Why I decided to volunteer on the other side of the world

I made the decision to quit my job and volunteer for 6 months in Cambodia and since then I always hear the same question “why?”. Once, a friend asked me to explain why I was doing this by trying to convince him to do the same.

This made me conclude that I cannot convince anyone to do the same because this decision is entirely personal. It is about me trying to find my own happiness and meaning in life. The concept of happiness and meaning of life are very different from one person to another. There is no point in trying to convince anyone of doing the same because this is not the right path to find happiness for everyone.

Going back to the initial question, it all started many years ago when I was 14 and started my battle to succeed in life. To give some context for non-Brazilians, I am from Rio, and there, you must be rich to have a good quality of life. Being from a middle class family from Brazil, I was always encouraged to have a successful life, which in this context means find a job that pays well to be able to live in a rich and safe neighborhood.

At the age of 14, I studied a lot to pass the exam to enter in a good public high school, then to enter in one of the best engineering universities in Brazil, then to get a scholarship to study abroad, then to get a master, then to find a job… phew, I am tired only by writing it. Once I’ve found a job it was a relief, I had finally succeeded. I got a job in Paris, I was independent and for the first time in my life I had no defined goals! The first year of my working life was amazing and I felt really happy.

After one year, I started questioning myself “what the fuck am I doing with my life?”. This question started with a feeling of not understanding the meaning of life and existence. I read many books from existentialist philosophers and I was in what is called existential depression. When you have everything to be happy, but you cannot understand what is the point of this life and nothing makes sense, like the nausea feeling of the protagonist of the book “La nausée” from Sartre. This philosophical questions then implied to more practical questions. I thought that I cannot understand why I am here, but I here I am, so I can at least try to find a meaning within my life, and I should start this by finding a job which gives me some meaning.

My current job was interesting in a technical side, but in an industry that I could not understand the value it was adding to the world (besides in dollars). I felt more and more the need to move to a company where I could feel that I was doing something meaningful or at least developing a product with real benefit to people. This feeling continued for the next year, where I procrastinated to look for a new job because I was in a comfortable position and thought I could still learn something in the job. However, as the time passed, it became more and more unbearable to go to work and I felt it was time to make a change. The only problem was I had no clue of what I wanted to do.

I was feeling totally lost. I didn’t know in which industry I wanted to work with, I wanted something more humanitarian but that pays a decent salary, I didn’t know what kind of position I wanted. Basically I was looking for positions every day, but applying very rarely and doing few interviews for which I was not very motivated. Finally, I realized it will be impossible to find a job, because I don’t know what I am looking for.

During all this mess, I started doing volunteer work every Friday night. I was helping kids with social difficulties with their homework. This was the best moment of my week, and the reason I liked it so much is because I felt I was doing something important. I thought that I was improving, even by a tiny bit, the life of some kids. When you help someone, it gives you the feeling as if you are part of something bigger, it allows you to look outside your own self. Plus, you feel very grateful when you get big hugs from them and hear that you are the best volunteer they ever had (of course this was after I offered them some gifts). Therefore I thought “why not to take a break from this standard work life and volunteer for some months?”. Besides, there were many positive circumstances (financial and bureaucratic) which gave me conditions to decide that I wanted (and I could) quit my job and volunteer abroad. For the first time in life I felt free. I felt I was not following the path imposed to me, but the one that I chose.

In conclusion, I decided to volunteer abroad to search for happiness and meaning in my life. When I say happiness I mean real happiness, not the one you show to people, not a big house, nor a car, nor a job in a big company. But the one you really feel, the one you feel when you spend a good time with people you love, or when you look at the ocean or mountains and feel that you are part of something much bigger than you. I hope that this period in Cambodia, in which I will spend doing something meaningful, will help me discover myself and find my own path to happiness. Maybe I won’t have my answers by the end, but I am sure it will be an awesome experience!