Palm trees and utter despair

“It was terrifying. It was the first time I moved abroad. I did a lot of drugs, I drank a lot of alcohol, I gained a lot of weight. My first year was awful…” My fellow co-worker shares her experiences on life in Egypt. We’ve both been expats for several years and lived in different countries. She understands what I’m going through.

This morning I had a meltdown in my bathroom, where everything about the last 3 months in Egypt just hit me all at once. It’s been extremely overwhelming, 10 times worse than China or Taiwan have ever been. And then I wondered: what do other people think about my life? Do people see me as an adventurous globetrotter who is on this #wanderlust bullshit life quest? Do people pity me because I can’t seem to find stability? Do people envy me because I ‘do whatever I want?’ …

I lower myself to the floor of my bathroom, now sitting at toilet-level height, and I stare in front of me, lifelessly, aimlessly, hopelessly. A whole bunch of crying commences. I call my mom in tears, I leave sobbing voice notes to friends. I want to go someplace else. I want to escape the escaping. But I have no place to go.

The idea of living abroad is attractive to people. It was/is for me just as much. There’s a sense of ‘the grass is greener on the other side’, visions of dreamy sceneries, a better quality of life, new adventures. But I don’t think people often touch upon the harsh reality of it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it. That the above isn’t part of the deal. But it shouldn’t be sugarcoated.

I recently learned about a term called expat-depression. It’s a real thing. Studies show that expats may have a higher risk of mental health issues (anxiety, depression) as opposed to domestic workers. Expats “experience extraordinarily high stress as well as social and emotional disruption that result from dislocation and moves.” This could be because they’re predisposed to these issues due to personality traits, which are further enhanced by culture shock, living conditions, work ethics, and social life abroad. But even so; living abroad is a lot to take in, especially if the culture and customs are unfamiliar to you. The mental decline is also often paired with substance abuse. And so far, I haven’t met a single expat in Egypt that doesn’t over-indulge. It’s a weird new reality.

And I know. I know this makes me sounds horribly privileged. I didn’t have to do this. I didn’t have to go anywhere. And look at the life I have. Aside from the personal reasons I came to Egypt; what am I even complaining about? These thoughts keep crossing my mind.

Among the palm trees and the sunsets there is always utter despair lurking. This (the duality of it) is something I’ve had to deal with throughout all my time abroad. There are ups and downs. And so long the ups outweigh the downs, it’s something that I will probably continue doing, regardless of the occasional toll it takes on my mental health. After all, and this is the most comforting, privileged quote of all: I could always just go back home.

I work thus I am

For the longest time, I dreaded starting to work. To my young, ‘hip’ student self, sitting behind a desk all day seemed to be dreadful. Now that I’ve done that for a couple of years, it’s turned out to not be too bad. But something that is very clear, are the generational differences. I’ve different ideas on the work I want to do, with whom, and in which way than my younger and older peers.

Work’s life, am I right?

Fist bumping around the workplace, that’s what we millennials do all the time

Based on: How to lose your mind and build a treehouse

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Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee
Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

To me, ‘real life’ more or less was always about having a job.

In high school I was quite inept as to what was happening in the world and around me. In university, I tried to catch up all that fun I missed during high school and did some further soul-searching. I still remember the realization hitting me like a brick: in a few months I will graduate and need to do something for money. What can I do?

After living the ‘real life’ for a couple of years now, I am finally realizing how unreal my idea of the working life has been. Developments such as the open office, personal marketing and ‘fun’ workplaces seemed far-away, but the ultimate ideal when I was still studying. In reality, it’s been more difficult to really find my own place in the mix of startups and established institutions I’ve worked at.

Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee

Let’s take a look at the larger picture first, because I found this research report by KPMG about the millennial workforce. Especially the points about female millennials really spoke to me:

1. They’re more hesitant when it comes to job applications
2. They’re less confident and optimistic
3. They’re more sociable
4. They’re less keen on technology
5. They’re more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome
6. They’re less likely to actively pursue a promotion opportunity

Basically, it’s a hard yes on everything except point 5 and 4 since I’m (belatedly) learning and developing an interest in programming now. Point 2, 3 and 6 stick out the most to me. To be honest, confidence and optimism are things I’ve never had that much of, and it’s something I still point to as something to improve, personally and professionally.

Point 3 and 6 point to things that are at once making us different from previous generations and more connected to each other. When looking at companies, I’ve often looked at ‘people’ pages and felt I either really wanted to become part of the family or I wouldn’t fit at all. And even though I’ve worked in startup environments where ‘hustling’ was important, I didn’t feel that comfortable with the attitude and still needed something different from my employer.

Looking to the Medium article, I recognize a lot of the anxiety and questions the writer has. His highlighted quote is: “It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”” Although this doesn’t apply to me specifically, the mindset is recognizable. I’m very focused on my work mentality, but feel things should also happen spontaneously and above all, make me happy. I know I’m needy, but I want others to acknowledge it, while at the same time fulfilling them.

Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

Even though I tend to say I am more than my work, having no work at this moment feels as if I am incomplete. This frightens me as well, but I’ve learned to accept that it’s only natural the thing I’ll be doing at least 40 hours a week will be that meaningful to me. And that’s again leading me to search for a workplace that’s as cool as I dream it to be.

It’s been a paradoxical and bumpy road. I worked in startup environments, which were cool because we did something wholly new, but also very stressful. I cried a lot. I worked abroad, leading the expat life while working at an international organization. It was cool to attain a certain elite status and feel like I was actually doing long-term meaningful work instead of just making money. But it also made me complacent and lose a certain drive. I cried a lot. I had the opportunity to work in fast-paced, international business environments with smaller teams and directly trying to start something from zero. But I felt without the proper structure I was just building dream castles.

In the end, I’m now again looking to larger companies, more stability and mentorship. If I may need to forego beanbags or a Nintendo switch in the office, then I’ll take it. Mr. Pavelski said in an interview:

“The reason I wrote that essay in the first place was about catharsis, and I wanted to walk through my thought process and figure out what was going on with me.”

I’m not sure what’s going on with me yet either, but I guess I’ll enjoy the discovering it for now.