Lessons on the Road: Balance in the Extremes

Edinburgh, 2018. Must. Keep. Moving.

Starting this June, I took advantage of an opportunity of a lifetime to travel. When this opportunity landed on my lap, my first reaction had been hesitance until a friend had said, “Are you crazy? Do you know how few people in the world can do this?”

“But my career,” I had replied, “A year off would slow that momentum down, and it feels so self-indulgent.” In the end, opportunity won, and I gave notice to my job where I had a close group friends and community, a sense of purpose and an independent pay-check*. This would be the first time I was without a job since age 16.** 

The Background and Context

At 16, I started working at the local ice cream shop part time during the summers and on weekends. I had a packed self-imposed schedule, detailed down to the last 15 minutes of the day which included general studying, reading philosophy, running 6-8 miles, reading Chinese, practicing 2 instruments, memorizing new vocabulary words (not sure why I did this), and a part-time job. I slept 5-6 hours a night, and I was angrily monkish about keeping to my schedule while trying to keep appearances that I was “relaxed” when in fact, I was more tightly wound than a coo-coo clock. My poor family tried to convince me to relax, do less, care less about my marks and my stringent, obsessive time management style, but I ignored them. My mother (the opposite of the stereotypical Chinese tiger mom) nervously obsessed over whether I was sleeping enough and tried to make up for it by overfeeding me (in line with the stereotypical Chinese mom).

Ten years later and at 26, I would emerge from a few extremely personally challenging years in NYC and then London, where I finally learned to become an adult, and while I’d thrown away my scheduled days and evenings to be more fun loving and relaxed, I still hung on to my attachment to work. Instead of scheduling my days by the hour, I scheduled nothing and focused mainly on the results. I took at least one day a weekend to myself for creative thinking, exercise and family/friend time. I felt no remorse for binge watching Netflix on rainy days or binge riding my bike on sunny ones. Replacing the calendar detailed down to 15 minutes were broad brushstrokes of the week and goals. So when the idea of a travel sabbatical landed, it was acceptable but still new territory.

Just 3 months ago at my college reunion, an old friend chastised me for my response about why I enjoyed working so much when I shared my fears about my upcoming sabbatical year. I had given him the reply that for me, work was entertaining, which is true. Of course, loaded in the word “entertainment” were things like (1) a sense of unique community with a shared goal and way to measure the goal (2) a sense of meaningful exchange – giving something worthwhile to earn something in return that led to my own feeling of self-reliance (3) challenges that kept my brain working and (4) my friends at work were actually fun! Eventually, my friend suggested that I wait to see how I feel about this after a few months off.

So for the next 3 and a half months or so, heeding the advice of this friend and a few coworkers, I swam in the Aegean sea off Santorini’s coastline, toured the great origins of democracy, felt the vibrancy of cultures from afar, committed neighborhood garbage espionage in Germany, and retreated into the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. I caught up on sleep (it could be argued my first month without work was spent in a hibernation like coma). I created memories with my family that I will carry with me until my grave and read more books in 3 months than the last 3 years combined. I started gaining my fitness back, and importantly, I started this blog to write more and share stories with friends and family.

Greece vacation 2018. What a tough life.

So now that I live a life without any pressure to do a thing, what do I think? Where do I stand on work and structure? What about creativity versus process? Is this lifestyle of traveling, observing, meeting new people and reflecting the ideal life?

Findings and Observations

Many years ago, I made the case that in order to find balance, some people need to take on a few activities to the extreme. This tension for time that each activity competes in against the other forces a natural equilibrium of sorts. This was similar to another college friend of mine who swears by what he calls the “integral theory”: that optimal happiness is the integral of three major pillars (for him) – (1) professional/intellectual pursuits (2) personal life and (3) fitness/sports/hobbies, and that at any given moment in time, so long as the sum of those pillars are maximized, he’s pretty happy. Perhaps it’s a strange way to find balance, but we’re all wired a little differently. In my recent days of reflection with an abundance of time and freedom, this is exactly what I still believe. I happily began working again, this time on various consulting projects that I would be able to do remotely for former colleagues, friends and family.

Integral Theory.

I was so happy to go back to feeling like I was actively working with a team, contributing to a goal that I felt was adding value, that the night I signed my first consulting contract, my Company and I went out and got regrettably drunk. I felt like a kid again. No, I felt like I did when I was 21, and I got my first job offer after months of interviews. While I know that I am financially supported and need very little money to be happy, the idea of being able to contribute to our family nest egg gave me a sense of self value – my overall integral value increased. My Company must have been relieved as well (despite loving his work) given how excited he seemed to be. Having been in reverse positions before, I knew all too well the pressures of being the sole earner: it’s not always just the amount of that income but the fact that you have one less degree of freedom.

This result shouldn’t be surprising. I had been paid for my labors for the first time at age 7, when my mom’s post-doc principal investigator (PI) “employed” me to enter some data in a computer on weekends. He gave me $5/hour. I was thrilled, but my mom, eventually horrified at the exploitation of my child labor and the enthusiasm in which I enjoyed recording numbers into a spreadsheet, quickly ended that activity. Also the same year, my dad had me clean off tables at the restaurant he had worked at part-time while doing his MBA. He had split the tip with me, which had also made me incredibly happy***.

When I reflect on what made me so excited about these nearly absurd memories, it’s not about saving the money to buy some toy or candy or even about making money itself: it was about the feeling of participating in an activity with the adults, being part of something bigger than myself with a reward, and most importantly of all, contributing a tangible, stupidly simple thing to the family. I admit other contributions like childcare, house care and home planning are far more important and harder in many ways, but in that way I’m quite simple. I enjoyed the simple measurement of my monetary contributions to my family nest egg.

Finding rocks on the beach, another stupidly simple activity I enjoy, like working. Spot a trend?

Beyond these intrinsic values that “work” holds for me, however, there was also another interesting observation. Eventually sometime around month three, when the hours stretched ahead of me from morning to night and from night to morning, the days seemed to blend. I would be wholly unproductive at achieving my other goals: creative writing, evaluating start-ups, thinking of my own start-up ideas, learning new skills, etc. Like a flame trying to light, I needed a little air to ignite. I needed some basic responsibility to kick off my day. The very week I started to work on an external project, my own productivity for other personal projects increased immediately. Once again, my own words from years past held true with added meaning: some people need the pressure from a few angles to do their best in all angles.

The Alhambra, balanced and mathematically brilliant. Seen from multiple angles.

I accept that as life changes – as I change – these thoughts will also evolve. I also know that those three months I took off completely, learning to fully immerse myself in each place that I was in, was immeasurably valuable. I rested; I allowed my brain which had been tapped of its resources and creativity, to recharge. I became slightly (though not by much) more present; I allowed the immersion of a totally different experience help focus me on where I was (not where I should be or could be), which helped me tap into a new level of happiness and excitement. Most importantly during this time, I explored the much-preached about but little practiced outrageous optimism, focusing on positive ways to solve problems instead of allowing my analytical brain find holes in every possibility. Because of that, I approach this new, uncertain phase of this year with childlike excitement and wonder.

Getting lost in a maze in Seville. Terrible idea as it is bloody hot.

*My Company was and is employed, but I enjoyed my independence.

**In college, I worked part-time in research through grants and awards.

***This was also killed off by my mom shortly after she found out in a rage that I was again being exploited.

It’s hard to predict what’s around the corner, metaphorically and also in this Scottish fog.

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