A Field Guide to Starting Over

I moved to Omaha about a year ago, marking the 6th city I’ve lived in over the last 8 years.

I was born with a deep-seeded need to get the fuck out of Nebraska. I would bleach my hair blonde and slather myself with self-tanner, hoping to emulate the California girls that Jack Kerouac wrote about and my dad’s records sang about. Alas, I was in the middle of Western Nebraska with my happy little family.

As soon as I could, I left Nebraska. My dad moved me to grad school in Boston and left me sobbing on the street corner after we ate cannoli. I was alone for the first time in my life.

From Boston I just kept moving. I popped down to Los Angeles to work for Capitol Records and Universal Music. I spent my days retrieving Dave Navarro’s cigarettes from the same studios Johnny Cash sang in. I moved to Chicago and worked at a big communications agency, living in a studio apartment under the Red Line. I spent a few years in Lincoln teaching college and working at a non-profit that laid me off during the recession.

It took me two years to find another full-time job.

I was determined to leave Nebraska behind forever, and eventually landed a job in the Bay Area. I boarded a train to San Francisco a few days before Burning Man and headed west. A lobster fisherman taught me how to swing dance in the lounge car after we drank all the beer on the train somewhere in the middle of Utah. I met a girl biking her way across the U.S. I swayed through the Bonneville Salt Flats, through the wild west, up the Sierras and landed in Oakland 40 hours late.

The Devil I Know, Is Better Than The Devil I Don’t

Starting over is terrifying, but it’s an adventure. I find myself in a lot of conversations with people who hate their job, hate where they live, hate something. But we have a hard time changing our situations. So I was interested in the psychological reasons we might not get over those hurdles and find what’s really right for us.

When I moved to San Francisco, I knew within one month I had taken a job that was all wrong for me. I would call my friends and family in tears, wondering what to do. “You just moved there, Amanda,” they would say. “What if the next thing is worse?” So I stayed. And I grew even more miserable.

This advice sucks for so many reasons. We’re afraid to change a shitty situation because we think we have the tools to deal with what we have right now. But that thing we’re not sure of? We don’t know if we have the tools for that.

According to Gallup, 74 percent of people today would consider finding a new job, over 30 percent are actively looking. Additionally, 70% of US employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. Why are we living this way? Why don’t we actually find what makes us happy?

I checked out Dan Gilbert’s Ted Talk on The Surprising Science of Happiness and found out that the modern human brain is the only brain that can simulate something without it even happening. As Gilbert says, we can have experiences in our heads without even trying them out. It’s why Ben and Jerry’s does not have liver and onions ice cream, because without even trying it — you know it will be disgusting.

The problem is, we have a negative Impact Bias: the simulator is bad, so people expect bad things to have a bigger impact than they actually have. As an example, Gilbert used a study done on recent paraplegics and recent lottery winners’ happiness over one year. Where many would assume the paraplegics’ happiness would not be very high, Gilbert found both groups happiness to be equal after a year. We have the tendency to overestimate the “hedonic impact” of future events: not passing a college exam, not getting that job, we think it’s going to have a much greater intensity and duration than they actually have.

I think this is why we stay in shitty situations. We think about that shitty situation that might happen in our next job/city/etc. and we think we’ll never get out of it. The possibility of it going bad is too much to handle.

You’ll Be OK No Matter What

Gilbert’s talk also highlighted a kind of counter-attack our brains engage when things don’t quite go our way: Synthetic Happiness. We change our views of the world so we can feel better about the world we find ourselves in. And that’s not a bad thing. It helps us deal with the daily decisions that we sometimes have no control over.

This is basically what happens when you suddenly find yourself in a situation you didn’t really want. Say, (hypothetically) when you make the decision to move from California to Nebraska for a boyfriend who eventually dumps you. Suddenly, all those things you thought you wanted were wrong, and that person seems so wrong for you. I also like to call this “everything happens for a reason”. Synthetic sounds fake, made up, for things that happen beyond our control. These big life changes do happen for a reason, and I always believe if I’m not going to change a situation — something bigger than me will. Gilbert argues that we view Synthetic Happiness too negatively, that it’s just as great and wonderful as Actually Happiness. I would agree.

There are parameters for Synthetic Happiness. Too much room for deciding is the enemy for synthetic happiness, and people don’t know this about themselves. Gilbert did a study with a group of photography students. He had them produce two huge, beautiful photos of images that meant a lot to them. Once everything was all done, they split the group into two sections. Group A they told they’ll be taking one of these pictures immediately and shipping it off to their headquarters, so pick the picture that means the most to you and see ya later. Group B was told the same thing, but was given a few days to think about their decision and could make a swap. Over time, Group B grew to desperately regret their decision where Group A remained very happy about theirs.

When I decided to leave Nebraska in 2011, I had spent several years looking for a new job and felt almost suffocated by the possibilities out there. I spent a lot of time throwing my resume at anything and everything all over the country, and made no progress. It was when I narrowed it down to a specific location was when I moved forward.

Sell Your Shit, And Move

Changing your situation is hard when you don’t feel you have the money to switch jobs or leave a community you don’t belong in. Add in a whole house/apartment full of stuff — and you’re probably feeling even more anchored down. Get rid of it. You have too much of it anyway.

Our modern world is surrounded by abundance — after all it was the “American Dream.” In Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” he highlighted several “for shits sake, America” points about our love for our stuff:

- Aspirations for our parents’ and grandparents generations were to have a home and a car. Now more than 2 out of three Americans own the homes in which they live — 13% of homes are second homes. As for autos, today the US has more cars than licensed drivers.

- Self Storage — the place where people store their extra stuff is now a $17 billion annual industry — more than the major motion picture business. (Update: According to an industry trade magazine, in 2012 Self Storage made $22B in annual revenues!)

- When we can’t store it — we throw it away. The US spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on EVERYTHING. In other words, our waste reciprocals “cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.”

- The access to more things that — bonus — are also beautifully designed (ala Target) hasn’t made us happier. Standards of living have risen sharply, but life satisfaction hasn’t budged.

Lesson: throw your shit out. On your deathbed you won’t be thinking of that toilet brush you bought in 2013.

Learn How To Be Alone

We are never alone. We carry an entire world in our pockets most of the time (phone) and have developed such a dependency on being constantly available, we rarely see the beauty in being alone.

When I first moved to SF, I felt wildly uncomfortable in my new apartment. It wasn’t my home, and a lot of factors contributed to that. So, to avoid being home — I would wander the streets every night. I’d take myself out to dinner. I’d visit new bars. I’d check out tourist traps and go for runs. I was alone. Constantly. And, I grew to love it. My adventures were whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t have to ask if someone else felt like checking out the new oyster bar on Divisidaro or take the bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. A day in Oakland? That sounds lovely. I took a bartending course and met one of my friend Christine — who ended up being a pillar for me in SF.

We are so busy trying to be connected, we forget how to just be with ourselves. To think about what we want to do, where we want to go. I’ve learned to appreciate my body more, and take better care of it. I’ve learned confidence I didn’t know I had. It’s the most freeing lesson you can learn.

I’m not an outgoing person. I have extroverted tendencies, but I’m an introvert at heart. But I can be alone in the middle of a crowded bar.

I live life pretty black and white: you either want to, or you don’t. You either ask that girl out, or you don’t want to. You either train for that half marathon, or you don’t want to. It’s been a painful way to look at the world sometimes, but I rarely see grey areas. Are you really going to miss out on a great adventure, or are you going to keep hating your current situation? I think you’ll find if you just try, you’ll surprise yourself.

PS — This was a talk I gave at BarCamp Omaha, my first-ever talk. Thanks, Miranda for helping me pick out pretty font and listening to my shitty first practice! Thanks Kelsey for listening to my research ideas and always encouraging me! Thanks Jessica for dragging your hungover body out of your house to listen to me! Thanks to all my friends who sat up front (and all over) and made me feel so good, and to all of you who couldn’t make it but supported me too! :D

Cuddle monster. Dog lover. Bike rider. Dreams of being a gardener.

Cuddle monster. Dog lover. Bike rider. Dreams of being a gardener.