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  • Ellen Gardner

A Steep Learning Curve: my story of making the leap

We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Have you ever yearned for change? Hungered to escape the daily grind and find a path that feels more authentic, freer, unpredictable? I think we all do at various times, some more frequently and passionately than others. I would have to put myself into the passionate category because for years I have yearned for the day I can jump out of my padded office cubicle and start creating that life.

Believe me, I understand those who hold back from making this dramatic and dangerous leap. My colleague Philip tried it once (not through choice, he was let go from his job) and says he woke up in a cold sweat every night panicking as he imagined being penniless on the street. Security matters and that’s why most of us tough it out.

My own philosophy about career has always been a bit different, although I don’t think I would have been able to articulate it a few years ago. This is it, our one life, our one career and one chance to leave our mark. Short-term stints in difficult or unsatisfying jobs are unavoidable, but how can it be healthy or wise to stay in a job for years that isn’t fulfilling?

I actually did like my previous job – it was comfortable, well-paying, stable and I was on a great team. But after seven years, I had met all the challenges it offered and had accomplished my biggest goal, which was promoting Philip to the manager role.

So I jumped – but not without a plan. I had lined up two teaching jobs (both contract) and had secured a regular freelance project from my old employer. I am also a ‘housemom’ to two International students and that provides a modest sum every month. There was sadness in saying good-bye to the steady paycheque, the team, and the secure cocoon of the company, but – even at this late stage – the pull to a different life of my own making was just too strong.

Has it gone according to plan? Well, if I was looking for change and unpredictability, I have definitely found it! The teaching is more demanding and more satisfying than I ever could have imagined. Naively, I thought I would master it in a couple of months. Not even close – moving into teaching is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.

Even as I spend hours multi-tasking the many elements of classroom life, there is a special kind of pleasure in working with people who are hungry to learn and soak up the knowledge I have painstakingly gathered over the years. Most of them are new arrivals in Canada and are bewildered with everything they need to learn about language, culture and workplace in a new country. What they have in common is a sense of joy at being in this safe (and cold) country with unlimited opportunity.

I’m working harder than ever and earning less than I did ten years ago. Does that bother me? No, it’s the life I have chosen and I do have faith it’s taking me in the right direction.

I was not an avid watcher of Anthony Bourdain’s popular CNN show – “Parts Unknown” – but I did always admire his curiousity and sense of adventure. He inherently understood that the path to acceptance and respect from people in different countries and cultures was to share their food, willingly and openly. Even if that food was sometimes unclean or frighteningly strange. He didn’t just eat the strange and foreign food, he asked probing questions and cared about the history and the people.

In one of the many interviews replayed on various networks, Bourdain talked about his early years as a dishwasher, the basis for his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential. Why was that time so important in his life? “I like to be at the bottom of a very steep learning curve,” he said about that time and the many adventures that followed as a chef, world traveler, and TV journalist.

I think that is an apt description of where I find myself at this transitional time of my life – I’m at the bottom rung of a steep learning curve…no predictability, just a lot of hard work, and an appreciation for the fact that I just have to keep moving forward. It’s a good feeling.

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