What I learned after 6 months of voluntary unemployment

In less than a week it will be 6 months since I decided to quit my job. I thought I would share my experiences and insights here.

Before I left I was convinced that the only thing standing between me and a life filled with productive hours of passion-projects was my job. I was so sure that the exhaustion I felt mentally was caused by the aggregate of minor daily frustrations. This had been my internal mythology ever since I stepped out of the sheltered halls of university and into the glaring fluorescent light of the office cubicle.

I have learned about a psychological condition called provisional living – this is in essence the habit of saying I will do X as soon as Y happens. So for example: I will start jogging in the mornings as soon as the divorce is finalised. Or in my case: I will become super productive doing all the things I have been dreaming about for almost a decade once this job is out of the way.

Let me start by outlining things that a job provided that I did not give it credit for. The first surprising thing is that it forces you to be productive even at some minuscule level. When you go in to work for the day you can be assured that most of the time you will be forced to achieve at least one or more productive tasks. If you don’t then it could be argued that hiding your un-productiveness from management becomes a productive task in its own right. The social aspect also plays an important role. For 5 days out of the week you’re forced to confront and interact with people who you might not interact with otherwise. People with other viewpoints and stories and ways of looking at life.

The first reality I had to face a few weeks in was that I was not some amazing self-firing, industrious fiend. I was so convinced that I was not a procrastinator since I never leave anything to the last minute but this dynamic does not seem to function if I am in control of setting the deadlines. When waking up on any day with nothing in particular to do, it becomes too easy to just defer to tomorrow, or next week even. The aspect I failed to realise was that working on passion projects is still work. There is no self-igniting thing that makes it different from a job except that you get to decide the project and that a bigger part of it will hopefully be enjoyable.

Parkinson’s law states that a task will grow to fill the time allotted to it. This is true along with the caveat that a task will never get done if the deadline is not fixed. So the first lesson was that I was not the person who I thought work was holding me back from.

The second thing I learned is that I, like all other humans, am a creature of habit. The thought that I would suddenly change my habits drastically when my job was removed seems absurd now. What ended up happening is the habits I enjoyed, browsing the internet and reading, just had more time allocated to them.

In conclusion, your job might suck, but be careful about assuming that leaving your job will be panacea. Don’t use your job as an excuse to stop yourself from doing what you really want to do.

You have arrived at your destination

Nissan said: “Life’s a journey. Enjoy the ride.” This leaves precious little proverb to describe what to do when you reach a destination in your life. Earlier this week I started my mini-retirement. This has been my singular goal since I made the unfortunate mistake of entering the workforce as an employee. A few months after I started I had locked in my course: to get out. Since that decision every choice I have made has been towards this goal, this destination. 

Now that I am here, with no more alarms and appointments, the days seem very “empty”. The past few years have been easy in that sense. After the initial resolve to make the decision it was easy to just continue on auto-pilot. Mindless-ness. Now I am at another junction in my life that requires conscious thought and mindfulness. Work, or employment makes it so easy to just check your brain at the door and do what is required of you. Planning, taking charge, these are rarely used skills that take energy and time. 

Now I am preparing for the next journey, this one will have a less clear destination. How to live long and prosper – and start dreaming again.

Stuck in traffic

I grew up with certain understandings about the world. Work hard and you will reach the top, find your passion, follow your dreams, you can be whatever you want, and good triumphs over evil.

As I was sitting stuck in traffic the other day I was ruminating on all these beliefs and wondering if they were ever true since they certainly aren’t true now. I grew up as a privileged white male which is synonymous with playing the game of life on easy. And yet as I am now approaching 30 I can say that real life cannot be quantified with banal platitudes. Working hard does not always mean you reach the top, you need connections and luck. You can’t be whatever you want if you want to earn a living. There are only so many places that need oceanographers, Medieval Latin experts and art historians. Most of the time only evil triumph over evil.

So I was sitting on a highway parking lot. Inching my way forward wishing the earth would just swallow me. There is this absolute horrible trapped feeling that I get in traffic that I have only experienced on a transcontinental flight before. A feeling where you know you can’t get out and whatever happens you need to follow this thing through to its destination. I see being part of the working class in the same way now. I cannot opt to not work. I cannot find that ephemeral dream job because I don’t even get a choice anymore. I am lucky to have a job at all. And people keep asking me what am I going to do next? It’s called work for a reason. If I had the choice I would not work.

I imagine that many seasons ago it was a great achievement to graduate as an engineer. That your degree in itself was a meal ticket. These days you need to somehow prove that you are better than the hundreds of other candidates with their community service and perfectly typeset resumes and pristine cover letters only to receive a badly written boiler plate rejection letter if an employer even responds at all. I am stuck in no man’s land of having to little experience to apply as a senior anything and having too many years behind me to apply for entry level positions.

And if, not when, you are lucky enough to find a job remotely related to the degree you studied you find that that degree did not really prepare you for anything that you really need to do. There is just unending paper work and office politics and endless repetition of some profitable action. None of the interesting things you studied ever feature in real life making a university degree seem like some crazy expensive 4 year playgroup.

There has been a lot of moaning in the media recently about the millennial generation and Gen-Y being whiners and feeling entitled etc. Maybe that is true. Maybe I should have stopped and thought when I was 13 that what the world would be more willing to hire would be bankers and economists in a few years since we don’t really create wealth by creating value anymore we just conjure it into being by being clever with the economy. Or perhaps when I was 16 I should have done my best to job shadow at an engineering firm for longer than a week to see what an engineer in the real world does. All I know is that when I was 19 and optimistic I charted a course for my life by deciding to study engineering, filled with the belief that I had certain career prospects, that I would be able to get somewhere on merit and that if I followed my passion it would lead to a rewarding career.

This belief was reiterated again when I was able to get a job after university through a lecturer. I was spared the hassle that I am sure many of my peers faced with CVs and cover letters and how to dress correctly for an interview. A few months into my new job I began to realise that what I wanted and what life was willing to pay a salary for where two different things.

It’s a lottery. You have similar odds of landing that dream job. We can’t all come first. Automation means fewer people are doing more with less. And there is no connection between how many people graduate and how many jobs are available.

So go ahead. Call me an entitled, spoiled, white kid who doesn’t know how good he has it. I am very grateful and keenly aware that I am miles better off than most of the world in all aspects of life that keep you alive. Water, food, clothing, housing. And yet I find that satisfaction, achievement, recognition and passion are missing from a 40 hour chunk of my life every week.

So in closing I guess it’s all in the mind. I need to accept that I am being held hostage by what my 18 year old self thought was a good career move and that work is work and only a select few find a passion that pays. That no matter how good you are or even who you are, if there is an economic pile up on the highway of life you will be left stuck in traffic.

I stopped dreaming

At some point in my life I stopped dreaming. I’m not exactly sure when but I do remember at some stage in my life I had all manner of aspirations and plans for the future and then at some tipping point somewhere all of that changed and I became disillusioned. Maybe it was the slow wearing away of of a thousand small disappointments or maybe it was the shock of real life.

It feels like I’m living in near dusk on many levels. I am approaching my 30th birthday which puts me near the dusk of my twenties and we are moving towards the dusk of Western Civilization. Maybe its hard to dream as the sun is setting on things?

I wish my parents explained to me why I shouldn’t have wished so hard to be grown up. Why that spark of childlike wonder is worth so much more than the boring self-determination that modern adulthood brings.

Maybe my dreams were the result of growing up privileged. Part of the 1% in a country where abject poverty is everywhere. I guess it is only human to extrapolate past successes into future successes. And yet when I reached the point in my life where my parents’ influence ended the dreams stopped. After university there was no dream, passion fulfilling, be the hero role I could just step into. There was just the tedium and meaninglessness of adulthood for which I was ill prepared growing up on a mantra of “you can be anything you want.” Now as an adult I’m not quite sure what to do next. The recipe of the house, mortgage and flashy car holds no interest and it’s only easy to get a dream job if you actually have a choice in careers, not if you have to wake up everyday and be thankful that you at least have a job.

Thankfully at some stage the sheer momentum of life takes over and merrily drags you along a trajectory that you didn’t really intend and that your job doesn’t leave you enough energy to modify. Perhaps one only starts dreaming again after dark when the sun has set?