I get asked this question a lot. Usually just inside my own head, though. I'm kind of surprised how little other people ask me. Maybe everyone else gets it already? If that's the case, this post might be more for me than it is for you.
I worked really hard to get the life I'm leaving. I grew up watching other families that had so much money they just bought a new dryer if theirs started crapping out. They didn't have to hang clothes up until a paycheck came in that wasn't earmarked for rent or bills, and there was money to spare on a repairman. They just covered it, and complained about losing a Sunday afternoon. I dreamed of being that rich.
So when I was 25, working full-time, and I still hadn't transferred to a 4-year college, that's what kept me going. That, and proving to my ex-girlfriend's parents that despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, I wasn't a loser. Eventually, I got a consolation master's degree and one hell of a job at a consulting firm. After four years, I realized I made the kind of money I dreamed about. I didn't have to check my bank account. I lived in a giant loft in the quickly gentrifying meat-packing district in Chicago. I made it. And I didn't want it anymore. I spent almost all my money just trying to enjoy the scraps of my life I could call mine.
I changed gears to a much less stressful job, a smaller apartment (still one whole floor of an ancient two-flat in a different, yet still rapidly gentrifying, neighborhood in Chicago), and left a lot of earning potential on the table. I explained the switch to people by saying "sometimes, money is just too expensive." My commute became a 25 minute walk to work. I could wear a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals if I wanted, and there was free beer on Fridays. Eventually, they decided what I was doing was data science, and that we should be doing more of it. I became a Senior Data Scientist (the career called "the sexiest job of the 21st century" by the Harvard Business Review), and got to work on some genuinely satisfying projects with tremendously smart people. My boss and I had mutual respect for each other. I had everything I could reasonably ask for. I made it and then some.
I started saving up money to buy a condo, and a friend of mine put me in touch with her realtor. I started looking at condos, just to get a feel for the market, and so that when I had enough saved up, I could be an educated consumer. My realtor was very understanding, and not pushy at all. Most of the places we looked at were easy to pass on. Too small. Bad location. Intolerably squeaky floors. But, one place stuck in my mind. I really liked it. It was priced well, and I was convinced it would be off the market soon. I started scheming ways that I could buy it. I could pull money from my IRA. The price dropped. I started talking to a loan officer. The price dropped again. I could get a predatory loan for a low down payment. The price dropped yet again. I knew it was going to get snapped up. I almost had it figured out, but my mortgage would be way higher than my current rent, I would have no savings, and I would have to keep my job (or something quite like it) for the foreseeable future.
That's when I realized just how trapped I felt.
My stomach dropped, and I suddenly knew that buying a condo would possibly be the worst decision of my life. I'd been setting up exit strategies from work for years, but I never gave them the energy they needed to really take off. I worked as a bartender on the side. I worked photo gigs. I started doing stand-up. I took writing classes at Second City. I set up my front room into a photo studio to take headshots. I took acting classes. I went to Uganda and seriously looked into a global social enterprise MBA program.
Nothing surefire. Everything risky. Most likely to fail. Or succeed and make nothing. I still had rent. I still had bills. I still had a lifestyle that had crept up to match my income. And as much as I hated dragging myself out of bed on Monday mornings, I still managed to do it. But buying a condo meant locking myself in. My pipe dreams were keeping me going. If I didn't have an exit strategy, I was going to be miserable.
Then one day at work, when I was feeling a particularly strong case of "fuck it", I pulled up Craigslist and searched for Econoline vans. Again. I don't know why it was always Econolines, but that's what I always looked at when I would daydream about giving it all up, throwing a mattress in the back of a van, and just driving away. But this time, I actually had the cash saved up to do it. I messaged a friend of mine who had packed up into a car and was driving around the country. Half of me wanted to get a dose of reality and put away my childish notions. Instead, she said, "nothing else will ever scratch that itch." I knew she was right. I knew I needed to scratch that itch.
So, I messaged one of the ads with a good deal on a decent looking van, and met him that weekend. It was more than a little beat up, had major rust issues, and needed a new fuel sensor. I did not buy that van. I mean, I might be a little crazy, but I'm not that crazy. I eventually found a decent van in the burbs that's in good shape with reasonable mileage, bought it, and started making a home out of it.
I take off in two weeks, and I still can't really tell you why. I have vague theories floating around in my head, though: Maybe if I can get used to a minimal existence, I can do something else that makes me happy even if it doesn't make much money? Maybe I'll figure out what I really want to do if I have more time to myself? Maybe I'll find a place that I want to settle down in? Maybe I'll hate it and come back to data science with renewed vigor and appreciation?
I don't know. I just know I need to.