Why I Broke the Conventional Rules

The last year has felt like a train wreck, but yet it also felt like it needed to happen.

In August of 2012 I left my cushy job at a biotech company. Looking back it’s obvious I made a good choice, but at the time it didn’t quite stand out so much. Money wasn’t the problem – I felt I was compensated fairly for the work I did, and the bonuses I received each year never disappointed. Benefits were terrific – the combination of vacation time and insurance were practically second to none. I worked for a department that was significant to the business – we actually did things that made the company money. I could always easily and proudly explain what I did if anyone ever asked. My boss was great. He trusted my gut instinct and let me do my thing. He recently gave me a reference stating that I was like his right hand man. But in the end, I just felt I couldn’t stay any longer. In my previous posts I listed other factors, like upper management, lack of growth, etc. You’ve probably heard these same reasons from others that left their job. These reasons definitely played a major role, but when I look back tonight, it was never the core reason of why I left.

There was a point in time, years into the job, that I simply no longer enjoyed what I did at that company. The problem was I could never admit it to myself. I found excuses to keep myself there. I shouldn’t leave because my parents had it so much worse, so I need to be appreciative of what I have. Anywhere else I go won’t be as good as what I have here. The tough times will pass, just stick it through. There are so many unemployed people out there that would KILL to get into this biotech company, so don’t throw away such a good thing. The list goes on and on. Whenever I wanted to quit, I thought of another reason to replace the old ones that had clearly run its course. With each new excuse I made up, all I did was continue to bury something inside me that wanted to rear it’s head – my own inner voice. I let the expectations and judgment of others toss more dirt to bury the inner voice that always found a way to slightly pierce it’s hands above the ground, no matter how much more dirt was thrown on it.

It got to a point where I felt I started losing control, which was somewhere around May of 2012. I then finally decided to participate in a 10 day Buddhist meditation retreat in Twenty Nine Palms, which took place in July. When I told some friends and colleagues about it, their instant reaction was that something was wrong with me. A small handful thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But unfortunately I let the negative judgments get to me. I became defensive when explaining why I chose to burn vacation time on a silent retreat, instead of going on my usual trips to Asia to be more “cultured.” I would spin the retreat in the same way, saying things like how it was cool, hip, and different. But deep down inside I was hurting and needed a way to let out pain without the judgmental noises. I needed to be in a safe place to let loose.

On the third day into the retreat, my mind had finally calmed down. All of a sudden nothing seemed like a pressing issue, which allowed me to analyze my problems with a bit more clarity. I only realize this now when looking back – my inner voice finally pulled itself out of the ground, the same ground that I had managed to bury it so deep inside before. For the remaining 7 days, my inner voice paced itself around and found it’s way to communicate with me. As crazy as that sounds, this is actually what happened. It didn’t give me all the answers, but it was clear I had to stop what I was doing now so that I could open my eyes to see what was next. It spent the remaining days convincing me that the obstacles were not as big as my ego had made them out to be.

When I returned home, I spent the first week getting my personal chores in order. Then the search began, and within 3 weeks I had a written offer ready to sign and commit. 10 months later, as I had alluded above, this new job came to a screaming stop. I wanted to cry and bang my head on the wall. I thought I had it all figured out. But I recalled again that my inner voice only told me when something was wrong, it never spelled out a straight path to what was right – I still had to figure that out on my own.

This next decision was the unconventional part. I quit without finding another job. I needed to give myself time to sort things out. Worrying about finding another job before quitting was the kind of societal noise that I had to break apart from. I needed a period of time with no judgments or expectations of returning to a job. In the seven years that I worked, I managed to save up quite a bit of money and also invested in enough assets to allow me to afford a short career break. So I simply said, fuck it, lets do it. I owe this to myself.

This time around something was very different. I had no problems explaining what I wanted to do with my new found freedom. I wasn’t planning to travel. I had planned on using the time to stay home, wake up when I felt like it, exercise more consistently, and handle personal chores that had piled up over the months. I guess you could call it a staycation. When asked about whether I found another job (some questions had the assumption already in it), I could proudly say I purposely didn’t look for one. Simply put, I no longer cared what they thought. I no longer cared if they thought I was crazy. What I found out later was these same folks wished they had the courage to do what I did.

I thought maybe I would have a moment of epiphany, where it would just hit me and I’d know exactly what to do next. Unfortunately, none of that happened. All I had was time to look back and reflect, and that’s what has happened in the past seven weeks. I’ve been asked tons of questions about what I did, how I feel, and what I’m thinking now. Honestly, I will give a different answer depending on how I’m feeling on a particular day. Many days I felt liberated, but for an equal amount of days I also felt a lot of fear. There’s always that little side of me in the back of my head that thinks I made a mistake, simply because I haven’t found the next thing yet that I could feel passionate about. But its OK. I am finally honest with myself and allowing my inner voice to be a better guide.

One of the first things my inner voice told me to do was observe the kind of work where I was naturally productive and genuinely enjoyed doing. It doesn’t means that it will be the right answer, I’m simply being told it’s something worth considering as I’m figuring this out. I also had to make adjustments to my personal life. There are some friends and colleagues that I had to cut out because their judgment wasn’t helping me. There are several friends that I haven’t seen in a while because I have to give myself time, and I plan to continue not seeing them until I feel ready. Actually, this is one of the cool things about listening to my inner voice – I can now better feel when things are right or wrong to me, without having to look to others for answers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still scary. Sometimes I’m told things I don’t want to hear, but as nasty as medicine can be sometimes, the patient needs to take it.

On Monday I start a six month contract at a major financial institution. I’m at a point in my career where I have enough experience to offer this kind of consulting service, so I’m hitting it full force to see where it takes me.

The train is up and running again, and I’m ready to hop back on.

The Internal Compass

It’s been 8 months since I left the meditation retreat camp. Every month or two, I can’t help but analyze and reflect upon what meditation did for me. The reason being that some part of me starts to slowly emerge. Sometimes it’s a bit of my past emotional states that were positive, and many times it’s something new I haven’t experienced before.

I remember the first day I got out, the immediate effect was I felt a sense of calmness that couldn’t be broken for many weeks.  I didn’t feel rattled or shaken, instead I felt balanced and observational. When I returned back to work, I noticed that the same problems didn’t effect me the same way, and to a certain extent I conscientiously understand “in one ear, out the other.”

I also remember being able to sleep fewer hours yet still maintain alertness throughout the day. In other words, for a period of time coffee was no longer necessary. I felt very detoxified.

More recently, I’ve felt this emerging compass inside me. Not in the sense of north, south, east, or west – instead it is more like hot or cold. Remember as a kid, you probably played a game where you had to find something by listening to your friend say hot or cold. Hot meant you were getting closer, and cold meant otherwise. But hot or cold is all you know (and yes there was warmer or cooler for a bit of subjective help). There’s no sense of real physical direction. But either way, you knew with each direction you took, there was a 50 percent chance you picked the right option.

Hot or cold is where I stand now. The cold is obvious, but the hot is not. During the past few months, I have been more aware of what I don’t like. In other words, spotting the cold has been a prime focus for me because cold is what I don’t like. If I can remove the cold, eventually the hot will present itself. This general concept is the fundamental groundwork for clearing out the clutter. The clutter is the cold. It’s like mixing hot and cold water to get the desired temperature for running water. When you want hotter water, you can either increase the hot water, or reduce the cold water.

I think of hot as happiness, purpose…whatever it is you want to call it, it’s the thing we all want and spend most of our life searching for. Just like the game: when you get hotter, you’re closer to the goal. But unfortunately life isn’t as simple as turning up the hot water. If that were the case, I think each and every one of us would be much happier. But luckily we can turn down the cold water, bit by bit, until the right temperature is reached. In which case, we reach the right equilibrium.

Each time you turn down the cold water, you place your hand in the running water to judge the temperature until you like it. Life works in a similar manner. Turn down the cold – turn down the clutter. Eventually the discomfort of the cold will settle into a temperature that is comfortable for a long enjoyable bath. That right temperature, whether hot, warm, or lukewarm, is to our own liking and solely depends on each individual. No one can tell you what your perfect temperature is. The only way to reach that is constant adjusting and testing. It’s the same you do before going into a shower or bath.

Yea, I am aware that I’ve beaten the analogy to death, but I hope you found this analogy useful. Find your right temperature, and remember: it’s a constant adjustment that will require you to keep testing the results of each adjustment.

It started with a fog, and then a blocked passage

Things tend to clear it itself out when we give it more time to sink in. It makes sense now as I think back to what has happened so far in the last eight months. It was as if a huge cloud or fog was covering my vision. Whether I turned left, right, or back, everything looked confusing. Neither direction ever felt right. If I started on one path, I would only stop and start questioning whether the first step was in the right direction. I’d retrace my steps and rethink everything – but this only led to me back to start where I began. It was frustrating to say the least.

After the ten days were over, most of the fog had blown away. Things were now clearer than before, and at the very least I was able to make sense of where I was standing, and where the next step had to be. It didn’t make things easier, but it gave more clarity as to what had to happen next. Looking back at this point, its as if I saw an opening covered by a big rock. My gut told me that whatever was behind the big rock, was what I needed to chase after. That big rock was my job. I had to get out. I had to push out the big rock to see what else stood behind it. In essence, there was much more to see in the world, and much more waiting for me – just as long as I was willing to put in my own blood and sweat to create the path to walk.

But that big rock was not the end of it. After managing to push that big rock aside (finding a new job), I was presented with many more rocks of smaller size, but stacked together high enough to cover most of the path, and only let me have a small glimpse of what was ahead. But alas, the small gap was not enough. It was a like a light was shining from the other side through that gap, but there wasn’t enough space to know what was going on. All it could tell me was that I had to keep digging through and clearing out these new found rocks. Despite the laborious tasks ahead of me, I know that something extra special and worthwhile is waiting on the other side. One by one, piece by piece – the path will be laid out.

Melt Down?

I wonder if a meltdown is what I’ve been feeling the last year, or possibly even longer.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve built myself into a particular niche of technology. During college, I studied Electrical Engineering, with a bit of computer science blended into it. I went through several years of circuit boards, programming logic, differential equations, and hundreds of ways to count. To add some extra padding to that, I interned at Fortune 500 companies as a software engineer, all of which allowed me to do meaningful work (meaning I didn’t get coffee for the boss). When it was all said and done, 5 job offers were on the table for me – and this was 5 months before I had been scheduled to graduate. I admit, it was a good feeling. I felt accomplished because all the restless nights had finally paid off. It gave both my parents a solid sense of relief because there was nothing to be worried about. As it appeared, I was set for life.

Flash forward 10 years later to the present (I’m 30 right now). I’ve been in the same field for more or less the last 10 years, but not always in the same capacity. I’ve also managed to attain a handful of cash flowing assets, more than what most people my age could achieve. But in regards to my job, when I started full time work 7 years ago, I stopped writing code. I spent more time as an analyst understanding the needs of the business and putting together specifications that would be handed off to software developers for creation. I actually liked it, because it put a bit more emphasis on my creative side, instead of just “cranking out code” like a machine. I also enjoyed the intimate interactions with my clients (most of them happen to be female, so maybe that had something to do with it). Because of this ability to work directly with clients, opportunities led me to 3 months in Europe, where I helped implement a new system to transform business automation at many countries in Europe. On paper, it just kept looking better and better.

At the end of 2010, I took time off for ankle surgery; to fix an accident that happened some time back. After the surgery, I didn’t do a whole lot of work for about 6 months. It took about 6 weeks before I could walk again, plus another few months for rehab. Right after, I took another month off to Taipei to test out the resilience of my repaired ankle.

After coming back, it seemed as if the foundation started cracking. My job didn’t bring the same excitement as it once did. The meetings seemed to drag more than usual. I couldn’t get myself to put together any sort of useful documentation. Reviewing documentation was even worse – the hired contractor had horrible grammar and rarely understood the requirements we gave her. My client and I started dreading the project we were assigned. I thought maybe my job lacked variety, so I decided to “look to the past” and revive my programming skills by taking a free online course for Python programming. However, that didn’t go well. The motivation just wasn’t there. I was feeling depressed and needed a way to cope with it.

I even tried pumping up my physical health. A few friends and I decided to start the Insanity workout. I thought this would help alleviate the depression. For a little while, it worked. I was continuously obsessed with perfecting the routine and getting the most out of the workout. We started a chat room to check in each day and discuss our progress. By the end of it, we all lost significant fat. But shortly after, I was hitting a new low. In fact, I was coping with my problem, but I never actually dealt with it.

Then I tried something completely different – I decided to take 10 days off to participate in a meditation retreat (I’ve blogged about this extensively before). It was very daring and very different. This choice was greeted with mixed reactions. Some were positive and encouraging. But most reacted with, “what the heck?” As if, something was terribly wrong with me.  Those with this reaction did have a perception of me, and most would call it positive: my resume was padded with academic and professional accolades. I graduated with a highly respected degree from a top tier public university. I had spent significant time as a student at highly praised companies, and landed a job at the world’s largest biotech company after graduation. I also seemingly had a great personal life, which included traveling to multiple countries for extended periods of time, to reflect on my past as well as prepare for what was to come. I acquired more assets than usual compared to peers my age. I spent time in Europe, traveling business class, to implement systems as part of a multi-million dollar project. On paper, things just looked so good. Nothing appeared to be dead end. At this point, it didn’t matter what others thought – this is my life, not theirs.

Meditation ended up being one of the best decisions I made, and I continue to practice it today. It didn’t solve my problems. Being centered, through meditation, gave my brain the ability to see the problem more clearly. It was still my choice as to how to attack the problem.

As of today, my conclusion is that I am melting down and something else is trying to grow out of me. I don’t know what it is yet. As of now, it’s a feeling that won’t go away. If I try to ignore it, it only gets worse, resulting in more depression. I’ve done my best to embrace it. One thing I’m accepting is that what I’ve done in the last 10 years is slowly being put to rest, and a new “me” is starting to emerge. I don’t expect many people to understand. Anything that I’ve done in the last 10 years that is perceived as success, is a kind of success. I’ve done things that our current society ranks as good success. Find a good job, build your assets, move up in the career ladder, and perhaps soon start a loving family (I haven’t done the latter yet). If you’ve noticed, I’ve been mostly using monetary wealth as a measurement of success throughout this post. There’s a voice inside of me that’s saying this isn’t my direction in life. It’s saying I cannot follow society’s blueprint of what it means to be successful. It doesn’t mean I won’t be wealthy, but it does mean that the current path isn’t the right journey. Its time to start clearing out the rocks and let new light shine – because a new journey is awaiting me on the other side.

So far I’ve been making incremental changes, hoping that the path will be clearer as I move along. When I switched jobs a few months ago, I thought that would solve the problem. I realized it was only one of many things I needed to do, because when I switched I started noticing the bigger picture. Now I am in the process of moving out of my home, in which I am living with tenants, to rent someone else’s room. I will be hiring a management company to manage the property on my behalf. I noticed that with each move I make, I’ve allowed my mind to worry about one less thing, thus opening up the hole to let more light shine in, and hopefully soon enough the hole will be big enough to light the new path.

Yes, I think it’s a meltdown. I’m melting down because something new has to be constructed. I just wish it wasn’t so painful. The learning and growth never ended in college…it was just the beginning.

Change or Reconfirmation?

I’m noticing a pattern with some of my friends, same age as me, that are approaching 30 or are past 30 years old, but are not yet married.

A former classmate and current friend of mine has lived in Thailand for more than a year, and has decided to get into Thailand politics. Prior to this, he was a software engineer in the states. He started out in the defense industry at a small company in California that eventually got bought out by Raytheon. He was paid well, did his job well, and garnered high respects from managers and his colleagues. But then he got tired of the politics, incompetent management, bad coding practices…just to name a few. He felt those were the reasons why he didn’t enjoy going to work anymore. He decided a new job would solve the problem. He found a new position at a start up company in Michigan. 10 months later he was let go – perhaps even fired. He got along with his coworkers, but he didn’t fit into the culture. He didn’t like drinking. He wasn’t used to the code structure used by the company. Eventually the big boss decided he wasn’t a good fit for the company in the long term. When he was let go, it hurt. He felt like a failure. His parents couldn’t understand what went wrong. Without getting into too much detail, he decided that he needed to get away for a while, so he went to Thailand to try business and also help run his parents’ business. But that year was not about business – it became a year of self-exploration, almost like a journey within himself, i.e., self-evaluation. Eventually, he accepted that he no longer enjoyed his line of work, regardless of the company he was at. He decided that he could only fool himself for so long before everything came tumbling down. Turns out, being let go was one of the best things that ever happened to him, because he ended up reinventing himself. But in the process of reinventing himself, all he simply did was accept himself for who he was, and stopped living a life that he thought he should be living.

Today I had the pleasure of catching up with a former co-intern from Citibank. I happened to bump into him this past Friday at a local Starbucks in Beverly Hills, while I was out with my clients on a day trip. I quickly exchanged phone numbers with him since I didn’t have time to speak with him. Turns out, like me, he switched jobs a few times. He started at a large media company, and then eventually moved over to a major social media company. Later, he decided he needed a change. He thought changing companies, but within the same line of work, would solve the problem. He’s now at a startup, still working as a software engineer. The job is great: awesome pay and flexible work hours (he also works from home). However, he told me that he realized nothing had changed in how he felt. It was clear he needed a real change, so now he’s looking into purchasing some kind of retail business or sandwich shop. Yep, a total change. He doesn’t want to stay in software engineering anymore, it just didn’t feel right for him. He wants to start fresh in something else.

When both of these friends described their thought process and emotions that led them to where they are today, it only confirmed one thing – I’m in the same boat. I did the same thing they did. I thought changing jobs was the answer – but it wasn’t. My new job is great on paper. It is more than most could ask for: the pay is great, the hours are flexible, and the politics is nearly non-existent. My coworkers only focus on doing good work for clients. I told myself, before leaving my last job, this was what I needed. I got it now, but it only felt right for a short while before things came tumbling down again. In addition, my outside investments are performing well. With these tough economic times, most people would do anything to be in my position. But yet with me, something still feels terribly wrong – hence I’m leaning towards taking a six month break to let my mind sort things out. I simply don’t know any other way to do this.

But one thing I can say for sure – it’s not that I need to find something else to do. Granted, yes I do feel less confident about my current career. What I need the time off for is to sort things out and decide if I really do need a change or I am actually doing what I want to do. Hence, it can either be a change or a reconfirmation of my current path. I don’t mind if I return home and decide to get back into the same profession, as long as I feel confident again that it’s the right path. Simply put, I need to bet on myself for once, and not be too hung up on what society’s blueprint has drawn out for me.

It’s comforting to know I am not alone.

Six months later

It’s been almost six months since the meditation retreat. I am still feeling the effects from the trip, and continue the practice on a somewhat consistent basis. In my last post in August about my initial reactions, I wrote about how my mind was more disconnected from my emotions. What this ultimately meant is that we are able to really see things as they are.

There are essentially two components to seeing things are they are. The first thing is objective observation. Its like seeing reality – but for real. Seeing things without the clutter and mess. With this said, the reality can be of a few results – you don’t care for it, you really like it, or you really dislike it. The first two are kind of nice, because the reaction is things end up bothering you less and you find the things that you cherish more than you realized.

The tough one is seeing things as it is, but it ends up being something you don’t like. It can be your friends, your job, your living situation – really anything that your mind can process. I found this rather difficult to digest because those things are the things I cherished before. A good comparison would be an ex-partner of yours. Many of us may find it hard to break up with someone, as obvious of a jerk they may be, because there was probably a point in the relationship in which that person felt like a good fit. Our refusal of letting go of the good past is causing us to endure pain and madness in the present. Does that make sense?

My observation has given me clarity to something that isn’t what I once thought it was (from good to bad), but a part of me is challenged with the difficulty of letting go of it. From reflecting back on the teachings from those 10 days, its no surprise that this happened. In fact, it is expected any practitioner of this method will go through this.

The result is that I’ve gone through iterations of depression, questioning my ability to deal with life and its challenges. Prior to the retreat, my neglect of true observation left me somewhere in the middle, where I couldn’t see the good or the bad. The difficult lies in my emotions to process this. My mind, on the other hand, knows that this will resolve itself in due time – except that it doesn’t know how long it will take. Patience is definitely a virtue.