2014: the year I gradually moved away from Manhattan

I started this year setting up a new apartment in Long Island City and obsessing about learning to ice skate. When asked, I’ve stated that I’m happiest in life when I’m on the verge of competence after a long period of learning and struggle, and this period fulfilled that – I finally felt established and confident at my job, in NYC, and in my local friendships.

But I was also anxious to figure out my next steps. I had informed my managers at work that I wanted to move on sometime in 2014, and so I spent a lot of time browsing quora and other advice forums, researching whether to look for a buy-side job or something else entirely. By the end of February I had accepted a place at DevBootcamp for the summer and in the spring I was offloading my work responsibilities to colleagues.

In July I moved to Chicago, and the rest is history (as in it’s historically documented in this blog) – having an enlightening experience at DevBootcampleaving Chicago, and moving to Portland. As of this week, I’ve accepted a job here and I’m going to be working at a finance-related startup (with a dog-friendly office) starting in January!

The future looms like Everest

Back in January when I envisioned leaving NYC, these potential changes felt insurmountable. Isn’t it going to feel so strange to leave this comfortable life where I’m building my 401k, where I know people, where food delivery takes 15 minutes? Thinking about the future too much often prevents us from making changes, because they feel huge, and reasonably so: we can’t envision the full details about a future in the way we can remember details about a past, and so we focus on our guesses of what’s going to be vastly different and potentially distressing. The fear of change and fear of the unknown is tied to the assumption that the unknown is far away from where we are.

To some extent we can alleviate this by composing a more thorough vision of a potential future. Whenever I considered moving somewhere this year, one of my first searches was “[new location] ice rink,” and then I’d look at the freestyle schedules and group lessons for any results. I made a lot of decisions around the desire to preserve proximity to figure skating: In Chicago, I lived in Lakeview to be close to McFetridge Rink, and I decided to live in NE Portland for the Lloyd Center rink.

Sometimes I felt silly and obsessive continuing this habit, especially when it didn’t even work out (I’m actually skating at Mountain View in Vancouver, WA because the Lloyd rink is closing for mall remodeling in 2015). But looking back, I think it was a good strategic move – it helped me narrow the distance between my present and a potential future and made the change feel navigable.

The present only feels far from “what could have been”

Despite changes over the last year, my current, immediate life doesn’t feel drastically different from my life in January. I still have my family, my friends (with a few midwestern additions), and myself (well, adjusted to nearly v.26 – the wisest and quirkiest yet). My diet is a shade healthier and more organic, with less restaurant takeout, but my soup consumption remains above-average while my coffee and alcohol consumption remains around zero.

I feel normal, and the distance from my previous-course life doesn’t feel far from here. It’s only when I carefully imagine that parallel universe that I notice the distance, and I marvel, “Wow, would I have moved back to Manhattan after my lease ended? Would I be collecting a ridiculous year end bonus? I never would have met X, who I’ve talked to every day this week!”

Getting used to it

It’s a cliche, but we can get used to anything, as long as we allow ourselves the luxury. “Getting used to anything” is vague; I’d describe it more specifically as a convenient forgetfulness that anything has even changed, or losing sight of the distance we’ve moved. It’s a little sad that some memories may get lost in these transitions, but I think it’s worthwhile – it allows us the strength to metamorphose.

(And we can always keep a blog to remind ourselves of how we used to be.)

 

What it is

Hobby of the Month is something I did in 2012 and 2013, and I find myself mentioning it whenever people ask about how I came across the variety of activities I’ve dabbled in. The concept is to choose one activity each month, and then devote about an hour every day to working on it.

By default, I’ve always had a number of activities, but I had trouble committing to anything long enough to make real improvement. A month was a good choice for length of commitment, being long enough to develop some competency but short enough to not be intimidating, and daily was the logical choice of frequency for developing a habit. Without a habit, it’s easy to forgo doing anything productive in favor of watching television or passively ingesting news.

Why I started

(Note – I had a lot of trouble writing this part, and I concluded that it’s all sort of related Marx’s theory of alienation. So if you remember the bit about alienation of the worker from himself, you could probably skip my reasoning.)

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling busy, but it was only when I started working that I became aware of how time was passing (e.g. 60 hours a week at work) and how time scarcity prevented me from feeling fully myself.

Many people come to define their identities through work and relegate their other interests to the category of “cool things I loved to do when I was younger and had time.” As much as I believe jobs in finance and consulting can be exciting, educational, and meaningful, the demand for time can be absurd. (And I know, I wasn’t even a banker!) It frustrates me that society funnels so many intelligent graduates into careers that discourage personal development outside of the job, simply by not providing much time.

But this only happens because many people seem to accept that it’s okay to put other aspects of life “on hold” – hobbies, relationships, etc. – for devotion to a job that should lead to a lucrative career. Implicit in this is an assumption that there isn’t much societal value in encouraging individuals to maintain a diverse array of interests. After all, the simplified world of microeconomics recommends we seek comparative advantage and economies of scale.

Some people are fortunate (or have accomplished enough) that the work they do professionally is truly, purely what they want to do, i.e. they would do it without pay and have little desire to do anything else. For most of us, we aren’t fulfilled by our professional work alone, and shelving parts of ourselves to focus on singular goals can only yield temporary benefits. Long term, our lives and work benefit if we clearly see our motivations for living and we feel like our actions fit into being a whole person. For me, this required a sense that I was gaining competence in a variety of activities, which hobby of the month fulfilled.

Why I stopped

In 2013 I started playing piano as a hobby of the month, but I found near the end of the month that I wanted to keep working on this instead of choosing something new. I kept playing piano every day for a few more months, transitioned to photography in the summer, and then started learning to sing towards the end of the year. In 2014, I also started figure skating, which still occupies the majority of my activity bandwidth.

I didn’t realize this when I started, but hobby of the month became practice for how to manage and evaluate a long list of potentially interesting activities. Having this schedule trained me to be open to discovering new activities, and also helped me see the value of committing to daily practice, even briefly. Now that I have this awareness, it no longer feels necessary to have a monthly schedule – I’m fully capable of finding new activities, committing regular time to them to improve, and deciding when to put something aside in favor of something else.


 

Hobbies I Remember

Yoga – Aside from attending yoga classes, I also had Yoga Anatomy as a reference – this book doesn’t suggest yoga routines, but for every pose, it has a thorough description and diagrams detailing muscles involved.

Meditation – Honestly, I feel like this is so variable that I sometimes forget why anyone bothers to define it. It doesn’t really matter if your eyes are open or closed, if you want to sit or move around, if you want to pay attention to one thing or try to notice your thoughts drifting. Just be aware and something good might happen. Focusing isn’t the same as meditation, but it’s somewhat related and this book was interesting. Later on, DevBootcamp recommended Search Inside Yourself, which was also a light but useful read.

Guitar – William Leavitt’s book is a pretty good linear introduction. As a former violinist, it’s so much fun learning instruments where frets keep you from being grossly out of tune. What’s the word for this, where some instruments allow an infinite number of in-between notes and some have a limited number of notes because of frets, keys, etc. (I want to say “quantized” like atomic systems but that’s not used by other people)?

Photography – Tony Northrup’s Digital Photography book is the most popular on amazon, and for good reason. Great overview, and his passion for photography shines through – the guy set up his backyard specifically to photograph birds! I love that.

Writing “meaningful” things – there wasn’t a stylistic restriction on this, and I mostly wrote in a journal or wrote a lengthy email to a friend. By making myself write for a certain length of time, I realized that initially mundane observations would turn into valuable insights – hidden assumptions, unexpected connections, and unrealized meaning – and that’s when I would feel satisfied that I’d written something meaningful.

Getting rid of things – I was inspired to minimalize after reading part of Thoreau’s Walden. I kept a blog about this month of choosing one “thing” (often a group of similar things) to remove from my life every day; it was a refreshing and rewarding exercise that changed my attitude towards acquiring objects.

Programming in python – I don’t remember getting too far in this (particularly compared to the education I got at DBC), but working with Learn Python the Hard Way was a nice reminder that I liked programming. Looking at the table of contents now, it still seems like a decently thorough introduction from syntax to setting up a basic server.

Learning French – I remember seeing many web sites recommend Tell Me More as even better than Rosetta Stone, since Tell Me More takes advantage of adults’ knowledge of grammar rather than Rosetta Stone’s childlike attitude of starting from the very beginning. I thought it was a decent system, but this company was actually acquired by Rosetta Stone in late 2013! So I can’t tell whether the software I was using is still available. During this month I also used Duolingo, tried to read Harry Potter A L’Ecole des Sorciers and of course, Le Petit Prince.

Piano – I followed the lessons in Alfred’s Adult Piano book and also played from books like The Best Songs Ever (how could I not buy something this hyperbolic?), Les Miserables, and Wicked.

Portland!

I’m happy to report that my first four days have been pleasant – my street smells like pine, and there’s been sunlight for two days in a row! I spent part of the weekend admiring creatively painted houses and buying adorable locally-sourced tiny things from stores with “supportland” cards (which was featured in comedians in cars getting coffee).

The house that I agreed to move into (after seeing 0 photos) is beautiful and green, and my roommates are great! They also have two dogs.

Kitten update – So I was requesting help on facebook to train Benny, the kitten that my roommates rescued a week ago (so nice to have cat-experienced friends, even if cats are overall weird), but unfortunately he’s been given away to a new family. The dogs were having a rough time getting along with him, so Benny’s now in a better home and I’ll be able to blog on the couch without holding a peacock feather to distract a cute but painful creature. I’m sorry he’s gone though – we had some cuddly sleepy moments together last night.

 

Thoughts on Moving

In the month or two leading up to this move, I’ve had a number of people comment that this move seemed like a risky and bold decision, since I have no job, no family, and no close friends here. I’m not sure if people actually believe this, or if it’s a statement originating from politeness (i.e. “that’s a bold move!” is nicer than “you’re crazy and you’re throwing away your career!”) or meant in the context of my outwardly risk-averse personality. Regardless, it’s been interesting to ponder, because this didn’t feel tremendously risky. I hope my reasons/conclusions could be helpful to other people like me considering relocations.

Money

Money is evil, it corrupts, and it doesn’t buy happiness, or so many of us debate. But undeniably, money buys things, and having necessary things frees up mental space. So having enough money and the expectation of earning enough money is important, because when you’re warm, healthy, and full of quinoa, everything’s easier – including moving and re-buying large but inexpensive items you decided to leave behind.

Having Stuff

It’s not completely about money, though – there are many high earners my age who don’t necessarily like their career path*, who wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving a stable career for a short-term educational program in preparation for a job that would pay significantly less (on face value at the start, anyway).

The financial feasibility of moving is clearly also a function of spending habits and dependence on having stuff. Keeping a low but sustainable standard of living lowers the risk of moving and feels great – it’s a wonderful comfort having a large gap between your baseline desires and what you could have.

For me, I’ve mostly accomplished this by living with roommates (which is also more entertaining and educational), keeping a reasonably short list of expensive items (I count ~5 items I own worth more than $300), and feeling naturally disinclined towards drinking, fine dining, and vacationing (which is slightly offset by a natural inclination towards hobbies).

Trusting People, Trusting Yourself

Having services like craigslist, airbnb, zipcar, etc. makes moving between cities so convenient, but it still requires trust – trust in other people and trust that the system will correct things if you encounter the wrong people. I’ve now found four successful room-share arrangements through craigslist, and currently I have full use of a borrowed mattress, a well-equipped kitchen, and beautiful living room furniture – just because I trust “random” people and they trust me.

Trust is also important in making new friends, i.e. believing that new friendships can be as meaningful and dependable as those from childhood. Sometimes my current friends are so good to me that I wonder how anyone outside of them could compare – but you have to trust that there are other people out there who can understand and accept you.

Ultimately, all of this relies on self-trust – belief that you can distinguish people who are trustworthy from people who aren’t. And more generally, this whole relocation is based on trust that I’ll figure out everything else too – like whether it’s weird to use an umbrella here and how to nicely tell people I don’t drink coffee.

 

*Aside – I’ve noticed that I often feel very defensive when people seem to assume that I hated my job in finance. I guess that’s normal since it was finance and I left, but I spent three years there because I liked it! I worked with great people, learned invaluable skills, and genuinely believed our work was more good than bad for the world.

Among all the activities I’ve tried in recent years, figure skating is probably the one that’s changed me most. It’s so strange – I wouldn’t have expected to fall in love with a pursuit that generally targets kids, remains entrenched in unfeminist stereotypes, and leaves my legs constantly bruised. But since I started (almost a year ago!), it’s never occurred to me to take a break or change hobbies. Why do I like this? (Why do I like any of my activities?)

Living means expanding your reality

Skating is really, really fun – beyond fun. It’s something else, to escape the normal confines of friction. (For those of you in Chicago, this winding skating path should be opening soon. I’ve often dreamed about having icy paths as an alternative to sidewalks.)

I remember a few mornings in New York where I was completely alone at City Ice – there’s an intense quiet floating in the air that permits an unusual awareness of how skating sounds (whooshy, scrapy, scratchy, or a number of other things). It was one of the most meditative and beautiful spaces I ever found in New York City, maybe anywhere. Otherworldly.

Transcendence comes from discipline

Often it’s not easy to motivate yourself to visit another world (especially at 5am), because the full feeling of being there is impossible to recall on the outside. When I’m not skating, all I have is a phantom, symbolic/linguistic memory that skating is magical, so it’s important for me to pre-commit to going to the rink on a schedule. It’s a little odd to pursue transcendence practically, but many of these seeming dichotomies aren’t real anyway (e.g. creativity and structure, inspiration and dullness, etc.).

I’ve also realized from skating that putting in consistent practice tends to result in inconsistent progress (inconsistent practice tends to result in consistently no progress). I guess I always knew this factually, but learning to figure skate (maybe combined with getting older) has tangibly reinforced this. There are weeks of struggle where every attempt at something feels like potential suicide, and then finally moments where your spins stay on the sweet spot and you feel the rhythm in your jumps (then fall over again).

Being Flamingo-Like and Other Physical Benefits

I noticed after a few months of skating that I’d become much more adept at standing on subways unassisted (i.e. not clinging to poles, bars, or other people). How hygienic! I’ve also noticed that shaving my legs in the shower is significantly easier (not that I’m making any judgments about whether people of any gender should shave). It’s freeing to realize you could maybe function pretty happily on one leg.

But besides the balance training (which adults can really use as they age), I’ve found that I’m now in the best shape of my life simply by directing all of my physical pursuits towards being a better figure skater. It has such a diverse set of requirements – balance, flexibility, strength (and all over, too! It’s not easy holding up your arms for an hour), cardiovascular endurance, etc. – that I don’t have to think or plan much to get a good mix of exercise.

All-Over Intelligence and “becoming a better person”

(in quotes because I claim to do many things that make me a better person. I should publish a long list of things I do regularly that make me a worse person to balance it out.)

Learning to skate has made me realize how futile a goal of “staying in shape” can feel. I used to go to the gym in college, and while I didn’t find it to be a negative experience, I also never felt a sense of accomplishment or even considered that exercising should correspond with a sense of accomplishment and self-betterment.

A large part of the appeal of figure skating is that it’s helping me with my kinesthetic intelligence, which is easily my weakest intelligence “modality“. I have a long history of getting lost in dance steps and avoiding games with throwing and catching (reminds me of this), so training to improve my body awareness and motor control is extremely valuable to me.

Kinesthetic intelligence training is a goal of most athletic activities, but I think figure skating is unique in its level of technicality. Relative to other sports, accuracy and adherence to patterns is more important than pursuing a superlative (like going faster, or further, or whatever-er), and there are lists of skills accompanied by descriptive instructions on how to do things correctly. So in that way, I don’t have to depend purely on kinesthetic intelligence, i.e. watching what other people are doing and trying to feel it in my body – it’s also possible to develop a physical understanding through listening, researching and thinking. I think this can be an avenue to understanding most athletic activities, but the structure isn’t necessarily in place to teach them this way, whereas the technical nature of figure skating almost requires it.

My advice for any adults interested in trying it out:

  • Most rinks have some sort of “learn to skate” class for adults, where you won’t feel out of place if you have trouble standing up in ice skates.
  • This is a list of levels and requirements from one of the major figure skating organizations: ISI requirements; there are decent youtube videos for most of the early skills.
  • Read some blog posts from adult skaters – there are a few that I follow on feedly and find inspiring:
  • Contact me and I’ll go out with you! Particularly if you’re in Portland, OR (because that’s right, I’ve finally moved!).