Reflecting on 2023

December 25, 2023

This year I quit my job. I’ve tried to reword that sentence over and over, because it doesn’t frame this piece correctly. This isn’t a reflection on quitting, and though I was experiencing some signs of burnout, this isn’t really about burnout either. But as someone who has prioritized career and stability throughout their adult life, the decision to quit without anything else lined up felt symbolically important to me. It wasn’t an all-at-once kind of decision, and I can’t get away with bumming around forever, but my inner context at the end of this year feels very different than it did at the beginning. This post is a reflection on one of the strangest, most interesting years of my life so far, as well as a small experiment in vulnerability: my for-public-consumption writing in the past has mostly been technical in nature, and I’d like to try something more personal.

At the beginning of 2023, I had been living in New Zealand for about eight months. I was born kiwi, but I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and hadn’t been back to New Zealand for more than visits since age three. Moving back to New Zealand was a somewhat rash decision, and my first six to eight months there were more challenging than I could have predicted. By the time 2023 began, though, I was feeling quite happy in my new country. My only new year’s resolution was to be more impulsive.

My original thesis for moving to New Zealand was that it would shake me out of existing patterns and habits in some unknown way. Particularly after the stagnation of the first two years of the pandemic, I felt called to change things. What I probably should have done was take a vacation, but I’ve always tended a bit too much toward severity, and convinced myself that moving countries was the right outlet for that energy. Retrospectively I feel two ways about it: on one hand, a grand gesture wasn’t really needed, but on the other, I only know that now in hindsight. I feel grateful for the learning I’ve been able to do since then.

Backstory, inklings of burnout

I’ve been able to follow a safe and straightforward path for most of my life. It was clear to me by the time I was five years old that computers would be a lifelong focus, and I delved into computer security starting around the age of 12. I don’t mean to imply that I’ve led a single-track life, just that I got lucky when it came to the clarity of my career path.

But one of the downsides of following such a clear path is that your environment doesn’t prompt you to reconsider the question of what you really want to be doing. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ask those kinds of questions – but the muscle that reminds you to do so atrophies. You can easily spend years pursuing goals set by a former version of yourself.

I think that’s one reason it took me a while to acknowledge signs of burnout. I had subconsciously set my job and career as the fixed point, and thought only of changing the surrounding context (like, for example, the country I lived in). Friends would ask how I was doing, expecting that life in New Zealand would be magical, and I would feel frustrated that I couldn’t give them the answer they expected. I was still working the same 40 hours every week – and while I could have made that more exciting, could have worked remotely from various corners of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, what I realized was that I just didn’t want to be looking at a screen eight hours each day.

My decision to take an extended leave from work (and eventually quit) was catalyzed by the influence of several people, namely PF and CS. I feel deeply grateful for the nudges they both gave me toward listening to myself. PF reminded me, with some Alan Watts quotes sprinkled in, that it was likely that I already knew what I wanted – and that the process of “figuring it out” might look more like learning to listen more closely to my own self. CS inspired in me a spontaneity I hadn’t felt since I was much younger, and with her through our short fling I felt the kind of joy that shocks you into lucidity. I was already lucky enough to be in the financial position to be able to quit my job without anything lined up afterward, but taking the leap was scary and betrayed the stability I had found so important through the previous years.

The year and the future

2023 the first year of my life where I wrote almost every single day. I started journaling after initially moving to New Zealand, mostly to help me through the challenging first few months, but the habit stuck and my writing practice has become very dear to me. Looking back through my journals helped me see the consistency in my desire for something more, providing evidence that I wasn’t being completely rash with my decision to quit. Writing has helped me understand myself, has helped me work through how I want to relate to the world, has grounded me throughout change, has helped me piece together larger patterns in my life that I never would have seen without a constant practice, has helped me stay present where I am.

I’ve spent a bit over half of this year living out of a backpack. Four and a half months of that were in Central America, being proper backpacker trash, which I’ve learned I love. I learned to scuba dive, regained my Spanish fluency, and made friends I never would have had the chance to meet had I stayed employed. Details of my time in Central America are in the highlights section below, but there’s just too much to capture. As I write this I’m visiting family in Australia, and soon I’m headed back to New Zealand, where I plan to explore all the beautiful places I haven’t yet had the chance to.

So that’s where I’m at right now. The future feels more expansive to me than it has in a long time, and with that comes apprehension about making the “right decisions”. I’m not sure exactly what I want my 2024 to look like, but I have a general idea – I’d like to keep traveling, pick up a few new skills (I start paragliding lessons mid-January), refine my ability to listen to myself, and develop more of a creative practice. I know that I’d like to spend at least some of the year at sea, though I don’t know what that will look like. If there’s room to get my Divemaster certification, that’s high on the list. Aviation, too, remains important to me, and it’s become clear that I’d like to get my commercial pilot license and my flight instructor certification – though I’m only licensed to fly in the states. I miss teaching, and I can’t think of a way I’d like to flex that muscle more than teaching people how to fly. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for this year: aviation training is more compatible with employment than unemployment, at least up until you get your first flying job. But I don’t expect that flying will be my full-time career, at least for the time being.

When I read through that list, it’s not one focus, it’s more like a collection of adventures I want to have. I’m enjoying the process of seeking novelty, and more importantly, I’m tuned into my curiosity. When I was younger, curiosity was my primary driving force. It took me into the career I have, and now I’m thankful to get back in touch with that sense of curiosity and see where else it might lead me, outside of the world of computing. I think I’m ready to spend 2024 being curious. A year or two ago I might have been alarmed to see myself seeking novelty, and I might have tried to rein it in, but I’m feeling more trusting these days.

With regard to work, I’m lucky that returning to full-time employment isn’t a pressing issue at the moment. Eventually, though, I’m almost sure I’ll find myself back in computer security. It’s too interesting for me to ever really escape. More than six months went by without touching a computer this year, which I loved, but here I am in Melbourne implementing Flipper Zero support for Gallagher access control cards out of sheer boredom. It feels like a good sign to me. I would have hated to really burn out on computing, and I don’t think I have. It’s also clear to me that being in service to a community and teaching are two focuses that I want to keep centered in my life. Maybe those will be more key parts of my career going forward, or maybe my career will be relatively less important and I’ll find those things elsewhere. I can’t wait to see what happens.

The big highlights

Media that’s meant a lot to me this year