Getting Fired, the Greatest Turning Point in My LIfe

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Caption: The list goes on…


What is the greatest turning point in your life? In my case, some really important moments that immediately come to mind are meeting my wife, getting married, and the birth of our son. However, I would not call any of those the greatest turning point in my life — much to my wife’s disapproval — because there is another one which had a far larger impact on how events have unfolded for me this far.

You might guess that it was the decision to move to Japan, where I embarked on a new career and built up a business in translation (and occasional travel writing) which I am quite proud of, but that is not the case. The thing that got it all started was getting canned.

Let me backtrack a bit. When I was growing up, people all around me always told me that so long as I could get a college degree, I would be good to go. So, when it came time to enter college and choose a major, I decided to major in history. (I bet you can see where this is going.)

Why did I choose history? Because it was my favorite subject! I had a great world history teacher in high school who turned a subject that for me until that point was incredibly dull into a fascinating topic. This inspired me to study history, with the long-term goal of becoming a professor in the field.

Well, shortly before I got my B.A. in History from the University of Texas at Austin, I decided I didn’t want to go on to graduate school, but that I wanted to work. I was tired of studying, and after all, I already had my degree, so I was good to go, right?

Wrong.

As it turns out, some degrees are more practical than others. (You may roll your eyes now at my ignorance some 20 years ago.) I didn’t attend any job fairs, and I hardly made any effort to plan out my career until I was near the end of my final semester.

In that last semester, I considered several ideas for embarking on a career, but none of them panned out. I thought I could apply the knowledge gained from my university studies to a job in the CIA or the State Department, perhaps as an analyst. I was going to graduate in December 2001 and the War on Terror was ramping up, so I figured there might be opportunities in government, but both declined to hire me. I even thought about joining the military with the goal of becoming an intelligence officer, but fortunately the recruiting office was closed the day I decided to visit. What a near-miss!

Another option that came to mind was teaching history, so I applied to the Teach for America program, where participants can teach in underserved public schools while studying to receive their teaching licenses. (That’s right, I hadn’t even bothered to go for a teaching license as a backup plan while I was in college.) Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, depending on your point of view, I was not accepted into the program.

At this time, I was completely dejected. I had no idea about what direction to take my life in. I was also pretty clueless on how to go about looking for a job. My two main sources for job information were the newspaper and Monster.com. I had no network to speak of.

Not so surprisingly, I ended up with a pretty crappy job. A few months after graduating, I took a position at a health insurance company as a “data entry specialist.” I was able to negotiate a higher wage because I can type really fast (100 words per minute). However, the job was hell. In fact, some coworkers from another department described my section as “the Hellhole.” For eight hours a day, I would type names, addresses, and other information from health insurance claim forms into a database. That’s it. I was allowed to listen to music on headphones, but that did not really help ease the utter agony of this mind-numbingly dull occupation. It also barely paid me enough money to get by. My work situation was sucking my will to live.

After a few months on the job, I took a trip with a friend to New York City, where we had a great time. I thought this would refresh me and I would be able to take on data entry with renewed vigor, but it actually made things worse. I was so utterly disappointed to be sitting in my cubicle when a couple days before I’d been on top of the Empire State Building.

To deal with this profound melancholy, I got into a very bad habit of drinking during my lunch breaks. Before heading out to work, I would take a 20-ounce bottle of Coke, pour out one-third of it, refill it with dirt-cheap whiskey, the kind you buy in a gallon jug, and drink it with my lunch. This gave me a pretty decent buzz that would fade enough by the end of the workday so that I could feel reasonably safe driving home.

Clearly, I was on my way to becoming an alcoholic. Things were not looking good. Then something incredible happened. One day, as I was working at my desk, I was called away by the manager. I was often late to work, early to punch out, and I called in sick with unusual frequency, but now I had done something that was the last straw: I had been busted using a desktop chat application while working. My manager pushed a resignation form across the desk.

I was all too happy to sign it! Finally, somebody had shoved me out of my sorry state. I gathered my belongings, was escorted out of the office, and drove home. There, I changed into a T-shirt and cutoff shorts, drove down to the lake — picking up a six-pack of tallboys on the way — and swam and sipped on beer and read a book and forgot all about all my worries. This, here, was the greatest turning point in my life.

After that day, I decided I would never, ever work a job I hate, even if it made me utterly destitute. As I began researching new work opportunities while performing a handful of odd jobs to cobble together some money, which included coaching fencing and working as a substitute teacher at local public schools, I took advantage of low interest rates and high credit limits to pay the bills I couldn’t cover with cash. Over a period of six months, I had racked up a credit card debt of around $18,000. This obviously was not sustainable, but I had to find a way to live happily, otherwise, what was the point of living?

One day, I saw a job ad for teaching English in South Korea. It sounded like a ridiculous idea to me at the time. I wasn’t going to move to some country I didn’t know anything about! But then a few weeks later, I saw the same ad again. I hadn’t hit upon any better ideas, and the more I reconsidered the prospect of working in another country, the more it sounded like an adventure than something out of left field.

That’s when I decided to research the possibilities for teaching English not only in Korea, but also in other countries. Specifically, I wanted to know where I could do this job while paying off my credit card debt as fast as possible. I compared several places, including South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Thailand, but the one where it looked like I could save up money the fastest was Japan. This was also a nice coincidence because it seemed that Japan would be a really cool place to live! (It is.)

Within a month or so, I was hired by an English language school that sent me to Kyoto. At first I had only intended to work in Japan for a year and then use whatever marketable skills I could acquire there to find something back in the States, but then I met my future wife. I wanted to be with her, and it also turned out that I enjoyed teaching ESL much more than I’d expected, so I decided to stay for the foreseeable future. Eventually, I would learn Japanese and stumble upon some information about how lucrative being a freelance translator can be. The rest is history.

As I’ve said before, our long-term plans rarely come to fruition. Just a few years earlier, I’d wanted to be a history professor, remember? But that’s okay, because things can turn out great anyways. In my case, I can thank it all to being fired in my early 20s.


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