When I started planning my exit strategy for Microsoft, I thought intensely about what I value and what I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime.
I never thought it likely that I’d have just one career over the course of my life. I thought that I would have at least a good 50 years of a work life, and it seemed an awfully long time to focus on one single thing. Although I truly admire the mastery of a specialty that comes from a lifetime of dedication to one specific field, I have too many interests to be satisfied with one narrow domain. I figured I had three to seven careers in me.
As a child, I had the good fortune to have early exposure to personal computers when that was still a relatively rare thing, and I had an innate curiosity that led me to explore my machine, and eventually others, in obsessive detail. For some reason I didn’t really develop a passion for writing code, although I had an early modest level of competence in that regard, but I still liked probing the machine, and had a great passion for the machine as a tool. By the time I went off to college, I had no interest in studying science, which probably would have shocked anyone with whom I attended elementary school or most of junior high school. My intellectual interests had all shifted to the dynamics of human interaction, the power of communication, the human balance of power, the nature of authority, and the forces that shape culture.
This set me off in myriad different directions. I had established a literary magazine in high school, and by the time I set off to college, I thought that my future was in the media, in radio, television or newspaper work or some other publishing outlet. My university experience, though, opened my eyes to so many other forms of expression, and, although I briefly worked at a newspaper as assistant editor after my German exchange program, my imagination of my future became less specific, more hazy. The longer I was in college, the more time I had to ask questions, the less clear my vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up became.
Whenever I summarize my college career to someone who doesn’t know me very well, the gaps sound incredibly shocking: I began as a literature major and a Media Fellow, became irritatingly politically active, planned an exchange program to Germany, spent too much time on the internet, switched my major to East Asian studies, studied in Germany and began cooking obsessively, worked at an Asian American newspaper, and graduated after an intensely compressed final semester.
These were mostly natural, easily explainable progressions, and generally traceable to long-existing interests catalyzed by the benefit of the open, dynamic environment of a liberal arts college. I was never a specialist in only one thing. I was not a generalist, either; I just had a lot of interests. I maintained an ambition of somehow fusing all of my interests into a career, but I knew I’d be happy to do something that allowed me to pursue at least a few of my interests.
When I got my job at Microsoft, I was happy that my background with German and Japanese language, studies of Asia in general, and addiction to internet technologies and new media all coalesced into skills deemed valuable for software internationalization testing. As with any career, I suppose, I alternated between excitement, boredom and frustration, but I knew early on that it wasn’t going to be my gig forever. I anticipated about 5 years there… and in fact, it was about the 5 year point when things started shifted rapidly into complete dissatisfaction with my job.
I thought about what I was most interested in outside of my work; after all, I made a career in software out of a hobby, and I didn’t think it unreasonable to explore the potential of building a new career out of my avocations. The things I invested most of my energy in outside of work were related to food (eating and cooking well), travel (primarily to Japan), and collecting ceramics and crafts (mostly from Japan, occasionally from Korea). I thought about a few ways of indulging these pursuits in a manner that could be self-sustaining.
I drafted some business plans for restaurants, since I am an obsessive cook and I’ve long imagined opening a little restaurant. I also thought about building a little ceramics shop, as well. I also even thought about planning culinary tours. I realized most of these ventures required more resources just to get started than I had available, as I was never clever enough to exercise my stock options when they were at their most valuable. So I thought smaller…
I wanted to make sure that I really was working on something I could be passionate about, so I started looking at ways of integrating food, travel, my creative impulses, and my interest in ceramics. I started to look at my options…
In Part II, I’ll focus on what went through my mind as I considered my options.