Be Experimental by Douglas Tsoi
Change happens suddenly and unexpectedly. In November 2014, I got laid off from a job I loved and wanted to stay at for many years. But life is agnostic to one’s desires. I was curious what would happen if I didn’t immediately look for another job. When a fire destroys centuries of old growth forest, new life, diverse and fragile, begins to emerge. Those seeds, having lain dormant for years, sprout from the fallen nutrients of the old forest.
The layoff was my chance to see what grew in the clearing. My father, before he died, told me “Don’t wait for anything. Time is so short.” I didn’t want to be someone who had ideas and never did anything with them. So I decided to use 2015 to try out things I had always thought about but never had time to do.
1. I started Portland Underground Grad School
I always missed school. Both as a student and as a schoolteacher, I loved the learning and close friendships of an academic environment and always was tempted with going back to grad school. But I didn’t want to pay tens of thousands of dollars or uproot my life to go get another degree. What I really wanted was school for the rest of my life.
So I created Portland Underground Grad School, a project where community experts teach no-credit courses to the community. It was a way for me and other lifelong learners to meet and stay intellectually engaged. At the same time, it was a way for local experts to share their knowledge without a big institution in the way. There’s something qualitatively different about learning in person, with other people, compared to learning by yourself: the experience is just richer. We had 20 courses in 2015 and plan on at least doubling that in 2016. We’re also opening up Seattle Underground Grad School. I’m excited to see what happens there.
2. I wrote a book!
Why Are Conservatives Always Wrong? is a book of quotes of what people used to say while defending slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor, segregation, the ban on interracial marriage, etc.,. In every case, what conservatives said before is now seen as ignorant and outdated, and even vile. I had this idea years ago when I was a history teacher but didn’t do anything with it. I thought 2015 was the perfect time to do it, with upcoming presidential elections. I self-published because the traditional publishing route was too uncertain and slow, so I had to learn about editing, book pricing, paper weights, font design and distribution. And the journey has just begun. In 2016, I’ll be doing publicity, trying to get media interviews, speaking engagements and book reviews. I look forward to participating in the national conversation about our next president.
3. I bought a house and fixed it up for renting.
It would be impossible to talk about taking the year off without mentioning money. I believe that living simply and investing allows you so many more choices in life. Twenty years ago, when I left college, I made a conscious decision to save half my income each year. It was part distaste for consumerist culture and part awareness of its environmental impact, and part valuing time over money. Time is life’s only finite resource and by living simply and investing, I was buying time.
This year, I spent a few months purchasing a house and overseeing its renovation. It’s an investment that will provide regular monthly income to me and my family. If I had one piece of lifetime advice for anyone reading this and wanting to take control of their lives, it would be to make a habit of living below your means and to find ways to make money work for you. You’ll be much more free to choose your life’s direction.
4. I played soccer every day.
I once heard a lecture about how we spend 90% of our lives indoors. So I decided to spend at least 2.5 hours outside every day. While that sounds like a lot, it’s still only 10% of each day. My great love is soccer and going out to play every day paradoxically keeps my energy levels up and calms my body down. It’s the core piece that has made me a happier, more grounded person this year. If I get a full-time employment again, I will have to figure out how to work playing soccer into that.
5. I traveled to reconnect.
I used to be a high school teacher and my former students are now in their 20s. I’ve kept in touch with many of them over Facebook, but I’m someone who really only feels connected to people when we’re face-to-face, one-on-one. So, I decided to spend a good chunk of the year traveling to reconnect, instead of relying on social media. I visited New Orleans, Boston, Oakland and San Francisco, Sydney, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Michigan. In addition, an old law school friend took a cross-country with his family for his 40th birthday, so I joined them. Again, time is so short; there are only so many opportunities to spend time with the people you care about.
6. I failed or lost interest in many other things.
I don’t want this essay to seem like everything I did was successful. There were ideas and projects that didn’t work or I lost interest in. I pursued airport yoga, adjustable height tables (for kitchen/dining and living rooms), and dessert nachos. Some things didn’t work and other things I lost interest in. That’s the way of new seeds, you have to experiment to find out what will grow and take root.
In one of the PUGSpdx courses this year (Rewilding 101), I learned the root of the word “wild”was “self-willed”. Its antonyms were words like “tamed” or “caged.” In many ways, this year has been a practice of being self-willed, of doing the things I cared about, outside the control of others. I’ve decided to take another year off in 2016. I feel that my period of experimentation isn’t over and there is still so much to do. And time is so short.
Douglas and I discussed some of his experiments, the lessons learned along the way and how this year of experimentation has changed him as a person. To hear more, listen on…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas Tsoi grew up in the Bay Area of California and started off his professional career as a lawyer after attending New York University School of Law in New York City. In realizing that he wanted to focus on teaching, he took a job at George School in Newtown, PA as a History and Ethics Teacher. His next chapter took him back to the west coast where he made the switch to working within energy and sustainability as a Learning and Engagement Manager at Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. In his quest to be a forever student and learner, Douglas founded the Portland Underground Grad School, a place where adults can keep learning, expand their intellectual horizons, and meet and connect with others.
Images via Douglas Tsoi