January 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
I did it. I survived that hallmark of the American experience known as the 40 hour-a-week, standard 9 to 5, cut-and-dry desk job. I went through the motions, set my alarm for 7:30 a.m., put on my slacks, and got on public transport bleary-eyed and coffee-sick, trudged through the afternoon hours as awake as a sloth, shuttled home playing candy crush and passed out watching Netflix, day in and day out for a year.
So I don’t feel too bad affirming that it’s not for me. Of course, everybody’s got to make money. Some people struggle so much they need to work two full-time jobs or do backbreaking manual labor to make ends meet. I know I’ve got it pretty good. But there’s something about the soul-numbing-ness of sitting at a computer screen all day that challenges my vision of what success is supposed to look like.
With that realization in mind, and with the little savings I’d built up from my year-long stint in the world of business, this summer I took some time off.
At first, this decision was terrifying. For somebody as ‘Type A’ as me, ‘taking some time off’ feels more like ‘taking a jump off’ a 150-foot cliff. It’s like flicking off the little light switch in your brain that turns the sanity on. Or like taking a whole productivity casserole you’ve been prepping for the last god-knows-how-many years and chucking it out the window of a moving vehicle.
But for a woman who’s spent a good 90% of her life overworking herself only to find that degrees don’t guarantee contentment, it ultimately felt like the right move. I needed lightness and playfulness. I needed a handful of breezy afternoons spent doing nothing. I needed to know what getting 8 hours of sleep every night actually felt like. I needed to reconnect with the girl I was before ‘the system’ turned me into that excuse for an adult known as a robot. So I spent a month doing just that, exploring the city, and taking my time to think about what was best for me moving forward.
I don’t think I would have made this decision if I were living somewhere else. In the Bay Area, people aren’t afraid to live exactly the way they want to, even if it falls outside the mainstream. In the circles I’ve moved around in San Francisco, it’s an okay thing not to have a full time desk job. In fact, it’s pretty okay to make your living doing just about anything, whether it’s body work, plant work, selling things on the street corner, or whatever makes it happen for you. People I know often contract their skills, work from home, or have what would otherwise be considered ‘alternative’ jobs. Some don’t work at all and squat in collective warehouses to avoid paying rent and/or becoming a mere cog in the capitalist machine. While many of my east coast peers are feverishly placing down building blocks for their career, most of my friends here are finding creative ways to get by and do what they really want (art, music, activism, etc.). They aren’t driven by the need to ‘be somewhere’ or ‘be someone’ with their careers – instead, they’re driven by what feels right, and what makes them happy.
The most beautiful lesson I’ve learned so far from living here is that if my friends can do something a little different, I can too. Since September, I’ve been working two part time jobs: one as a front desk manager at a yoga studio, the other at an education non-profit where I mentor high school students. The combination hardly destines me for the front page of Princeton Alumni Weekly, but that’s what I love about it. I have the kind of freedom the most successful people (like those friends of friends who most recently made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list) pine for.
To be real, many of us ‘golden children’ have often felt like perpetual homecoming kings and queens. Our lives have been a ticker tape of celebrated successes: ‘Graduates high school cum laude!’ ‘Graduates college summa cum laude!’ ‘Lands ideal internship!’ ‘Lands prestigious job!’ It’s exhausting and dehumanizing. Since my time off and my career switch-up, I’ve got a new ticker tape: ‘Sits in garden for an hour!’ ‘Finishes first season of Smallville!’ I don’t care if anyone else watches my new show; to me it’s much more entertaining than the alternative.
As people from what I find myself calling ‘my old life’ ask me what’s next, I’m increasingly content with saying, “I don’t know.” I find comfort in the idea that “what’s next?” is a question you’d never ask of a Zen master. He’d probably just laugh at you. Because to think we know what’s next is a bit presumptuous, and I’m done with that mindset.
When I moved here last summer, I definitely made some huge changes. But where that was a fresh start, this feels like the real beginning. The productivity casserole is long spoiled and gone out to compost. I’m cooking up something a lot more interesting these days.