Mid-life Wakefulness

Breaking up

Recently, I quit my job. If you know me at all, you’ll realize this is a self-amputation of sorts. I’ve derived tremendous personal value from my work and it has represented the largest percentage of my time and mind share for over two decades. Not only my days but my entire personality has been organized around my work. To remove it with one surgical cut has been one of the two hardest things I’ve done to date. Ironically, the other hardest thing was to leave home 13 years ago for the work I’ve just walked out of.

If it was that big of a deal, why do it, you might ask. The answer is simple if you’re someone who shares my ailment and infinitely complex if you don’t.

I cannot settle for less. I am hard-wired to demand more of myself and of the world. Complacency means death and I fight it just as you would fight to breathe when you’re under water. At times, I envy the person that slides into life with ease, then spends it eating, shitting, fucking, building a nest, pro-creating, and then slides out with the same simplicity that’s marked her entire life. I see that person on Facebook and wonder how she came to be who she is, what she thinks her purpose is, if she’s actually happy…

I also know viscerally that I am not that person. I was an unwilling arrival in the world. I have struggled to find myself and my path in every life decision. I have never been a part of any herd nor relinquished my reason in favor of conventional wisdom. I have looked for meaning in the smallest of things. This has made every step, small or large, the product of a lot of self-reflection and painful effort.

Work had come to represent complacency. Days blurred into each other, punctuated only by conscious disruptions (like travel or jumping out of a plane or off a mountain). I worked hard but it was work I had done many times before. Creative thinking had been replaced by muscle memory. I had grown accustomed to a fat paycheck and cushy benefits. I was addicted to the prestige and validation I got from others in the workplace and the respect and admiration I got from people outside work about being ‘successful’, for ‘having made it’.

What’s next?

American dream accomplished! The hike up was great. Now what? Who knows 🙂

Not knowing is unfamiliar territory for me. Acknowledging that I don’t know what’s next is even harder than not knowing because it challenges the sense of self I have created for myself. I’m the responsible, always-have-my-shit-together person. And yet here we are.

Beyond this lie random discoveries I’ve made over the last four weeks in no particular structure. In that they mirror the lack of structure I have in my life and my thoughts at this point.

  • Witnessing the silence, stillness and scale of Death Valley in solitude, I was deeply aware of my temporal and spatial insignificance. Then I recognized that the Valley and I were bound together in a profound way, giving each other meaning.
  • Loneliness turns into solitude when you stop resisting it and making ridiculous meaning of it. The only way to do that is to sit with it until you break through. There’s bliss on the other side of it.
  • I’ve been surprised and humbled by the strength of my professional and personal community and how many people have been supportive and helpful in introducing me to others that can provide insight along the way.
  • There are no road signs or Google map instructions or even many other fellow travelers on the path I’m on. Being lost is an inevitable part of the journey of self-discovery. Here’s the catch, the more discomfort I have with being lost, the longer it persists. There’s a recurring theme emerging. Resistance is FUTILE :).
  • Survival instinct is stronger and more reptilian-brain than I thought. I have no real threat to my survival. Yet being unemployed often triggers very fundamental fear within me – what if I never find a job? what if I’m unable to take care of myself? What does that say about me? It takes me a few minutes to process these feelings and recognize them as a ghost of evolutionary self-protection mechanisms. I have to remind myself that I crossed the Survival line a long time ago. Now it’s about Living.
  • Invalidating my angst by reminding myself this is a first-world problem equates to self-abuse. It’s a clever trick aimed at replacing the pain that’s necessary for self-discovery with temporary guilt. I have empathy for people that are struggling with the basics in life. However human experience exists in billions of forms and each one is valid and worthy.
  • Journaling, meditation, working out and happy hour with friendly faces are phenomenal amplifiers for useful thoughts and feelings and cancel out the noise.

Over the last several weeks I’ve spoken with many people from startups and smaller companies and evaluated many products. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • I’m starting to realize how invisible I feel in the absence of other people telling me how awesome I am and how much they appreciate the value I bring to a product or team. This suggests to me that I’ve lost sight of the true source of validation and that’s from within. My own voice has been reduced to a whisper because the voices from outside have lured me away. Even though I’ve been mindful of this trap, somehow and somewhere along the way, I have tangled my sense of worth with others’ perception of my worth. This is even more apparent to me when I speak with people in other companies (who don’t know who I am, what my capabilities are) and we often start from a place of mild skepticism before I get into pitching myself to them.
  • Clearly there’s a concentration of intellect and go-getter mentality in the startup area. That I expected. How testosterone driven the culture is, I did not expect and that’s been an interesting adjustment. I wonder if there’s there’s causation here.
  • I have more empathy than ever before of the harsh judgment that often comes with stereotyping. I find stereotyping is useful when dealing with broad brush strokes. But when dealing with one specific person, curiosity about the individual must override stereotype. I walk into a room with my identity as: Mona. The person I’m sitting across from sees my identity as: Microsoft. Ok, that’s fair. What I expect is questions about me. What I get 50% of the time is a barrage of anti-Microsoft sentiment. I’m not making a statement about the wrongness/rightness of this approach (even though I have a strong opinion on the matter), but commenting on how all of us must do this in all walks of life i.e. opt for laziness and bias over curiosity and meaningful connection. If one of life’s core purposes is to meaningfully connect with other humans, how dangerous can stereotyping be when used in the wrong context.
  • People are the most important and only non-negotiable axis in life for me. Money, products, geography are all interesting but once it’s all said and done, people are the difference that make the difference in my sense of well being every single day.

This stage of my life reminds me of chemistry lab in high school. Each week, we learnt about a new element. That meant putting that element through many tests to understand how it responded – to heat, pressure, light, other elements etc. It is only when I put myself through such experiments that I gain experiential insight into who I am.

Back to the lab for me. Enjoy your week.


1 thought on “Mid-life Wakefulness

  1. Hi Mona!
    Very thought provoking words, also brave of you to venture out into the great unknown
    But I would add that I feel there is room for self reflection and perhaps improvement even in the monotony of one’s routine, everyday life that requires one to question one’s knee jerk reactions
    There was a time long long ago that I,too, could sit in solitude but unfortunately I have lost that ability and must work hard to regain it
    All the best with everything you are working towards

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