Relinquishing Comfort: The Path to Progress

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If you’re out of a job, emotionally stagnant or wanderlusting (and not wandering) — or, as was the case for me two years ago, all three — it’s tempting to feel like you’ve reached a dead end. Instead of getting depressed and wasting all your energy reminding yourself how powerless you think you are, take action. “But,” you say, “I don’t have any money.” Two years ago, I didn’t have any of money either! I did have a lot of time to think, however, and had an epiphany that was hard to swallow: the people, places and situations that comfort you most often hold you back from moving forward in your life. And once you remove your heating blanket, you become far more creative in how you go about seeking warmth.

Failure and Redemption

One sunny — and unseasonably warm — Sunday in late February 2009, I found myself just days from a trip to India, one for which I’d paid in full prior to having lost my job six weeks earlier. Rather than laying outside by the pool to take in the sunshine and warmth, I was sitting in my bathtub letting hot water wash over my hands.

At this point, I hadn’t yet gotten a response from the Texas Workforce Commission as to whether or not I was eligible receive unemployment benefits. With no local jobs on the horizon — and an ever-dwindling bank account — it seemed my only option was to take the plunge and accept a position teaching English as a second language outside of Seoul, South Korea, a potential escape trajectory I’d devised just days after becoming unemployed.

Earlier in the afternoon, I’d shown my apartment to several people who’d contacted me via Craigslist, where I posted an ad offering it up to anyone would take over the lease. The prospect of leaving the space, which was the top corner unit of a building which sat directly on Austin’s Town Lake — with a panoramic view of the downtown skyline above the waterfront, to boot — was literally painful to me. So, I comforted myself in the way I would when I was a child: dousing myself in liquid warmth. Weird, I know.

After I’d depleted my entire building’s supply of hot water, my friend Grace came over for a heart-to-heart. “I just don’t get why you’re so upset about leaving this place,” she said, stepping out onto to the balcony and inspecting the scene below. “It’s beautiful and all, but what you see when you get to South Korea — or wherever you end up — is gonna be way better.”

I nodded my head, but knew I was too strong-willed to give up so easily.

With a revelation literally the day before my trip that I’d been approved for unemployment benefits, I breathed a sigh of relief: so long as I lived extremely frugally upon coming back from India, which would deplete the remainder of my existing savings, I would be able stay in Austin.

As it turned out, the hours per day I spent browsing Craigslist after landing back in Austin would bear fruit less than a week into the process. One of the dozens of jobs for which I applied in the days immediately following my return was a Customer Service Specialist with Progressive Insurance, for which I received an interview request only a few days later. My prospective work location would be less than three miles from my apartment, where Riverside Drive dead ends into Ben White Boulevard — and, incidentally, in the same office park as Grace’s employer.

My compulsory testing session one Tuesday in early April — and the subsequent two in-person interviews I scored for the same Thursday — went so well that I spent the following morning waiting by the phone for my offer. When the recruiter who’d initially set me up with my interview first attempted to contact me after the sun went down that evening, however, the news was shocking. “We felt you were a strong candidate overall,” she said, “but some of your responses to hypothetical situations were not in line with our customer service standards. We’ve selected another candidate.”

Devastated but not completely broken, I hit the town that night with Gina, another friend of mine. When we returned to her place after the bar closed, however, I fucking lost it.

“Am I a failure?” I asked. “Be honest. I mean, I got fired from a gig waiting tables at the fucking Cheesecake Factory, then I can’t even get a customer service job at a fake insurance company? It’s practically the same thing — I mean, would a bookstore turn away someone who’d been working at a library for a decade?”

“Maybe you don’t need a job?”

I was perplexed. “Huh?”

“Maybe you don’t need a job at all. Maybe you should do your own thing?”

“Like what, though? I mean, what can I do to make money that doesn’t require me to break the law?”

“Well,” she continued. “Last weekend, when we were at Reggae Fest, you mentioned how cheaply you could have purchased all those overpriced bags and dresses in India. Why don’t you go back to India, but a shitload of those types of clothes and re-sell them here in Austin for profit?”

A lightbulb went off for a second, but I quickly dismissed it as having been because of the alcohol. “We’ll see,” I said, and continued sipping.

Stalking Success

If I only I’d sipped harder Friday night, I’d have saved an entire day of reckoning. Indeed, after a late-night party on Saturday, I ended up purchasing yet another air ticket to India, this time using a credit card rather than savings. The gamble was even riskier than it would have been if I’d had liquid assets to back up my credit: in addition to whatever I’d end up spending on the clothes and accessories themselves, I’d need to make up the almost $1,000 I’d just paid Delta Air Lines, plus the cost of my accommodation and food in the three weeks I planned to be there.

A few days after I touched down in Mumbai the following Wednesday — at which point I transferred immediately to Palolem Beach, located an hour’s flight south in India’s coastal Goa state — I received notice from my friend Kristen that her mother, a manager of a store at the mall, was looking for a stock room assistant. “$10 per hour,” she said. “Work as much as you want.”

Having purchased all the stock I needed within the first week — I’d initially set aside the remainder of my trip to explore the south of India, a region I skipped on my first trip two months earlier — I called Delta and had my ticket changed to return the following Friday, permitting me a weekend of rest prior to my Monday start at Talbots. I packed as many of my purchases as I could (about 20% of them) into my carry-on bags and took the rest to what appeared to be an India Post outlet and shipped them back to myself.

As the days and weeks after my second return from the subcontinent progressed, I made money both via my mall-job paycheck, as well as through the gig I’d landed selling my dresses, purses and other accessories at Cuba Libre’s “Martinis and Manicures” Happy Hour every Thursday. The weeks turned into months, however, and there was still no sign of the rest of my merchandise.

Simultaneously, my stock room duties had begun to take their toll on me: namely, my perpetual isolation from light and human contact had given me far too much extra time to worry and freak out about my impending financial doom, missing inventory and lack of options moving forward.

Shortly after the Fourth of July, I informed Kristen’s mother that I couldn’t work for her anymore. Although I continued selling at Cuba Libra on Thursdays — mostly, for lack of anything better to do — I started to come to terms with the fact that, excepting a miracle, I probably wouldn’t be able to stay in Austin after all.

One Sunday morning in early August, I plopped down on my orange pleather couch, which was being bathed in the light reflecting off the lake beneath my living room window. In a rare moment of serenity, I decided to try something I hadn’t done in a while — namely, to search once again for ESL jobs in Asia.

After all, part of my decision not to go to South Korea was the nosedive the Korean won had taken against the dollar just after I signed my contract. Thanks to exchange rates, my beginning salary — really, its U.S. dollar equivalent — plummeted to just $1,490 per month from the $2,100 I’d been told it would be when I began the recruitment process.

Following an unfruitful look through jobs available in Japan, I decided to click a sidebar ad touting ESL employment in China as the gateway to monetary success and happiness. I submitted an application only with the company to whose page the ad led, but had a feeling that was all I’d need to do.

The Power of Letting Go

A few weeks later, Grace and I were sitting at my dining room table enjoying a bottle of Malbec. The bulk of my attention, however, was focused on my computer.

“They’ll email you when they email you,” she said. “Close that thing and drink up.”

Just then, I noticed the number “1″ in parentheses appear at the top of my “Gmail” tab. Could this be it? I thought.

Indeed, it was an email from Caroline, the English First recruiter with whom I’d had my first — and what would end up being my only — interview weeks before: they wanted to offer me a position.

Grace knew what had happened based on my expression alone. “So are you going to take it?”

I took a break from writing my acceptance email to answer her. “You fucking bet I am.” In that moment, I set aside all the emotions I’d attached to my admittedly wonderful residence: I was about to be freed from the confines of my unemployed misery.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t almost shed at a tear at the sight of my completely-empty apartment when I was walking out of it on the last day of September that year. Still, as I headed down the three flights of stairs to my waiting ride — and the maintenance man rushed up to my apartment to do the run through that would make my departure official — I knew that my decision to choose progress over comfort would be the right one, in the long run.

Indeed, my gratification was anything but instant: within a couple weeks of arriving in Shanghai, I began to feel a cultural alienation that was almost as depressing as living in the richest country in the world and feeling poor. Additionally, less than one month of work at English First illustrated to me why my job had been so easy to get: it kind of sucked.

Still, thanks to China’s insanely low cost of living — and my having pinched pennies for almost a year — my bank account balance was increasing (and my credit card balances decreasing) far faster than I had the drive to spend it. Within three months, I’d purchased a plane ticket for a birthday/Chinese New Year trip to Thailand and Cambodia and less than six weeks after that, my Australian friend Dan was in town to accompany out to the Western Chinese city of Chengdu for a weekend.

Although my position with English First didn’t up being what I thought it would — as you may or may not know, I quit my job in early June — the fact remains that my having taken a proverbial gamble in the first place was what led me down the path to rebuilding myself.

The week I said goodbye to my wonderful students and (mostly) not-wonderful colleagues, I landed a temporary gig with CNN and, by way of happenstance, my current freelance writing job. As a result, just two days before setting off on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation to Vietnam, I decided I would turn my escapade into a back-around-the-world trip.

After nearly three months of traveling through Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe, I returned to Austin — just over 12 months after I left — much better suited to exist there financially, psychologically and otherwise. While it was true that I no longer had my lakeside penthouse apartment, I came back feeling accomplished, capable and confident– and, oddly, thankful for events and circumstances I’d previously cursed.

I was thankful for having lost my job at Cheesecake Factory, which pushed me to look into the option of teaching ESL in Asia. I was thankful for having been denied the job at Progressive, which pushed me to try my hand at running my own business. I was thankful for having never received the rest of my stock from India, which pushed me to take the job at EF in Shanghai. And I was thankful I ended up disliking China’s financial capital as much as I did, which pushed me to search the Austin Craigslist exactly at the moment I did and find my current job, which allows me to work from anywhere in the world I have access to the Internet.

No matter how well you plot your own course, it doesn’t mean a thing until you take action. Approach the problem from all angles and set realistic expectations, but don’t waste any time making your proverbial leap. It’s going to be rough at first, but if you have patience — and more, importantly, faith in yourself, I guarantee you’ll be back on track.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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