Over the past four years, I have become a professional quitter. I quit my career, I quit my country, my culture, my language, my family and my friends. I sold everything I owned and moved across the planet to live in a country where I don’t speak the language. Despite leaving behind everything that, up to that point, constituted the fabric of “my life,” I have found tremendous joy and purpose in my new life.
During those years I went from having a successful career as lawyer in Canada to being unemployed in Vietnam. I left the financial security of a managerial position to live without income. I also left the professional network that had taken me a decade to build to start fresh in a city where I don’t know anyone. And yet, I don’t regret anything.
Back in 2011, I was working in Ottawa for an organization dedicated to the continued education of judges across Canada. At 29 years old, I was one of the youngest lawyer ever hired – my “Senior Advisor” title rightly indicating that this was a mid- to late-career position. My work was meaningful and I liked the judges I had the privilege to work with. What’s more, being flown all over the country to stay in 4-star hotels was not an unpleasant part of the job.
Following popular wisdom, I was hoping that reaching my career goals would bring the happiness promised by a corporate career. And by 31 years old, I had check all my boxes: money, status, and travel. My life, however, felt miserably incomplete.
My life was overwhelming and empty all at once. My days felt like a never ending race forward, bursting with stress and responsibilities. While working evenings and weekends, I was getting burnt out trying to prove to myself that I was worthy of anything. And life outside the office was no solace: when I was not lonely in a hotel room, I was alone at home. In order to release the anxiety and loneliness that infected me, I would shop and spend like a madwoman. But it was like sticking a Band Aid on a festering wound.
That’s when Tyler was put on my path. He gave me the most important success lesson I ever received. Tyler was an overachiever as much as a quitter. I knew him from law school. He had grown up on a grain farm in a small town of Saskatchewan. With his country boots from gear hungry and athletic built, he was, to say the least, an unconventional law student. He had just quit a career as a professional athlete to pursue something new. “I was tired of playing hockey,” he said, “and I wanted to help people instead.” So he decided to go to law school.
But law didn’t do it for him either. So he quit. He left New York to move closer to home and went back to something familiar: farming. When I met him again in 2012, he had started a winemaking business in the Okanagan Valley that was rising to the top. He was producing wine in a radical and innovative way. With his hands more than machines. With love, art, and conviction. For a man with no capital, no land, and no winemaking skills, his success in this ruthlessly competitive industry was a miracle.
I visited Tyler in the Okanagan Valley in the fall of 2012 to help him out with the picking of his pinot noir, this elegant, yet temperamental variety that gives even the best winemakers nightmares. There were only four of us picking that day, and several kilometers of grapes that, having reached maturity, had to be picked without further delay.
The long hours of repetitive movement (kneel, cut, drop, and kneel…) had put me in a meditative state. How could I understand Tyler’s paradox? I could not reconcile the idea that he was successful beyond measure time and time again, yet without pursuing success. I had been doing the exact opposite with my career: setting goals that, once reached, I believed would give me the self-esteem and sense of worth that I was desperately craving. Tyler’s refusal to take success as an end in itself left me puzzled.
Back at the winery that night, we opened one of Tyler’s last pinot noir 2010 – a vintage that sold out in only a few months. While sipping on the fruity young wine, I engaged the conversation. “Tyler, what motivates you to take on the challenges that you do? If money and success make you indifferent, what drives you?” I could tell from his look that my questions were making him uneasy. Because he never cared to compare himself to others, Tyler was not fully aware of the singularity of his modus vivendi. “I am not looking for anything special,” he said, shrugging. Followed a long pause staring at the ruby legs as he swirled the wine in his glass. “All I want” he added, “are projects that make me feel engaged.”
The simplicity of his answer hit me like a bullet.
His words, that I could not fully grasp at that time, haunted me for weeks after I came back to Ottawa. Was I engaged in my life? I was busy, for sure. But engaged sounded like a strong word. I did love my job and its benefits, and oftentime called it “my dream job”, but it certainly was not my dream. Contrary to my boss who had founded the Institute I worked for and brought to life her vision of judicial education in Canada, I was not creating anything of my own. I was a mere worker executing someone else’s dream.
That’s when it clicked. I did not want to spend the rest of my life realizing someone else’s dream.
From that point on, I committed myself to take command of my life. I could no longer leave my success in the hands of a job, an organization, or position. I needed to build a strong life project, a dream of my own that would keep me engaged and passionate no matter what storm goes through my life. Something that would compel me no matter how lonely or resourceless or invisible I am.
And that’s what I have been doing since then.
Today, I live in Ho Chi Minh City where I am reconnecting with my roots. I am starting an online business that will allow me to work from anywhere in the world. Maybe I’ll be in Buenos Aires next year, maybe in Cape Town. I am also writing a book, which might take ten years, but that’s not important. I care about telling a story that lives inside me. I am also learning Vietnamese, my fourth language, because I want to interact with the world around me and it’s beautiful people.
Although I have to navigate the ocean of uncertainty that lies in front of me, it remains a nominal price to pay for the freedom and the sense of direction that I found. I have no status, nor financial stability yet, and maybe never will. Living purposely, however, has given me the happiness and the fulfillment that nothing else could. And this is what success should be.