Letter To My Former Self: Go Before You're Ready

Last week marked a huge milestone in my life.  I've officially been living in New Zealand for one whole year.  Three hundred and sixty five days (give or take) have been spent in New Zealand, 8,000 miles away from home.  I'm the person who gets teary eyed when I hear the first chords of Auld Lang Syne every New Year so it's no surprise that reflecting on this last year has prompted a flood of emotions.  

Last month I flew back to the States for a dear friend's wedding and a general quick friends and family tour.  When I touched down in Chicago and felt the muggy, sticky heat overtake me and noisy city bustle overwhelm me, I realized the life I was so comfortable with in Chicago now feels galaxies away.  I was overjoyed to reconnect with long lost friends but at the same time I was relieved to feel a sense of total peace with my decision to leave.  I thought back to the worries and fears I had about leaving and the excuses I made about everything that was preventing me from going and as I was sitting of the train that hurtled me into a  city of chaos, I feel the world suddenly get quiet and for a second amongst the noise of the honking taxis and the screaming train tracks, everything was serene.  I'm not in the habit of making hyperbolic comments like, "moving to New Zealand was the best decision I ever made," but it was an important decision and was right for me at the time.  

Skyline views 2016 are much different than skyline views 2015.

Skyline views 2016 are much different than skyline views 2015.

While in Chicago, I caught up with a friend who had reached out to me earlier this year looking for advice on how to get herself out of the post-college career rut.  This career rut is real and it sucks and I know you're thinking those damn millennials are so entitled, why can't the just be happy with a good paying job?  But whatever.  It's real and it deserves attention.

My friend graduated college and took a job in a large company that provided a big safety net in terms of pay and job security but offered little in personal growth and interest exploration.  In her letter to me, she juggles with feeling guilty for not enjoying a perfectly good job but also she can't deny the soul-sucking nature of the work.  She goes on to describe her job and her fear of leaving, the details of which aren't really relevant because what's she's actually describing is a fear of change, a fear so universal that it's hard not to relate.  

How do we find the courage to break routine, leave comfort and stability and enter into the unknown?  What if what we end up doing is worse than what we were doing?  How do you know if you just need to suck it up or if a real change is in order?

I took a month to let the response marinate in my head and when I finally got around to responding, I decided I couldn't possibly advise her on what to do but perhaps instead, I could write a letter to my younger self that she could relate to.  If her situation was as universal as I thought, perhaps she would find comfort and enouragment regardless.  

I long time ago I read a book called What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self.  The book is a collection of letters from 41 notable women written to their former selves.  Each letter is as different as the authors and provide their own type of comfort and wisdom. The book features Maya Angelou, Madeleine Albright, Macy Gray, Queen Noor of Jordan and so many other remarkable women.  I was inspired by their profound wisdom and thought maybe I will write a letter to myself and my friend will find it useful.  The letter is still to her, but also to me a year ago and also anyone who is on the brink of change.


Fiona,

Your anxieties and fears sound all too familiar.  In fact, it was this month last year where I had decided I was done kissing the ass of high-end fashion clients and bought my ticket to NZ.  I went through the same wave of emotions you’re feeling right now.

Let’s start here:  You think you have a good job with tolerable coworkers and nice benefits and you almost feel guilty for wanting to throw that away, right?  There’s a nice quote from Perks of Being a Wallflower I like to refer to when I’m feeling like my feelings are unwarranted because of my privilege: “I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won't tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn't change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn't really change the fact that you have what you have.”  Don’t belittle yourself because you’re not happy having the things you were told would make you happy.  

You say your current field of work is definitely not what you see yourself doing for the rest of your existence or even the next 9 months.  Go back and re-read the sentence you typed verbatim.  That right there is all the convincing you need to take action.  The good news is you're young and free of serious ties like marriage, mortgages, children.  You don’t even have a dog to tie you down.  You know you’re ready for a change but you’re not sure where to go.  Unfortunately, I can’t help you too much on that front.  The only thing I can tell you is the best way to find what you love is to stop doing the things you hate.  I joke with people that I don’t know what I want to do (which is true), but I know exactly what I don’t want to do and that gives me peace of mind.  Instead of focusing on the grand question of “what do I want to do?” try focusing instead on “what do I absolutely not want to do?”  Find out what those things are and stop doing them.  You don’t have to have the answer to the ominous “what do I do” question.  Instead, just find things you don’t hate and keep yourself open to new opportunities.  

It always helps me to write out my options.  I think best through my writing and maybe that will help you too.  Maybe start by writing down everything you want to do, no matter how crazy it is.  Perhaps you’ve always thought about going back to school for being a nurse.  Maybe you want to travel abroad.  Maybe you’ve wanted to take a gap year, move to a ski town, and work on the ski slopes for a season.  Maybe you want to stay in your field but transition to a new role.  However big or, however, small, write it down.  Once you have your list. circle the ones that would truly make you the happiest.  Keep an open mind and don’t put yourself down.  If “hiking mount Kilimanjaro” is the #1 thing on your list, don’t immediately convince yourself it’s impossible.  It’s possible and thousands of people do it all the time. 

In fact, adopt this personal mantra:  “Thousands of people have done this and I’m a competent learner, therefore I can also do this.”  This mantra has gotten me through a lot:  Moving to from rural Nebraska to Chicago, running marathons, quitting jobs I knew weren’t right for me, moving to New Zealand.  They all sound insurmountable when you look at it on paper but as soon as you convince yourself if everyone else can do it, surely you can too, you’ll be on your way to breaking down the exact steps to get there.

You asked me how I knew I need to make a life change and move to New Zealand.  The anticlimactic truth is I didn’t know.  The key to making any big life change is to go before you’re ready.  If you wait around for some divine signal, you’ll never take the leap.  There will be no clear path and you’ll be constantly second guessing your choice forever..  

In my case, I was nursing a broken foot and navigating icy sidewalks on crutches on a particularly bleary and miserable Chicago winter day.  I had just been shit on again by demanding clients who looked at me with the same distaste a 13th-century overlord has for a field peasant.  I was filled with deplorable self-pity and I decided I was tired of waiting around for good things to happen.  If I wanted to feel fulfilled, I needed to take responsibility in making that happen.   I read a quote by Anais Nin that struck a chord with me:  Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s.

I knew I wanted to go to New Zealand but I was still having a hard time wrapping highly pragmatic brain around such a flighty concept.  I had already figured out the budget requirements. I had done my visa research.  I knew it was within reach.  The only thing left to do was allow myself to go.  The best way to do that?  Buy a $1,000, nonrefundable one-way plane ticket.  I did that and for a few weeks, sat alone with my giddy anticipation.  I told no one and let myself have two weeks of pure, selfish, solitary excitement. 

You asked me what steps I took to get to that point.  By far, the hardest step is allowing yourself to do things that scare you.  Everything else is easy.  Visas, budgeting, saving, planning, reading, researching.  There are hundreds of resources (like blogs!) that will provide you with great info on how to do the practical stuff.  The real trick is going to be mentally preparing.  Hold yourself accountable and if you can afford it, tell as many people as you can.  If you’re stubborn like me, the fear of not following through on plans you’ve been very vocal about would be some serious soul-crushing humiliation.  If nothing else, you accomplish your goal out of sheer will and stubbornness.  (For obvious reasons, I would withhold that information from your employer and people attached to your job until you’re fully ready to go.)

You asked me what advice I would have a for a 23-year-old who feels a little lost and unfulfilled.  It’s hard for me to give serious life advice to other people since I can’t pretend to know the context of your life or the obstacles you face, so instead, I’ll share with you the life advice for a 23-year-old me who was also a little lost and unfulfilled.  

1. Stop trying to micromanage your future. 
You’re a chronic over-planner and you’re uncomfortable with not knowing exactly where you’ll be in five years.  Going with the flow makes you physically nauseous and you become unraveled when you’re plan derails.  Chill.  You can plan and manage your future all you want but I’ve got bad news for you.  Regardless of how careful you are, things will never go according to plan.  That’s life.  It’s unpredictable and it’s messy.  The things you thought you loved will change.  The places you thought you wanted to be will seem different when you get there.  Swallow this pill now and get used to navigating unforeseen waters.  You’ll take jobs that seem like your dream job, at first, only to have the excitement wear off after a few months.  You’ll fall in love with people you’re sure are your soulmate, only to find out you actually don’t have much in common once the excitement has worn off.  Allow yourself to switch gears when necessary.  

2.  Don't look back.  You're not going that way.
You’re at a point in your life where every path you take seemingly has the power to radically alter your future.  I know this is scary.  You get caught up in thinking about which path is going to lead to a destination that makes you the happiest, most content version of yourself.  

Sadly, you can’t live two lives at once.  You pick a line and you continue on, the same way the railway lines branch out from each other and follow their own course.  One line is the life you pick, and the other is a sister-life, continuing on without you.  As you continue your path, you bid farewell to the sister-life you almost had.  You mourn a little for the things you’re giving up but also celebrating the things yet to come in your new life.  Neither life is better than the other, just different.  

Many times I wish I could live two lives at once.  I wish I could be frolicking under the shadows of New Zealand’s Southern Alps while simultaneously wishing I could be back in Chicago, cooking dinner with my friends while reruns of Gilmore Girls streams in the background.  You’ll make sacrifices but they’ll be worth it.

3.  Give yourself time.
I know you’re at an age where corporate competitiveness is raging strong.  Your LinkedIn qualifications seemingly have the power to make or break you.  One bad career move and you’re afraid you’ll be lightyears behind your peers.  

When you can finally break free from that thinking, you’ll feel how I imagine cult escapees feel.  The United States, almost more than any other country, places such unnecessary importance on work.  When you’re in the thick of it, you always justify the lack of your work-life balance but when you see your life from the outside, you finally realize how ridiculous it is.  There are so many things you can do in the world that will be challenging and fulfilling without being soul crushing.  Don’t quit looking for those jobs until you’ve found.  I hope you don’t interpret this as quit your job and live off the fat of the land.  That’s not the point I want to make.  One of the biggest takeaways I’ve seen from living in New Zealand is how normal it is to treat a job like a paycheck.  It doesn’t consume your life.  It provides a stimulating environment and enough money to get you by but at the end of the day, you leave work at work and get on with your life.  I’ve met so many adults here who work blue collar jobs (painters, electricians, wait staff, retail staff, plumbers) and feel no guilt for their professional pursuits  It’s refreshing and a great reminder that getting the next promotion or attending another networking event isn’t the end all be all.  


My final piece of advice to you is this:  Do what you want this year.  If that means quitting your job and going to nursing school, go for it.  If that means finding a role in your company you can tolerate, call up HR.  If that means selling all of your possessions, buying a camper van and road tripping from Alaska to Patagonia, start planning (and saving).  Surround yourself with only supportive and positive people.  Their influence and encouragement will do wonders for you.

If you’re looking at specifically moving abroad, start reading blogs.  Actually, start reading blogs on whatever realm you’re interested in diving into.  Reading about people who have been there done that will not only encourage your own decisions but also give you practical advice on how to get to where they are.  

It sounds to me like you might already know the course of action that needs to be taken but just needs a little bit of confirmation that what you want to do is the right thing to do.  I’ll be the one to tell you if you want.  It's right.   The fear you might fail is real but it’s also surmountable.   Your next step will take courage but I know you to be brave enough to jump in feet first.  

As John Steinbeck said, “If it’s right, it happens.  Nothing good gets away.”

Keep me posted on the upcoming excitements in your life.  And reach out anytime. 

Sending you love from afar.

 

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