My Matrix Moment

Two guys loudly discuss who to CC into work emails.

I read a bit more of the paper, eat a bit more of my expensive salad and try to enjoy the air-conditioned coolness of the cafe.

The conversation crashes back into my consciousness. Guy A is telling guy B how to synchronise his Outlook to other programs. Guy B is getting a bit heated. Outrage at office politics. They are speaking, loudly, in the classic clipped Singaporean accent. Their words sound like they’ve been chopped up into syllables and fed into a machine gun. My comprehension lags a second or so behind delivery.

Even though I don’t want to eavesdrop, they have staged a coup on my attention. Worse, it’s hard work trying to keep up. I miss words and whole phrases because of the accent, as I re-read the same section of the paper over and over.

I’m suddenly quite annoyed. It’s my lunch-break. I don’t want to think about work, mine or anyone else’s. I don’t want to listen but the invading conversation is overpowering.

Singapore food

I finish my lunch, fold up the paper and adjourn to my office’s strange tea-room. Depending on the origin of the speaker, it’s called the pantry, the canteen or the tea room. No one calls it the staff lounge, which is what the sign on the door says.

Here, on a dingy and uncomfortable “lounge” chair I’m assaulted by another loud conversation in a strong Singaporean accent. This time it’s about ordering something and how “he” doesn’t understand. “You can’t order 100, la. I tole him, I tole him. You can’t order. Cannot.” Again, the outrage, the frustration, the angst.

Suddenly I’m in a good mood again. Because of my Matrix moment a few years ago.

Well, it wasn’t really a moment, it was a realisation that crept up on me over a year or so. But just like Neo, who woke up and discovered the machines were sucking the life out of him, I woke up and realised my career had been sucking the life out of me.

I had allowed my work to define me. I strived hard to do a good job, to please my superiors in order to get the next pay rise, the next promotion, the sense of a job well done. The bosses didn’t really care, because they were doing the same thing, all the way up the chain to the big bosses, who only care about profit. I went to after-work drinks and spent hours railing against bosses, computer systems, alliances and the unfairness of it all. I ground my teeth in my sleep. My shoulders were always tense and my neck was usually stiff and sore.

Then I left. I had asked for a three-month leave of absence and was given the run-around for three months. I threatened to quit. I was asked to wait another month before submitting my request to head office. (I thought it had been submitted months earlier.) I threatened to quit again. My boss dithered again. Then I quit. My boss talked me into staying on for several more months. He told me he needed me, that everything would fall apart if I left. I believed him, so I stayed and those last months were absolute torture.

Then I left. And, strangely, everything didn’t fall apart. My former colleagues took up the slack and no one outside the organisation could tell that the star, the one who held it all together, was gone and wasn’t coming back. (Slight exaggeration about my actual importance to the organisation, but, hey, I am pretty important in my life.)

Just as strangely, I was still me, even without my career/job to define me.

Still driven, I topped my four-week teaching course, then hit the road looking for an English-teaching job in Ho Chi Minh City. I had to settle for my third choice, but I still had an income, even if it was paltry compared to what I was earning before. I worked about 20 hours a week for $14 an hour. Unfortunately, the classes were spread through the week, so I was actually working six days, sometimes starting at 8am and finishing at 9pm, with long lonely hours of non-income-earning in between.

Boyle’s law, which states that gas expands til fill the available space, holds true for teaching prep work. I’d spend hours prepping, then be lost in front of the class. I tried prepping before class, the night before. It took six months for me to finally admit I didn’t enjoy teaching. But I was enjoying the ESL lifestyle in Ho Chi Minh City – eating, drinking and talking rubbish late at night.

So I took a holiday, a holiday from my holiday, which had become a bit too angsty.

During this holiday I realised that not enjoying your job just isn’t worth it. Certainly not for $14 an hour! I pondered this, poked at it , turned it over and over. My conclusion was this: life should be my number one priority, work should take up as little of my time, attention and emotion as possible.

Even though I’m now working full-time (and trying to work out how to keep the income but ditch the hours in the office), I still try to glide through the day without having too much sucked out of me. I’m not interested in office politics. I don’t really care if a colleague is not pulling his or her weight. I just do my job and go home. Oh, and I take my full hour’s lunch break (which is kind of the office practice, anyway). I do my job as best I can and don’t waste energy rehashing or second-guessing things.

The rest of the time, I try to be fully immersed in life. This is hard when you have baby-related sleep deprivation. I often find myself in a glazed daze in front of the TV or playing a mindless computer game. But I’m not being too hard on myself. The baby phase is temporary. The sleep deprivation is temporary. We are living in an amazing exotic city and we have enough money to explore it and neighboring countries.

So I feel, in my own little way, that I have defeated the machines of the Matrix. The real challenge is to make sure their power doesn’t rise again and take control of my life.


*Dear readers, this is a republished post. I am having technical difficulties with my blog and rather than agonize any longer, I’ve decided to republish some of my old posts so the old part of my blog speaks to the new part of my blog. Families work better this way. Sorry if it’s a pain for you. Expect a few more reposts over the next few weeks.

10 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. Maria says:

    New to your site, I enjoyed the re-post. I think of the band, Firewater and their song, “Some Strange Reaction” – just one line comes to mind as I read your post from the 21st… “Must be some strange reaction of a chemical kind when all your problems develop complications”

    And your commenting on a holiday from your holiday… that resonates with me too.

    Sounds like you’ve got your footing and are on a hellova interesting adventure.

    I found your site from reading “As We Travel” – thanks for quitting your job and writing about the life you had, the life you have now and the life you want tomorrow.

    • The Dropout says:

      Hey Maria! Welcome to the blog.
      As We Travel is a great site, one of my favourites. (I have to admit, I don’t actually know that song. I’ll have to find it online and listen.)

  2. I know how it feels to have your job draining the life out of you. Feels great to get away sometimes, even if it is a short break.

  3. Great article, it’s so important not letting your job become who and what you are, although it’s so easy to get sucked in to believing that your job is your life.

    Have you read the 4-hour work week book? That might help you work out how to keep the income but spend less hours in the office.

  4. robin says:

    Oh well, repost or not I hadn’t read it before and enjoyed it. I think I’ve said something similar to you before despite being pretty certain that just about every detail differs I think we’re on journeys that have a lot in common.

  5. Laurel says:

    I could really relate to this post. At one point I was working 60-80 hours a week and doing a Masters degree. I was exhausted but caught up in the rat race having gotten a big promotion I didn’t think I had a chance of and trying to prove myself. I was really worried that I’d be miserable when I moved to Germany and quit my job, but surprisingly I haven’t missed my job and have started defining myself on characteristics outside of my job (a much healthier perspective in my opinion). Now I’m working as a travel blogger/writer – full time for 1/2 time pay, but I’m really enjoying it 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge