You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.
– C. S. Lewis
I am on the brink of a major change in my life. I am separating from the Air Force after seven years of service. My family and I are returning to the United States after living overseas for four years. While I will still be working as a physician, over the next 12-24 months I will be building the foundation for transition to a more agrarian life. Truth be told, I have been designing this transition for many years, but the time has finally come to start putting it into action, and I am really excited about it!
Over the last year, as more and more friends and colleagues learn about what I am doing and realize that I actually plan to do it, I have witnessed a variety of responses. Quite a few people just don’t understand. They look at me as a parent would look at a painting their young child created. They are trying to be polite, but they have no idea what they are looking at. Some people cannot comprehend why I would not just continue working solely as a physician. They don’t understand why I don’t care about amassing a large bank account and retirement plan. They don’t understand that I can’t stay on this hamster wheel any longer and that I would prefer to spend time with my family than build a professional reputation. I know that I will never give a good enough explanation to justify my actions in their mind and with their worldview, so I have stopped trying.
But most people seem to be a bit envious. Even if they have no desire to “be a farmer”, as they say, they desire to disconnect from the system. They wish they could not always feel so exhausted. They wish they could live a simpler life. They shake their head and say something like, “I wish I could…” or “If only…” or “In another life…” Part of me wants to slap them and say, “Why not you? Why not now?”
The reality is that we all have the ability to walk away. Every single one of us. We all have the ability to unplug. We all have the ability to disconnect from the system. I am doing it now. You can do it, too.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
– J. R. R. Tolkien
Unhappiness is something we are never taught about; we are taught to expect happiness, but never a Plan B to use to use when the happiness doesn’t arrive.
– Douglas Coupland
The problem is that too many people do not realize they have a choice. They are shackled with fear and debt and over commitment. They feel they must keep playing the game. They feel that they are too far gone. They are in too deep. They have no way out. And while this is entirely false, perception is reality.
But that perception can change, and then so does your reality.
We are what we believe we are.
– C. S. Lewis
The decision to transition into a new phase of life can be sudden. In fact, it often is. There is a classic lightbulb moment for many people, and this moment is usually instigated. Maybe it is a photograph. Maybe it is a book. Maybe it will be this article. But there is a little tickle of a thought, kind of like an itch in the back of your mind. You absently try to scratch it, but it just won’t go away. Then, once you put your focus on it… bam! Your eyes are opened. You suddenly see the possibilities. You can do what you want. You can just walk away. You have power. You have control. It is scary, but it is so liberating. A burden is suddenly dropped from your shoulders. You feel free.
For others, the decision to transition is more gradual. It wears at them over time. The burdens keep piling up and up and getting heavier and heavier. Then finally, just as a straw can break a camel’s back, that one last thing occurs. The person finally says enough is enough. The decision has been made.
Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.
– C. S. Lewis
While the decision to transition to do something new with your life can be sudden or gradual, the transition itself must be planned. This is not an overnight process. Granted, for some it can be an overnight event, but for most of us there has to be a fair amount of planning for this transition to happen and for it to be successful. There are too many stories of people hating their jobs and their lives but feeling stuck, so they do nothing. But there are also too many stories of people making a sudden, impulsive decision, acting on it too soon, and then failing miserably. They fail because they jumped in without testing the water’s depth, and they find themselves injured. Then they limp back to their previous life, wounded and scarred for the rest of their days. These people are dangerous. They are a cancer to anyone who wants to step out of the system. They will constantly eat at you, reminding you over and over again why your plan to escape will not work. They are proof, after all, that escaping from the system is just a dream. If it didn’t work for them, it certainly won’t work for you.
My advice is to steer clear of these people. If you can’t avoid them (e.g. because they are your family or close friends), then please don’t let their words gain traction in your heart.
If you wait for the perfect moment when all is safe and assured, it may never arrive. Mountains will not be climbed, races won, or lasting happiness achieved.
– Maurice Chevalier
The question that always arises is, “When do I actually leave?” I wish there was a formula for this, but there is not. It will be different for every single person. I would caution against two things. First, do not jump ship too soon. There is a right timing for many things, and this is one of them. Start making plans. Get out of debt. Make sure your immediate family is all on board. If the family is not, then this is where negotiations and compromises will take place. For me personally, I would be very happy in an extremely rural environment. But I know my wife and kids would prefer to have some of the amenities that a larger town will offer. Start saving money. Educate yourself about what you want to do. Consider workshops or even another degree. This will all depend on what are trying to transition into.
Second, do not get stuck in analysis paralysis. This is where you say, “Ready, set, set, set…” There needs to be a point where you finally yell, “Go!” Some times are going to be better than others, but there is rarely a best time. I often repeat the words of one of my mentors, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Sometimes all you can do is the best you can do, and then it is time to move forward.
Another thing to consider is that the transition doesn’t have to occur all at once. It can be gradual. In my situation, partly out of desire to keep working as a physician because I enjoy it and partly because it will provide some financial stability for my large family, I plan to slowly cut back my physician hours over the next 12-24 months as our new life begins to emerge and take more time. At some point, instead of being a full-time physician and a part-time Permaculturist-Consultant-Teacher-Homesteader-etc., I will be a part-time physician and a full-time Permaculturist-Consultant-Teacher-Homesteader-etc. I entirely understand that this option is not available to everyone. I do think that if a person is willing to take whatever job they can, just for a season, then it will open more possibilities for transition, but again, every person’s story and path is unique.
Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
– Matsuo Basho
Finally, and this is vitally important, so please don’t miss this… we will never arrive. We should never get to a point where we say, “I am done. I have accomplished everything I have set out to do, and there is no more.” That is the day we start to wither and die. I have had a number of patients who have spent their lives working for one company or another. They put in their time while raising a family. They reach their 20 or 30 year mark, sometimes a second time with another company, and then they decide it is time to retire. Their entire life was consumed with their job, and when they retire, they have no idea what do to anymore. Their goal was to “make it to retirement”, and so they have nothing left. They have no direction. They have no goals. These patients of mine bring me such sadness. Some of them have lost marriages and relationships with their children, because they were so driven to excel in their career that they are alone at the finish line. And they realize that the finish line was just an arbitrary line marked on an even longer road. But now they have no map. They don’t know what to do. Some, fortunately, find a new path. Others, unfortunately, start to fade away. I believe many people die on the day of their retirement, only it takes a few years for their bodies to realize it.
No, what we need to do is realize that we can enjoy our accomplishments. We can take time to slow down and rest. We can sit back and smile as we see what we have created. This is good. Over time, our goals will change for sure, but we should never stop striving. We must continue to learn and to create and to grow.
I love to travel, but hate to arrive.
– Hernando Cortez
We cannot view the end of our transition as the goal, whether that transition is starting a business, becoming a doctor, starting a farm, etc. – we cannot see that as the goal. The movies always portray a person accomplishing a task, and sometimes another character even leans over and whispers, “You have finally arrived!”, and then the movie ends. But what happens after the credits role? That is not the end! Our story doesn’t stop with accomplishing a single task. We cannot get stuck in the trap that says the task, or the destination, is what life is about. It is not. It is about the journey.
I believe that if we want to have a fulfilled life, we need to walk away from the status quo. We need to leave mediocrity behind. We need to say goodbye to the lies and empty promises of what the world sells as success, and we need to pursue our passions. We need to be intentional about this. We need to be methodical and wise. We need to set goals, but never final destinations. And finally, we just need to get started.
You never arrive, but you can always leave.
– John Kitsteiner
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to read The Myth of the Perfect Job.
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- Painting at the top of the article is: Metamorphosis by Vladimir Kush.