a whiny complainer but as a woman of action who had led a wild and exciting life.
  • I tried to get some sympathy from a terrible bout of post-holiday depression from my Mum, who snapped over the phone: “You can’t be on holidays all the time. Life’s not like that.” Her comment sparked a teenagerish rebellious “well, why the hell not?” thought, a thought that just wouldn’t go away.

I drew up a list of pros and cons for going to Asia for three months. When I added “I like soup” to the pro list, to make it look a little longer, I realized I’d made my decision. I just had to convince myself to go. (I really do like soup, though.)

In May 2007 I flew to Ho Chi Minh City on a one-way ticket to take a Teaching English as a Second Language course.

It took a while to unwind from years on the career track, meeting deadlines and pleasing bosses. But after six months in Vietnam, even though I wasn’t thrilled by my teaching job, I realised I was so much happier. I was only working 20 hours a week. I was living in a room in a guest house. I was riding a rented motorbike. I hadn’t read a newspaper in months, no magazines, no lifestyle sections, no glossy catalogues, no “best and worst dressed” lists, no reality tv, no ads pushing me to buy things I didn’t need. I had no stuff, a meagre income, a handful of new friends but my life was so much richer and so much more relaxed. I had time to think. I was experiencing new and interesting things. I was living! I told my Mum I never wanted to work full-time again.

Being more relaxed certainly made life easier. And, once the feeling of carrying the world on my shoulders lifted, all kinds of wonderful things just seemed to happen. I found a new, much more enjoyable job that taught me so much about Vietnam and its history, politics and culture.  Then I met a wonderful man and life got even better. 

I eventually slipped up and ended up working full-time again. It seemed like our only option at the time. But now I am aiming to return to the no-career lifestyle. I want our little family to travel slowly, eating the world’s best street food. I want to set off before we have to worry about schooling. Darling Man doesn’t want to go until we have a regular, guaranteed and predictable monthly income. So we’re working on that. It sounds like a pipe dream but I have found so many examples of people who are doing this now.

The challenge does seem a bit daunting. But I tell myself I’ve already done some pretty amazing things. When I was in Vietnam feeling overwhelmed by the traffic and the frustration of dealing with motorbike taxi drivers, I looked at all the little old ladies zooming around on motorbikes. I told myself “if they can do it, I can do it too.” That’s how I feel when I read stories of people who are traveling the world, with or without kids, and financing their travels by working online. I can’t help thinking to myself: “If they can do it, so can I.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed by work and underwhelmed by the career track and consumerism, think about taking a break. Take some time off. Disconnect. Go away without your phone, keep off the internet. You’ll probably hear phantom phone rings and feel an almost-irrestible urge to check emails. But you have to resist. You have to learn how to slow down. The world has gotten too fast. Information overload has become the norm.

When was the last time you lay on the grass and looked at the clouds passing by? When was the last time you watched drops of rain slide down a window, how they splash into puddles? When was the last time you stared into a flickering fire or watched snow fall? Maybe you could spend a few hours sitting in a park and watching the ants.

Life doesn’t have to be so difficult.

(This post is dedicated to my friend, the Lovely Ms L, who is having a crappy time at work right now.)

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Posted in: Inspire, Work