On a sunny Thursday afternoon in June 1999, I was let go from a well-paying career I hadn’t even had for a full year.
I hadn’t seen it coming, so all of a sudden, I found myself at a fork in the road. The intuitive choice I made that same night has had a decisive (and incredibly positive) impact on my life until this day. The craziest thing I ever did.
I bought a one-way ticket to Bombay.
It is a common belief that without education we cannot succeed in life (it’s also a common belief that we have to be successful). It is an unwritten law that we aim high and prepare for the best career. Most of us haven’t found our passion, or what we want to do for the rest of our lives when we’re still in high school. Most of us choose what we’re told we’re good at or what we think will offer us the best opportunities.
So did I.
We study hard, get the best possible degree, and aim for the best-paid job in the field. In our free time, we try to find a partner, and soon, we are looking for a house to buy—to settle down. It’s what our parents hopefully did for us, and they worked hard to provide us with what we needed.
It is the standard box recipe, and most of us buy into it. We don’t even think about other options, and for a long time, we fail to assess if it makes us happy or not. It’s what everybody does, so we should do it too, right?
Remember the theme song from “Weeds”? “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of ticky-tacky…”
We grow up learning to think within the box, and as adults, we continue to live in the box and often get quite stuck in it. It’s what we are used to, it feels safe.
Barely eight months into my second corporate job, I became redundant.
I got kicked out of the comfort zone of a steady job. Now what?
In truth, it had not really been that comfortable for a while, but up to that day, the nagging feeling of unhappiness had been silenced by the numbers appearing in my bank account each month. I had been putting good money before personal fulfillment. Sound familiar? Part of our conditioning also seems to be not walking away from a good job just because we feel a bit unhappy.
I actually felt relieved, instead of upset like my colleagues. Getting laid off offered an easy escape from that scary decision to take charge of my happiness and walk away from a good income.
Boxes, boxes—they make us, and they break us.
That same Thursday evening, having a drink with a few friends, I told them that I had no idea what to do next, since I had no contingency plan for losing a job. Trying to be helpful, they suggested jobs and trainings and people I could talk to.
They were all thinking within our common confines of career and corporate jobs.
My brain barely registered their words as viable options. Now that I’d been forced out, the box seemed to have lost its attraction for me—it just did not get me enthused anymore.
“Why don’t you go travelling?”
My ears pricked up, and my brain jolted back into full attention mode. Whoa, I forgot about that one!
During our long years in school, we always dream of travel, but never have the time or money. When we finally graduate, we head straight for the job market—like we’re supposed to—for fear of missing out on the best opportunities. Travelling takes a back seat to our intended career. Again, we’re thinking and living within the box.
I bought a one-way ticket to Bombay, India, not knowing how long I’d be gone and how far I would get.
Sitting on one of those slow and crowded Indian trains, crawling through the bright-green rice fields dotted with women in their colourful saris, I realised how alive and happy I felt—and how miserable I had been for years in my so-called career. My work had suffocated me, made me physically sick, never inspired me, and left me colourless—and almost lifeless. On that train, I promised myself I would never go back to an office job. The craziest thing I ever did. Never back into the box.
I travelled for years to many exotic places. I climbed high and dove deep. I learned new languages and different traditions. I ate unfamiliar foods and shared beds with strangers, lying head-to-toe, when there was no hostel near. I met people from all over the world and found out that each nationality really has its own funny quirks. I received a marriage proposal on a street corner after one cup of tea and some light conversation. I volunteered often to save money, sold handmade crafts, and played music in the streets.
These are the beautiful and extraordinary mind-expanding experiences that make great travel tales. But they are just the recorded images of an external journey.
My most treasured experiences came from within. Not the travelling, but the complete absence of box-like living and thinking literally pried open my consciousness. It sparked an inner exploring that has never stopped since. I discovered a wealth of hidden talents within myself.
By observing people, asking them to teach me, or by just trying, I learned new skills that I would never even have thought of mastering had I stayed in my box. My interest in learning and exploring constantly stretched beyond its limits. How could I have not known all this about myself for so many years?
Blame it on the box!
There was so much outside of the box that I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the infinite field of possibility, like the proverbial child in a candy store. I felt alive and thriving in every moment.
Corporate life now seemed like a different and utterly boring planet.
We don’t all need to buy a one-way ticket to Bombay to discover our path to fulfillment and happiness. We can do this at home, by asking ourselves a few questions:
>> Which beliefs, assumptions, fears, expectations, and traditions determine our lives? (What is in my box?)
>> Where do they come from—parents, school, peers, religion, location? (Who created my box?)
>> Do we truly identify with them, or have we taken them on by default or for the sake of convention? (Do I believe my own box?)
>> Do these beliefs serve us in finding fulfillment and happiness, or do they keep us from bringing out our best? (Does my box make me thrive?)
With the answers to these questions, we can identify our confining boxed thinking and decide if we need to step out of it.
Through trial and error, we can then start to explore what we’re good at—and with a pinch of serendipity, we can find our passion, our true path. Seeking and honouring our innate talents and skills every day, we will get inspired by life and start to feel happy to be alive.
When there is no dulling box forcing us to do certain things just because that’s how they’re done, we can start living and working from a place of love and inspiration, eager to be of service. It will make us feel happy and fulfilled.
Inside the box, we survive;
Out of the box, we can thrive.
When we find ourselves at a fork in our road—having to make a big decision about our career, relationship, health or money—we can choose the safe option that fits in the box. Or we can choose to move away from it. Outside of the box, true life might begin.
The craziest thing I ever did? Thinking I fit in a box.
This article was first published in 2017 in Elephant Journal.