23 October 2021

Live to Work

What is the alternative?

I had only two choices.

Nice and simple, right?

A) To change (and downgrade) the dream

B) To alter my current trajectory

In the time that has passed since the previous Life Warriors post where I was contending with the question of ‘What would a great life look like?’, much has happened for me. In this post, I will be reflecting on the very day I handed in my resignation notice to my boss.

The professional trajectory I have been on started in 2017. I was as green as green can be, a wide eyed, fresh out of university chemical engineering graduate, desperate to ‘get into the real world’.

I remember this desperation, because by the 3rd year into my 4 year degree, I remember feeling an encroaching sense of disillusionment with the fact that I was working so hard and burning myself into the ground only to earn some intangible numbers on an academic transcript.

Mind you, my grades did not slip simply because I was not ‘feeling it’. I knew that I was a grinder by character, and was stubborn enough to simply keep my head down and keep working through it — even though I knew I was unhappy and increasingly discontented on the inside. The human mind is hard to change, and I would come to observe over time that this pattern of behaviour has continued to stick around to this day.

By the end, I was able to graduate with a couple of work experience badges on my belt in addition to First Class honours. I was ready and primed to join ‘the real world’, except the real world appeared to not be as ready as I was. Together with many of my fellow graduates, we were not welcomed with open arms into well-paying, prestigious and glorifying jobs straight out of the gates.

There were whispers that the economy was in one of its slower periods, and while some of us were able to secure a spot on the straight-and-narrow path right out of university, I was not one of them.

So, I had time. With the university routine and lifestyle no more, having said farewell to enforced timetables, what should I then be doing with my time? The answers were not very clear in those moments, but I knew that I wanted to see the real world with my own eyes and hands, whether or not someone was going to give me a job on a silver platter did not really matter.

The first few months were spent overseas, travelling South East Asian countries with my brother, where I got to have a glimpse into and experience first-hand what life was like in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Once I got back, I landed my first ‘real job’ out of university as a plant operator at a local PVC pipe manufacturing company. With my university degree proudly plastered on my bedroom wall, I was content and excited to be able to learn how to drive forklifts around, operate plant machinery, work night shifts, have dinners at 2AM in the morning, work with some fun, enthusiastic but overqualified Filipino engineers who were working the same job and also make money for myself. I did that for 3–4 months before encountering the next thing.

That job taught me that the capacity to work hard is not a nice-to-have, but instead a must-have. It is not something to be proud of and show off to others, because to merely survive you must be able to do the things that need to be done, whether you would like to or not.

It also taught me that it is really important for you, yourself, to know and respect your own value — because nobody else will (or can) know better than you. Companies will forever hire zealous engineers who are determined, energetic and make good workers but underpay them for their time and unrecognised qualifications.

The next thing that came around was an internship role with Engineers Without Borders Australia in their Melbourne headquarters, a short 3 months that eventually turned out to be an invaluable once-in-a-lifetime formative experience. I got to sleep on a couch in a central CBD apartment, ride my road bike to work every single day (rain or shine), watch the Australian Open tennis with my own eyes and ears, explore museums and connect with some great humans beings through being in the Engineers Without Borders office.

I came to realise that, had I instead been confined in an office cubicle in relentless pursuit of a vague vision of ‘becoming an engineer’ and working in a prestigious corporate job, I would have missed out on these life experiences; I was learning so much from life, through executing intentions, through chance encounters and everything in between, not having a job and not making any money turned out not to be the crisis that I was making it out to be originally.

In hindsight, after I had left university, there was overwhelming sense of ambiguous, indeterminate pressure to actualise a ‘return on investment’ from spending all those years in training.

An undergraduate engineer becomes a professional engineer. A trained apprentice becomes a skilled and certified electrician. A linear, predictable trajectory from one thing to the next. What a clean storyline to be able to share with other people.

“How do I find a job to actualise a return on investment?” became the primary forcing function.

But what if work became a compliment to our lives as opposed to the other way around?

Live to get to work

After those wonderful months in Melbourne, the next chapter came along by the end of 2017. I started to look for avenues to switch things up a notch, in search of opportunities that would allow me to leave my hometown of Perth. I wanted a long term adventure of sorts, not just a few weeks or months.

It was during this search that I found the company I am with today, which first brought me to Gladstone, Queensland, and then also a full year away in Railton, Tasmania.

Since 2018, I have learnt how to be better at surviving and living for myself, compete in triathlons, learn the ropes of what it actually takes to be an effective field process engineer, understand that communication is not a one-size-fits-all game, bring like-minded people together, climb mountains, tinker on cars, host dinner parties, camp in the outback and have great conversations with interesting people underneath the open sky, conceive interesting ideas and try and bring them into the world to share with others and make money.

It has all been fun, all the way through up to recent months when I was confronted with a new truth, the fork in the road.

Rumbling with the question of “What would a great life look like?” and then having to decide between two simple options:

A) To change (and downgrade) the dream

B) To alter my current trajectory

It has been chaotic, unsettling, painful, indecisive, frustrating but at the same time, hopeful, inspiring and challenging.

Saying no in order to say yes

There is the cliché saying of “there’s never going to be a right time.” and I found this particularly relevant on the day I handed in my letter of resignation to my line manager.

I had made up my mind by that point, but despite that, there was no joy or excitement to be savoured on that Friday morning. If anything, what I was feeling was the complete opposite of what I had envisioned for that day.

Social media paints such a wonderful, glorifying picture of job resignations — playing to the idea of ‘sticking it up to the man’ — but none of that happened for me.

On that morning, I had this mellow and sunken feeling in my gut, mixed in with some dread, hesitation and tinges of guilt at the thought of what I had to do that day.

Breaking the news in person to my boss was tough. I felt like I was betraying my boss, my team and the company, after all they have provided me with to date. At the same time however, I also recognised that there was no other alternative for me. This was the hard, but necessary, choice and it had to be done.

As I walked out of the plant gates that day, I felt a strong sense of solemnity. There was no celebration or pumping fists into the air, but I had felt a heavy cloud lifting off my shoulders — at least now I have a direction. At least now I have committed to a decision, instead of remaining in limbo and unnecessarily burning up energy by tossing to and fro.

Be careful with what you say to yourself

Words have tremendous power within them. Here is what I mean:

The next time you catch yourself using the words “I have to…”, reframe it and replace the “have” with a “get”.

I have to pay the bills.

No, I get to pay the bills.

I have to take care of myself and those in my care.

No, I get to take care of myself and those in my care

I have to keep growing.

No, I get to keep growing.

I am grateful that I am in a position in my life currently where I get to quit my job in order to create the space and time that I want before figuring out the next thing. I did not have to do this, it was a choice I got to decide for myself.

I get to move back interstate to spend the end of the year with the rest of my family at home.

I get to choose when I will next start working towards the next thing, whatever that might look like.

There is much to be grateful for.