Life

One year on: embracing uncertainty

I’m supposed to be back in London right now, sitting behind a computer, probably on Level 23, at Barclays’ global headquarters in Canary Wharf, surrounded by glass and steel.

Instead, I’m in Puerto Varas, a town on the edge of Chilean Patagonia, in a wooden cabaña just a few minutes walk from the spectacular Lake Llanquihue and its backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes.

Photo of lake and two volcanoes with blue skies.
The view over Lake Llanquihue towards volcanoes Osorno (left) and Calbuco (right).

I’m supposed to have completed my 12-month career break last week, and returned to a good-paying job with great benefits at a respected global company.

Instead, I resigned about six weeks ago, effective June 5th, 2019.

I’m supposed to…

Map of my journey through Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
The majority of my journey (thanks to a Garmin GPS)

Well, I was never supposed to take a career break in the first place. I wasn’t supposed to spend four days fasting solo on a Swedish mountainside last June. I wasn’t supposed to buy, then sell, a 26 year-old Canadian pickup truck camper christened ‘Big Mo’. I wasn’t supposed to overland 20,000 km across Chile and Argentina – I mean, I couldn’t even drive a manual car nine months ago, let alone a 4×4. I wasn’t supposed to fall utterly in love with a country. The “wasn’t supposed to” list could go on, and on, and on.

It’s no coincidence then, that it’s been the most challenging and transformative year of my life.

Recently, everyone’s been asking me the same question: so, what’s next?

The short answer? I don’t know.

The long answer? Keep reading.

If we’ve spoken in the last year, you may have heard that I wanted to start a tourism-related business in Patagonia, or that I wanted to retrain as an environmental lawyer, or that I wanted to become a high school teacher (I went as far as applying for Teach for America, before withdrawing at the interview stage), or even that I wanted to return to the U.S. and eventually run for public office … and those are just the ideas that garnered more than a passing daydream.

Having so much freedom, power and control over my future is a tremendous privilege. It has also been crippling. Unlike my 22 year-old self, armed with a selfish, single-minded desire to live abroad, at 31 I understand much better the trade-offs between career, family and personal ambitions. It’s no longer as simple as ’10 years from now, what would you regret not doing?’ because it’s not just about me. The cycle of overthinking and indecision has gone on for months.

And while I still don’t have the answers, I’ve turned a corner. Rather than framing my competing desires as mutually exclusive options, I’m considering them problems to solve. I’m trying to be more open-minded and creative with my next steps, so here goes.

Problem 1: Help grow tourism in Chilean Patagonia, specifically along the Carretera Austral.

Image result for patagonia map
This ‘Discover Patagonia’ g adventures itinerary perfectly illustrates how the region gets reduced to its far north and south.

When most people say they’ve been to Patagonia, they’ve only been to the tip of the iceberg, literally. If you think of Patagonia as an inverted triangle, most travelers have only been to the far southern tip of the region. This is due to a combination of relative ease of travel, information available in English, proximity of attractions and probably instagram, where the vast majority of Patagonia photos are from just a handful of places.

The part of Patagonia along Chile’s carretera austral (the length of the triangle) is just as spectacular, but more rugged and off-the-beaten track. Tourism is in its infancy here, but growing the industry is incredibly important. The alternatives are mining and salmon farming, both of which are highly destructive to the environment.

Journeying along the carretera austral left a mark on my heart, and I can’t fathom its wilderness ruined. I’ve already volunteered time translating documents for a local organisation focused on stopping mining, but I want to do more. I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a tourism-related business, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of my skills. Nor am I sure I want to relocate to southern Chile, which is ironically even further away from family and friends than London.

So, my immediate ‘solution’ is to put a concerted effort into blogging and instagramming over the coming weeks and months. My goal is to make the carretera austral and this part of Patagonia more accessible for future travelers. I’m going to pay it forward for the region, as best I can.

Problem 2: Be closer to family, especially my grandparents.

I’ve chosen to live on a different continent from my immediate family for nearly 9 years. With my mom and maternal grandparents in the U.S., and my dad and paternal grandparents in China, living in London involved a lot of flying. For a long time, it was worth the trade-off to get to live in my favorite city.

My four grandparents together.
My awesome grandparents

The older I get, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to have all four of my grandparents. That’s why I spent significant time with them during my career break. But, all four of them are in their 80’s now and time is limited.

I’ve seriously considered whether moving to the Deep South is worth the proximity to my maternal grandparents. They helped raise me and still live in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that is unlikely to align with my personal and career goals.

I honestly don’t know the right ‘solution’ to this one, but I’ll continue prioritizing time with family. Plus, my grandparents are pretty handy with technology so I’m grateful I can chat with them frequently regardless of distance.

Problem 3: Work for something I believe in.

I must be a proper millenial, wanting to care about my work and make an impact.

Graffiti saying 'Be Fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire'
San Diego street art from last summer.

For the first time, I’m writing down some guiding principles. They’ll continue to evolve, but at least it’s a start.

First, I’m fascinated by people – how we work, how we learn, and how we change. I love challenging people’s thinking and helping them grow. From my undergrad major, to my master’s thesis, even to my choice of HR at the start of my career, I’ve always loved people. I left HR to work with frontline colleagues rather than stay solely in headquarters, to get closer to the beating heart of Barclays. Whatever I do next, I want it to involve the messiness, the grey areas, the complexity inherent with working with people.

Second, my environmental conscience has awakened. Spending time immersed in nature has changed my views on consumption, on sustainability, on humans’ selfish relationship with the planet that sustains us. But unlike the interest in people that I can trace back to my teens, this one is much newer. Beyond changing my own choices and actions, I don’t know yet how this will manifest.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll use these principles to guide my decisions. That could mean a non-profit, a start-up, my own business or even another large corporate, as unlikely as the latter feels. It could mean staying in London or heading back to the States. In any case, there are plenty of possible ‘solutions’ and I feel like I’m approaching it in a healthy way.

Embracing uncertainty

A few weeks ago, I read Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The timing was perfect. Just as I was struggling to put into words how my journey has changed me to the core, her words clicked.

She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”, writing that it sounds like truth and feels like courage. Conditioned from a young age to excel, to be self-reliant, to plan for every eventuality, I couldn’t on my journey. Not even close. Miss Perfect/Always Right/Planner had to ask for help countless times, rely on the kindness of strangers, and live day by day, guided by her heart rather than her head.

I’ve never felt so vulnerable, or so alive.

Being vulnerable still isn’t my norm, nor is it comfortable, but I’m trying to take it back to my daily life. That’s really why I couldn’t return to the same company, the same commute, and the same surroundings. The risk of re-donning the armor of perfection was too great.

So, what’s next?

Well, I have a flight back to London on the 26th of June. Beyond that, I don’t know exactly.

But I’m excited for it.

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware."
Written by my friend, Kei, and tucked into my passport cover.

2 Comments

  • Lilian lui

    Serene,
    I am almost speechless after reading your blog. It took a lot of determination and character to accomplish your past 12 months journey. As a mother( especially one that was born and raised in Hong Kong) and still carried some old traditional Chinese culture, lol, we tend to try to want our children to live a stable lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with it. But everyone has their own calling. The most important thing is to live your own life and dream. You are a very smart girl. Trust your own faith and proceed with your own path . I am sure your parent and grandparents will support you in whatever journey you decide. I am proud and glad that I met you through Lauren and consider you as one of my girls. Follow your ❤️desire and enjoy life to fullest while you are young. I m looking forward to follow your adventure and hopefully see you again in the near future …Houston, Chicago, China?? Take care.
    Mrs. Lui

  • Jennifer Trammell

    Serene, thank you for sharing your journey! Can’t wait to see where it takes you next. Wherever you land, you will always have supportive Wildcats.

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