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Philosophy

Slowing Down and Navigating the Unknown Chapters in Your Life

We experience life in waves, and some waves are unexpected and violent, carrying an abundance of ambiguity, anxiety, and change.

This year, for me, has been strange and unlike anything I’ve felt in recent years. In February 2016, I had the rug pulled out from underneath me, pushing me back into a life of freelance, a life that I had been wanting to avoid like the Zika virus. In March, I got my first tattoo in California by the legendary Juncha, an event for which I waited three-and-a-half years. Sitting on the Santa Monica beach, journaling my thoughts and digesting the reality of my situation, I began to see the sparkling possibilities of the future. Many friends admonished that I take a break, catch up on reading, slow my mind down, and prepare for the next chapter in my life. I polished my resume, wrote a sparkling cover letter (a handful of them, to be honest), and used all my newfound knowledge and connections to approach this situation better than I ever had at any point in my life.

In April, I applied to 10 dream companies. Two of them got back to me offering phone interviews, after which both doors closed. I thought, “OK, well, that didn’t work out. Nothing to sweat over. Learn from this. Move forward. Breathe. You are fine.”

In May, I applied to 25 companies — some dream companies, and others mostly because the positions met my criteria: they demanded my skills and they were in industries that I enjoy. I also bit my lip, mustered some courage, and asked colleagues and friends if they knew anyone, had any connections, or had heard of any opportunities that were relevant to my craft. I was back in survival mode, and I couldn’t forgive myself for it.

Radio silence. Not even a “Thanks for your application, however…” email from the 25 companies. At that point I thought, “I’m a fraud. I’m not as good as I think I am, and I’m suffering from millennial-style entitlement. I should have gone into the city more often to make more connections, and now I’m becoming a statistic.” And the haymaker from hell: “I’ll never get hired again.”

This is when I turned to friends. I’d reached a critical point and I felt it when I woke up every day. I needed to empty out my fears, thoughts, concerns, and aspirations to people I could trust, a roundtable of advisors who would tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear.

It’s amazing how four close friends, from four different states, backgrounds, and ethnicities, all pointed to one thing: slow down. “You’re moving at 150mph,” said my friend from Atlanta, “but you aren’t going anywhere.” “What’s the best thing you can be doing for yourself right now?” asked my friend from Canada. “What does success look like?” my friend from New York asked. “What is it about slowing down that’s making you feel this way?” questioned my friend from New Jersey.

So, I hit the breaks. I stopped applying to jobs and I masterfully faked the ability to not worry about it by filling my days with writing, fitness, Tinder, and freelance work. As soon I pulled the e-brake, the same friend who connected me to my first career job sent me an email saying that an organization in Brooklyn was hiring and that this position was right up my alley.

Two days later, I sent my resume and cover letter. Four days later, I was in Brooklyn being interviewed by someone who I deeply admire because of her speaking and her work. The following week, I began training at my new job for a two-month trial to see if I’m a good fit.

“There are no such things as accidents,” my new colleagues enjoy telling me. The scientist in me cringes at that thought because of how much I understand and respect the role of randomness in our universe and how our minds love making sense of events like these in self-serving ways; but the maturing spiritual thinker in me believes that there’s some truth to it, and in turn, it makes me chuckle at how life works out.

This process wasn’t smooth or linear—a passing of failure after failure, change after change, month after month. In between building this rocket ship and preparing for launch, there were two heartbreaks, financial insecurity, moments of the rawest vulnerability like asking for help and forgiveness, wanting to quit, questioning my craft and career, sacrifices, sleepless nights, misplaced anger, a realization that I may have to challenge my greatest comfort zone and move out of my hometown, and to add some positivity, a heart-warming relief that I am lucky to have real friends.

On the nights that I was alone—or moments when I felt alone even though I was surrounded by my people—I leaned on the same philosophy that helped me climb out of a deep rut years ago. Even now, when things are settling down but new obstacles pop up, I need to remind myself of the same principles that helped me navigate the unknown chapters of my life, to accept it with humility, and to move forward with an open heart.

In some of my darkest and loneliest moments, these reflections from Meditations, written by the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, bolstered my bravery and carried me through to the light again. I am not religious, but this is the closest thing to a Bible that I carry with me in my commonplace book:

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision — and your own mind.”

“Your ability to control your thoughts — treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions — false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.”

“It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. . . . Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

My goal, ultimately, was to check myself: to remove my sense of entitlement — “Look at who I’ve worked for and what I’ve done!” — and to have clarity in the decisions I needed to make in order to lead the life I want to build.

As I go apartment hunting in one of the most ruthlessly expensive cities in the world, in a neighborhood that I never considered living in, for a job that unexpectedly opened up and appeared in my inbox, the best thing I can do for myself is to have an internal operating system (philosophy) that properly guides my actions and thoughts in a way that pushes me to stay open-minded, ambitious, dogged, and kind, to myself and to others.

In August, I will be in Brooklyn for a month in a sublet, experimenting with my commute and a new style of living. Whether I plant roots there or hop back across the river so I’m halfway between work and my hometown, I don’t know. But I am excited and nervous and eager to figure this out. I realized that living too long in a lush, green suburb of New Jersey creates a bubble around your reality. Things are much more comfortable, nice, and convenient. It’s easier to be scared of the world when you’re living better than most of the world.

Grocery shopping and taking the subway for five stops back to your 200-square-foot, $1,500/month apartment in the humid ass-crack July of New York City? Why would anyone put themselves through that? Why leave your hometown, friends, and the (somewhat) lower cost of living?

This reminds me of a letter that 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson wrote to his friend Logan Hume in 1958. Hume asked Thompson for career advice, and Thompson, as young as he was, captured and channeled timeless wisdom that I re-read all the time:

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN—and here is the essence of all I’ve said—you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, ‘I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.’

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

For so long I’ve whispered to myself that I dream of this life where I do meaningful work, travel, and have the financial and emotional freedom that allows me to pursue projects that I believe in and work with people I admire. I think I’ve entered a time where I can bring this to fruition, but of course, it comes with change and sacrifices. Change is scary because it requires discomfort. I think rather than looking through the window and grimacing because I’m imagining how something tastes, I just need to try it.

— PAUL JUN