You stand in a bright white cube-shaped room. It is windowless and dim. A somber, slate-grey carpet spans the floor. Two locked doors oppose each other. In front of you is a cheap foldout table with a puzzle, red flashlight, and cheap morse code calculator.
Now, imagine further, that all the employees from your company’s finance department are crammed into this room beside you. Even better, one of them has a loud, wet cough that continues in perpetuity. This was our annual team outing: an escape room. I laughed at the irony. My coworker Steve turned to me and said, “What’s so funny?”
I said, “Nothing. This is just a goofy event.” What was the company trying to say?That there’s no escape? That we revel in solving self-inflicted problems and wasting company resources? I desperately wished we could do happy hour instead and call it a day.
I was the only one in the room who boiled with cynicism. Steve talked about his tasks and KPIs with the enthusiasm of a toddler at Chuck E Cheese. My other employees loved their jobs too. And they should have — it was a great gig. The office was palatial. It was expansive in form and exquisite in design. We made great money. Charismatic and kind coworkers surrounded me. Smart and team-oriented managers helped us grow.
Hating this job felt unjustified. Yet I still sat in my car each morning with both hands hanging languidly on the steering wheel, my eyes fixated as the morning sun shone across the parking lot, as the muffled conversations of coworkers filtered in and out of my window.
A time for change
On the day I quit, I paced my office for several hours, doing laps around the building. I did figure eights through the grid of cubicles pretending I was busy. I missed meetings and ignored DMs asking where I was.
Finally, I knocked on my boss’s office door and told her I was quitting. Near the end of our talk, she asked a question I’d be asked relentlessly for the remaining two weeks, “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere. I’m just taking some time,” I said.
I didn’t reveal I’d been writing on the side and attempting a career change. At no point, did quitting seem like a great decision. Good? Maybe — and a big maybe at that. A pit roiled in my stomach for weeks, fueled by an existential dread that I’d opened a door that was hard to close.
As I drove home after my last day, I recalled a conversation one year earlier with a fellow divorcee, Jake. He was a bit older and not the brightest fellow, but was good-hearted, with great sense of humor, which was all that mattered to me. He’d been through so much, a divorce at 30, a life-threatening car wreck at 32. He lost his second wife to ovarian cancer at 38. Yet he was still smiling and became a great mentor.
We sat on his porch, drinking two Jai Alai IPAs after work. A wave of divorces and nasty breakups and unbelievable drama had swept through our network like a red tsunami. We lamented about the vindictiveness of exes, how they invoke war over children and money and divide families, rather than moving on in a healthy way that benefits everyone. He said, “People need to go easy on each other, man.” Then, he leaned back, shrugged, held his hands up and nonchalantly said, “Sometimes, things just don’t work out.”
That latter phrase struck me as such a healthy and non-neurotic way of looking at life. So much so that it became a chosen mantra that helps me through so much. Chaos and failure are inevitabilities, and I am reminded that my suffering and heartbreak are not unique. More than 40% of marriages end in divorce. More than 60% of people go through at one or more major career changes. And within all this data is tears, anxiety and a ton of uncertainty.
The challenge for me, and perhaps you, is that when beginning a new career, relationship, or major endeavor, you mentally model how to manage it and what it will look like in the future. This instinct to plan and visualize is one of the most human of traits — and often leads to unmet expectations.
There’s an old and popular Mike Tyson quote that’s often shared but never given proper context. Reporters were questioning him about his new opponent. They built up the rivalry, talking about how dangerous this fighter was, his plan to keep Tyson at a distance with his jab, his plan to wear Tyson down.
Getting annoyed with the questions, Mike looked up from tying his shoes and said, “Everyone has a plan — until they get punched in the mouth.”It so perfectly encapsulates the incongruity of life and our goals. Everyone is on a diet, until they get hungry. Everyone wants good grades, until it’s time to study. Aspirations and reality are often star-crossed lovers: desperate to be together but doomed to be apart.
His quote originates from Prussian Military leader, Helmuth Moltke, who said in the mid-19th century, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”It was aimed at the naivete of civilians and new soldiers, who are surprised when wars go sideways and plans change rapidly, and their battles don’t resemble the propaganda posters on the wall.
A way of dealing with frustration
Something breaks in my house every two weeks on average. Usually, it’s minor things: A toilet flap needing replacing, an appliance needing a tweak. But every two weeks is the average. If I go a month without a break, I assume extra things will break the following month. I make this assumption because it spares me from feeling ambushed by problems.
There’s this recurring nightmare where I’m standing in the mirror, and I see my younger self talking on the other side. He urgently asks me, “What is going to happen? What goes wrong?” I shout my reply into the mirror but he can’t hear me. Yet if he could hear me, I’d say, “Everything. Everything will go wrong. And it’s OK.”
My solace comes not from comparing my suffering to yours, but in knowing I share this journey with you and others. This solidarity instills comfort and helps acclimate me to the worst possible outcomes. Life is still beautiful and worth living. It bestows incredible moments that I’ll cherish in my darkest hour.
But anything can happen. My writing career could go belly up. My partner Laura, god forbid, could leave me for no reason at all. I could lose loved ones to an extended list of maladies. My health could become compromised without warning.
We aren’t getting off this island alive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our stay, or that we have to wallow in uncertainty. Because one thing is certain: bad things are coming. Expect the occasional punch to the mouth. Expect the plan to go sideways and for god, the universe, or whoever runs this ship — to throw down a gauntlet for you to run. Stay hopeful. Have the courage and defiance to be happy in the face of all that life brings.