My aim for October was to do nothing. Being the first month off since leaving my job, the chance to do nothing seemed a huge novelty compared to worklife. How often in life can you have the freedom to have no obligations? Thus, I indulged and spent my time playing Final Fantasy Dimensions, reading some YA fantasy fiction, watching two seasons of Once Upon a Time, finally learning the last page of Liebestraume No. 3, and sleeping over ten hours a day. The only real change I made over the course of the month was to go from eating out the majority of the time to eating in so I’d be within budget.
I took a break in a very literal sense. Now that it’s all said and done, I realize it’s scary how quickly it’s possible to adjust to changes. For the first few days, I had a strong urge to be productive. But since my goal was to do nothing, I fought it the urge. By the middle of the second week, that urge was gone. Also in the first few days, I’d always think it would be some time in the early evening when the clock would actually read early afternoon. Now, I’m back to the all too familiar feeling of, “Wait, it’s 11pm already?”
The first week off also felt like an extended long weekend. Monday would come, and there’d be no work. Now, Fridays and Mondays are one and the same. I’ve also quickly adjusted to having zero income. I used to not think twice about spending $16 for a ten minute UberX ride. Now I completely balk at the idea. That’s almost $100/hr rate. Though maybe that says more about living in San Francisco.
I enjoyed doing nothing, but only in the present moment of doing nothing. I can’t say that my time spent relaxing was that worthwhile. I’m not suffering from burnout, so two weeks was probably more than enough. I realize now that it’s like sleep. Even if you’re sleep deprived for months on end, you really only need two or three nights of good sleep to get back on track. An extra four hours a night for the next three months is not necessary.
The only time spent bumming out that still feels satisfying today was my time spent in Seattle visiting a best friend. It was very reminiscent of our time in college. We deliberately kept most of the days free and just did whatever random thing we felt like. This generally translates to long conversations analyzing life, doing awkward things, and laughing at ourselves uncontrollably.
I guess I didn’t really successfully do nothing in all of October. When it became clear that I no longer needed day in and day out to bum out, I got a head start on my reading goals for November. Plus, I now needed to readjust from bum mode back to being mildly productive again. I didn’t want to waste time in November transitioning. Despite knowing now that I didn’t need the entirety of month off, I don’t regret how I spent last month. It’s hardly the first time I misused my time.
I gave my two-week notice this Monday, September 16th. I’ve thought about this several months in advance, and the time’s finally come. I’ve already chatted with multiple coworkers about this, explaining my decision, motivations, and plan moving forward. I’d like to officially document it in writing now, so I can remember what it was like to quit my first fulltime job and moving toward where I’d like to be.
Arriving at my decision
I’m a person with several hobbies. Programming is one of them. I learned it for fun at age sixteen, became more serious about it in college, and eventually made it my profession.
I enjoy the products I build at work, but there are other things I’m interested in building as well. I generally try to do this in my free time. It’s not unusual for me to come home late on weekdays, and on the days I do come home at reasonable hours, I just want to relax for the rest of the night after eating a simple dinner. On average, there are only a few short hours before needing to sleep and restart my day. This really only leaves weekends free. But when I program every weekend, I’ll have programmed for every single day of the week for weeks on end. This is not for me. I get really tired. I need to relax, and I’ll have neglected all my other interests. How can I have enough time to build what I want and then enjoy my other hobbies in my free time?
I work for a big company, and big companies are already overgenerous with taking care of their employees. I need only ask, and most requests are accommodated. I already have a lot of flexibility in terms of controlling my time in the office as compared to employees of smaller companies. They may have to work over twelve hours a day every day, as they more directly impact the success or failure of their company. I’m already in one of the most flexible work scenarios imaginable.
Looking for another job won’t solve my problem either. Because what I want to build is defined solely by me. I enjoy being the PM to what I build. I won’t be able to satisfy that requirement by working for anyone else. The only way I can maximize fulfillment is to do what I want to do during the majority of my day, rather than trying to do what I want to do during my free time.
Fulfillment & being lucky
Right now, my definition of fulfillment is the marriage of my priorities and my passions. And I am so, so, so lucky to even be at a place to consider this.
My parents are first generation immigrants. Their work ethic is unbeatable. They work full time jobs, upkeep several properties, where they often spend most weekends and many weeknights physically laboring away, and they never slack on cooking a single meal to feed their children. They sacrifice themselves every day to keep the household running smoothly. Growing up in the United States was made possible by the hard work off their backs.
For people in my parents’ generation, their career goals were to find a stable, well paying jobs. For my generation and peers who grew up in America, we swapped stability for passion. You aim for it all, but when you can’t have it all, passion often trumps pay.
I’m at that point where passion trumps pay. But even in that respect, I am lucky. I’m a software engineer in the SF bay area in a time where new college grads’ starting compensations are over $100k, up by $5k yearly. I saved up some emergency cash, and easily paid off my student loans within the first year. After my second year of working, I’ve accumulated enough runway to live comfortably unemployed for another year (in one of the most expensive cities in the whole nation). This financial freedom affords me even greater ambition to shoot for my passion. Currently, that passion is creation, mostly using my skills as an engineer.
To achieve this goal, financial freedom and time are key. They are resources that highly restrict when they are limited. To enter a period of creative pursuit, it is necessary to feel unbounded. Exploration requires time. Otherwise, there is pressure to define a concrete destination and take the most efficient path. Much of the business world already operates via this often-trodden efficient path, because they are bounded by time and money. If optimizing time is necessary for creative pursuits, then having enough money in your bank is equally important, for you trade in your time for employment when your funds run low.
Time & other motivations
I couldn’t stress more about the importance of time.
I often feel old, which makes me feel as if I don’t have enough time. That’s one big reason why I’ve always felt time was short. You only really have the years of 18 through, say age 30 (or whenever you get married and have kids), to truly and selfishly own your “own time.” By that standard, I’m already midway through my time.
Time seriously flies. I can’t believe this feeling only accelerates with age. It is absolutely terrifying. This is the major source of my urgency. But feeling old is a hindrance. Too often, I see many adults use it as an excuse to not act out of time shortage. To fight this feeling, I must constantly remind myself that at any given moment, though I am the oldest I have ever been in my life, I am also the youngest I will ever be again.
Time is also a luxury. Think back to society a couple of centuries ago. The majority of the world was composed of serfs and peasants. They toiled from sunrise to sunset to sustain living in itself. After paying their kings’ dues, anything left over was used to survive another week. They had very little free time to squander. Enjoying creative pursuits was not available to them. Compare this lowest class, some 90% of the population, to their opposites on the class spectrum, the nobility and the minority. Their wealth enabled free time, which permitted a lavish life of entertainment and hobbies. Almost the whole population had to struggle and work to enable a small select few to enjoy time. Luxury is difficult to obtain. Time, because only the nobility could enjoy it, was a luxury.
In our modern world, there exists a middle class, people who must mostly work to sustain living, but also have some free time. I identify myself with this class. However, I desire more free time, the type as abundant as the old nobility used to enjoy. I can only afford this for about a year, so I will treat it as a luxury and use it selfishly on my own terms.
Speaking of my own terms, personal productivity and controlling my own time is often sacrificed when working as part of a larger organization. It’s necessary for the larger organization to dictate a direction. Otherwise, each person going every which way because he/she wants to control his/her own time is a huge productivity loss for the company. Personal productivity gains at the cost of your peers is highly selfish, and is something I willingly give up when functioning as a small part to a larger whole. Sometimes though, conforming is just too hard. There are days when I’m easily productive for over twelve hours straight. Other days, I’m so unproductive that my time is better spent binge watching a TV show series. At least that will refresh me for the next day. Once I am on my own, working on my own project, and truly owning my own time, I will relish being selfish with my time, without the guilt.
Having less time simplifies the identification of your priorities. Having more time enables you to focus on your priorities. In the past year, health has shot up to the top of my priority list. I strongly look forward to focusing on this via food and exercise.
During the month leading up to my decision to give my two-week notice, I got roped into interviewing at Google by a recruiter. I had decided why not? If I got an offer, I could weigh it against my decision to take a break and gauge how much I wanted to go that route. If I didn’t get the offer, it would serve as a reminder that I would need to keep working hard to stay competitive in the market.
Apparently, I had interviewed well in college, so they put me through a fast track process where I could skip to the onsite interviews. Ultimately, I got the offer, and I was really interested in the team that extended the offer. The technology they were building (especially coupled with Google’s big data) was a reminder of why I was so interested in the technology sector in the first place. I think I would’ve felt very excited with the products the team was building. I wouldn’t have minded putting the things I wanted to build on hold. Software engineers mature fast, but I still have much to learn. Working with another team would’ve been a huge opportunity to pick up more skills and improve in general. However interesting the offer was, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on my other priorities. The job would’ve sucked an additional two or more hours out of the day due to commuting. And I would’ve been back to square one with my original problem: lack of time to focus on my priorities and wants.
I rejected the offer. I think I would’ve given anything to work at Google back in college. It’s interesting how priorities and wants change.
Telling my family & team
The next step was to take the final action of telling my manager about my resignation. I put a stake in the ground for September 9th. Given my team’s schedule, I wanted to help wrap up the project before our freeze date, and two weeks from that Monday seemed perfect. Before telling my manager though, I wanted to inform my family first. I also needed to sort out some logistics, such as getting added back to my dad’s insurance.
So the Sunday before I told my manager, I called my parents. I spoke with my dad first. He took it calmly, but he was definitely disgruntled. I could tell he disagreed with my action, but he listened to what I had to say. He cautioned that it would be hard to get a job after being unemployed for so long. I agreed, but it should help that I have so many friends employed by tech companies. I would probably need their help to land the initial phone screens, as employers would probably be suspicious of my year off.
My mom took the news better. It helped that I communicated with her more frequently over the year by phone. She started with a better understanding of where I was coming from. She told me that she was happy with my choice of priorities and that I was going to work hard to achieve what I wanted. She said it didn’t matter if I fell. It’s just important that I know how to get back up. I was really surprised she felt this way and was so supportive of me. It really touched my heart to have her blessing. I asked her to placate my dad in place of my poor communication skills in Cantonese.
And then Monday came. I was anxious and excited to enter the next phase of my life. When I finally told my manager during our one on one, he was definitely shocked. After taking the day to digest my news, he eventually told me he understood that I thought long and hard about my decision, that I had made up my mind. Over the course of the week, we hashed out the details. I would inform the team in one week’s time, and my last day would be the end of September.
That Monday to inform my team came all too quickly. Again, it was shock all over. Which makes sense. I really like my team, and I like the product we’re building. I don’t think I showed many signs of my decision to resign, if any. I spent the rest of the day and the next few days having over hour-long one on ones with my coworkers. They were all sad to see me go, but many of them were able to understand me and were supportive. At the very least, they recognized I made up my mind and there was not much they could do, so they just accepted it. I really appreciated that.
Something amazing also happened. My problem of being a working professional without enough time for hobbies is hardly unique. Thus, many of my coworkers praised me for being bold and brave, even inspirational for taking the actions I did. All in all, we had really good conversations, some a little more upbeat, and some a little more sad.
Goal moving forward
In the simplest of terms, my goal is to do what I want to do, whenever I want to. The want yields much more effective results. Rather than telling myself I must go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, Fridays, I just go whenever I want to. As a result, I enjoy it so much more. When I enjoy the experience, I’m much more likely to do it again. I would even be eager for the next time.
My actual goals are much more concrete, such as reading a minimum of x books a month. This allows me to better measure my pace and progress, and consequently tweak my benchmarks month to month to better set myself up for success. However, I’d like to keep mum on the specifics at this moment.
Ever since I was a kid, my piano teacher always called me a temperamental pianist. He said I was good at what I enjoyed playing, and not so good at what I didn’t enjoy. He told me I can’t just neglect the things I don’t want to play. I understand his lesson. It makes you more balanced, capable, patient, and tolerant. However, if there’s one thing I learned in software engineering, it’s that nothing goes exactly according to plan. So while I’m planning to take control of my time, I expect the unexpected.
And that’s life, too. There will always be elements outside of my control. These elements will naturally give balance to doing the things I want and doing the things I don’t want.
This moment in life is my first real step of being fearless and pursuing something I want outside of any conventional structure. I don’t care about failure, falling, bleeding, and bruising. There is no loss in this direction I am taking. Even if I set myself back professionally, I imagine I can only be a stronger developer by the end of the year by virtue of expanding my comfort zone out of the necessity to complete tasks that I do not want to do but are required for progress. So long as I am always learning, I will be okay.
This is another step of doing something hard. Hard things really do become easier the more you do them. I feel stronger already.
PS. Let this post speak to the power of doing what you want to do. I hated writing essays in school. But look at how much I wrote. I willingly spent hours on this.