I really enjoyed reading Why I Left Google by 27-year-old Ellen Huerta - since I work with Escape the City, she eloquently articulated the shape of a tale I hear in some form or another pretty much every day.
The story goes like this: a chronic overachiever has landed their way into a corporate job - one that (they believe) outsiders admire for the prestige, salary, status and security. They float through the motions until they have some kind of Damascene moment; their boss yells at them; something snaps; or nothing snaps at all and they just slowly begin to realize, 'This isn't me.'
They start to feel a haunting sense of emptiness: this is not what they were 'born' to do. They are not 'following their passion' or 'being authentic' - there is an unspoken spiritual hollowness (à la Jerry Maguire) and before the office politics or frenetic lifestyle can grind the precious remains of their slowly disintegrating soul, they boldly decide to take the next exit.
Huerta's 'should I leave or should I go' conundrum was paved with that ultimate millennial fear: "I envisioned an older version of myself with a wonderful husband, beautiful kids, a mortgage and a crippling sense that I had missed my opportunity to dig deeper into what I really wanted out of life."
This deep-seated FOMO (fear of missing out) on the chance to upgrade into a more 'authentic' version of oneself seems limited to the privileged. While I never hear it said, what I often feel implied is something along the lines of, 'I could be a better person and leave a better legacy... if only I were on a different career path.'
The unspoken assumption is that this metaphysical metamorphosis has to occur before the drop of permanent anchors becomes a reality - there almost seems to be some kind of performance anxiety lurking in the background. ('If I don't change now, I might fall into the trap of not becoming my ultimate, best self.')
As one of Huerta's anonymous YouTube dissenters observed, "Look, I don't doubt you're experiencing angst, and you're going through an important process. You're young and privileged, which gives you endless options. Hopefully, you'll learn to be satisfied. However, when you frame your process as a courageous struggle, you're not only being narcissistic, you're being rude and disrespectful to people who are really struggling, which is pretty much everyone else."
Maybe it is narcissistic to expect spiritual fulfilment from our jobs. Maybe any quarter-life 'crisis' is only ever a result of adolescent navel-gazing. Maybe we should all just shut up, get on with the task at hand, and learn to distinguish reality from impractical expectations.
Or maybe we should question the cultural definition of success. Maybe we should pause and figure out what we want our lives to stand for and then adjust the meta-frameworks of our behaviours accordingly. Maybe we should prioritise a sense of fulfilment even if that quest brings us down a temporarily uncomfortable path.
Is Huerta's story courageous, or is it emblematic of millennial narcissism, born from a generation searching too hard for meaning in the mirror? I have often questioned whether Escape the City is a cheerleader for acts of moral courage or whether it is preaching prolonged adolescent navel-gazing, by perpetuating a false narrative that it is our choice of profession that will save us from ourselves.
However we choose to interpret the story behind Huerta's Google departure (or organisational missions like that of Escape the City) is up to us, but what I've noticed from having to defend the Escape the City ethos to many strangers and acquaintances is that the 'flaws' we are most sensitive to perceiving in others are typically the ones that we most deplore in ourselves.
The overachievers whose self-worth is solely tied to their visible accomplishments will be the first to slap the 'slacker' label on someone wanting to slow down from corporate life. The status-conscious parent who has worked their whole life to send their kids to the 'right' schools will be the toughest on their offspring when said offspring decides to leave the 'right' job for a future much harder for said parent to position to judgmental, equally status-conscious friends.
Why Huerta left Google is something only she will ever know. The more self-acceptance we have, the more easily we can forgive what we perceive to be shortcomings in others, and the way in which we react to her story reflects our own choice in values - anti-establishment folks will cheer for her new chapter and risk-averse drones will scratch their heads and question her logic.
I'm taking a wild guess that the YouTube dissenter questioning Huerta's 'narcissism' probably resents their own privilege and subconsciously considers it shameful that their own financial comfort affords them space for similar angst. In the process of publicly judging others, we tend to reveal the yardsticks by which we judge ourselves, while unmasking our own deepest fears and desires.
Perhaps those desires point us towards who we eventually become. Maybe it is for that reason that Abraham Maslow said, "It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement." Personally, I think it is especially rare and difficult for our generation, because of the contextual themes framing Huerta's story - millennial frustration with the current institutional infrastructure; the quest for solitude that this disillusionment prompts; and the messy translation of newfound consciousness into day-to-day choices.
Yet these are difficult themes to lace into casual conversation, so instead, we share the story of a 27-year-old ex-Googler called Ellen Huerta who was brave enough to publicly question why, underneath everything she was ever 'supposed' to want, life felt uncomfortable enough that change became necessary.