The idea for this blog came about while on vacation in Santa Barbara, on the patio of Wildwood Kitchen — an upscale BBQ restaurant in the city’s Funk Zone — after three happy-hour margaritas and two plates of juicy rib meat and chicken tacos. Their food is made with joy and love, and perhaps that’s why I felt secure, optimistic and buzzed enough to really ramp-up the mid-life crisis I’ve been wrestling with for the past year since turning 40, and turn down a six-figure executive leadership position at a software company backed by one of the largest national private equity firms to become officially unemployed.
Maybe it was the warm, buttery pecan pie that provided the perfect juxtaposition between being satisfyingly nourished on the one hand, and utterly unfulfilled professionally on the other. Either way, between slurps and nibbles, I had a moment of clarity that involved being both supremely tuned in to what the future could look like if I took a different path than the one I’ve been on, and at the same time blissfully checked out in terms of giving a shit about the consequences of my decision. I’ve come to realize that experience is pretty much par for the course when you’re going through a mid-life crisis.
My choices weren’t always this complicated. I’ve been working my way up the corporate ladder for the past 16 years. During that time, my responsibilities involved solving many business-critical problems for my software company employers, depending on what their biggest challenges and issues were at the time. These included developing solutions to deliver more revenue, increase profit margins, build high-performing teams, hire more engaged employees, sign, satisfy and retain more customers, create more demand and deliver more brand recognition.
I’ve been promoted, recognized, awarded, highly ranked and praised. I was on a path to a C-level role and that’s exactly what I thought I wanted. The sacrifices of personal time, balance, health, sleep and hobbies were tied to the dangling carrot of more money, bigger bonuses, more stock options and more financial security. I was also looking to make an impact in a meaningful way; to show that my involvement in creating and delivering solutions for my employers was proof that I was there, like signing your name on the back of a restroom stall. I was here, and because I was this, this is better, stronger, faster and more efficient. It seemed worth it, and I felt lucky to be able to strive for such lofty goals. That is, until I turned 40.
Right before the big 4-0, I began to feel like Neo from The Matrix (before he was saved by Trinity and Morpheus). He had been doing exactly what society expected of him, albeit with an anarchist’s attitude and a thin veil of feigned enthusiasm; yet all the while he’d been searching for something and looking for what he couldn’t prove was there but knew was hidden deep underneath and close to the surface at the same time. He was looking for the answer that would help him make sense of what he instinctively knew to be true and couldn’t stop obsessing about: the Matrix , a simulated reality created by intelligent machines to subjugate the human race. In finding his answer, he also woke up and realized that his journey to seek the truth would fundamentally change him and him could never go back to sleep and see the world in the same way again.
Like Neo, I was looking for answers too. I was wrestling with my own internal Matrix that had kept me on the same path, but no longer felt like the right path. My questions were, “What is the point of what I’m doing?” “Why does any of it matter?” “What legacy am I leaving behind?” “What would happen if I do something different than what I’ve always done?” “What if I embraced my fears and made a change?” I knew my answers weren’t going to involve what so many people gravitate towards as socially acceptable solutions for these nagging questions: marriage, kids, family and faith.
Instead, I started talking to a professional coach, reading about (and starting to practice) meditation and trying to get to the heart of what was really driving me to succeed in an environment that was increasingly out of sync with my core values. Why did I feel such urgency to achieve a definition of success that was no longer my own? Why was I pushing myself at an exhausting pace to make things bigger, better, faster and shinier for companies that cared only about their bottom line? What could I be capable of if I instead applied this same drive, focus and energy to myself and what I enjoyed?
Matrix fans, you know what comes next. Right before my trip to Santa Barbara, life served up a well-timed choice that put some serious and life-changing consequences behind my year of soul-searching and disillusionment: the red pill or the blue pill. As Morpheus said, “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.” My blue pill was being recruited by a major private-equity firm to join the executive team at one of the crown-jewels in their portfolio of software companies.
It was the well-worn path of advancement that I knew, and all that it required was to continue to remain on course, get promoted, make more money and devote the majority of my life to solving my future employer’s problems. I came so close to taking that blue pill: I signed the offer letter, gave my notice to my current employer, submitted to a background check and drug test and planned a vacation before my start date. That’s where the story would have ended, but instead I took the red pill and turned down the new job. So here I am in Wonderland wondering how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I hope you’ll come on the journey with me as I stick my 41-year-old middle finger up at the status quo, take the path less traveled and for the first time in my life, get in the driver’s seat and focus on achieving the life I want to live. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to make a change, make the hard choice, stop what you’re doing just because you’ve always done it and figure out what you really want to be when you grow up, I’m excited to have you along for the ride. In between the soul searching, fear-setting exercises, self-help books and mid-life crises rantings, I’ll be blogging about the fuel for this journey: some of the best restaurant, bar and coffee shop patios to travel to, eat and drink on. My fifth and most recent trip to Santa Barbara yielded so many amazing options, so in addition to Wildwood Kitchen, here are a few of my favorites:
- Metropulos: it almost doesn’t matter what you’re drinking because their sandwiches are so damn good.
- Third Window Brewing: try the Saison or any other of their other delicious Belgian-style beers. Their open space and patio is opposite Wildwood Kitchen in the Mill complex.
- Brass Bear Brewing: If you love Gose beer, try their Blood Orange/Raspberry Imperial Gose. They have a great open-air space and a tiny kitchen that makes the best chicken skewers with tzatziki sauce I’ve ever had.
- Lama Dog: tons of craft beer on tap and a fully stocked bottle shop of beer from around the world. See the photo from the back of their patio.