Time v. Ambition (II)
PART II: TIME
Bangkok. As I listened to the guy I was once in love with, I remembered that my favourite character in Peter Pan was the crocodile. The fearless Captain Hook could chuckle at the dangers of Neverland, but nothing made him haul ass faster than the the lurking reptile who swallowed a clock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The mortality reminder in the form of a man-eating beast.
However, it seems Time’s real kicker is in its fickle nature. Some days it dulls with its dainty ticks on the wall and other days it comforts in moon cycles and menstrual flows. At its worst, it turns beautiful women into hags and sidelines grandparents that battle against the edge of society’s relevance. When young, it’s a fountain! Flushed with inflated dreams because up until university there is nothing as provincial as “hands on experience” to clot your way. Time will rust your bike as a child and as you get older, rust your mind, starting with the oxidization of your confidence in your late 20s.
It seemed that time was desiccating my ex’s once bottomless confidence. At 27, he had hit a crossroad, unsure of whether to stick to the university roadmap of being a businessman that he had touted for years to newspapers and young entrepreneur magazines, or revise the plan. It was time for an inventory check. A serious period of self-reflection that would be ripe with insecurities and hard truths that came down to renegotiating ambitions. Some call this a quarter-life crisis, but ‘crisis’ implies an unplanned and categorically bad event in need of fixing. I like to think of it as a Second Puberty —a scheduled, albeit tough, transformation into adulthood. This time transforming the mental body.
I heaved a sad sigh listening to him. It wasn't the first call I was getting from shaky friends around the same age: thinking about changing jobs or changing countries. All the time thinking about some change and doing so much to distract from the uncertainty in between, filling it with new hobbies, joining clubs, buying property, getting married, finding religion. Have you experienced a mild earthquake? I have, in a Jakarta skyscraper. There was a tremble so slight I dismissed it for dizziness until I looked into someone’s eyes and realized that they felt it too. From age 27 I started to sense a subtle tremble of self-doubt and when I looked up I realized I wasn’t alone.
Because at age 25 with a couple years in the workforce under our belt, we start to get a glimmer of post-academic reality. When we look up, there are no longer only stars reflected in our eyes, but the faint beginnings of a ceiling. We shake it off at first, convinced that there is no limit to our dreams, and continue as we always had in university - industrious and practical in our own cute way. "If I can ace A, then B will be possible. Once I get B, C is totally doable."
But the real world isn't like university, a series of predictable tests and results that cyclone in any direction you will it (imagine King Triton fist pumping evil away). At some point we realize that while school, where we spend 20 years of our lives, was set up for us to succeed, life is not and the rope between your ambition and your capacity to get shit done begins to rot.
It’s probably why everyone around me has taken up half marathons. “You think I’m old? Watch me run 21 km!” A collective Fuck You to the crocodile.
When my Second Puberty took root at the end of 26 I was reading Madame Bovary. Something about her #firstworldproblem listlessness struck a nerve. My ex's ambition had inspired me to start my own business. I was busy hustling, doing cool stuff, ostensibly living the dream, yet I was overcome with uncharacteristic gloom. I didn't have the bandwidth to be bothered, so I coped emotionally as Flaubert described Emma, “passing through life without even touching it.” I stopped going out with friends or leaving the apartment except for meetings. I gained tons of weight (“Fatlicia”). I couldn’t fall asleep unless I had podcasts blasting my brain into submission. My inner voice had morphed from motivating comrade to an increasingly self-doubting wretch that allowed me no peace.
As any entrepreneur knows, you can hide or deny nothing about yourself because you must give more than what you have.
With time and accrued life experience, I was becoming aware that I had shortcomings (no way!). My own cracks in the ice. As any entrepreneur knows, you can hide or deny nothing about yourself because you must give more than what you have. I learned that managing people was not the same as managing myself. I learned that just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should be, like taking contracts with cigarette companies. Life also lost its naive veneer of the infinite. "Consequences" I believe they're called. My choice to move to Indonesia could lock me in my own decision prison. And not the cute junior delinquent sort, but life sentences at the Federal penitentiary. The truth of it was that I didn't see myself settling down in Indonesia, but to make my company grow I would have to spend the rest of my youth there. I had to ask myself if this business that was taking everything I had, worth fighting for?
That men and women experience Time in different ways made this Second Puberty even less bearable. I wanted to find successful female role models in the region (this was before Lean In came out) and instead I was haunted by the story of a friend of a friend. She was a 35 yo Harvard Graduate who scored an amazing promotion with the World Bank in Indonesia. Yet, she hesitated to take her dream job, fearing that if she stayed in Jakarta, she would not find someone decent to marry while her ovaries were ripe. For her, Time was forcing her hand to exchange career goals for biological ones. Time! That executioner of female ambition! I was so angry and scared!
Indeed, as I bulldozed my way to 30, I began to feel like I had swallowed a heavy clock. Each unfertilized egg was a pendulum swing—a missed opportunity to fulfill my genetic responsibility, reminded month on month that I was less, not more. This ultimate FOMO perhaps keeps women grounded. Men have the clock too, but in an abstract way that makes itself visceral in small doses - a receding hairline, a hangover that lasts two days not one, the egg-like boybody that starts to spurt back hairs and grow its own little belly after they leave college.
My ovaries frenzied my thoughts on ambition. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke described men as light and “...easygoing, not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit.” I wondered if said male lightness was one (of many) factors why there were fewer female rockstars recorded in history, even across typically female dominated industries like healthcare, cuisine, and teaching. Because to be bold enough to aim for the stars one must abandon all sense of grounding and humility? I was a mess.
To shake the funk of Second Puberty, I was desperate and changed jobs and countries. The primary change that mattered was my perspective. This is what I shared with my ex, what little I knew back then. I told him how I scrutinized my sense of entitlement to the “American dream.” I had to accept that no one owed me happiness. That happiness was not a foregone conclusion once I won success. Not everything would work out as it should. Is that depressing? Hell yea, probably worse than learning that Santa Claus isn’t real as a child because it's a dream so many rational adults still believe. But eventually, eventually it has been liberating as well. In my late 20’s my shortcomings and the ceiling stopped being nails in the coffin and transformed into a novel thing called humility.
I had to learn from my former boss that you can still build great things without being the best, by seeing the best in others.
Like my ebullient and optimistic ex discussed in Part I, I had to do an inventory check. See what I had, what I didn’t, and regroup and redefine my goals in a smarter way. Goals like 'be successful and financially stable anywhere in the world at all cost!' now had to be questioned. The birth of the trait of humility has been the key to re-equipping myself for challenges that would come next, whether it be in management or marriage. I had to learn from my former boss and CEO that you can still build great things without being the best, by seeing the best in others. Trying to accept what is instead of sulking over what I thought the world was supposed to be allowed me to see a life of possibilities, ones I hadn’t sensed before when I had tunnel vision of my university goals. Back then I was making a bold jump out of international organizations and creative work in Jakarta and gave myself the leeway to join a promising young B2B tech company in Bangkok that would go on to transform the end of my 20’s.
Though I wish I could say that the Second Puberty ended there for me after joining a cool startup that I found success in and liked a lot, I knew I was still missing part of the answer.
So last year, I made one of the hardest moves of my life and quit my job.
Another 'Why I Quit My Corporate Job and Found Lasting Happiness' Post next! Just kidding, kind of.
Read the next post about burnout and stillness in Time V. Ambition (III).
Thanks for reading this nonsensical rambling and I hope I may hear about your experiences in the comments. Before you go, I would like to leave you with this beautiful quote from Letters to Young Poet (a must read, if any of this sounds familiar):
Don’t think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you much pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words.
-Rainer Maria Rilke