Monday, July 29, 2013

Settling in and looking up

I can't even begin to comprehend the fact that I have been in Hong Kong for nearly nine months.  Everyone always cites "time goes by so quickly" as a general truth, but now I understand that there are actually certain points in your life where you feel like you're moving so fast you're bordering time travel.  That said, I think it's established pretty early on in human life that it takes nine months to create something new and fully functioning.  After that point, your creation continues to grow but it remains fundamentally the same.  No, I'm definitely not pregnant, but that's exactly how I feel about my life in Hong Kong.  I'm fully functioning and finally ready to really grow again.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I stopped checking my work before I submitted tests.  My teachers remarked (and even mocked) my exceptionally efficient test taking abilities, but the reality was that I did much better if I didn't check my answers.  If I went back to review my responses, I would talk myself out of my initial instincts.  I might not have been able to rationalize exactly why I thought my first response was right, but I would end up convincing myself another answer was better.  If I went back to check, I'd think... "Well, how do I really know that's right?  I could actually rationalize this other response as being correct, so it must be better."  It turned out most of my erased/replaced answers were wrong.  So, relatively early on, I resigned to tricking myself into following my intuition.  It consistently turned out for the better.

I have applied this purposefully deceptive methodology to my broader life as well.  I have specifically sought out new and different experiences as a means of avoiding over-analysis and just experimenting on myself.  I craved situations where I didn't have time to do anything except react from my gut.  Just as I had felt with the tests, I was surprised by the accuracy of my own thoughtless reactions.  I realized that it was in these moments that I could see my "true" motivations, capabilities, and desires -- because I didn't have the time to try to control them or convince myself of anything other than my natural instinct.  Sure, maybe I could have just learned to "trust my gut", but I didn't even trust I could do that.  That's what drew me to sales and trading in the beginning.  If someone yelled at you, you didn't have time to analyze it, you just yelled back!  Similarly, this is why I love to travel.  Take away all your familiar surroundings, your habits, and life's other common denominators, and you are free to see what really makes you you.

I have learned a lot about myself by observing those instantaneous reactions, such as the fact that if you scream at me, I will fucking yell back (this tends to surprise a lot of people, which is also entertaining.)  Or the fact that I'm surprisingly okay with multiple days of not showering, but terrified of swimming in the ocean.  Sure, these things are interesting and relevant in certain contexts, but now I realize that constantly forcing yourself to react can actually prevent you from seeing the bigger picture.  These situations may be useful to observe, but they are really just distractions from doing the deeper digging.  Maybe it's just that I'm older, but I'm now much less afraid of asking myself, "What am I actually good at?  What do I really enjoy doing?  What do I need from life?  What can I give back?"

When I first left finance for the startup world and my boyfriend moved halfway across the world, I was in reactionary mode.  But after a few months I got used to it, and I have to admit that I kind of found my groove.  I developed my routines, I made myself comfortable in my new surroundings, I found a place where my basic needs were met so I could start truly observing myself.  Sometimes, the way that we react when we're truly comfortable is when we learn the most.  Where are you drawn when nothing is pushing you in any given direction?  Though I'm not strong enough to truly not care what others think of me, what am I like when I am at least aware and accepting of how I am viewed by those around me?    What happens when you really let your guard down?

I think I have finally gotten to that place in Hong Kong.  I have settled into my life here, I have accepted my general place in this foreign context, and now I am itching to get back to looking past the immediate.  What truly matters and what is only a reaction to my present surroundings?  Where do I find myself taking initiative and where am I simply scraping by?  What do I do when I have nothing to do?  These are much scarier realities to face, but I think I'm finally ready again.  I'm not sure how that applies to test taking, though....

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Structural dissonance

Until now, my daily life (and general life path, too, I suppose) has been very structured.  You might even call it regimented.  Sure, it was partially by default.  When I was in school, classes started and ended at the same time every day.  When I was on the trading floor, the markets opened and closed at the same time every day.  But ever the creature of habit, I sought out routine as well.  Even when I entered the start up world and schedules became a lot more flexible, I still woke up at the same time every day. I still had a schedule for going to the gym. I still wrote a to do list every night before I went to bed. I even picked up the same breakfast every morning (god I miss New York bodega breakfast egg wraps...)

Then, I moved to Hong Kong and completely threw away anything that had any semblance of a pre-established guideline.  When I embarked on this adventure, my inner rebel took over and I thought... "Routines?  Please.  I don't need no stinkin' routines." (film reference, anyone?)  My day started and ended when I wanted.  I had meetings whenever I decided to schedule them.  There weren't any restaurants around that had my regular food choices, I could eat anything that sounded good.  I could do my work from wherever I pleased. I could go to the gym whenever it fit into my schedule, even if that was 2pm.  Hell, I could wear my pajamas all day if I felt like it and nobody could say or do a thing about it.

At first, I was in heaven.  I felt totally liberated, empowered, and independent.  I had broken free of all of the "defaults" that had dictated my days for so long.  It seemed I was cheating the game of life, and it made me feel giddy.  Like a kid who had effectively managed to stay home sick from school, though feeling completely fine.  But soon, the honeymoon period ended and the fog of indecision slowly settled in. I began to obsess over when and where to do things.  What would be the optimal schedule for that particular day?  Which coffee shop did I really feel like working at today?  When would it be most efficient to drop by the gym?  No, I can't respond to this e-mail right now... I'm not prepared to write the response it deserves.  I can do it later.  I have to wait until I'm in the perfect 'honest and personal e-mail writing mood.'  There was plenty of time open in the week, surely it would strike me when the time was right.

Well, you probably see where this is going.  Those honest, personal e-mails never got answered.  I wasn't writing as much.  I often skipped the gym, or waited until just before a meeting to go, forcing myself to cut my exercise short.  No matter what I did, I could only think about the opportunity cost.  What if doing this at another time or in another place would have been better?

Worst of all, I was chronically late.  For some reason, I felt as if this elusive bolt of productivity only struck when I had but few precious minutes left before I needed to rush out the door.  I had no choice but to take advantage. I had to get this or that done before I could be on my way, otherwise I'd miss the opportunity to check it off the list.   I don't know if people really minded me being consistently 7 minutes late for meetings, but it sure bugged the hell out of me.  I felt like a really fucking annoying person.  A weakling who was constantly paralyzed by overanalysis, indecision, and regret.  Gross.

I finally had to look myself in the mirror and admit it.  Yes, I need structure in my life.  I crave routine.  I had been terrified of admitting this to myself, not because I didn't think I had the self discipline to create my own framework for daily living.  But more because I was afraid of relying on said framework. I thought I was weak for needing to outsource my decision making to a predetermined set of defaults.  But this time, it's different.  Because I'm choosing structure.  I'm not choosing it over freedom, I am choosing it for freedom.  So that I can stop obsessing over the little things and liberate my brain to think about the productive, creative things that really matter.  I don't need to wait for the "optimal time" to do something, I can make it the optimal time by just doing it now.

It's only been a few weeks of this newfound acceptance of needing some sense of regularity.  But I'm feeling a lot better about things.  It feels like a weight has been lifted.  There's less paralysis by analysis and a lot more of just getting shit done.  When setting my new daily schedule, I need to walk a very fine line between holding myself responsible but not being too rigid.  Much easier said than done, of course.  I'll let you know how it goes.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Taking the first step

I think it is just beginning to dawn on me how significant of a step I took when I decided to leave my job at Goldman.  I'm a year and half into my P.F. (post-finance) life and, for a variety of reasons, it's just hitting me now.  It seems sufficient time has passed such that the public has deemed me beyond the point of no return and they are starting to marvel at my apparent insanity.  I've been asked with increasing frequency: "How did you do it?  How did you figure out how to leave and not look back?"  There's also the fact that my bank account is dwindling and I'm marvelling at my own apparent insanity.  I still don't regret it for a second, but the reality of changing my lifestyle has certainly settled in.

Additionally, as the buzz around the startup community in Hong Kong grows, I am talking to more and more people who are working in finance, consulting, or other corporate jobs, and secretly dream of one day leaving to pursue some other passion.  Though many credit money for being the primary reason for not taking that leap, I think it's something else -- or at least a combination of factors.  For me, it was both a lack of direction and a lack of confidence in my own abilities.  I thought, if I did leave my job ... what is that 'other' passion that I would pursue?  I have always been interested in a lot of different things, but I never had that one thing that I loved so much or that I couldn't live without.  I am not obsessed with one industry, one product, one activity that would make it glaringly obvious what I should pursue.

And from a practical standpoint, what would I even be able to do? I've always been kind of good at a lot of different things, but never excelled so much at one thing that I had no choice but to go after it.  If anything, my strength would be general business skills, which is why I dream about starting or running a company one day.  Even still, the only jobs I had in my adult life were... bank teller, smoothie/sandwich girl, tour guide, a little data entry, and Equity Derivative Sales.  Not really the most applicable background if you want to start a company.

When I would share this frustration with people, their answer was always, "Why don't you just go to business school?  You can figure it out there."  But I didn't want to take two years to go to business school to "figure things out."  My frustration with my then position was that I didn't feel like I was really doing anything.  It felt like I was just spinning my wheels every day.  If I went to business school, I was only delaying the inevitable.  It wouldn't actually solve my perceived lack of productivity.  

I really believe this is a fundamental desire that lies within every one of us.  A desire to break free of our constraints and get to a place where we can truly contribute, where we can build something bigger than ourselves, where we actually matter.  It is natural to seek the satisfaction that comes from seeing tangible results of something real that you did, an idea you came up with, connections that you made -- that satisfaction is indescribable.  I think it's fundamental because it means you have a sense of agency -- the ability to contribute, to create, to choose is precisely what makes us human.  So, I suppose it's ironic that so many of us are waiting around for someone to tell us it's okay to take control of our lives and to make a conscious choice to be free.  We don't actually need to rely on other people to get a taste of creation.  It's ours for the taking, we just have to go after it.

So, then, how did I get started?  It didn't happen overnight.  But, even though I had no idea where I was going to end up, I did take some small steps to set myself on a different path.  Here are some little things I did that I'd recommend for anyone lusting after a change.  These seemingly minor changes are what allowed me to subtly, passively, subconsciously formulate my escape plan.

  1. Expose yourself to your other options in the corporate world by signing up for notifications for job listings.  I had never looked for a job outside finance, I had no idea what was even out there.  There's a lot of riff raff, but at least you'll have a sense for your "practical" alternatives and the skills/background they would require.   
  2. Sign up for Escape the City.  This was first thing I signed up for after all the traditional newsletters.  Getting exposure to non-traditional options will open your mind and help you consider something you'd never even thought of before.   I didn't think I'd move to sub-Saharan Africa to work for an NGO, but who knows?  It got me thinking out of the box.
  3. Make sure you subscribe to both of these things using your PERSONAL E-MAIL.  Or, maybe don't, and your employer will find out and make your choice for you.
  4. Beef up your LinkedIn profile.  Add your experience, your background, ask for recommendations.  This puppy is pretty powerful and recruiters spend hours trolling for candidates with certain backgrounds.  You never know who might reach out to you.  I got my first startup interview for a role at ZocDoc after someone randomly contacted me through LinkedIn.
  5. Talk to your friends.  Tell people you trust that you're looking for a change and that you're unhappy.  If you're still unhappy and complaining years later, they'll hold you responsible and subtly push you to make a change (if they're good friends, that is).
  6. Start writing cover letters and doing interviews with start ups or other random industries you've vaguely been interested in.  Telling you now, you probably won't get the job (I got lots of rejections before I joined GA) but you'd be surprised how much value you get out of talking about your skill set, listening to how you sell yourself to others, testing how far you're really interested in taking things.  That way when the right thing comes along, you'll have a clear picture in your head of why you want it and how you can contribute.
  7. Sign up for, commit to some random activities, and meet some people in different industries.  Try out some new things, listen to other people's paths and stories, expand your realm of possibilities.  It's so inspiring to meet other people who are passionate and eager to share their interests.
  8. Go to a class or sign up for a course at a place like NYU School of Continuing Ed or General Assembly (I'm not just saying this, I'm serious.  I did this before I worked there).  You'll gain a practical insight into other industries, you can make some solid connections with the instructors and other leaders in the field, and perhaps most importantly, you'll get exposed to other people that are searching just like you are.  You may think you're special -- and you probably are -- but that doesn't mean you have to be alone.  Because the reality is you're not alone.  There are so many other people out there looking to make change but aren't ready yet, or don't know how yet.  There are also a lot of people out there that have made the change, and they'll make it seem a lot less scary.
  9. Get involved in a project, whether it's through friends, through a hands-on/project-based course as mentioned above, or even through Craigslist.  It doesn't have to be your own, it doesn't have to be your dream passion project, but you'll get to exercise your mind, test and come to understand your own capabilities, and you'll feel amazingly empowered to see that you can accomplish something meaningful out of your office.  It will remind you what human agency tastes like, and you'll have no choice but to go looking for more.

So, there you have it.  It's a long list, but it's pretty easy to do.  It won't force you to do anything you're not ready for, but it will help you passively prime yourself for success.  You're just warming up your muscles for your leap so you don't sprain, tear, or break anything.  Before you know it, you'll find yourself at an impasse where it feels natural to just jump.  I can tell you from experience, it will still hurt, but as long as you're properly prepared it'll be a really good kind of sore.