Today marks a year since I quit my job as a consultant in London and moved back home to Belgrade. I will probably never forget the anxiety that the lead up to handing my notice caused: There were daily conferences with my parents since I decided on my course of action six months before, countless drunken discussions with friends, nights spent imagining a destitute, broken life that I feared my decision would lead me to, and, most unpleasantly, pervasive doubt in my own decision-making abilities.
Behind all this drama was a very strong gut feeling that I wanted to quit and have a year or more to travel, write and see what else I could do with my life outside the corporate realm.
I decided to take the leap on a day after I initially planned. On D-day, I got cold feet, then promptly realized that postponing my decision made me deeply unhappy, so I went ahead. Although it was sad to say goodbye to my friends and colleagues in London, I have never second-guessed my decision.
This is not because the past year solved all of my life problems, "Eat Pray Love"-style. It did not. I am still not fully settled on what to do next nor do I have six-pack abs that I always wanted and now have no excuse for not having.
It did, however, open my eyes to a few things, which I would have benefited from knowing when I quit.
1. There are no large revelations and epiphanies on gap years
Although I was always hooked on the idea of life as a narrative arc, things simply do not work that way. I do feel changed as a person, but it's not because of an epiphany, but rather thanks to choices I made.
Being open to new things is necessary, and going to inspiring places is lovely; still, changing yourself and your life requires hard work.
In my experience, all the effort to climb a scenic peak in the Andes, preparing to run a half-marathon or even preparing a 100-page deck at 2 am, pales in comparison to the effort of keeping yourself from the cookie jar or ignoring parental nagging on daily basis in the less exotic environment of your flat.
2. You can't go home again
Although I am happy in Belgrade, it is a very different place to the one I left to study in the UK, and I am very much a different man. Although attempts to conjure my teenage life in Belgrade were fun, they simply did not work: My friends have (thankfully) grown up, places don't stay open as late, and, ultimately, I want different things.
You cannot go backward to go forward. Wherever you go, you need to go there because you see future, not a chance of changing or re-living the past.
"You cannot go backward to go forward."
3. Success is not one-size-fits-all
My upbringing, aimed at getting the best education and career, made me partially blind to the rich variety of life. I tipped into a sort of (ridiculous) world-weariness in my mid-20s and believed that everything has been done and that life sort of boils down to a series of bleak algorithms of birth-education-work-marriage-procreation-retirement-death variety.
Moving from a very orderly and slightly alienated corporate life in London made it very apparent to me that this linear progression is simply not the reality for 99.9% of the world. Although there is terrible struggle to survive and be happy everywhere, from the street-food sellers in Delhi to exsanguinated IBD analysts in New York, it comes in seven billion shapes and sizes.
The only measure of success, really, is the answer to two very subjective questions. Are you feeling miserable? And do you feel your efforts are worthwhile?
Pretending that there are only a handful of paths to follow, or that only certain types of lives, usually involving money and white collar jobs, are "worth living" (as we like to say here in Serbia) is to make oneself blind to intrinsic joy of hustle and hassle that is life.
Although there is no easy or perfect life anywhere, from ashrams and yachts to slums and Andean villages, despite what is promised by self-help, I consider myself very lucky for the freedom to choose what kind of pain I want to endure and where I want to expend effort. I think this is as close one can come to happiness.
4. Don't let fear hold you back
Finally, although it is very reasonable to fear doing things differently, it is delusional to deny yourself potentially better opportunities simply because they are not fully certain or mapped out. Choosing certain, known unhappiness over potential happiness because of fear is a recipe for disaster.
Whenever I doubted my decision, I always remembered Seamus Heany's quote:
"The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life."
Although making life decisions based on three lines of verse I read in the FT is unusual, I found it better than making them based on fear. At least for now.
Srdjan Garcevic is a writer based in Belgrade, Serbia.