9 JUNE 2018

The Next Mission

Mid year crisis

Photograph of a man walking up stairs holding an umbrella, shot from low angle

Ah man, it's already June!

This means that it has already been some time since May 2017 when I started learning how to code in HTML and CSS, which is how this blog came into being. It's interesting looking back on this now because picking up coding came about mostly by chance..

Uni wrapped up for me towards the end of 2016 and I was officially an engineer by February in the new year. With paper in hand, I walked off the stage in my regalia with this feeling of being completely underwhelmed at how it all finished up. 4 years of hard work went by just like that and at the end of it all, I knew that I was simply closing one chapter and starting anew. I still felt like I knew nothing about the real world and more importantly, the place I would take within in. I had so much more to learn, and more time being insulated within a university was not going to help me get to where I wanted to be.

As much as I wanted "to get out", I wasn't able to secure a graduate position in the months leading up to my graduation ceremony. It was a hyper competitive environment at the time and landing a fully fledged graduate position with an engineering company meant that you had to have the right skills or you got really lucky, maybe even a bit of both.

“I'd like to think that the time overseas gave me the necessary space to step away from normal life, listen to myself and figure out what I actually wanted to do within the next 6 to 12 months.”

It was easy to feel envious of my peers who were actually successful in getting into these jobs, and in all honesty it took me awhile to get over my mind bombarding me with the "You're just not good enough" message. Eventually, the tunnel vision cleared up enough for me to realise some of the many benefits of not having a job straight out of uni. Heck, I was just 21 years old and life can be so much more than jumping through the hoops of school, university and work one straight after the other. It was that special time in life, post high school and university, where there seemed to be a million pathways to take.

I took full advantage of the time I had by doing something I had always wanted to do, which was to backpack with my brother around South East Asia for a whole month of adventure. Although I had a very strong interest for travelling the world and discovering 'the new', I never felt the vagabond inside of me pull so strongly that I would consider taking the whole year off working side jobs and being a tourist in my free time.

I came home from the trip with a lot of clarity. I'd like to think that the time overseas gave me the necessary space to step away from normal life, listen to myself and figure out what I actually wanted to do within the next 6 to 12 months. The soft whispers that came back was to go out, explore what is out there and to get real world experience in becoming a better engineer. In a short amount of time, I found myself in a job.

A job was always what I wanted right?

"Not so easy" - Life

“ It was in the hours I had to myself, after work, that was how coding came about. ”

I found myself in a position that was earning me money and giving me a sense of security but more importantly it meant that I could proudly fill in "Graduate Engineer" in the 'Job title' question on forms. Coool.

Or at least cooler than "undefined", which is what I would have resorted to as I struggled to make sense of the limbo between uni and work life. As the months went on however, my personal sense of fulfillment on the job was slowly but steadily disintegrating. This was very clearly becoming a case of "be careful what you wish for". What a mess!

As the learning curve, which was very steep towards the start, inevitably began it's descent into the plateau, I started looking outside of work for fulfillment. It was not that I had absolutely nothing to learn on the job but there was also a part of me that knew for sure that this was not the type of work I would like to do in the long term.

It was in the hours I had to myself, after work, that was how coding came about. Once again, just like meditation, it was one of those things that I had always been interested in but never really got into (due to a lack of commitment and urgency). Things don't really get centre stage in my mind unless they get space on the calendar (and once they are I can get pretty relentless about things). So that's what I started to do to ease myself into the hip and mysterious world of 'being a coder'.

Straight up as a disclaimer, I am by no means a professional coder or even someone who's competent to self identify as 'being a coder'. There are plenty of other ladies and gentlemen out there who have actually honed their skills through years of commitment and passion who deserve the title.

“With hindsight, I realise that the most important lesson was in the need for me to diversify my sense of identity, at a time when the "professional" side of me wasn't doing too flash.”

For me, coding was not a way to "make something cool" or "to make money" or "to be an entrepreneur". None of that was important. I wanted to code because I was curious, it was this curiosity that led and enabled me to dedicate an hour a day for many weeks to a front end web development course. The beauty of this was that it was completely at my own pace, which meant it was something I could commit my after work hours to, and it very quickly became super fulfilling. It was not only the technical aspects of learning two new programming languages that interested me but also experiencing the sense of progression that came from applying the learnt skills by building a portfolio from scratch.

The accessibility of learning how to code and the fulfillment that comes from the process of developing a new skill over time were the two things that were hugely important in enabling me to stick with it in the many months since May 2017.

At some point, I also started engaging in events on meetup.com which brought coders and web developers from all levels into the same space to share ideas and open up discussions - a sense of community that was a welcome surprise, something I definitely did not expect to find going into code.

As I step back and look at this now, learning to code could have easily been replaced by a whole bunch of other things. It could have been learning how to run 5 km's for the first time or picking up an instrument or committing effort towards building a new and positive daily routine.

With hindsight, I realise that the most important lesson was in the need for me to diversify my sense of identity, at a time when the "professional" side of me was not doing too flash. I was craving challenge and learning in an environment which just could not provide me enough of, and if I had not diverted my attention elsewhere I would have just continued to unnecessarily bottle up resentment for a job that was at least earning me some money and experience at the time.

“I probably would have spiraled uncontrollably down a bad path that would lead to even more resentment for the real world that rejected me and my regalia.”

When I was facing personal dissatisfaction on the job, instead of simply accepting the story I was telling myself of "I am an engineer, this work is not what I want to be doing but this is how Life has to be for now, because that's the way things are and hopefully better things will pop up soon", I had enough perspective to look elsewhere for what I was actually craving. Life, then, not only contained my job and the work I was doing but also full of other opportunities to fulfill my desires to challenge, push myself and learn.

Not having a fulfilling first job had also allowed me to learn that an engineering degree (or any other university degree for that matter) was not a golden ticket to anywhere in life, no matter the prestige that I or society in general associated with the engineering profession. It was instead a way (and one of the many, in that) to meet minimum entry conditions in this world that is very real. Recognising and overcoming the ego and sense of entitlement that came with graduation was a humbling learning experience.

This mindset of having a diversified identity is something I have carried with me ever since. In September of 2017, after just a few months of working at that job, I was let go by the company. And I was fine with it, for the most part. No, it wasn't good for my bank account to lose the stream of income but I had already found a sense of purpose through pursuing other avenues so the loss never became catastrophically detrimental to my character. Without the initiative to find a new mission at the first signs of discontent on the job, who knows, I probably would have spiraled uncontrollably down a bad path that would lead to even more resentment for the real world that rejected me and my regalia.

2018 was a fresh change for me, having landed a graduate role with a company based on the other side of the country, the sort of role I was so so desperately looking for just months ago. Maybe sometimes it's necessary to have good things unfold at their own pace, I suppose.

Do I have a sense of fulfillment in this new role? Yup. Am I being challenged? Yup. Am I still diversifying my identity? You bet.

Securing a dream job should not necessarily mean you drop everything else you're passionate about in Life. It should not mean putting all your eggs in one basket, to the extent that all of the meaning in your Life then becomes inextricably tied to your job. Because there are things way beyond your control that can snatch that job away from you and if that happens, your identity and sense of purpose will collapse in the void.

This doesn't have to mean that you shouldn't work hard at your job, from the fear that it might one day all disappear from under your feet. It doesn't have to mean that you can't be passionate about your work and have the pride that comes with doing something that is meaningful. If anything, this can be a reminder to step back from the day-to-day and to notice what are the 'other things' that you've always wanted to do but never really got to it. If you want it to be, Life can be so much more than the work you do on a daily basis and these things manifest as tangible opportunities when you pay attention to them and work towards making them 'normal'.

To me, it's a constant reminder to keep coding after work hours, to make sure to take time in the year to keep travelling and ultimately to keep 'bucket list' challenges on the horizon. The life that I want to live has to be a result of conscious and deliberate effort, there is no hoping and waiting.

My next mission is an upcoming triathlon in July, which I started training for last month. So far, I've been at ease with the prospect of swimming and cycling but running is a whole new game to me. From spending most of life on wheels, if I had to count the kilometres I have properly ran it probably would not be a very big number at all. In many respects, this is all a little bit crazy and I have no idea what I'm doing. But nevertheless, I'm in the game to learn and I won't know until I try.

What is your next mission?