Thursday, March 04, 2004 12:00 AM
Flying away from my old life
Under something close to the least favorable economic conditions of my short life, facing the prospect of casting aside a mostly respectable seven-year career at the largest software company on the planet should be terrifying.
Instead, I am strangely calm. During the past two weeks, I have probably felt more relaxed than I ever did while shackled by the constraints of stability; fear of my uncertain future has, so far, been fleeting, if present at all.
Today, I am crossing the Pacific Ocean aboard United Flight 875 to Tokyo-Narita International Airport, carrying freshly minted business cards that bear no reference to my prior professional identity. Although I’ve often heard other Microsoft employees express the feeling that they make up their role in the company as they go along (and I've probably even said that myself) the constraints and freedoms inherent in subsuming your persona to a corporate entity are nothing like starting from nowhere, as I am doing now. Corporate tradition, colliding egos, and layers of mutable but established hierarchy trump all but the most skilled balancing act of ambition and creativity.
Ten years ago, I had no aspiration to become part of a massive corporate machine; in fact, my politics rapidly assumed the opposite direction, inspired by revolutionary ideologies and assisted by frustration with the careerist impulses of students who chose what to study based not on what they were curious or passionate about, but by what they thought would be most financially rewarding. Ironically for all of us, it was my own idiosyncratic curiosity that led directly to the job I found shortly after university.
I fell into majoring in East Asian studies via a gateway course, “Modern Japanese Novels,” chosen purely out of curiosity. Soon I found myself in Japanese classes, Buddhist studies, and so on. At the same time, I was continuing to learn German, and I headed off to Germany as an exchange student, oddly situated as probably the only late addition to the East Asian Studies program ever to have planned a European exchange program. Evenings and sometimes whole days I spent hacking around Bitnet and later the Internet, and by the time I graduated from university I was a well-rounded humanities major with geek tendencies. If it weren’t for all of that, I wouldn’t have found a nice cushy job at the big cozy corporation that that all of the economics majors around me fantasized about. Who could know that, 4.5 years after beginning university, Microsoft would be interested in hiring computer-savvy folks with Japanese or German language skills who had an ability to write at least some haphazard web code and could think about problems analytically?
When I first arrived at Microsoft, like most recent college graduates of that era, I felt it was my duty to say yes to nearly everything asked of me and, perhaps more importantly, to fit in to the company culture and even to believe in as much of the company dogma as I could cognitively reconcile. I eventually developed a little more personality and actually became more productive when a legendary manager took me under his wing and taught me how to say “no.” Of course, my experience working for a manager of his caliber was limited to about 7% of my time at the company due to a combination of corporate and management reshufflings, my own decisions about how to react to various job frustrations, and the relatively low percentage of people who actually have that kind of skill in a company dominated in management by geeks who got rewarded for their technical skills with team leadership responsibilities on the one hand, and those skilled at political manipulation on the other. It’s rare to find managers who are smart, ambitious, involved, and fiercely loyal to their staff; in my time at Microsoft, only that one manager would stake his career in defense of his team.
I spent the last year and a half or so actively disliking my job, and disenchanted enough not to want to seek out other opportunities within the company. I was coming to work every day driven only by momentum, not by intent. I spent that time thinking about my exit strategy—how I would move on after leaving the company, what kind of timeline, and so on—and I set conscious boundaries between the sufferable and the intolerable. When circumstances moved beyond the merely unfortunate, I had already decided how to handle the situation long in advance. I decided I would be going on “vacation.”
So here I am, technically on vacation, but with no plans to return. I’ve spent the last two weeks doing most of the essentials associated with starting my own small business, including registering a LLC with the state government, hurriedly establishing phone and fax services, buying a new laptop to replace the one previously supplied by my employer, and getting an annual medical checkup I’ve only delayed by about five or six years. I’ve been jogging daily, and just making the psychological transformation that is required when one decides to separate from something that has been such a tremendous portion of one’s life.
This relaxed feeling is some sort of delusion, but it just means is that I’m at peace with myself. I have almost never been at peace with myself while at Microsoft. I have occasionally liked my job, and I was even passionate about some aspects of my work, but I have almost always had trouble sleeping at night and almost always dreaded waking up in the morning. I rest easily now, and wake up earlier than I usually did when I was expected to be at the office.
Over the next few weeks, I must reinvent myself. I am scouting suppliers of things that I consider interesting—things that have stories, things that I can talk about to complete strangers and infect them with some of the same enthusiasm I feel. In the Tokyo area, after a brief weekend of R&R, I’m attending a trade show related to food products; after that, I’ll spend a little more time researching logistical requirements, and I intend to go to some rural villages where I can find potters and craft technicians. When I come back, the hard work of finding buyers will begin, and the brutal realities of generating income based on work that I just happen to like doing may start to hit home. In the meantime, I’m just getting started. Every step I take now is full of intent.