Posted by: Alex | February 17, 2010

Welcome to the Real World

As I write this, I have only two weeks left with my current employer, and for the first time in my life I’m going to spend a significant amount of time with no income, no concrete plan, and no certain outcome.  Thinking back on my life, there was always a Master Plan.  For thirteen years I diligently and sometimes reluctantly went to school, got the best grades I could to keep my parents happy, trusting yet sometimes resenting (as children are wont to do) their insistence that I needed top grades to go to the best university that would accept me.  Through the usual distractions of childhood, somehow you pull it off, and all of a sudden you find yourself 4,000 miles away, living away from home for the first time in a tiny dorm room with a roommate that seems to have an inverted sleep schedule to yours.  Excited about this first step into the real world, you have more distractions than you’ve ever had in your life, but the goal is steadfast and clear: graduate with a degree and the highest possible GPA, because that will automatically lead to the best jobs.  You plan your four years out, quarter by quarter, knowing that if you complete these carefully thought out steps in order, you’ll be fairly rewarded.

This is where things start to change, and I don’t believe that anyone is truly prepared for it.  Most college graduates I observed, myself included, had an altruistic idea of the real world, talked about all the things they were going to do to change the world and make it a better place.  As it turns out, the real world is not quite the meritocracy that school was.  To say it’s not fair is missing the point that it just operates by different rules, and not only are some of us better suited to those new rules than others, but sometimes the rules are hard to understand, unclear, and to top it off, frequently change.  All of a sudden your GPA becomes virtually meaningless, let alone the degree you chose to pursue.  What an irony that the world that expects you to study hard and go to university is the same world that barely requires you to ever use this knowledge again.  Sometimes the school you went to or your ability to take tests matters more than how smart you really are – this goes both ways – and you realize that you didn’t understand it at the time, but your parents were absolutely right about doing your best in school all those years.  The world is not fair, but they knew that all along.

There’s something wrong with a system that implies linear progression is the norm outside school, or that others in life will judge you by carefully published standards.  School prepares you to analyze information and pass tests, but no one is ever taught how to navigate their life, plan their career, and find what makes them happy.  The biggest mistake you can make in the real world is to assume that your individual best interests are always taken care of – you need to take control of your own destiny, but why is it that the most important things in life are the most difficult to manage?  What does fulfillment mean?  Why is happiness so elusive?  What do I do next?  Why does everyone else always seem to have their shit together?  These are important questions.  As often seems to be the case, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, and though seemingly drastic, it’s these questions that are driving me to take up to a year off by moving to the other side of the planet.  Far from the first to do so, I’m looking forward to the liberation from deadlines and pressure, the ability to spend time as I wish, and not having to be at the mercy of my employer’s every beck and call.

I’ve wanted to do this for years, but now that my departure is barely a month away, I do feel some trepidation to be leaving my friends and home.   As you consider what you are leaving behind, it forces you to focus on what’s important to you and how lucky you are to have those things: loyal friends, shared culture, and the familiarity of home.  In addition, what was originally envisioned as a departure of a few months has become a longer and more important break.  It’s certainly going to be a great adventure, but it won’t surprise those that know me well to hear that the motivation behind this change is deliberate.  Let me answer the two questions that everyone has asked me so far: why New Zealand and why now?

I’m headed to Omarama (latitude 44.49°S, longitude 169.97°E) in New Zealand for the simple reason that it is one of the best places in the world for gliding, specifically to learn about mountain soaring (the Southern Alps are both ideally positioned and stunningly beautiful).  Gliding is a sport I became involved with when I lived in the UK (1993 – 2001).  Fortunately I was able to learn at very little cost through a youth program that allowed me to work at the airfield in return for flying hours.  During my final year in the UK I was a basic instructor, teaching the first few lessons on basic stick and rudder skills to new students.  After I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for university, I found that the nearest gliding operation was an hour and a half away in Hollister, CA (compared to a 15-20 minute drive in the UK), sadly not practical for a student without a car and later an even more impractical distance after moving to San Francisco post-graduation.   There is no feeling that compares to traveling hundreds of miles using nothing but the Earth’s natural air currents, with only the sound of those currents sighing over your wings and whooshing around you, spectacular scenery below you.  To say that I think about gliding often is an understatement – to have nothing to do other than go gliding is a dream come true.

Spectacular gliding has been the primary motivator for going to New Zealand, but the reasons for departing my job have driven me to take a broader look at my career and take stock of what’s important to me.  I’m extremely fortunate to have gained the financial independence of being able to take this time off with little worry, and my goal is to come back motivated and hungry to tackle the next phase of my career.  I’ve worked hard for my current employer for the last four and a half years and have learned a huge amount.  I’ve also earned every penny in my paycheck.  To give you an idea, my first two years on the job saw me traveling eleven months out of the year on average, and as of today I’ve flown 571,291 miles on Continental Airlines alone since October 2006.  (You can thank me for both reducing your UV exposure and disproportionately contributing to climate change.)  Not surprisingly, I’m sitting on a Continental aircraft in flight right now.

My initial enthusiasm and energy for my employer has waned on the gradual realization that advancement and increased meaningful responsibility within the organization is effectively impossible.  Though I think my intrinsic talents are acknowledged, I feel like an instrument of the organization’s management team rather than a member of the team.  I know I’m not alone in needing to feel a greater purpose and be allowed the freedom to create to feel satisfied with my work.  I sadly see this as one of the main issues contributing to high turnover amongst the smartest and most talented and ambitious employees at my company.  The net result is that I need to take some time to consider corporations, organizational behavior (none of us can escape it unless in absolute isolation), and what I see as the ideal role and industry for me to contribute to in a way that is personally fulfilling.

Finally, there is a purely selfish motivation that I know has hurt someone I care about very much, and that is simply that this is very likely to be the first and last time I will ever be able to do something like this in my life.

New Zealand is my chance to take in a wholly different perspective on the world, recharge my batteries, and reflect on what is important to me with regard to career and lifestyle.  I’ll be spending time gliding, learning from the best pilots in the world, but also enjoying the spectacular natural beauty that New Zealand has to offer.  My backpack, hiking boots, and ski boots are ready for adventure.

*  *  *

There’s something unnatural about selfishly dedicating a web site to one’s personal ranting, and it’s going to take a little getting used to.  In the era of Facebook-Twitter-LinkedIn-YouTube I should be used to exposing myself publicly – and, yes, my Facebook status will notify you of new postings to this blog – but I guess I’m a little old-fashioned.  I expect my readers to almost exclusively be friends and family who know me beyond this virtual presence, but I will not mention my full name, who my former employer was, or other specifics that would easily identify me or others.  I’ll use pseudonyms where necessary, and if you’re not clear who I’m talking about, feel free to send me an email.  Or a postcard, if you haven’t forgotten that postal mail still exists.

Looking forward to hearing from you.


  1. It was always a pleasure to work with you Alex. I still have fond memories of that project we worked on together so many years ago in Boston. Not to mention our trip to Minneapolis!

    Take care, and keep in touch.

  2. 4 days to go! Everything sold or in storage 🙂

    Be safe, have fun, and keep in touch.

  3. I will continue to read! I wont expose myself either.. but Im the little person you had to help with Excel on her first day of work. Already miss you!

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