5 Lessons Learned in Limbo

This post is about being in limbo—about being between work or school or other structured opportunities—and about how to leverage that in-between time to do or learn something awesome. Illustrated with stills from Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom, because it was filmed in Rhode Island, and also why not?

Last October I finished a 2,660-mile thru-hike from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. It took my friends and I six and a half months to hike from one end to the other. Along the way, we passed through barren deserts, soaring alpine peaks, and dense forested countryside. Was it difficult? Extremely. Personally enriching? More than I can say.

The most challenging part of embarking on such an enormous trip is not always the journey itself, however. Often, the most challenging part of the journey is returning from it.

After finishing the trail, I packed up my belongings and bid farewell to Portland, Oregon, the city I called home for over four years. A brief tour of the West Coast followed, and then I set off East. A week of podcasts and bad coffee found me back in Providence, Rhode Island, the city where I grew up. I had no job, limited funds, and all the time in the world. Some might find such a situation harrowing, or downright scary. If you embrace the uncertainty, however, time spent in limbo can be every bit as fruitful and exciting as time spent in school or at work.

In Portland, I held a nine-to-five job in a swanky tech office, and on the PCT, I kept even longer hours, often hiking from sunup to sundown. And I'll admit it: At first, the wide-open days were disorienting. What to do with all this spare time?

My mom was in a state of limbo recently as well. She quit her job at URI's Coastal Institute to focus on learning new skills and methods, which she hoped would open up new research opportunities for her down the road. With a wide-open schedule for the first time in years, she too struggled with effective ways to fill the time. High productivity is often easy to achieve with structure, but can be difficult to maintain on your own.

This blog post is the result of a few conversations between my mom and I, reflecting upon some of the strategies and habits that helped us make the most of our time in limbo. Here are the top five.

1. Have a Plan.

Map from Moonrise Kingdom

Don't forget your map and compass. And tang. Image credit: designsquish.com

If you are considering quitting your job, dropping out of school, or transferring to a new one, make sure you have a plan first. While there is occasionally something to be said for "just going for it," and while improvisation is very valuable skill on its own, doing feels better than figuring out what to do and ensures you'll have something to show for all of your unstructured time.

Consider these questions carefully: Why are you quitting your job or leaving school behind? What idea or dream is keeping you up at night? The answers to these questions should lead you to concrete goals you'd like to achieve, and those in turn should lead you to an actionable plan you can move towards as soon as you take the leap. Having a plan ensures that you'll hit the ground running.

Both my mom and I created plans primarily focused on learning new skills and building our knowledge. As a technophile and aspiring scholar of STS and cyborg anthropology, I wanted to remedy my lack of experience with raw code, and so laid out a plan to learn Python and computational problem solving methods using books and online resources. As an ecologist and researcher, my mom set out to learn new statistical methods and broaden her experience in computational data science.

Setting abstract goals for ourselves led us to take concrete steps towards them and track our progress with measurable metrics. I set the goal of building a website for myself, the result of which you can see here. My mom wanted to get a better handle on the R programming language. She's now using those skills to analyze over 30 years of environmental data stored in a previously inaccessible database.

2. Remain Flexible.

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley"

To a Mouse, Robert Burns, 1785

Of course, having a plan can't prevent the unforeseen, and sometimes the most carefully laid plans will get derailed. Don't despair! Learn to pivot and adapt to the changing circumstances, and if your plan begins to fall apart, learn what you can from the experience and move on. Salvage what you can of your original plan, and see if you can take it in a new direction.

I was talking with my mom about flexibility the other day. Soon after she quit her position, as she was beginning to act on the plan she set for herself, her mom's (my grandmother's) health started to deteriorate. Suddenly, my mom found most of her time and energy taken up by providing care for my grandmother. It soon became a full-time job for her and for my aunt. I can scarcely describe what a challenging time this was for our family, and my mom, aunt, and grandmother in particular.

Until very recently, when my grandmother moved into a nursing community that is better able to care for her, my mom found herself with very little time to spare on her own growth and development. This contributed to some frustration, but also an important realization: clinging too closely to a plan will make it more difficult to adapt when that plan inevitably goes off-track.

At the same time, not having a plan at all would have made the adjustment back towards her project all the more difficult. Learn to balance movement towards a goal with acceptance of things outside of your control and be gentle with yourself when life gets hard.

Sam from Moonrise Kingdom:

"We can't predict the exact future." Image credit: imoviequotes.com

Had my mom not quit her job when she did, she wouldn't have been able to provide the care that my grandmother so needed. And though this wasn't the intended purpose of her leave of absence from work, in the end, having that time off was even more necessary than she knew. Now, the time she does get to devote to herself feels all the more vital and magical, and she's more grateful for it now than ever before.

3. Be Patient.

When you're setting your own schedule and working at your own pace, you sometimes forget what it's like to have to wait. Any holdups are your own, after all. All that changes when you bring other people into the equation. Things become complicated, and as complexity grows, so does time spent waiting. If you are to maintain your even keel, you must practice patience.

Binoculars, Moonrise Kingdom

Take the long view. Image credit: cinesnatch.blogspot.com

I decided that my main goal over the next year would be to apply to grad school. While my area of focus is not yet set in stone, I'd like to work towards a PhD in STS or cyborg anthropology with a focus on Latin America. In the meantime, I needed a source of income!

Enter the waiting game. I applied to several positions which seemed interesting, one of which in particular drove me nuts with waiting. This particular job was with a Latin American news agency based in Quito, Ecuador. Citing my experience with NACLA, I sent in my application for a position as a social media writer, and began to wait.

While I continued my job search, sent in other applications, networked, and even turned down another position (never easy when one is currently unemployed), the weeks rolled by. They were punctuated by occasional follow-up emails, and finally a Skype interview. Then, more waiting. By the time I actually received the job offer, I had decided to take a shorter-term job as a Spanish teacher instead!

If I had been working another job while applying to this new social media position, the weeks probably would have flown by—I would hardly have had the free time to think about when or if my application had been read and processed. However, because I was deciding my own schedule around self-directed learning, I found myself checking my email a little too often. What seemed like an age to me was doubtlessly a perfectly reasonable period of time for my would-be employers.

My mom ran into a similar waiting situation with a coworker who was supposed to be delivering her an updated database. A week went by without a word. He was busy with other projects, of course, but when an entire project halts because of someone else, the waiting game can be excruciating.

Take away: If you find yourself waiting, and waiting, and waiting... DON'T PANIC! Remember that your conception of time in limbo is probably rather different than that of someone who works 60 hours a week. Use that extra time to work towards your goals in other ways.

Which brings me to my next lesson...

4. Have Multiple Projects.

How might you spend your time waiting? One not very productive way would be to twiddle your thumbs on the couch. A better way would simply be to switch gears, and focus on another project or goal.

Moonrise Kingdom books

It's okay to have a few different projects in progress at once. Image credit: flavorwire.com

Whenever my job search stalled, I kept myself busy with coding or practicing Portuguese. When I didn't have a class to fall back on, I dug into my reading list or worked on my writing. If all else failed, I vented my energy exercising. Hopefully, I'll be ready for my first half-marathon next month!

Having one central goal doesn't mean you can't nurture a few others on the side. In fact, I've found that pursuing more than one thing at a time keeps each activity exciting and helps prevent burnout. It is sometimes tempting when given a huge chunk of free time to devote it entirely to one single activity. Each brain is different, but my recommendation would be: Don't!

I've found that whenever I hit a mental block, whether in my writing or in a particularly challenging code problem, working on something else gives my brain a chance to breathe. As a result, I'll often return to the problem with a fresh set of eyes, and pick up on new insights or new lines of thinking I'd previously overlooked.

5. Get Out There.

Regardless of what sort of secret master plan you're working on, it is likely you could learn a thing or two from someone else. Make sure you get out an about every now and again—There is no substitution for an unexpected conversation (or dance party).

Moonrise Kingdom dancy party

Put yourself out there! Image credit: 3brothersfilm.com

One advantage of structured work or school is that each tends to throw you into contact with people in other fields who hold different opinions and values than you. We are social creatures, and even informal conversations with new people can open up new ways of thinking about the world. Furthermore, explaining your own thoughts aloud to others forces you to conceive of them more carefully.

I'm nerd, but I'm also a people person. I need stimulation from other brains to do my best work and to keep my life exciting. For me, this goes beyond simply hanging out with friends outside of work. I found that if my work was solitary, it became tiresome.

I took to frequenting local coffeehouses and libraries to work and study. I began attending local lectures and events as often as possible. I often ended up in a conversation with someone next to me or behind me, chatting about what each of us was working on and thinking about. I had a great conversation about economic theory with a psychology professor. I talked about NSA surveillance with a freelance tech support specialist. One evening, I got a rundown on Brazilian social media from a graduate student. And after a concert, I learned how cutting edge prosthetic technologies are helping differently-abled people increase their autonomy from a researcher in the field.

I didn't know any of these people beforehand; I just bumped into them (usually not literally) and struck up a conversation. My horizons are a bit wider thanks to each of them.

I recently began a new role as a high-school Spanish teacher—a job radically different than the one I held a year ago. I never would have come across the position had I not been devoting so much of my time to developing new skills and connections—leveraging my time in limbo. In conjunction with my continuing efforts to learn how to code and my freelance social media work, my days have quickly become jam-packed!

Would I do it all again? Absolutely. But next time, I'll do it smarter. I hope these tips help you find your way through limbo a little bit easier. If they do, let me know!