Overcoming the gravitational pull of your old job

It’s not enough to just quit.

Staying away afterwards can be just as difficult. For some of us, our jobs are only a source of income and health benefits. For others, it’s the source of good memories, a place where you made friends, something that gives you a sense of purpose in life. (That can be taken a bit too far, though: once, at a bar on Amazon’s Seattle campus, I overheard a coder bragging to his date how great his team’s metrics were. Sorry, bro, but I don’t think that’ll help you procreate.)

There must be more to life than merely chasing money…

In a rational and ordered universe, the so-called Homo economicus (the economic man, aka the darling of economic theories for many decades) would just make the choice based solely on the cost/benefit analysis, then walk away, and never look back. In our irrational and delightfully chaotic world, however, nothing is ever as simple. That’s why you text your ex when you get particularly intoxicated and/or lonely. That’s why you try to second-guess yourself and whitewash your own memories. (I almost sent the metaphorical olive branch to my strange Toronto landlady before I recalled that she actually threatened to sue me for moving out with a two-week notice, as we’d agreed upon earlier. Fun times.) 

In my opinion, one of the worst lies we tell ourselves is that we’re pinnacles of evolution, that we’re rational, that we make good and smart choices. We’re not any of those things – we’re just hairless apes with oversized brains, making irrational choices while some smarter apes invent cool new stuff we get to enjoy. None of us are Vulcans (and even Vulcans would get mighty irrational at regular intervals), and it can be hard to reconcile your emotional urges with what you logically know is  the right thing to do.

I left Amazon almost six months ago, after having been with them for 11.5 years. The 12-year anniversary of my original warehouse temp contract will be in 18 days. I’ve gone from being broke, almost defaulting on my student loans, and holding off a $3K credit card debt (a lot of money when you’re 23 and the economy is in shambles) to living not only in another country but in Quebec City, retired early in a strange town that most people know very little about. In that respect, I owe the company a fair bit, yes. They also owe me 47 shares, as I mentioned earlier, and there were some very good reasons for my departure.

It’s not enough to just quit. Despite the fact that logically, I know going back would be a remarkably bad idea, some part of my brain still wrestles with that notion. The other night, I dreamed that somehow, some way, I went back to work as the lowest-level warehouse employee, packing boxes again. My great disguise in that dream was a baseball cap, and there was some major awkwardness when my dream self got discovered by my former dream coworkers who wanted me to go back to doing spreadsheets and crunching numbers. I don’t know what part of my brain is still tied to that job, but it must be a pretty significant one.

From what I gather, this isn’t unique to just me, or just Amazon, or just tech jobs. This seems to be a common theme, though I’m fairly certain it’s more common among men than women. In general (though there are always exceptions), men are less likely to establish social networks outside work, to have non-work buddies to go clubbing with, or get together for brunch, join a reading club, etc. I’ve stumbled across a fascinating Australian project called Men’s Sheds, which built sheds for shed-less guys who wanted to do something physical and useful with their free time. One quote in particular is pure gold:

“When you work you’re amongst other men all the time. You may not be happy with your work but you’re still amongst other people.
You talk about football and have jokes in the shop and grizzle about the boss. But when you stop it all stops. It’s a void. [And it’s
like,] ‘What’s to do today?’ … People don’t realise that when you retire there’s a snap off point from all that company.”

I won’t lie – it’s pretty bizarre to look up the research aimed at retired 60-something Australians while I’m in my mid-30s, about 30 years ahead of the curve. The upside is that I already know what’s happening (as opposed to being gnawed on by my subconscious), and once I find ways to deal with it (or at least minimize it), I’ll be even more ahead of the curve. (As the saying goes, “it’s not a competition, but I’m winning!”)

To state the very obvious, I am not a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or any sort of mental health professional. (I’m pretty good at first aid, though!) There’s a lot of literature and experts who can be a lot more helpful than my scribbles. What I am, though, is a recovering tech workaholic, and maybe the things I’ve found to be helpful will help others, too. 

I’ve dived pretty deep into brand new hobbies that have nothing to do with my old life. The 20-gallon aquarium I bought used at a significant discount makes life pretty fun. (Guppies are quite entertaining, and I’ll probably add some neon tetras, too.) My yeast sourdough project is an ongoing source of fun and frustration. (I may have forgotten to turn off the oven when I was heating it up to help Clint Yeastwood III with his flour digestion… He’s showing some signs of life, though!) Buying an air plant, hanging it in a little glass pot in my shower, and watching its creepy tentacles grow is another new thing that surprises me every morning.

I listen to science podcasts (check out Alie Ward’s Ologies podcast!) while grinding through some old favourite video games, and go for long walks through the beautiful Quebec City (google some pictures of the city – it’s amazing), and hang out with my cool Quebecois girlfriend: she does graphic design, and krav maga, and rollerskating, and couldn’t be more different from me when it comes to hobbies. Living in Quebec City also means that every trip outside is a potential adventure: quirky locals, random jolly street signs that advertise “Pain” (that’s French for “Bread”), and learning French, one bit at a time.

Sometimes whole days go by without thinking about spreadsheets or how I might have utilized some wasted work opportunities better. Everyone has a price, and I won’t lie – if Amazon offers the 47 shares they still owe me as an immediate sign-up bonus, I would be very tempted to return. I don’t know if I’d have the willpower to say no. Fortunately, and considering the much lower compensation system in Canada (I took a 48% pay cut in total compensation when I moved here from the US), that’s rather unlikely: I consider that to be a small concession to the workaholic part of my brain that’s not ready to accept that it’s over.

My only amateur advice to fellow recovering workaholics is to use this opportunity to finally do something you’d never had time for. Go through that bucket list of books and movies and games and national parks. Try low-cost hobbies: that air plant I mentioned cost me just $10, and it’s almost impossible to kill. (I know, I’ve just jinxed myself.) Make your present more enticing than your past. Or, to quote one of my favourite writers, Robert A. Heinlein:

“The way to live a long time – oh, a thousand years or more – is something between the way a child does it and the way a mature man does it. Give the future enough thought to be ready for it – but don’t worry about it. Live each day as if you were to die next sunrise. Then face each sunrise as a fresh creation and live for it, joyously. And never think about the past. No regrets, ever.”

It’s not enough to just quit. You’re a badass. You’ve got this.


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