At the beginning of this year, I was still splitting my time between my apartment in New York and a rented cottage in Menlo Park, California. I’d had my life spread between two coasts for nearly a year, and was so sick of it that I have rarely felt as relieved as the day I shipped all my stuff to New York, said goodbye to the chickens in the backyard, and bade farewell to the Bay Area. I knew I’d miss friends like Rishi, Hillary, Jeff and his wife and kids, Chris and his wife and kids, and others who have no online presence (incredible, I know). But when you’re done with the tech world, the tech world STILL isn’t done with you if you’re living in Silicon Valley. My three-month start-up contract wrapped up and I got the hell out of Dodge as fast as I could.
In February and March, I found out what I’d always wanted to know: What I’d do with myself if I didn’t have to report to an office every day. Starting in London, all the jobs I’d had after age 19 had been for tech and media start-ups. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be another start-up. So I met up with everyone I knew in New York, told them I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next, but asked them to let me know if they saw anything that looked really interesting. I did some freelance work in the meantime, and spent a lot of time getting to know New York Cares and its projects for children and the homeless. (I HIGHLY recommend working through them if you want to volunteer in New York. They coordinate efforts for hundreds of agencies in the area, and they make it easy for you to work volunteering into a busy schedule. Their website is very good at helping you find exactly the projects that interest you, too.)
Working with kids through New York Cares made me realize that I wanted to do more significant work with children. I had no idea how I could do that, though, since I have no social work qualifications. So I just told people that’s what I wanted to do, to see if anyone had any ideas. In April, my friend Tim Peek from NBC (whom I’d met while working with Qik) told me about his favorite NGO and their maternal, newborn and child health project he thought I’d be perfect for.
I started on that project in mid-May, and by May 22 I was in Mumbai, en route to our office in Orissa. The highlight of that trip was meeting Dishanti, a tribal mother who’d never left her village (which has no roads in or out of it) before she traveled to Bhubaneswar for our project.
After India, I went to our HQ in Dublin, where I learned that I’d brought back my very first amoeba. My boyfriend flew in from New York to meet me in London for a long weekend, and then I headed to Sierra Leone. After several very long work days, I found myself on an abandoned beach on the West African coast, marveling at the fact that less than a month before, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. Things can change so quickly.
After turning 33 in July, I quit a lot of substances: sugar, all sweeteners, wheat, all flours, caffeine, cheese, nuts…too many to list. At first, I thought it was too difficult and that I wouldn’t be able to maintain such a restrictive regime. About a month into it – just as all those infuriating experts always say about habits – it became routine and I went on auto-pilot. I’ve lost about 35 pounds since then, but I’ve gained so much. Mostly, I no longer worry or feel guilty about what I eat. It’s a huge relief. But I also learned how to take care of myself first, even if it bothers other people that I’m not eating what they want me to eat. Yeah, it only took me 33 years to figure that out.
Lessons in self-care continued as I made a concerted effort to do something radical: Go to the doctor. In the past, I would have stupidly soldiered on through pain and discomfort, but this year I put my health insurance to maximum use. I discovered that I am very healthy, with a strong heart (though one that has a slight murmur and corresponding low blood pressure). But I also learned that I should never wear flat shoes. I was born with deformed hip joints, and had my first ever operation to repair a jacked up right hip. It’s always a relief to discover that what ails you is both non-life-threatening and treatable, and it feels good to take care of yourself. Again: Who knew?
In retrospect, my theme for 2010 was stability. Life brings enough of its own chaos, and after eliminating as much of it as possible in 2009, I was eager to avoid self-manufactured trouble. Working with those who are subject to hideous living conditions also gave me an appreciation for what I have; finally getting all of my possessions into one home made me want to enjoy that home. While I did take multiple trips – to Europe, Africa, India, DC, and home to Ohio – I tried to stay put as much as I could. It was a huge change from years past, but one that paid off. Domestic life has never been so good, and as Samuel Johnson said:
To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends…
I don’t strategize about what 2011 will bring, but I do know that I want to keep my happy home life, stay healthy, see more of my family and best friend in Ohio, and find new ways to serve others. I am still selfish and willful, and probably always will be. But I do try to keep my eyes open for service opportunities – some of which I take, some of which I don’t. So maybe 2011 should be about being of service even – especially – when I don’t want to be.
Or maybe it’ll just be about thinking less and laughing more.