Friday, May 11, 2007

Chance and circumstance

The scariest thing about quitting my job was figuring out what to do next. I had always been someone who was more or less defined by my professional identity. Work-life balance questions were not an issue for me - my work was my life. Which is to say that I had huge work-life balance issues. Indeed, it was the ongoing inability to find any kind of healthy equilibrium while working that finally convinced me that some sort of drastic action was necessary. I loved my job, and the people I worked with, but the fact of the matter was that my personal life was almost non-existent. It might be tolerable (though not healthy) at age 30, but I was rapidly approaching 50, and it seemed like I was stuck in a rut from which I didn't know how to escape. I knew that the overall pattern of my life was taking a direction which was definitely unhealthy in the long-term, and becoming increasingly less satisfying on a day-to-day basis. I was, and remain, extremely happy about my career accomplishments, particularly those at Genentech, which was an exceptionally fulfilling place to work. From a career point of view, things were very comfortable. But, looking ahead a few years, it was becoming harder and harder to believe that my job would continue to be as rewarding. And there were other parts of my life that needed fixing.

This was becoming increasingly clear to me last summer, and my 50th birthday (in January) was looming on the horizon, like a wakeup call. I knew it was time for a change. Still, it took a good 3 months of internal agonizing before I finally managed to reach the emotional state where I was able to give notice. Funny thing, though, the moment I did so, there was this enormous sense of relief. The die was cast, and now I would be forced to deal with some of the issues I had been postponing for so long.

News of my resignation did not "go public" until the beginning of December, and I planned to leave in early January. By mid-November, I still had no fixed idea of what I would do next - there was no master plan, beyond a few ideas kicking around in my head. For good or ill, this changed quickly, once it became generally known I was about to leave. My colleagues were a bit shocked, but remarkably supportive. However, within a couple of days, it became clear to me that it was no longer acceptable not to have a plan for what to do next. It was the first question that people asked, and mumbling something vague about "learning a language" or " having some time to travel" just wasn't cutting it as an answer.

So this trip to Spain came about. Not so much as part of a long-term dream (though I had really enjoyed my 6-week sabbatical in Seville and Barcelona back in 2003). But because I had to come up with an answer to people's questions about my future plans. The funny (and fun) part was how, once I came up with the initial answer "I'll be spending some time in Spain, taking classes to learn Spanish", that's really all it took. People were satisfied, and - from that single, relatively vague sentence - things took on a life of their own. Because, having told people I would be leaving for Spain, well then, it was up to me to make it happen.

What amazes me still, but in a good way, is how quickly things fell into place after that. Certain obvious questions presented themselves - when, where, and for how long? But now, the answers seemed fairly straightforward. Six months overall seemed like about the right duration - certainly enough time to give me a fighting chance of mastering Spanish. I had some prior knowledge of Spain - had been in Seville, Barcelona, Salamanca already, and in Granada for a day. I knew I wanted to return to Andalucía, wasn't that wild about going back to Barcelona (the city is gorgeous, but I hadn't enjoyed the school, or the unhelpful attitude of the Catalans to those trying to learn Spanish). Obviously, I wanted to see Madrid. Then, one night in early January, I was surfing the net, and found an ad for my current accommodations on Craig's List, and suddenly the right course of action seemed obvious. I would center the trip around a 3-month stay in Madrid, with 3 weeks each in Seville, Granada, and Salamanca. A week later, everything was booked. I managed to surprise even myself with my decisiveness about finalizing things.

So, no great master plan, really. You make one decision, then life presents you with other options to consider. Then, through a confluence of chance and circumstance, you make your choices. Fortunately, I take after my mother, in that, having made a decision, I don't waste time agonizing about whether or not it was the "best" choice. There are no optimal choices in life - the trick is to make your decisions and then devote your time to making things work out for the best.

The plain people of Ireland: Did you never think of some place like, say, Torremolinos or Benidorm? Sure they have some great package deals these days. Ryanair - very cheap. And the people in these places all speak English!
The management: Exactly.

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