I had dinner with an old friend the other day we’ll call Dave. It had been a while since I’d seen him, so we started by exchanging the usual pleasantries.
How’s life? How’s your dog? How’s your new place? How’s the city? How was that mole removal?
And, of course, the question to end all questions: How’s work?
“That’s actually why I wanted to sit you down. My job is great. I have no reason to complain. I’m busy. I love my coworkers. I love my boss. I’m stimulated by the work I’m doing. And yet…” He paused, chewing his words carefully. “Can you tell me what it was like when you quit your job to go freelance? What was that thought process like? How was the transition?”
Oh, Dave. Where do I even begin?
I guess to sum it up, I would say it definitely hasn’t been all roses or lilies, not even dandelions; more like a sandwich with a smear of poop, but I wouldn’t trade it. Nope. Not for a comfortable retirement. Not for benefits. Not for the world.
Of course, my recent life choices were largely influenced by my adventures… and probably a result of that brain rewiring I spoke of in my last post.
In 2013, I was, successfully by all traditional definitions, working at a small company as a writer. By all standards, I had it amazing. But for some reason, still, I found myself in a similar predicament to you, Dave. I loved my coworkers, my boss, my team, my squeaky desk chair, the awkward STFW conversations in the kitchen on sensitive political and religious issues with awkward IT guys and a colleague who vaguely resembled Dwight Shrute. I was challenged creatively. And yet, when I looked into the future, I wasn’t entirely switched on by where I was going.
“Over the next year, I saved all my pennies and decided that my 26th trip around the sun would be “The Year of Lena,” where I would do only what I wanted to do. My dad agreed… If things went south, which they did, he would take me in.”
During these corporate days, I had a bank of vacation days that I was guarding like Golem guarding his precious ring. I was waiting for the right adventure, the right partner, the right deal to book. Out of the blue, I let go of the “rightness” and looked up my dream trip, one that I thought I’d never be able to afford, let alone physically succeed in: the trek to Mount Everest basecamp. It so happened, there was a flight sale. So, after a brief, calculated cost analysis, I said “YOLO” and booked it.
What resulted were 15 days that would change the course of my life. I don’t know whether it was trekking through bitter cold (it was December), or going without a shower (the water was frozen), or the Himalayas themselves (I mean…), or the 10 new friends I’d made, or all of the above—but, upon my return, I walked back into my sweet little apartment and my steady job that before I’d felt so attached to and thought, This means nothing. It’s vapid. It’s stuff. This isn’t for me.
It was a gut feeling, as cliched as it sounds. Maybe not a feeling—a gut screaming. An incessant yelling behind the apex of my right ear. A nagging I was doing it all wrong. Selling myself short. It was a feeling of finally letting go of what I thought I should be, and entering a realization of what I actually wanted.
Over the next year, I saved all my pennies and decided that my 26th trip around the sun would be “The Year of Lena,” where I would do only what I wanted to do. My dad agreed, a support I’m so lucky for. If things went south, which they did, he would take me in. It was with this safety net in mind that I reconciled all the guilt I had with throwing my savings at endeavours that might not work, and the life I had I was giving away, and a plan was made.
I would move to Nicaragua, get my yoga-teacher certification, start a freelance career and write a book… in six months… on a fixed budget.
Dad assuaged my fears. “You’ve just got to be comfortable with the worst-case scenario,” he said. “If you can be comfortable with that, then go after it.” Living at home and slinging beers didn’t sound bad to me, so off I went. And with that confidence, really what could go wrong?
How about everything?
What’s that saying—if you want to make God laugh, make a plan?
Well, he must have been busting. Turns out starting a freelance career, writing a book and teaching yoga is a lot to chew all at once. Who knew?
Turns out there was also this wicked mosquito virus running rabid in Nicaragua called Chikunguyna, which also happened to translate to “bent over in pain.” It has an acute phase that takes you out for a week, a subacute that lasts for months and a chronic phase that lingers for years.
Turns out I got it. Five months after I left home after giving up my secure job, my sweet apartment, my life, I would return without my body as I knew it, to a couch in my dad’s office, penniless, jobless and with chronic, arthritic-like pain. I was 27, living at home, with a limp and no income.
On the suckage meter, I was up to maybe seven. The Year of Lena was off to a rough start. But what I failed to recognize then was that a number of pieces had fallen into place:
- I had warmed up two clients. They would end up being my bread and butter, and allow me to flee the nest again and move out West.
- I had started a relationship with Outpost after I submitted an article about a little jaunt I had with a sage iguana hunter and his grandsons in Nicaragua. This would lead to my first expedition as a travel writer on the OutpostView: Quebec.
- I had become really mad about my chronic pain and how weak I felt. So, to counter that, I signed up for an adventure in pushing my strength: climbing Mount Rainier.
Today, I have a steady stream of work—too much, actually, but I’m not complaining. I’m about to go on another adventure with Outpost to Thailand. And I’ve had the experience of climbing Mount Rainier and nabbing an unexpected summit. The life-changing effects of which I’m still grappling with.
There’s another common phrase that goes: jump and the net will catch you… or something like that.
Well… with time, the net came.
“Turns out starting a freelance career, writing a book and teaching yoga is a lot to chew all at once. Who knew?”
I read a lot of Mark Manson’s work. He has one blog in particular that’s really resonated with me. It’s called “7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose.” In it, he asks, “What’s your favourite flavour of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?”
Everything becomes work eventually. You could be that famous model with perfect hair and end up loathing the light you once craved so greatly. You could be a NASCAR driver and end up with a couple of broken femurs, never able to race again. You could be a corporate vice president and end up getting laid off. All that work… for nada. So, in essence, he asserts that with every path you choose to take, you’ll end up eating a shit sandwich. “What shit sandwich do you want to eat?” he asks. “Because we all get served one eventually. Might as well pick one with an olive.”
In my last message to Dave, I wrote, “I’ve chosen the shit sandwich I want to eat, and wouldn’t have it any other way at this point. Who knows. Maybe at 40, I’ll wake up wishing I had taken a more secure route. Maybe at 70, I’ll wish I had a better pension. But that’s a long ways away. And—to my great surprise—it’s all working! The freelance, the travel writing, the adventure seeking. I’ve literally got everything I sought out to get. I’m pretty broke most of the time. I really need a haircut. The couch in my Vancouver living room gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I wouldn’t have it any other way right now. I really am enjoying this life… most of the time.”
I suppose it all comes down to this. When I’m 80 years old and I look back on this life, I’d rather tell the story of having screwed it all up. Made a 1,564 wrong turns, tried tireless avenues, taken on 509 identities, eaten 737 shit sandwiches than succeeded in something by traditional definitions that I felt just okay about. Maybe that’s just me. But then again, I’ve chosen my shit sandwich, and it tastes damn good.
And for all the Daves out there, I hope you do the same.