The Butterfly Man

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There is a hill. It is hard to find and even when you come upon it, you won’t think it is anything special at first. You would have to wait for a couple of days to know why so many people travel such large distances to come see this hill. Or you could ask a local. If you can find one. They’re all over the hill, but they rarely, if ever, make themselves available to outsiders. Kind of like tigers in a forest. There is a famous hunter of man-eating tigers by the name of Jim Corbett. He wrote a bunch of books about his adventures. One of the things he wrote about tigers that has stuck with me is how if you ever go to a forest / national park / wildlife sanctuary with the intention of spotting a tiger, know that the tiger has probably seen you a hundred times before you ever lay eyes on one. They step out into the light only when they have decided you are harmless.

Because I already know why the hill is famous (I have made the arduous journey and done my time on the hill) and because I like all of you, my readers, I will tell you why people travel so much to see this mound. It is the butterflies. The hill is home to thousands and thousands of butterflies, and if you make the trek and reach the right spots on the hill, you will see something bizarre. There are so many butterflies at one spot, you feel as if you’re surrounded. They follow you around. The flit about all over the place. You can see hundreds of them sitting at one spot, lazing around, taking a nap or even drinking water! I’ll be honest with you; I had never considered the fact that butterflies too need to drink and eat. I thought they just were. Apparently not. Obviously not. They sit down on the side of streams to take in their daily dose of nourishment, and this is perhaps the only place where I have seen butterflies in anything other than a state of panicked flight.

And here is the thing. The butterflies, as magnificent as they were (I think more so because I have never seen so many of them at the same spot before) were not the highlight of the trek. On the trek I met a man. He works a job that doesn’t pay him too much – by some of our standards we might think he doesn’t get paid enough – but damn if he wasn’t the happiest man around. He lives near the hill and his side job is his one true passion in life – you guessed it – butterflies. Well, to be fair, it is photographing butterflies. The man had some photography gear he was quite proud of. He told me he spent almost four years’ worth of his salary on the gear. And he carries it around like his child. He has photographed most of the butterfly breeds (or is it species) on the hill – and even discovered eight new ones! Apparently, he is a record holder in this. Photographing butterflies. Isn’t that so cool? Here is a man who doesn’t care about many things, but the thing he cares about, he does so deeply. And that is all he needs to be happy. This is probably an extreme example, and many of us need more than one thing to keep us happy. We can’t all be crazy obsessed with one thing and make it the sustenance of our lives. Many of us can’t afford to live on a mountain doing only what we love (he couldn’t afford it either technically). I think, in more moderate terms, the thing that keeps him going and makes him happy is commitment.

Months ago, when I was deliberating whether or not to quit my job, I had a friend simplify it for me. He told me; it doesn’t really matter what you do. All you have to do is make sure it is something you can commit to and stick it out. Remember when we were kids, people would tell us to build our lives by laying bricks vertically and not horizontally. Metaphor for focusing on and committing to one or two major goals of your life (a purpose) and not flailing about without a clue. I’m not an expert, but the man seemed to have done just this. He picked a thing and he stuck to it. Sometimes I think the availability of too many options makes us sad and dissatisfied. You pick your option, but you can still see all the other options. You won’t usually see the people who have taken these other options and failed, you will only see the successes (although, what is success even). And that makes you unhappy about the choice you’ve made. At least, this is what happens to me. The only stretch of time I have truly been happy in, has been stretches of isolation. Where I look at no one else and do what I need to do.

Quitting my job without a plan

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OK, maybe the title is a little dramatic. I didn’t leave without a plan per se. I had a plan in my head. The plan just happened to be ridiculous. There was nothing I had done in my life leading up to the day I quit that would suggest I could go through with the plan. I wasn’t the type of person who quits her job. I was the person who did well in school, did well in university, was earmarked to get one of those high-paying jobs straight off of campus and then stick to it for the rest of my life (accounting for maybe a year’s worth of break when I would presumably go off and get a masters from a nice school). I upheld my end of the deal till the time of getting a job. I got a great job out of university. Paid very well, made the parents proud. And then, a couple of months into the job, something broke. I don’t know how to describe it to be honest. It was like a seismic shift in perception. I’d seen it happen to favourite characters in movies and in the books I read, but I didn’t think it would ever happen to me.

I thought to myself, this can’t be all there is. I mean, yeah it is a nice job and I do love the people I work with, and I get paid enough to support whatever little unnecessary luxuries I think I want, but this cannot be it. I can’t keep working on things I don’t care about – and things no one else cares about either. There is a famous essay online theorising about ‘Bullshit Jobs’ and while I don’t agree with it completely, I do think my job qualifies as one. You see, I used to work as a corporate lawyer. And I completely agree with what the article had to say about corporate lawyers – that if all of us were to disappear off the face of this earth today, no one would miss us, including our clients. The clients who, incidentally, pay through their noses to keep us on. No hate though, if you’re someone who works as a corporate lawyer, and you like your job, please don’t take this in the wrong way. You’re one of the lucky ones. This is for everyone who took up a job because it was the ‘done thing’ and didn’t know what else to do with their time or life.

This is not to say that I was miserable at my job. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed my time in office. But it wasn’t enough. Now this is a tricky place to be in. Till you can convince yourself and others that you are leaving a situation because you are downright miserable, you will always feel guilty leaving. To admit that, ‘well yeah, this is okay, but I want more’ is a lot harder. It isn’t a black or white premise on which one can base decisions. And for this reason, it goes against every reasonable bone in your body. I remember having multiple conversations with my parents on why I want to leave and it always came down to one thing – “if you don’t hate it, why would you leave?” I understand the logic behind the counter argument too, its safer to stick to something you know then to venture out into the unknown in the hopes that the next thing will be “enough”. I get it. And yes, there are many reasons (family obligations, financial situation and what not) that would make people stay on in situations that they would rather leave. But I didn’t have any of these constraints. I don’t have a family to support, and my parents were kind enough to agree to support me while I took time off to decide what else I wanted to do with my life. So, yes, while I did leave without a plan, I didn’t leave without a security net. And I know there are a lot of motivational speakers and books that talk about how “you only have one life” and “it is now or never”. I agree with all that, but sometimes, moderation is needed. There is actually a really good video on this exact topic by Struthless. I saw this video so, so many times before finally sending in my notice. It talks brilliantly about how ‘quitting your job to follow your passion’ needs certain caveats and may not be for everyone, and why that is ok.

Anyway, with my research in place, and with my parents agreement backing me, I did manage to hand in my notice in the May of this year (2021). I told my boss (who I like and respect a lot) that I wanted to quit. Not because I had a better job offer, or because I had graduate studies planned or anything else. I just wasn’t convinced this job or this career was ‘it’ for me, and I wanted to take some time to figure things out. For anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world, you know how flaky this sounds. But there it was. The whole truth, laid out. I neither had the energy nor the will to make up an acceptable sounding professional reason for leaving. I wanted to see what else is out there, and that is exactly what I did.

First, quitting is a lot scarier than it looks. I know that the kind of world we live in, quitting is made out to be the easier option. And yeah, sometimes it is. If you want to be a ballerina but you can’t manage to go to classes on time or put in the work required, maybe then. But I don’t think its the easier option when you are labouring away at something you don’t want because it is easier than going after something you really want. In that case, I do think quitting is the better option. All said and done, it is scary. Especially when you don’t have a back up option. The nervousness and anxiety you feel is all real. Believe me when I say I didn’t sleep for two days before handing in my notice. What if I never get a job as good as this one? What if I never figure out what I want? What if I stay unemployed? How bad will a gap on my CV look? I thought of all of this. But in the end it came down to my assessment of how much sunk cost I was willing to take. If I didn’t this now, it’s unlikely I would want it in another five years. So, why wait.

Second, it wasn’t as hopeless as I thought it would be. Inertia holds us back from doing a lot of the things we want to do. But once you do get over it, you’ll see, as I did, that the situation isn’t as bleak as you (or your boss/peers) made it out to be. If you are reasonably good at your job, and you aren’t a total pain to be around, you will always have a job if you want one.

Third, it gave me a lot of time. Not just to figure out what I want to do next in life. I hope I can do that too in some time. But apart from that, I have spent the last couple of months doing things I always wanted to do but never really had the time for. I started making art again (I’ve spoken about this before briefly). I took a couple of short courses on art history and animation. I am currently doing an online masters in fashion industry essentials from Parsons (this is a little pricy, but the credentials are solid – I’ll write about my experience with this some time in the future). I have been contemplating starting a YouTube channel – and I’ll probably get into that. I have had time to seriously consider if I want to do my masters, and spent a lot of time researching universities and courses (this has honestly been a mammoth exercise, and I would love to write more on it). I also spent the time travelling with my friends. Yes, I realise these are privileges not everyone has access to. But if you do, then do yourself a favour and take advantage of them.