Navigating Life’s Known Unknowns

Sunset in rearview mirror

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I cried my way through Oklahoma and Texas, but when the sun rose in New Mexico, I had a plan. I would dismantle every element of my life and start fresh, new, and, most importantly, pain-free. All I had to do was save $30,000 for manumission. I never said it was a great plan.

I can see it as clearly now as I saw it then. Living in my car for one Arizona winter should do it. Between showering in the gym, cooking my meals in the break room, and not even paying for my own toilet paper, the cash would stack up. This single-minded purpose for self-preservation and freedom would release me from my perceived servitude of the corporate world into the great void.

The true frailty of the human condition is that we are so often blind to our own biases. When it’s most critical to make a decision, we are often in the worst position to evaluate the options. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.” The best decision I made in my life was to seek counsel to help evaluate the known unknowns. 

Seeking Counsel in the Arms of my Love

As beautiful as my radical escape plan sounded, I was afraid. I showed up at Jenn’s doorstep like a lost kitten and refused to leave. She was my rock, my inspiration, but most of all, my counsel.

She was there to listen to my pain, how I felt betrayed by family court ruling that the kids should move to Ohio and generally disenfranchised from the American Dream. I did everything that I was supposed to. I graduated with a good degree and got a good job. I worked every day since I was 15 and always provided for my family. How was it that I held a high power job at the same company for 18 years, was 30K in debt, and only had parenting time on school holidays?

I came to Jenn only knowing that I didn’t want to be alone. She showed me that I didn’t have to burn everything down to be free. She suggested a three-year beach lifestyle experiment. I floated my resume and matriculated to San Diego. I didn’t know everything, but I knew that I would enjoy America’s Finest City.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in San Diego

San Diego was everything that it promised. We lived eight blocks off the beach and eight blocks off of Mission Bay in a town called Pacific Beach. With all the young twenty-somethings around us, it felt like a college town without the pretense of academics. 9/10 of San Diego’s best “worst decision” bars were stumbling distance from our house. It was like being a kid again, including zero reverence for financial planning.

I learned to surf and dive, watched more fantastic sunsets over Crystal Pier than I could count, and came up with a new plan for retirement. Mathematically speaking, a mid-range passive, location-independent blog income would open the world and future for us.

Starting blogging isn’t as easy as posting your resume online. It called for Jenn and I to figure out a lot of tough questions together, starting with how to build a website, how to blog, and what does it takes to run a successful on-line business together? These nuts and bolts questions led to larger life questions this unusual course correction brings up. We sought help through cognitive behavioral therapy. 

From Psych Central

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.

As a physicist, this approach resonated with me. We were making good progress until a recruiter found my resume deep on Indeed. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and we packed our bags and moved to Orlando.

Living the O-Town Dream

The Orlando Plan was relatively simple, double down on corporate America for five years and cash out. That seemed like enough time for the blog to take off and our cats to expire.  I was making enough for Jenn to focus on the blog full-time. What’s more, Florida gets 128 million visitors every year, surely some of those peeps would be interested in the words we spewed into the blogosphere via the world wide web.

The problem with the Orlando plan was that it contained multiple single-point failures. Wikipedia says a single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. What if the cats lived longer than expected? What if the blog takes longer to get rolling? What if I don’t like my job?

That last one turned out to be critical. I’m not one to burn bridges, so let’s just say it is a poor cultural fit. Realizing the difficulty in staying sane for five years, we tried to accelerate the blog growth, which impacted work-life balance (re: sanity). Once again, it was time to reach out for help.

A Gottman Therapist to the Rescue

We found a local counselor who followed John Gottman’s teachings. Again from Psych Central 

John Gottman, renowned relationship expert, discovered four markers of relationship failure with 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce. These four indicators, also known as the four horsemen, are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

The sessions helped. We focused on active listening and healthy conflict resolution. We quickly realized that the primary issue we were dealing with was stress from my job spilling over into the relationship. The easiest answer is to get a new job, but more than that, to remove the single points of failure and add redundancy to make our life system more robust.

Changing Life Paradigms

I’ve always found Richard Feynman more eloquent than Donald Rumsfeld, so I’ll use his words to rephrase unknown unknowns.

“We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt.”

Feynman was describing the Scientific Method, but it works equally well for a major life decision. What are we going to do different this time? Why do we think it will work, and most importantly, what do we do if it doesn’t? Instead of doubling down on the American Dream, how about hedging our bets?

Our new home needs to be affordable enough that we don’t need a full-time job to live there. That was impossible in San Diego and undesirable in Orlando. I now know the questions to ask for a good corporate fit, but I should have options in-town if anything changes or the fit is sub-optimal.

Solving these two constraints means that either blogging or the day job can provide a way out. It means I will not have to choose between insufferable work conditions or relocation. Most importantly, it means that all we need to do is live and be happy. We can also enjoy every purr that our fur babies have to offer fully and completely.

Racking and stacking all the known knowns, and known unknowns, Hunstville comes to the top of the list. Of course, there are no guarantees in the fog of life. If it’s not Huntsville, it will be someplace that offers this type of flexibility. We’ll see what the future holds, and focus on enjoying the adventure along the way.

Think Early and Often

I realize that I am not nearly as clever as I think I am. Perhaps my greatest asset is the willingness to fail brilliantly; having the courage to admit when I was wrong and the good sense to learn from it.

Part of this process is understanding that I am not alone in life. I don’t have to have all the answers, and I don’t have to. Seeking out council builds a support system, including finding a professional therapist before things get critical. Your dreams can never reach the sky if you stay chained to the ground.

This post is brought to you in partnership with BetterHelp.com. As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own.

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