One year of wandering, now a return

More than a year ago, I fell while I was running. Somehow the blood running down my elbow dislodged a deep sadness within me. The sadness was the hole in me where my writing used to be. But I took it as an insight that aerospace engineering was not the right course for me. I limped back to my aerospace job, bandaged my arm and leg, and let a deep well of sadness open up within me. After I quit three months later, I felt like I never wanted to return to engineering.

But my boyfriend would not let me forget my engineering background as I wandered toward writing.

“Don’t you think you should give it another try?”

“There are lots of different parts to aerospace that you haven’t tried yet.”

“You might like it.”

Every time he said this, I remembered my fall. I would check my right elbow again to see if the scar was still there, reminding me. In my mind, engineering had made me betray my lifelong goal of writing. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to forgive engineering for that.

Except, I heard an excellent opportunity right after I quit.

At the Space Entrepreneurs meetup, a company owner and CEO told me about his aerospace systems engineering company. It had a unique setup, where all the employees were contractors (and technically owned their own companies). The company had a weird set of expertise that culminated in an understanding of complex aerospace systems. These people were the architects of such systems, defining the engineering vision. The ideas called to me, as did the flexible hours, high pay, and ability to take months off at a time (…to write…?)

Despite my need to leave aerospace, this aerospace opportunity became my measuring stick. Would I like this freelancing job as much as that contracting one? Would I be able to live the lifestyle I wanted, like the contracting job would allow me to do? Nothing really held up in comparison, though I applied and was rejected by other jobs anyway. And then I drove Uber for a while, the perfect job for the uncommitted.

Then I stopped doing everything. In writing my memoir, I had unearthed some old memories. They seared through me and left me in a haze. It seemed like the only way to heal was to stay in the house and read science fiction books all day. I read three books by Guy Gavriel Kay in two weeks. I distracted myself; I grieved for my past self, who gave up her ability to argue – in order to make someone else happy. I wouldn’t leave the house because other people made my skin feel raw.

In all this chaos and confusion, a clear thought came to me. I’m ready to seize the opportunity put in front of me nearly a year ago. I emailed the company owner, saying I hoped that he remembered me after all this time.

He did. The opportunity was not lost. It was waiting for me to be ready.

The Boss you can Say “No” to

I have a problem with saying no, even when I should. This tendency used to serve me well. As a college swimmer, I rarely missed a day of practice. One cold January afternoon, I went to swim practice without eating because I didn’t have time. My coach nearly had to fish me out of the pool. I collapsed on a bench and he gave me a chocolate Chewy granola bar. After the requisite five minute break, I jumped back into the pool.

Despite my conviction that this was a good trait, I burned out and quit swimming in both high school and college. I did not want to keep repeating this pattern in my work.

At Pratt and Whitney, I barely brought my laptop home for the first few months. However, this job required travel, so I was bound to yes to months-long stints in other states. After I was sent to Tennessee for 4 months, I demanded a return to Connecticut. My managers actually obliged me and sent me home. I felt like I had lost four months of my life, but I was able to reclaim my boundaries.

I was not as successful at my next job, though I tried. My major battle was with answering emails. It was mandatory that my work email was accessible on my phone. In an effort to stay sane, I set my phone to manually update, so I wouldn’t see notifications about work emails unless I clicked on the icon. Once an evening, I would check it and respond to anything I thought was necessary. It seemed reasonable to me, until my lead engineer sat me down and calmly explained to me that I must answer the President’s emails, at any time of day, within an hour. Saying no was not an option if I wanted to keep my job.

Eventually, I said no emphatically and moved to another job. At the new job, I ran into the same issue. My boss told me that I could work flexible hours. I would come in at 6:30am and leave around 3:00pm to avoid the hellish traffic between West Seattle and Redmond. Then that was deemed unacceptable because every else worked more than 8 hours. Silly me, wanting to work 40 hours a week…? My little “nos” did not work here either, so eventually the big “no” came out and I quit.

It seemed like every time I constructed a reasonable boundary, the company that I worked for tried to demolish it.

So I looked for a job where I could set my own boundaries and found Uber. I was excited by the total freedom in my schedule. I could work the exact hours that I felt like working, no more, no less. With this level of freedom, I thought it would be easy to say “no.”

But it was still hard at first.

For the first week, I never declined a fare. I knew from looking at my ratings that declining a fare was bad, so I tried to never do it. My finger popped the screen and I jumped from one rider to another until my bladder was about to explode. Then I discovered that it was acceptable to just go offline (no ratings impact), so I did that.

It was still hard to say no.

Uber sends out messages when you try to go offline in an effort to make you feel guilty or inspire you. My least favorite is “You more money last week at this time than this week. Make $17.64 to catch up!” But I had committed to saying no, so I hit “go offline” anyway.

For days, I waited for the hammer to fall. What would happen if I didn’t do what Uber wanted to me to do? After about a week of going offline when I wanted to, I finally realized that there was little consequence to say no. I lost out on a few dollars, I suppose. But I wanted my freedom more.

On Friday night before Halloween, I got a text message from Uber about the high demand, asking me to go out and drive. I just laughed. I told my boyfriend that I would not be setting down my wine and stopping our movie to go drive around in the dark.

Finally, I have a boss that takes no for an answer.