On self-determination and defining my own life path

Everyone has been banging on about how horrible 2016 had been. And they’re not wrong  – Brexit and Trump, all in one year? As an American living in the UK I felt double-wronged. And not just in a theoretical, ideological kind of way. The pound value plummet was, indeed, very real and bad news for my US student loan payments. Now my monthly payment is worth less in dollars and pay off will take longer. Thanks politics! My salary value in dollars went back to what I was making about 5  years ago. Feels great!

As a result of the vote, the scary economic consequences, and general panic, I spent most of July, August, and September seriously contemplating an emergency move back to the US. I applied to a million (ok, not a million, but many – probably around 20) jobs on the US east coast. When I wasn’t getting responses I felt frustrated and trapped. When I did get a few responses, I started to freak out about whether I could actually go through with the move. I even cancelled a phone interview for a very interesting job in Boston after a sudden realisation that I’m not emotionally ready to drop everything and move to Boston in the next few months. I noticed that, in a panic, I started to compromise on many of my long-held values – should I really be applying for a boring desk job with a huge corporation just to get away from Brexit woes? And what about living in Europe? Wasn’t the experience of this worth more than a bigger paycheck? But Brexit felt scary, so I spent at least three months yo-yoing between ‘yes I need to move ASAP’ and ‘no, but I’m not ready to be done with London yet’. It was emotionally exhausting, not just for me, but for J, too. And I started living exclusively in the future, completely forgetting to enjoy and appreciate my present existence in London.

I noticed my inner voice sounding really angry and resentful. It wasn’t fair that my salary is suddenly worth less, that I have to pay more in student loans, that the UK economy would most likely be crap for the next few years, that I wouldn’t have any chance at EU citizenship one day, and on and on and on. Was coming to the UK a total mistake? Wouldn’t I be making way more money now if I had just stayed in the US? All my dreams of owning my own beautiful apartment in a fashionable, lively city somewhere started to feel increasingly unreachable.

What was happening? Was my panic legitimate, or was I being a bit of a brat? Nope, I was just in the steely grip of the American Dream.

The expectation of a consistently upward-moving life (at least financially) has been deeply ingrained in me without my even realising it. Growing up in the US and consuming popular media has taught me that there is only one way to live your life and be successful. This is to get on the job ladder and start climbing. Each job should earn you more and more money, and by the time you’re 30, hopefully you can afford a mortgage on an expensive apartment and spend your weekends drinking lattes with friends in coffee shops and going out to nice restaurants. I was expecting all of these things. I’ve worked hard. But I still found myself sharing a London house with 4 other people. I thought it would be time to have my own kitchen by now (with marble countertops)!

These expectations are what created the ‘great panic of 2016’. I was already struggling to stay on track for the American Dream, and 2016 just showed up and blew me off my tracks entirely. But this derailment turned out to be an absolutely wonderful and necessary event (as it is with many difficult experiences in our lives).

This made me re-evaluate what I wanted from life. Was it really to be climbing from job to job, sitting in a cubicle, clocking in 8 hours a day and wishing it was the weekend? All so that I can keep inflating my lifestyle by periodically upgrading my apartment’s furnishings, buying more expensive clothes, and overpaying for cocktails in some pretentious bar?

Nope. That’s not what I want. Not at all. It was like a wake-up call. (I wish it had come much earlier, but what are ya gonna do? I’m naturally very stubborn.)

What I want is to experience life with all of its ups and downs, to see the world, to grow as a person and develop new interests, knowledge and skills. And being in London, for the moment, is a major step towards that. Even if I’m not rich. Even if I’m not going to be able to buy an apartment here. Even if my friends back in the US make more money selling some pointless widget and have a 30-year mortgage on a house with a 2-car garage. And the thing is, I was already pursuing meaning over money in many ways. But I was afraid to let go completely. I still wanted both – a great meaningful life, but without the cost that comes with letting go of the conventional, the normal, the regular.

And out of this long overdue realisation, some awesome things materialised. The first is the exciting new plan for J and I to leave our jobs in 2018 and slow-travel through Southeast Asia while working at social and environmental NGOs, stopping in each city for a month or more at a time. Yep, it’s very cliché (so many people are doing this!), and it’s not an end in itself. But we know that we will grow so much in that one year, that it will be worth it, and I’m excited how much my outlook on life will change after this experience. The second and probably even more valuable thing that happened is a new sense of inner contentment and purpose. Gone are the days of worrying about reaching insignificant and artificial milestones, of comparing myself to others, and following convention because it makes someone else money.

Thanks, 2016, you weren’t so bad after all.

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