I used to work at the University of Cincinnati and whenever I got frustrated at staff meetings, I’d threaten to move to Australia. After a $300 application fee and a surprisingly short approval process, I had holiday work visa which allowed me to live and work in Australia for a full year. My manager led me to our director’s office. With my resignation letter on his desk, my director simply asked, “Do you want more money?” to which I responded, “I’m moving to Australia.” There were confused looks from the two of them, awkward silence and finally, “No, really … I’m moving to Australia.” It was the first time I had left the relative security of a full-time position, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When we’re children, we often dream of all the possibilities of what we can be. I was a pretty boring kid. I recall an assignment in the 2nd grade where I had to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up. A crude drawing of a power plant’s cooling towers filled the page, emulating my father who was an electrical engineer at a nuclear site. Later I would dream of being a police officer, a video game creator, a writer, a pilot and countless other potential futures as all children often do.
As I grew up and prepared to graduate high school and start university, I had gained a reputation of being a computer nerd. I was one of a handful of people in my high school graduating class that understood IP addresses, how domain controllers worked and realized that Y2K was not going to be that big a deal. My cousin was a computer scientist, and that seemed to be the path I was about to embark on. I took a part-time job in high school working as a web developer for a local dotcom company designing HTML templates and creating graphics in an archaic program known as LView Pro.
The long hours and poor work conditions took their toll and I eventually left the company. I wasn’t sure if software engineering was a field I really wanted to pursue. I remember my father once told me that he wanted to go to art school when he was younger, but he chose engineering instead. When I told my sister I was considering journalism, she told me I needed to think of my future family (I’m currently 35 and have no children). My University removed the requirement to have a minor from our program, so I dropped courses that would have at least given me a minor in English Journalism. I graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science.
“I said, ‘I’d like to be a writer.’ And they said, ‘Choose something realistic.’ So I said, ‘Professional wrestler.’ And they said, ‘Don’t be stupid.’ See, they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be. And I wasn’t the only one. We were being told that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are to inherit the masquerade of what we will be. I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me. And I wondered, what made my dreams so easy to dismiss?” -Shane Koyczan1
When work in Information Technology (IT) failed to satisfy me, I began to seek ways out of the monotony. Changing positions and living in different countries helped keep my mind stimulated, both by learning about new fields, taking on new challenges in my career, and through the external influences of living in new places. I’ve always considered the standard of my work to be fairly high, as companies that hire me for contracts often offer me full-time positions. In Australia, I worked two contracts, one as a developer and another as a system administrator, both for a travel agency. I was asked to come on full time, at the end of my second contract, and was told the company would even sponsor a new work visa. I turned down the position, destined for New Zealand with another holiday work visa and the desire to explore.
Due to an unfortunate event, I made the decision to once again leave a full-time position. However this time there was no real exit strategy. I took off across New Zealand and Australia, volunteering to perform at spoken word poetry nights, and continued to travel, living out of two bags for the next ten months. After running low on funds, I ended up in Seattle, taking a contract as a Scala developer. Although it was a contract position, it was pretty much full-time work for fifteen months. At some point I realized I had gotten too complacent, and accumulated more than I would like, being a minimalist. I set out once again. This time I would be driving across the US, without an absolute destination in mind.
The money I’ve spend on sabbaticals could have easily paid for over half the cost of a house. The American dream, to the dissatisfaction of some of my family members (who I realize only want the best for me), has been something I have mostly cast off. We live in a society where we have come to accept that high income careers are often coupled with demoralizing work conditions. We poke fun at this reality with comics such as Dilbert, or its lesser known and darker cousin We The Robots. Movies like Office Space and shows like The Office let us laugh at the absurdity of the jobs we take to maintain a lifestyle that so many people in our society are unfulfilled by.
“American poet Walt Whitman gave our multiplicity memorable expression. ‘I am large. I contain multitudes,’ by which Whitman meant that there [are] so many interesting attractive and viable versions of oneself; so many good ways one could potentially live and work but very few of these ever get properly played out … The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations … explained how what he termed the division of labour, massively increases collective productivity. In a society where everyone does everything only a small number of shoes houses, nails, bushels of wheat … [are] ever produced and no one is especially good at anything. But if people specialize in just one small area—making rivets, shaping spokes, manufacturing rope, bricklaying, etc. They become … much faster and more efficient in their work and collectively the level of production is greatly increased. By focusing our efforts we lose out on the enjoyment of multiplicity yet our society becomes overall far wealthier and better supplied with the goods it needs … in other words tiny cogs in a giant efficient machine, hugely richer but full of private longings …“ -Why is Work so Boring, The School of Life2
Despite the struggle I, and many other adults, have with finding fulfillment in being cogs in the machine of western society, I acknowledge the benefits of my career choice. I can work in other countries without specific certifications (such as are required by doctors, legal representatives and other specializations). My specific career allows for short-term contracts. My background and experience has built my level of skill to be desirable and, therefore, somewhat lucrative. With software engineering penetrating almost every market and aspect of society, there is an endless number of fields to work in and learn about. Although I specialize in software engineering and system administration, my lack of job loyalty means I have been able to work and learn about everything from health care to debt collection, foreign governments to telecommunications, and e-commerce to identity management.
Despite the droning monotony of office work, there are a lot of advantages to the IT field. While I personally may not have a family to take care of, I have two sets of friends who decided to embrace minimalism, scale down to living in recreational vehicles and work remotely. They travel with their children, with the goal of settling once their children are old enough to start school. Another friend of mine in New Zealand simply reduced to two hours of work a week for a few months, took a considerable amount of unpaid leave, traveled for months throughout Europe, and eventually returned to his job refreshed and ready to tackle new problems.
Despite all this flexibility, or maybe thanks to it, I have embraced simply leaving full-time work. Casting off that security is not something which is easily done in American culture. The notion of work is embedded in the fabric of American mythos. Our European neighbors often take time away from careers to reinvest in their well being, and have both the vacation time and social infrastructure for this to be possible. In America, we don’t even have a means of providing decent healthcare until one is old enough to qualify for Medicare, and therefore worn out their usefulness as a member of the workforce.
Leaving the workforce is not an easy endeavor. With jobs moving overseas and positions disappearing due to automation, many Americans struggle to simply feed and house themselves from month to month. Even those who are well off and make considerable amounts of money, often feel trapped by the social mores that lead us to believe everyone must work and invest their effort for the greater good of others and society. For example, leaving work to attempt to found a startup is considered more respectable, even if one fails, than simply leaving for the sake of physical or mental health.
If one takes a step back to question why we continue to struggle, we might find ourselves in the grasps of absurdism. We use our careers to add value to a life that struggles to find meaning against the universe. We climb up the corporate ladder, bamboozled into some racket where we are selling insurance, only to wake up forty years later to find the bucket we’ve invested all our self-worth into has no bottom. Be careful not to fall into the spiral of regret. Your life is what it is. No amount of wishful thinking allows us to turn back time.
Still, we don’t have to continue down the paths we have been traveling for years or decades, convinced that is the only thing we know and are and will ever be. We are not trapped into terrible interview questions about our five year plans, as if we know which plane we’ll one day board or where it will eventually land. If we step back from the life we often feel has been handed to us, we can often see our choices, both those that led us to our current state and those which can move us forward in our future.
We can ask ourselves the hard questions, and see beyond the veil to realize we are the ones who are really controlling the machine. If we are content with the meaning we give to our lives; our careers, families, children and loved ones, then there is nothing wrong with that. We can reassure the people around us they they matter to our lives, and all that we do is to spend time on the important bonds and friendships we build. However, if we find ourselves in despair, struggling to find meaning and purpose, we should not be afraid to seek change, while keeping our responsibilities, and change the parts of our lives which are currently left unfulfilled.
“I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw—the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be? What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am! Why can’t I say that, Willy?” -Death of a Salesman
Shane Koyczan: To This Day … for the bullied and beautiful. Feb 2013. Shane Koyczan. TED. ↩