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6 months after I quit my unicorn startup to face my existential crisis

What I did and learned in Q2 of funemployment

Ariel Liu
Ariel Liu
Jul 25, 2017 · 7 min read

In my previous piece, I explained that I left my job because I had a compulsion to make big changes in my life to get out of my existential crisis. I quit not having any real direction about how I wanted to define my life. But, I had a plan of attack. I created a focus for each quarter of the year to hone in on what I cared about. In Q1 I worked on health and fitness. For Q2, I announced that I’d work on sharing and creative expression. This is my update on what I did toward that focus.

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Just as it’s important to put your money where your mouth is, I think it’s equally important to put your mouth where your time and money are. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, I pushed myself to contribute to the collection of societal genius, or “scenius” as he puts it.

Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute — the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start.
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

In the last few months, I wrote about “How I figured out my life purpose,” why everyone should share what they’re doing, how to answer “What are you working on?”, why I need to “Do the work, and a lot of it,” how finding the right words isn’t easy, but can start with gratitude, “Let your curiosity guide you,” and about finding new things when you thought you’d finished looking.

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After taking a figure drawing intensive in April at SFAI I bumped into my drawing instructor, Daniel, at the MFA open studios. He asked if I was planning to apply for the MFA program. I was taken aback because it had never occurred to me to take my art seriously enough to go to school for it. I took his encouraging words with a grain of salt, but thought I might as well give art a shot while I’m allowing myself this year of exploration.

The sticker price of an MFA program quickly turned me off, but I found an alternative in Shaunta Grimes’s DIY MFA for writing. I decided to adapt her strategy to my own art and used Noah Bradley’s advice on alternatives to art school. In short, I figured that an MFA consists of: a lot of consumption, a lot of learning, a lot of production, a lot of reflection, and a serious community to tie it all together.

For consumption, I went to the Minnesota Street Project, SF MoMA, (NYC) MoMA, MoMA PS1, New Museum, and Ai Weiwei’s “Hansel & Gretal”. I would then reflect on what I noticed about the pieces and what I liked or did not like about them. Production was building up a daily sketching practice and getting an art studio so that I had a dedicated space to work on art. I motivated art-making by publishing some thoughts and art to my art blog.

I never found the kind of community I wanted around art, which, in my opinion, may be the most important aspect of attending an art school. There are some online communities on Facebook and Google+, but they don’t really provide the kind of closeness, critique, or attention that I’d want. In the end though, after reading Art & Fear, I realized what my relation to art was and how I wanted art to exist in the world.

Figure Drawing

For Noah Bradley’s “$10k Ultimate Art Education,” he recommends attending weekly figure drawing sessions. In June, I racked up 7 figure drawing sessions and fell in love with it.

There is a meditative aspect to figure drawing that made me reference it in day-to-day life outside of drawing. I’d be reminded by my figure drawing instructor who would encourage us to “keep pushing” during long poses. Even when I thought I didn’t have any more to push through, I would think of those words and look again to see there was always more that I could investigate.

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I often visit my friends and former teammates at Lyft. They jokingly tease me about coming back to work for them and ask if I’m bored yet.

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(I’m on the left) Does this look like the face of boredom to you?

For me, boredom would be an indication that I’m doing something wrong. When I quit my job, I specifically did so to get out of chronic ennui. To have the freedom to spend 8 hours a day doing whatever I want and still be bored is denying life of its richness and depth. It’s funny to me that others say they’d love to be in my position, but feel that they would get bored in a few months.

In the last quarter, I ate lunch with a dozen or so friends to learn about what they learned, their inspiration, and how they went about their funemployment. I went on a weekend getaway to the Eastern Sierras to soak in natural hot springs. I crashed on the floor of my best friend’s van and enjoyed the freedom of van life for 5 days. I lived in New York for a month pivoting from working on my project to working on my DIY MFA. I went to a Freeganism 101 meetup and trash tour and experienced the tragedy of waste in our consumerist society. Finally, I meditated for 10 days at a Vipassana meditation course, during which I finally understood how and why I should meditate.

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While this quarter was intended to primarily be about sharing and creativity, it ended up being punctuated much more by human connection and personal growth.

Live a good life through harmony

A friend hosted a symposium recently around “5 resources we feel are essential to living a good life.” My top two resources were Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and the School of Life videos. Both give advice about life, but also show how to give advice to others and even yourself. Having solid inter- and intra-personal interactions and relationships gives me healthy balance that I find essential.

My other 3 resources were Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Vipassana, and Religion for the Nonreligious essay by Tim Urban. In some ways religion could be the interpretation of the theme. Instead, I think of the theme more generally as guidelines to shape your attitude toward life.

Focus, but not at the cost of your needs

After the Vipassana meditation course, I noticed huge improvements in my ability to focus without distraction and accomplish tasks. To focus, I declined social engagements, but then found myself slipping into loneliness. I realized that while deep work is important, so too is fulfilling my basic needs.

Never try, never know

Persistent throughout the last 6 months of exploration has been the act of Just Doing Shit. In contrast, last year, I often considered things I could do, but weigh its benefits and drawbacks rather than just doing it.

At the Vipassana meditation course, Goenka explained the three types of wisdom: 1. wisdom heard or read, 2. wisdom from personal analysis and reasoning, 3. experiential wisdom. He says that the first two types, can be useful, but ultimately purely intellectual with no lasting benefit. He emphasized that experiential wisdom is the most important kind of wisdom. It is not enough to intellectualize and ruminate about the potential life paths, you must do in order to create meaning.

“Never try, never know” isn’t just about doing, it’s about withholding judgment on a lifestyle or actions of others until you’ve experienced it for yourself. When you experience wisdom, it becomes your own wisdom.

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