On Life and Work Balance

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“It is all about the decisions you make,” says Simon, while we walk on a dirt road heading back to our hostels after having snorkeled with various fish in a nearby lagoon.

Simon was a lawyer and his partner Jayne was a teacher. As Marina and I soon learned, Simon and Jayne were at the end of their 7 month trip through South America. They both quit their jobs, rented out their home in England, and decided to travel for over half a year – according to them, 7 months is just the right amount of time for a decent trip.

Apparently, we had met people who were crazier than us.

Naturally, we became fast friends. It was incredibly refreshing to meet like-minded individuals, who despite being our parents’ age, seemed to have a thirst for adventure and exploration that rivaled our own. It was also reassuring to learn that it is possible to live such that one’s career and life were in balance.

Simon, for example, worked so that he would have the ability to take many trips with his wife and two sons. In other words, he worked to live, not the reverse. Unfortunately, the latter idiom reflects the mentality of most Westerners, and is one of the reasons why both Marina and I became disillusioned with the academic life – it was simply too all-consuming.

Simon, too, confessed that the partners at his law firm were equally obsessed with their work. They could only stomach a maximum of 2 week’s vacation per year, whereas Simon wasn’t satisfied with anything less than 2 months!

His colleagues would often comment how they don’t understand how he can afford to take so much time off, not to mention traveling all over the world to boot. This is a comment we have also heard. Over the past 6 years we have been living off of modest government scholarships, and yet have managed to travel for at least 3 weeks every year. As the energetic Englishman suggested, it all comes down to the decisions one makes. You can choose an expensive lifestyle, purchasing every material possession which catches your eye regardless of need, and despite a high paying job, you could always be struggling to make ends meet. In this situation, one has simply chosen to accrue things in place of experiences. Different people place different values on these two things. Over the past number of years, I have come to understand that experiences carry a much higher personal value than do possessions. I don’t mind not having cable tv, or buying a new car if it means I will be able to afford a trip down the road – it’s a sacrifice I make easily.

I have not always felt this way. In fact, I remember a conversation with my good friend Travis, during which he confessed that he’d be more than happy working at a small university, making just enough to afford a modest home, to feed the family, and to have the time and the resources to pursue things he loved much more than work – in his case: running, biking, and even joggling. At the time (some 3 years ago), I was fully convinced that the only way to be happy in life was by driving an Audi (a V6, at the very least), living in a home which was larger than necessary, wearing Armani suits (pardon my naïveté, I assumed then, and still do today, that these are expensive suits), and always being busy attending important functions.

Over the past two years, as I grew into the role of an up-and-coming scholar, I began to notice the personal cost this rise to ‘academic stardom’ required. Sure, I had accumulated a robust curriculum vita, filled with many publications in good medical journals, along with highly-coveted oral presentations at large conferences. Unfortunately, in the process, my guitars began accumulating dust; my relationship with Marina became stagnant, if not strained; I had almost completely stopped reading for pleasure; I stopped learning about things outside of my field of research; I had lost contact with many good friends; and I became even more irritable, critical and jaded than normal.

In essence, all the things that used to define who I was, became overshadowed by one thing: work.

I began to dislike who I was becoming. What began worrying me the most was the potential influence I would have on my future children; that is, the father I would become, if I stayed on my current trajectory.

After this realization sank in, Marina and I made a collective vow to not let work rule our existence.

Sometime in January of 2010, while we were both in the depths of thesis writing, we decided to guide our decisions in life by the following question:

“You are sitting with your grandchildren on your lap. What stories of your personal exploits through life are you sharing with them?”

Simply put, we wanted to live a story worth telling.

If not a full novel, then at the very least, accumulate a few personal novellas worth reading. We wrote the above on a sheet of paper and taped it to our front door, so that every time we left the house – we were reminded of our new found purpose. It was this silly note that reassured us we were making the right decision to travel South America without a clear itinerary before making any decisions about career, and life in general going forwards.

This single notion continues to guide the decisions we make about our careers, and more importantly, our lives.

Peter



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On life perspective: Arequipa’s reality check

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“Stopping the cocaine trade in Peru is equivalent to economic suicide,” calmly explains our guide, Miguel.

We all listen intently, while sitting in a white Mercedez van which has stopped at an overlook of one of Peru’s many shanty towns.

“12% of the Peruvian economy, in one way or another, depends on cocaine.”

Marina and I exchange glances, eyes wide open in amazement.

“I’m sorry to say but cocaine is good for Peru. Every time some young person in your country starts to use cocaine, some starving Peruvian gets a job.”

That is a harsh reality.

If you’ve ever vacationed in Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, or any other developing country, you may have been surprised on your initial visit by the dramatic divide between all the amenities at your waterfront resort and the complete lack thereof for most of the inland inhabitants.

Often times, the tourism industry, much as the country’s government, hides the unfortunate reality facing the majority of its population while it shuttles the tourists from one isolated spot to another.

Today, we took a tour which exposed this reality in Peru.

After being a typical tour guide in Arequipa (the Rome of America) and often being asked questions by tourists regarding the welfare of the local inhabitants, Miguel decided to offer an alternative to the usual scenic and historic tours in the area.

Thus was born the “Peru Reality Tour.”

While it was not on our itinerary, it may have been the most personally impactful afternoon of our trip.

At one of the first stops, we visited a nearby quarry, which is worked by some of the poorest of Arequipia’s inhabitants.

“They make one sole for an unfinished stone brick, but if they clean it up and polish it, they can earn 1.5 soles,” informs Miguel.

Behind him, a father and son team chip away at the silica rich stone using a blunt mallet and other improvised tools such as a steel pick which originally functioned as car wheel axle. The father, wearing sandals which he made using pieces of old tires, performs the blunt work with the mallet while the son perfects each brick with the steel pick.

They work like this for 12hrs each day, 7 days per week, 365 days of the year.

At 10 soles a day, assuming no days off, these men will make approximately 300 soles ($100) each per month.

Unfortunately, the bare minimum cost of living in Peru is about 750 soles per month.

They can take no vacations, they have no ability to save their earnings towards making some future purchase; there’s simply no light at the end of their tunnel.

They carve the brick today, so they can afford to eat tomorrow.

That’s it.

In addition to a devastatingly poor wage, the work of the quarrymen is extremely dangerous.

As they work away at the brittle stone, neither the father nor the son is wearing a face mask.

The result: high probability of developing silicosis, a lung disease developed by the chronic inhalation of silica dust from the stone.

While the son is wearing sunglasses, his father works with his eyes exposed to the blinding reflection of the sun off the white stone.

The result: an increased risk of cataracts.

Each year, approximately 3-5 people die while working the stone at the quarry. They have no employment insurance.

As I stood there, listening to Miguel, watching these men work the stone from a few meters away, an intense sense of guilt had struck me; tears welling up in my eyes hidden behind my sunglasses.

How embarrassingly spoiled was I to live in Canada, have access to abundant and varied food, potable water, heating, medical care, clothing, safe shelter, television, internet, etc.

And yet, I’ve been complaining.

I’ve previously spoken about my disillusionment with academia and my need to explore alternatives for potential career paths – this complaint was the major instigator of this summer’s hiatus.

What a fucking joke!

At least I HAVE options.

My parents, who grew up in communist Poland, had far fewer options. Their situation was much closer to that of the quarry workers I was now observing, that to my own, back in Canada. They took a phenomenal risk and escaped from their home country with me in tow (I was 6 years old).

Their main goal?

To give me the opportunities they were robbed of.

To give me options they never had.

And here I am with plentiful options, and what do I do?

Complain about how tough I have it.

I could not have been more naïve.

Tonight I sleep ashamed.

Peter

(If you are ever in Arequipa and want a different tourism experience, contact Miguel and ask about the Peru Reality Tour)

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