Nystrom, Waking up in PortugalSubmitted by Michael Nystrom on Tue, 02/04/2014 - 20:37
The last time we met was in 1991. I was 23 years old, a freshly minted college graduate, posing as Andy Warhol in the kitchen of my apartment in Tokyo.
Six years later, I found myself in Portugal, the short hairs on my chin the early sprouts of freedom.
My journey from Japan to Portugal was, in retrospect, random. Like most 23 year old kids, I had no idea what to do with my life. I had just finished up with 18 years of schooling, and was therefore used to being told what to do.
Suddenly, after graduation, there was no one there to tell me. Did you feel this way, too?
So I fell back on old ways. At 24, I went back to graduate school. In some ways, school is easy. There is not much pressure to think. You only have to do what you’re told. But mainly I went back because my old professor told me to do.
That professor was a big guy. He was famous. He was scary and intimidating, and occupied an outsized proportion of my attention. I didn’t want to disappoint him. Not only that, he had a prescription to my uncertainty, and he delivered it with authority: “You have no skills. Get your advanced degree. It will open doors for you,” he said.
“Ok,” I said.
Which is how, after two more years, I ended up with an advanced degree, working on a ‘fast track’ towards becoming general manager of an elegant Japanese restaurant in downtown Seattle. But from all outward appearances, it looked like waiting tables.
So who should walk into that restaurant one evening but my old professor, the one I didn't want to disappoint.
“Hello Michael, what are you doing here?” he asked, a palpable shock in his voice. Apparently he expected me to be out somewhere moving and shaking, certainly not waiting tables.
I’d disappointed him.
And that is the moment the irony hit me. I had originally entered university as an art major. After my first year, I worried that I would only end up waiting tables to support myself as an artist. So I switched majors to something more “practical.” That is how I met this professor in the first place.
Sometimes you meet your destiny on the road you took to avoid it.
But not only had I disappointed him, I had disappointed myself.
Restaurant work wasn’t for me. Management wasn’t for me. It didn’t take long to figure that out. Then I ended up at the brokerage, which I loved (for the first six months). And then the other brokerage, where I took my place in a cubicle, under the fluorescent that glowered at me for eight hours a day.
It was 1997 and I had just turned 29. Saturn had returned and was barreling right down on me.
That’s when a friend asked me if I wanted to go on a trip to Portugal with her. Her parents were from there, and she had family there. We weren’t romantic, but things were … complicated.
Immediately I said no. I was used to saying no. I was well on my way to becoming a ‘Yeah But.’ I had lots of practice.
“Yeah, I want to be an artist, but…”
“Yeah, I’d love to stay in Tokyo, but…”
“Portugal sounds nice, but…”
I don’t know what caused me to change my mind. To this day it remains a mystery, but I still remember the feeling of my mind flipping from no to yes, and a whole new world opening up. This is where I began to learn about the power of yes over no.
It was my first trip to Europe. My mind was blown. Everything was new. Life was suddenly fresh. I was free! No clock to punch, no schedule to keep. Barreling through the streets of Lisbon in a Mercedes cab (Mercedes cabs!?), I marveled at a completely different world. I sensed how large the world of possibility could be. I could feel the beginnings of my own transformation.
I was like a Jack that had just popped out of his box for the first time. My whole existence felt like it was going supernova.
Six months later, I quit that job and never looked back.
At the time I had no idea, but in retrospect it is clear what was happening.
I was waking up!