“I remember like getting back on that plane and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll never be the same person again.’”
Always working with a passion
When Alice was a child, she would tell people that she wanted to “be a philanthropist” and “have a lot of fun in life.” As an adult, this meant that she wanted “work to feel like it had meaning and purpose,” and so she took her first job out of undergrad as a teacher. Over time, however, this role took over her life, and what previously was an emotional investment in her students became her entire experience. “My work was my life…and I was burned out after that.”
At the same time, Alice was also experiencing turmoil in her personal life, going through a breakup after a long relationship. Both of these combined led her to a place where it felt like she didn’t have the energy to keep her life together any longer.
“The foundation of my life was starting to crumble. I didn’t have things that people build their identity on.”
Finding herself at a crossroad, she thought briefly about pushing through the experience, but also knew that she was on the brink of something different. “Oh, this is the moment where maybe I need to… learn a whole new set of skills and a different way of being in the world. That’s gonna need some space.” To find this space, she set off on a year-long process away from her teaching job that culminated in a 3-month work-free sabbatical.
Learning to be right without a plan
As an “experimenter and a tester,” Alice wanted her time off to ‘have a purpose’ and for her to feel only accountable to herself. She spent 9 months working a completely different job and living on the beach to save enough money to travel for three months through the American South. There, she realized that she wanted to experiment and learn “how to be without a plan” and how to feel “more comfortable in [her] own skin.”
Describing her family’s (and her own) tendencies to be an extreme contingency planner, however, this test was no easy feat. She felt a “paralyzing sense of fear” around “taking any risks” and naturally didn’t feel any comfort or tolerance around ambiguity. She set a wider structure and set of boundaries around her trip (e.g., saving up the right amount of money, having a flight home after three months), and set rules that helped her test this hypothesis. “You can’t plan more than one day in advance. Um, and you know, you have to go to these couple of places and do these couple of things which you really aren’t sure you can do.”
The very first few days were not easy. “It was so uncomfortable. Like it’s so uncomfortable.” In her first few minutes outside of the airport, she very quickly realized she didn’t have an initial destination. “And then I feel like where am I- where am I going to?”
Finding joy in other places
Once on her trip, Alice settled into a rhythm where she would “go to cool places and talk to people.” This process that gave her the ability to log and capture “what worked for people” and what made them feel happier and freer, and it opened the door to a number of realizations.
First, she realized that some people were happy because they were in a community and therefore felt surrounded by people that they cared about. This impacted her thinking on the importance of values. “I did notice that the people who are happiest seem to be people who are clear on what they cared about and then they were making choices about how to spend their time as best they could in alignment with that.”
During her trip, she also met a man who helped shape her thinking on jobs and career. A jack-of-all-trades, he was a logger, a handyman, a fisherman (and a fishing rod mechanic) – and most of all, he felt happy. “He was like, ‘I get to do a whole bunch of different things that I like and I get to meet a whole bunch of different people that I like.’” To Alice, this path resonated strongly with her, as this gave her the permission to explore a life of diversity rather than choosing one thing and sticking with it.
Being more present
In addition to her observations on what made others happy, she also learned how to be more rooted and grounded in the present. Early on in her trip, listening to Eckhart Tolle audiotapes helped guide her in mindful meditation exercises that pushed her to hold on to thoughts as long as possible.
This learning was reinforced in her interaction with a medicine person on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. As she was helping him farm the land, he said something that resonated strongly with her journey: “In order to be 100% ready for the future, you have to be 100% present in the moment. [Because] there isn’t a future except in each moment that we create.”
This interaction started a process of helping Alice become more present with people, with the task that she’s doing in the moment, and with giving her 100%. “I definitely came back feeling much more grounded.” Even though she arrived back home without a clear plan in her next paycheck or what she was going to do in the next 5 years or 10 years she felt at peace, because she had the “stronger belief and confidence that [she] could figure it out.”
Alice is a life coach, career coach, and education and training consultant based in San Francisco, CA.
“I don’t have to wait for somebody else to create an opportunity for me to become the person that I want to be. I can be responsible for that. I can do the reading. I can do the research, I can create the experiments, I can course myself through that.”