I constantly get asked “How did you end up in Costa Rica?” and “Have you always made jewelry?” Two questions that never fail to put a smile on my face because it all still seems so surreal that I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.
They say “hindsight is crystal clear.” Well, it may not be crystal clear, but it does help make more sense of the different phases of our lives. I find it fantastically amusing what a different life I am living compared to the one I lived less than a decade ago. Looking back, I can see where the shift originated and the experiences that at the time seemed unbearable, but now I can see were very necessary to get me to make the life changing decisions that I made.
For nearly 10 years, I worked as a litigation legal secretary for a huge (very corporate) law firm. I had worked for the same partner for 8 of those years and around year 6, he started to focus his practice on construction law (yaawwn) which bored me to pieces and I became more and more discontent with my job. The firm, which occupied 5 floors of a large downtown highrise, decided they were moving office spaces. As a secretary it was my task to review and pack up everything for the move. (Fun, fun!) Now if you can wrap your brain around how much paper a corporation that large accumulates before everything went electronic, you can possibly get a glimpse of what a packing nightmare this was. For over a month, I weeded through killatons of old papers, files, legal briefs, manuals and hand written notes deciding whether they moved on to the bigger and better office space or met their demise in the shredder.
It was a trip to review old documents that I had typed, recall the different players in each of those lawsuits and the outcome of each case. Those papers contained what I devoted the bulk of my time, thoughts and energy to over the course of 10 years. 10 years of something that at the end of day, I could care less about! 10. Years. I remember the exact moment that thought went through my mind. I was standing over a box in my boss’s 45th floor corner office looking out the window across the downtown LA skyline. All I could think was “I don’t care about any of this!”
That was the beginning of my life shift because it was the first time I realized how fast time can pass. It was shocking how quickly those 10 years flew by, which meant another 10 would do the same. Could I really see myself doing that work for much longer? I think it was the first time in my life that I began to value my time and when I started to be aware that in just about any situation, there is always the option of change direction if you’re unhappy.
I decided to look for a job at another firm. I thought if I could get back into a position in an area of law that I felt mentally stimulated by, I’d be happy at my job again. I landed what I thought was an awesome position, paying substantially more than I was making and working for a very high-profile attorney at a more “laid-back” firm. After moving to the new firm, it quickly became apparent that my new position was going to be incredibly stressful. There was a reason the pay was so much more. It was stress pay!! If you’ve seen the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” – that was my life except my boss was an attorney, not a fashion mogul. She was unrealistically demanding. I was basically on call 24/7. As her assistant, I needed an assistant. The daily workload was more than could ever be done in any 24 hour day. But it was undoubtedly expected that it should be.
I’ve always been a hard worker and excelled at things professionally. I had the reputation at both firms as one of the best because of these traits. I’m naturally very organized and great at multi-tasking, which when working for attorneys, is more than half the battle!! However, after about a year in the new position, I was completely burned out! I would consistently work 12+ hour days, work weekends, and when I wasn’t working at the office, I was monitoring work on my Blackberry. I kept a notepad and paper by my bed because I would wake up in the middle of the night panicking that I would forget to do something the following day so I’d start the day’s to-do list. Although I’m not a big drinker, I began coming home and drinking a bottle of wine almost nightly.
I recall telling my Mom how stressed out I was. I said “this is how people get hooked on pills because right now, I feel like going to the doctor and asking for something just to take the edge off.” As the words left my mouth, it was like I heard myself from the outside looking in. That was the first of many red flags that let me know that I was becoming incredibly unhappy. I started to pay attention to how I felt and became increasingly aware of how stressed out I felt all the time. More importantly, how this stress was changing me as a person. The money was good and I guess that blinded me to how I was really feeling. I saw the writing on the wall, but chose to pretend I was illiterate.
At about this time, I started fiddling around with making jewelry. I had no intention with it, it was just something that I became interested in and it was a fantastic way to take my mind off of work. I started making funky, chunky necklaces and wearing them, which slowly led to selling them to other people.
In January 2007, I went to Costa Rica for a much needed vacation. On the third day, I was sitting on the beach in Tamarindo, and I took a huge inhale and exhale. As I let that air out I felt every single drop of stress leave and I felt a lightness over come me. As I looked around at the beautiful bay, I thought to myself “I feel so good right now, I want to feel like this all the time.” Ask and you shall receive!!
I traveled for two weeks all up and down the Pacific coast and seemed to meet tons of people who had relocated to Costa Rica from other countries. Everyone had a story of how they ended up there. I didn’t meet anyone that regretted their decision to move. I started to ponder “what is the difference between me and any of these people?” I had never, ever considered that there was any alternative existence for me other than living in a big city and working at my stressful job, day in – day out. Meeting these people opened my mind to see that there is another way to live — it’s possible.
By the end of that trip, I had made the decision that within a year, I wanted to be living in Costa Rica. I had no idea how it was going to happen, but I knew that I could not continue the route I was going. I was burned out and I was becoming someone I didn’t like. I returned home, started saving my money and downsized everything. I got rid of my huge monthly car payment and bought an older model Jeep. I moved from my expensive westside apartment to a less expensive one in a slightly shifty neighborhood. I worked and worked and put everything in the bank. I told my friends and family about my plan to relocate. Some people were excited by the decision but I think a lot of people thought I was crazy, until they realized I wasn’t kidding. About 2 months before my move date, I started selling everything I owned on Craigslist. As my apartment started to empty out, it really became real. I was doing this.
On January 4, 2008, I arrived in Costa Rica with my savings and my dog Johnny.
My thinking was either I was moving or I was taking a very long vacation. At that point, either would have been fine. Lucky me, within 5 months I opened my boutique (you can read about that in this blog post) and found myself creating the life I wanted. All the right doors opened which seemed like a sign that I was on the right path. Ironically, if I walk outside my shop and look onto the beach, I can see the spot where I sat and took that huge inhale and exhale. Pffftt!! Who woulda’ thought!?
What I’ve learned is that I had to go through that very stressful period in my career and I had to work for the demanding attorney because had I not, I would never have been looking for a way out. I would have stayed in my well paying job and never explored any of the possibilities that have landed me in the amazing life I am now living. I have learned that there is a lot of power in the mindset “what’s the worst that can happen?” Really, if you apply that to just about anything, what IS the worst that can happen? In my instance, the worst that could happen was that I would take a very long vacation, get an awesome tan and go back and get another job at another firm. That was the worst that could’ve happened and those were odds I was ok with playing.
In retrospect, it feels almost laughable that I allowed a job to affect me to that degree. But looking around at society today, I know that I’m not alone in that experience. I read the following quote a few years back and re-read it often because while the words seem so cliché, I think there is a lot of truth in them. We are almost always able to change direction. Sometimes the change we need is just as simple as making the right decisions that start to line up the paths in the direction we need to go.