The Leap

“Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there” – Chuck Palahniuk

hat

By JM

At the deepest of levels, people in public service often do so out of a desire to feel they have lived a life of significance. Anything less would be a failure to make the most of their 80 years. The roots of this pursuit often lie in one’s perceived selflessness, pure but well-disguised ego or a messy slurry of the two. The best of us invest our quiet minutes trying to decipher where our true motivations lie. The worst of us…well, are unconcerned. 

In my case, the work I had pursued with social startups, governments, NGO’s and the United Nations had provided a space where feelings of significance were, by default, injected into each day. Each email, Tweet or badge swipe, carried with it a morsel of action that in my mind could be wrapped in a glossy coating of global importance and service. It had taken 10 years to realize that the architecture of such a goal was as faulty as it was misdirected. Most change was one to one and person to person. Global change was rare, collective and generational.

Most change was one to one and person to person. Global change was rare, collective and generational.

It was a perfect early April Sunday morning in Madrid. Tiffany and I joined her mom on a weekend away after a hard month of work. Around 9:00 we eased out of the hotel for a stroll around the 19th century park Parque Buen Retiro (The Park of the Pleasant Retreat). As we entered the sprawling public gardens our conversation soon drifted to the “what nexts”, “should haves” and “so whats” of life that so often occupy the heads and hearts of young adults. 

Over the past years, the purpose of these wanderings has been to relieve the stresses of everything from unstable work contracts with the UN and razor thin project budgets to transient friendships and struggling family members. Attempting to break a moment of silence, I jokingly suggested that we take a year off to clear our heads. “Let’s do it!”, she responded almost immediately. The response was as unexpected as my suggestion was serious. 

As Spring matured into early Summer so did the decision, commitment and enthusiasm to step away. Questions needed to be answered and decisions needed to be made:

  • What would we do?
  • Where would we go?
  • How long would we take off?
  • Would we fully leave our jobs? 
  • Could we support ourselves?

These were the starting points. So, like any other responsible adults we sought advice from a friend who was trying to reform the justice system of an entire east African country with bathroom customer satisfaction meters. That weekend we bought two 67 dollar tickets to Panama. (cheers Connor)

I was jealous of Tiffany’s boldness in stepping out of her recently confirmed staff position with the United Nations. She was well on track for a respectable, stable but slow-growth career in sustainable finance and corporate social responsibility. Her fear however was just this. During her five years from intern to staff, the ceiling was arriving and horizon quickly flattening. Large scale, needle-moving work would be another 15 years away.

A PhD at the University of Geneva had provided a channel for growing and learning. Initially it had also provided a visa. Far outside of her comfort zone as an operational wiz, academia offered a needed challenge. The ambiguity of academic research however was new, frustrating and uncomfortable. 

Sending an email with a United Nations footer had continued to fool me into thinking my contribution to the world was of a higher significance than an inner city high school teacher or rural nurse. Tiffany often had taken false comfort into feeling a disguised sense of productivity regardless of the significance of the box being checked.

Sending an email with a United Nations footer had continued to fool me into thinking my contribution to the world was of a higher significance than an inner city high school teacher or rural nurse.

There were of course a few things that made it possible to even consider. We had saved a little but not a ton. For better or worse, we were at a point where our personal and professional responsibilities could be put on pause enough to allow us to manage from a distance. Other important factors included:

  • Career: we were both at a point where we had reached an end to this stage of our careers and wanted to move forward with new challenges and opportunities.
  • Family: both of us had supportive families and we weren’t bound at this stage with huge responsibilities beyond checking in and sending a letter once in a while. 
  • Lifestyle: we were willing to live on a modest budget, carry a backpack and be cheap when necessary

There were a few parameters however:

  • Money: we set a red line limit on what we felt we would need to get started from scratch in a handful of cities we might imagine moving to. 
  • Busy-ness: we didn’t mind staying busy where needed and with things we enjoyed, but agreed to be open with the other person if there was too much time behind a screen. 
  • Opportunities: we agreed to remain flexible if different plans made sense or dream jobs popped up. 

With Panama as a starting point, we thought it would be a year (and a bit) well spent to visit each region of the world for 3-6 months. Countries would be chosen in part on a few factors:

  • Friends and family to visit
  • “Basket List” (thanks Will) items to pursue
  • Meetings for Tiffany’s PhD research

Though we had both traveled a good bit (her more than I), we were both excited to re-see things with the perspective that 10-15 years of life lived can provide. The purpose was not to collect passport stamps but rather have conversations, develop relationships in new places, understand how we could better contribute to society and, of course, invest in each other.

The purpose was not to collect passport stamps but rather have conversations, develop relationships in new places, understand how we could better contribute to society and, of course, invest in each other.

As I write this from a terrasse in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica sipping local coffee with a slight breeze and tropical birds chatting in front of me, it is tough to say that there could be too much fear associated with the present.

These are the moments that make “The Leap” worth the fear of failure or lack of control worth the jump. Our individual “Leaps” whether moving to a new town, starting a new job, buying a home or making a conscious decision to move towards a more intentional and balanced life are often infected with unique fears that only we can identify. Find out what you are afraid of, and go live there.

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