UPDATE: This post has been picked up by CNBC’s Make It and can be read here
Today marks a year since I quit my job as a consultant in London. I will probably never forget the anxiety that the lead-up to handing my notice caused: there were daily conferences with my parents since I decided on my course of action 6 months prior, countless drunken discussions with friends, nights spent imagining a dramatically destitute broken life that I feared my decision would lead me to, and, most unpleasantly, pervasive doubt in my own decision-making abilities. Behind all this drama, of course, was a very strong gut feeling that I wanted to quit and have a year or more to travel, write and see what else I could do with my life outside the corporate realm.
In retrospect, all these problems seem overblown, and even comical, but they felt very real. Even though I was not satisfied with the corporate life in London, that was pretty much the only viable version of life I saw for myself since I moved to the UK for my undergrads 8 years before.
Due to my immigration situation, working in a large corporate was pretty much the only way that I could stay in the UK. Return to Belgrade seemed like a very bad idea, despite the fact that I yearned to go back there. This was due to it its many real downsides (high unemployment, low wages, nepotism, permanent threat of instability) and countless imagined downsides (it is a common feature of Serbian media to find ways to show that Serbia is the worst country in the world with no promise for anyone) that are a product of Serbian melancholy temperament, lack of worldly perspective of most of our commentariat, as well as 30 years of social turmoil.
I also had no strong idea of what I will do, career-wise, with my new found freedom. My ideas for business were/are opening a very specific type of café and writing. Neither of them are cool, “Uber-for“-type scalable start-ups, neither looks like it could stack up financially to steady corporate salary and neither were fields in which I had much experience. Still, I am hopeful, and open to other things.
Despite all the internal drama, I decided to take the leap on a day after I initially planned. On the planned D-day, I got cold feet, then promptly realised that postponing my decision made me deeply unhappy. Although it was sad to say goodbye to my friends and colleagues in London, I never doubted my decision since.
This is not because the past year solved all of my life problems “Eat Pray Love”-style. It did not. I am still not fully settled on what to do next nor do I have six-pack abs that I always wanted and now have no excuse for not having. It did, however, open my eyes to a few things, which I would have benefited to have known when I quit.
Firstly, it taught me that there are no large revelations and epiphanies on gap years. Although I was always hooked on the idea of life as a narrative arc, things simply do not work that way. Although I do feel changed as a person, it is not in any definite way and it was not due an epiphany but though choices I made. Although being open to new things is necessary, and going to inspiring places is lovely, changing yourself and your life requires hard work.
In my experience, all the effort to climb a scenic peak in the Andes, preparing to run a half-marathon or even preparing a 100-page deck at 2 am, pales in comparison to the effort of keeping yourself from the cookie jar or ignoring parental nagging on daily basis in the less exotic environment of your flat.
I also realised that dreams of return to some golden age when quitting and moving back to a hometown are just fantasy. Although I am happy in Belgrade, it is a very different place to the one I left to study in the UK, and I am very much a different man. Although attempts to conjure my teenage life in Belgrade were fun, they simply did not work: my friends have (thankfully) grown up, places don’t stay open as late, and, ultimately, I want different things. Although a little respite in the illusion of the golden age is pleasant, you cannot go backward to go forward for too long. Wherever you go, you need to go there because you see future, not a chance of changing or re-living a past.
Most importantly, last year I got to see how big, wonderful and scary the world outside of academia and corporations is. My tunnel-upbringing aimed at getting the best education and career made me partially blind to the rich variety of life. I tipped into a sort of (ridiculous) world-weariness in mid-20s and believed that everything has been done and that life sort of boils down to a series of bleak algorithms of birth-education-work-marriage-procreation-retirement-death variety.
Moving from a very orderly and slightly alienated corporate life in London, made it very apparent to me that this linear progression is simply not the reality for 99.9% of the world, for better or worse. Although there is terrible struggle to survive and be happy everywhere, from the street-food sellers in Delhi to exsanguinated IBD analysts in New York, it comes in 7 billion shapes and sizes. The only measure of success for each of them are two very subjective questions. Are you feeling miserable? Do you feel your efforts are worth-while?
Pretending that there is only a handful of paths to follow, or that only certain types of lives, usually involving money and white collar jobs, are “worth living” (as we like to say here in Serbia) is to make oneself blind to intrinsic joy of hustle and hassle that is life.
Although there is no easy or permanently elated life anywhere, from ashrams and yachts to slums and Andean villages, despite what is promised by self-help, I got to consider myself very luck for being able to choose what kind of pain I want to endure and where I want to expend effort, which I think is about as close one can come to happiness.
Finally, although it is very reasonable to fear about doing things differently, it is delusional to deny yourself potentially better choices if you indeed have them, because they are not fully certain or mapped out. Choosing certain, known, unhappiness over potential happiness because of fear is a recipe for disaster. Whenever I doubted my decision, I always remembered Seamus Heany’s quote:
“The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”
Although making life decisions based on three lines of verse I read in the FT is a weird way going about things, I found it better than making them based on fear. At least for now.