Last month, I took the leap and walked away from my tech job in the year of our lord of the holy tech takeover 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. A job that I had solid chops at, a job I would have killed for when I was a 28 year old trying to break into Silicon Valley, a job that put me—an immigrant who came to America 7 years ago with $800 to her name— in a privileged income bracket in capitalist America.
During my last week at work, I dialed into a virtual goodbye happy hour with a mix of apprehension, nervousness, and eagerness to get to the other side. A dozen coworkers attempting to say goodbye through tiny square boxes on the screen always has the potential to feel awkward and forced as a participant, far more so when you are the focus of attention. Mercifully, my co-workers had a plan to send me off with a trivia that invited us to celebrate memories from our time together—a perfect way to capture my three years at the company. We laughed, reminisced, and never ran out of stories. One hour turned into two and still felt short. At one point, the inevitable question was once again asked— “What are you doing next”? And once again I didn’t have a pat answer, at least not in a way that would make it easy for others to understand. All I knew is that the timing felt right in my gut.
I had known for a long time that I would eventually take a career break after stockpiling enough career capital and dough in the bank to make up a safety net. But as with most things that involve risk and uncertainty, it always felt like a future aspiration and not something I was ready to do in the present, with the fantasy continuing to nurture itself. Until the pandemic hit and accelerated the decision to now, much like it has accelerated so much of the world around us by bringing it to a halt. It worked as a forcing function to take a fresh look at my life’s priorities.
In 2020, working from home (or as someone correctly pointed out living at work) had started to strip down work—the very thing that is supposed to bring purpose and identity to my life—to its bare bones. The pandemic deleted the distractions—the travel, the events, the food, and the camaraderie with co-workers that cannot be replicated in the confines of remote digital workspaces. With the frills gone, work in the new world became a humdrum of endless video meetings and output churn that didn’t bring any real meaning. It begged a re-examination. In a year where every day feels like Groundhog Day, what was I excited to wake up to, rinse, and repeat? It started to become clear that somewhere along the way in helping build the world’s inspiration engine, my own inspiration had run dry. I needed time to reset, re-think, re-evaluate who I am going to be, where I am going, and how I am going to get there.
Reaching this brave or foolhardy or entitled decision—all adjectives I can assign myself depending upon the day—wasn’t that straightforward. Quitting without having another gig lined up wasn’t my first impulse when hundreds of thousands of people find themselves unemployed in the wake of the devastation wreaked by the pandemic and the inconsistent political, medical, and economic decisions. Tech workers have been one of the lucky ones who can keep their jobs, switch to working from home without braving the frontlines, and at the same time accumulate gains from tech stock prices reaching unprecedented highs. Not wanting to stir things up when everything else is upside down, I started scratching the itch to look beyond the comfort of my seemingly perfect job by carving out an hour here and there a few times a week to honestly assess what I wanted to do next.
Illustration: making time
But in the absence of faithful and all-encompassing immersion, this side project of self-exploration remained, well, on the side. That untethered, deep state of flow required to find real answers or act on any potential idea remained out of grasp. After all, there were always more slack messages and emails to respond to, lingering work thoughts I could not detach from, and vacations or the ever-fewer socially distanced social gatherings to plan so I could blow off some steam. My attention remained fragmented. For us weekend warriors, two days in a week are just not enough to complete endless domestic chores that have piled up as we spend more time at home, catch up with friends and family, unwind and ALSO pursue a serious craft outside of work.
So I decided it was time to say goodbye to a half-hearted existence where nothing bad could happen to me in these unstable times—but nor could anything truly great.
As I follow my intuition to detach myself from the grind, rebuild myself, and find the missing pieces, I only have a vague idea as to what I want to seriously pursue. There really is no playbook that I can immediately turn to as I figure out what it means to live a life that has more meaning than just climbing the corporate ladder of personal success. The definition of success in our society factors in status and wealth, but not necessarily self-actualization and meaning—even for the vast majority of people who can afford to think beyond financial security and scale Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid. Mission-driven tech companies have long fed workers a gospel that contextualizes work from “jobs to careers to calling—from necessity to status to meaning”, as Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic. But in the end, there are only a handful of winners amongst us who truly hit the lottery of a deeply fulfilled vocation, one that doesn’t need mainstream validation.
In going off script, I am not without doubts. But I remind myself that I am the same person that packed up her bags, said goodbye to all she knew for 25 years of her life and moved to America from India without ever having been to the country before. As the years have gone by, my risk appetite has gone down, but the resolution to live deliberately and march to my own beat remains. Ten years from now I do not want to look back and discover that I had been living what was less than a full life. So onwards I go, without a plan but with endless possibilities ahead.
I will be writing about my journey, failures, revelations, reflections on worldly matters big and small, and everything in between in this space. I hope you will follow along and make this a conversation by sharing your own thoughts with me.