Five Years Later

At this time five years ago, I was contemplating making one of the biggest decisions of my life. My I.T. job was sufficient to pay the bills but was far from fulfilling. Any of you who have followed the adventure from there to here know the story: I quit with no firm plan of what to do next, helped fledgling non-profit initiatives, volunteered as a high school teacher overseas where I became inspired to solve energy challenges in developing countries. That led me to graduate school, an option I first explored when I quit but did not pursue because of a complete lack of understanding what I would be getting into.

I am often asked if an advanced degree is necessary when making such a change in one’s life. I maintain the answer that is simultaneously sufficient and maddening: it depends on what you want to do. I have yet to begin working in this new field, though a bright prospect is on the horizon thanks to a connection made by one of my professors. If it works out, then yes, for me, the degree was necessary. Further, even though I have yet to start down this part of m career path, I know I’ve learned skills that will be of real use, things that I otherwise might not have learned were it not for school.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a flight to Bologna, Italy. (Or at least it has for us.)

I’m profoundly grateful to so many people for their support thus far, many of whom kept tabs on me via this blog. The only word of question or warning I ever heard (or read) was about the mountain of student loan debt this will leave me with. Other than that, I have been cheered from the jump. And that led to another important insight to making big changes in one’s life: surround yourself with the right people. It’s a well-worn maxim in leadership, and the best leaders recognize that the right people are often smarter than they are. When taking on a shift in career the way I did – although I did not realize it at the time – one should surround themselves with three types of people: supporters, cheerleaders, and challengers. Supporters encourage and listen to you. They are often in your inner circle, such as immediate family and a significant other. Cheerleaders do that too, but their enthusiasm for you potential and possibilities lives on a higher level than yours.

For example, when I first explored quitting to find my next vocation, my parents and my then-girlfriend supported me. The listened and helped me hash out the pros and cons, were physically there when bumps in the road required me to fall back and lick wounds for a time. My cheerleaders were slightly different. They acted similarly to my supporters, but went further. When I contemplated (and hesitated) going abroad, their enthusiasm for what they thought I could accomplish with that opportunity was nearly unbridled. They saw a path in front of me wilder than anything I imagined and myself and they made strong arguments for why they thought I was fully capable of realizing every bit of it.

Finally, you need challengers; people who hold your feet to the fire with respect to your potential. Another way to put it – a way that I borrowed from a dear friend – is that they force you to always bring your A-game. Challengers know when you are “mailing it in” and they call you on it. Their game is strong, and you have to keep up or else, why even try?

An immediate question I receive when I share this insight is, “why can’t your family or significant other be a cheerleader?” It’s not that they can’t. More often than not, it’s because they are busy being other things to you. Those relationships have history, baggage, and an almost perpetual role that cheerleaders do not experience. A significant other, a sibling, or a parent can be a cheerleader, and sometimes someone is lucky enough to have that. But in my experience, more often than not, the best cheerleaders are a degree removed.

I snapped this bumper sticker in 2005 shortly after quitting my job. It was, and is, a good reminder.

I wonder how my experience would have been different if I had known this five years ago. The learning came to me only recently. Would I have arrived at this point sooner, later, or not at all? Would I be here in Washington, DC, back in Chicago, or still overseas? Obviously I will never know and should simply focus on the present as it is. We all should. However, I’d be lying if I said I have not been reviewing my reflections from the start of this experiment. This gamble. This leap into the unknown. Those early writings are a testament to not knowing if this would be a great adventure, and epic failure, or something in-between. Whatever the verdict, it all began by listening to that quiet inner voice; the one that whispered a change was needed, that nudged me to go abroad, that indicated I still had a lot to learn.

I had planned on penning a reflection piece in August to mark the five year anniversary of actually walking out the door with nothing in front of me but a looming question mark. But I think this will do. I have some travels planned for the summer. First on the list is the traditional SAIS “beach week,” then it’s off to the Northwest with Larina to explore some National Parks. An extended visit to Chicago, long overdue, is tentatively scheduled. For now, I hear that quiet inner voice again, and it’s whispering, “Don’t set an alarm and get some sleep.”