“The Mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir
Last winter, I quit my job as in-house counsel at a Japanese oil and gas company and moved to Nozawa Onsen, the best ski town in Japan, to be a ski bum.
What precipitated this life reset?
When I joined Facebook at the beginning of law school, in the “About Me” block (which is now hidden away three clicks in) I wrote “aspiring crafty person and ecoterrorist wannabe.” (It still says that.)
After law school I somehow ended up in the energy industry representing traditional fossil fuel interests. “Somehow” means I took the path of least resistance and of least risk. I did all the right things to make sure I was “Headed in the Right Direction” (a useful concept coined by my friend Lex in this great post here).
We are all dependent on fossil fuels, so I don’t think oil and gas companies are evil. I often responded to the typical conversation starter “What do you do?” with “I’m an evil oil and gas lawyer.” But, that was more an expression of ambivalence about my job. I wasn’t proud of it and I never wanted to talk about it.
By default, living and working in Japan, even as a fancy expatriate, means my carbon footprint was lower than the average American (tiny apartment, no clown-like-car-habit, eating less meat). I was making enough money to easily save more than 50% of my take home pay and well on my way to financial independence in less than a decade.
I read somewhere on the Internets that if you aren’t waking up everyday excited about life, you are not doing it right. And I think that’s true. Most of us just forget or think that we don’t deserve it or think that it’s unrealistic and that being a grown-up means learning to make sacrifices. Waking up everyday, putting on my lawyer lady costume, getting on the crowded trains and squeezing into the elevator with all the glassy-eyed salaryman drones who drown-out the emptiness in their lives with copious amounts of alcohol…
Yes, #firstworldproblems, but Carrot Quinn says in this awesome podcast episode (please listen!): “I think there becomes a point for people where if you’re living a life that feels wrong… Hopefully you will reach a spot where it’s so painful that that will act as a catalyst to get you out.” That finally happened to me.
Being a junior attorney in a large law firm really wears away at your confidence. Late one night my third year of practice after all the partners and senior associates had gone home, I was writing up a simple e-mail to the client and realized I did not feel comfortable sending it without someone more senior checking it over. It wasn’t advice, just asking some questions, but I didn’t want to sound stupid, or didn’t know what we lawyers were supposed to already know, or didn’t know if there was any politics that I wasn’t aware of. When I realized I couldn’t send the stupid 5-line email, I felt so disempowered that I felt like crying. I was so far away from when I started law school and was pretty confident I could do anything I set my mind to.
When you are a law student, they say you have to get a good internship your 1L summer, so that your can get a summer associateship with a big law firm your 2L summer, so that you can start your career at the largest, highest ranked firm possible, because it’s harder to move from a smaller, less prestigious firm up; and you should be a transactional lawyer because it’s harder to develop the relationships and experience needed to go in-house as a litigator, and after you go in-house, it’s hard to move back to private practice because you have no client base… It’s a mentality of scarcity and lack of opportunity and being trapped.
Back to the spot that was so painful. I parachute out of big law to a cushy in-house job where I am generally able to go home on time and have all of my weekends and take all of my leave. I am able to go out with friends on weeknights and recreate outdoors on the weekend (hiking, biking, snowboarding). I just become so angry that I still have to waste 8-9 hours a day on something that to me is not me, is not my life, and not anything that I want to be doing and that I eventually give up on trying to rationalize as having a positive impact on anybody. Since I have no motivation at work, my work ethic is slipping and I’m really angry at myself for that. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I am not the person I thought I was or that I want to be.
On a whim, in Spring 2016, looking for an excuse to make a trip back to Chicago, I sign up for the Chicago Marathon lottery. And then I get in. After I get in, I read up on how to train for a marathon, including that you should probably only sign up for a marathon if you have already completed a 10k race. At this point, the longest distance I have run is a 4k charity race (it was supposed to be a 5k but part of the route got closed off due to construction for the Tokyo Olympics). I promptly sign up for a 10k. I just follow the free Runkeeper beginning marathon training plan. I run three evenings after work and do my long run on Saturday. I used to hate running. It’s boring and laborious, but it’s also empowering. The first rule of Zombieland is “Cardio”, after all. After a few weeks, my body feels great; I go on a weekend hike with friends and never get winded. I try all the cakes from the convenience store and eat tons of potato chips and burgers and I still look great. Marathon training is a great excuse for getting out of time wasting social commitments, mostly work drinking parties, and because I am an introvert this means I am left with more mental energy and a better mood. Every weekend, the long runs get longer, and I’m amazed at how far my legs can take me. Most importantly, I am reminded that I do have the discipline and grit to do anything I set my mind to. I am not just a crappy second-class worker after all; the reason that my work ethic at my job is slipping is that I just don’t want to be doing it. I ask myself, what do I want to be doing?
One day I’m running and listening to this podcast and it really resonates with me: http://dirtbagdiaries.com/start-saying-yes/ (Warning: Do not listen, or your could find yourself quitting your job too. Actually, please do listen and rescue yourself from the doldrums of corporate life.) I send it over Line to a friend and text, “I’m going to do this!” She says, “Oh no, it’s gotten that bad huh?” I say, “No! This is a positive development!”
I put in my notice the day before I leave for my vacation to the US to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon. That was the beginning of October 2016.
My long-term goal is to live a small, sustainable life in the mountains. I’m not quite sure what shape it will take, but at least I’m trying to pivot towards it instead of just thinking or talking about it.
Over the winter, when my life was structured by my job at The Schneider Hotel and snowboarding and I had a cheap place to live and colleagues doing the same thing, this life reset was pretty easy. Since the seasonal gig finished at the end of March, I’ve been losing hair from the stress of worrying about what’s next and how to make this lifestyle sustainable.
In the meantime, my short-term goal is to thru-hike the John Muir Trail this year. My hiking partners and I currently plan to hike in mid-September. (We had to reapply for a permit late due to high snowpack in the Sierras.) Like the marathon, it’s a fitness and mental tenacity “reach goal” for me. When I applied for the permit in January, I had zero backpacking experience. I just completed my first backpacking trip, a 3-day solo north-to-south hike across Yakushima (which I will write about soon), but I have still never pooped in the bush (due to the fragile ecosystem on Yakushima, you are not allowed to poo in the woods). I plan to spend the summer training for the JMT hike and challenging my comfort zone. The purpose of this blog is to document some of that, since I’m now doing things I’m excited about, that I’m proud of and that I want to share with you.
“Adventure is out there!” – Up