Flashback to five years ago. My last semester at Georgetown, but I hardly went to class. Instead I spent my days at the office of an oil and gas consultancy, preparing a report for them on Russian oil companies.
This project combined every ambition that I had at the time. It was fast-paced, difficult, slightly scary. I got to put on a suit and go in to an office. I hoped it would lead me into a great job, something challenging and glamorous, which would send me overseas, as far over the horizon as possible.
Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. Oil and gas was new to me, and even the simplest things puzzling. All day I sat in front of a computer, headphones on, music cranked up, wandering through forests of dry holes, barrels per day, metric tonnes, oil equivalent, and EBITDA. In the evening I would wander around, looking at maps, peeking into corner offices, picking up a Big Gulp to get me through to midnight. And then I’d sit down again, and get back on it, hoping that if I put in enough hours I would turn into an expert who could talk convincingly about YUKOS and TNK.
I was learning the the oil industry, but more than that, I was learning a new way of working. Work as a binge; work as a cause. Sixty-hour weeks, mornings fueled by coffee, lunch at my desk, long evenings at the office. Weekends were for homework; I still had to graduate. When I felt tired, I would take a deep breath, and work even harder. Friends, working out, personal time, fun - all of this could wait. The main thing was to finish.
Late at night I would blink, rub my eyes, push back from the desk. Exalted and drained, hands aching, eyes tired, famished, I would wander outside into another glorious spring night. The air would be warm and soft, scented with fresh grass, humidity, and delicious smells from the restaurants downtown. I would walk home slowly, stopping under cherry trees exploding with sweetness, and feel a stab of regret that I was missing the spring by spending my days in front of a computer.
The bitter and sweet mixed strangely together to create a secret, pyrrhic joy, melancholy and proud. Anyone who has worked really hard, pushing to the limits day after day, knows what I mean. The feeling was thrilling, it was enticing, it was addictive. It seemed to promise a way out of the mediocre and dull, to some fantastic adventure.
I had stepped onto the path I would follow for the next five years. The consulting project led to a job in oil, and more long hours turned me first into a commercial analyst and then a project manager. It seemed I’d made it.
But I missed those cherry trees. No matter how hard I worked, there just wasn’t much time for the rest of life. Long hours in one job led to long hours in another, and burnout was only one step on the road back to trying harder. By the time I got to Moscow, I felt more like a thing than a person: a self-guided piece of equipment, that took myself back to the storehouse at night.
I kept in touch with friends and family by email (I could write them from work, as a break between tasks). I lost touch with my body, except when it hurt, which after several years in front of the computer it did more and more often. I dreaded weekends, because they revealed how empty my life outside of work had become. As for the stories, pictures, and adventures I had once scribbled, they seemed a world away, the dreams of a person who had left long ago.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what happened next: I took a hard look at my life and didn’t like what I saw. Since then, I’ve been trying to come back to myself. A little music, a little art, more time with friends and on the road. It’s helped, of course, but it’s not enough. So I’ve decided to leave my job, and go see if those cherry trees are still blooming somewhere.
Next month I’ll finish up work, say goodbye to my colleagues, this city, and my beloved Hyatt, and fly home to San Francisco. I’m going to pick up where I left off, and see what happens. Just take everything that’s been on the back burner, and bring it forward. And let my “career” sit on the back burner for a while.
Call it an experiment. What happens when you throw out everything, open the doors wide, and invite your dreams back into your life?
Stay tuned to find out...