It was 2003. I was 23 and had, by all outside accounts, the perfect job. I was a nuclear engineer working for the Department of Defense on nuclear submarines at Pearl Harbor, HI. You know the Pearl Harbor I’m talking about, the shipyard based on that Ben Affleck movie.
Anyhow, there I was living in paradise, doing work that only zero-point something percent of the population get to work on. I wonder what the fraction is of people who have been inside the reactor of a nuclear submarine. Whatever it is, I make up part of that infinitesimal club.
– You’re living the life, Bassam!
– I’m so jealous.
– When I die, I want to come back and live your life.
Woooooooo hooooooooo! I was living the dream!
Except, the dream wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. The problem was, as much as I wanted to romanticize my life and my job (it wasn’t like I was dodging Japanese Zeros at the outset of a World War while falling in love with naval nurses exported from the country’s heartland), I just wasn’t happy.
Even though some people loved their work on the submarines, because Lord knows there were, I didn’t. It was long hours, people’s lives were at stake (kind of), and there wasn’t much room for creativity. As you can probably imagine this type of statement didn’t happen so often,
Hey guys, I know Admiral Rickover set forth these nuclear procedures but I got this wild idea. Here me out. Why don’t we…
No, you followed the methodology that was laid out years before you were there and you shut your mouth. In fact, when adding the laid back Hawaiian way to the non-creative world of nuclear procedures what you had was one guy tell me, “Bassam, you gotta slow down when you walk here. This isn’t New York. When you walk fast, people think there is an emergency.”
Don’t get me wrong, working side by side with members of the NAVY to refuel those boats when they were in port, was very honorable, but it wasn’t something that ignited my soul.
Instead of admitting my unhappiness, I put on the face and told everyone how I was living the life everyone could be jealous of. I was terrified of leaving and wondering what I would do if I did leave. I was terrified of what people would think and what they would say. So I carried the face of happiness until the hammer that my subconscious was banging around inside my head was finally acknowledged.
Whose life was I living? There I was, losing sleep at night thinking about what people 9,000 miles away might think if I changed my job. News Flash: They didn’t care. I wasn’t that important.
To be able to look myself in the mirror and say, “I tried it, I moved here all by myself, I was a nuclear engineer, I worked on a submarine everyday, I lived in “paradise” but I don’t like it. I’m going to change my life,” was one the most important realizations I’ve made in life. It was my gut trust moment.
It would have been easy for me to have stayed there, started a life and gone through the textbook American Dream that society had wrapped up with a bow for me, but that wasn’t what I wanted.
So I quit.
Right before I quit I was almost hyperventilating. No one at work knew I was about to do it, only me and the guy in my head. If I didn’t say it, life would go along as normal. If I said it, my life would change forever. It’s crazy how you play those moments in your head.
Inhale. Exhale. Here goes nothing.
Boss, I appreciate the opportunity but I’m giving my 2 weeks to chase a dream of mine.
And with that, the anvil was off my shoulders and surprisingly, the outpouring of support from my co-workers and friends started to flow in.
– Go chase your dream.
– We’re jealous.
– I wish I had the guts to do that.
– Don’t forget us little people when you make it big.
So I left Hawaii to move to Charleston, South Carolina to start a film production business with my friend. That’s a whole other story, but the point is, I made a decision about my career that I wanted to. Even though South Carolina didn’t work out as planned, I still look at the decision to go there as a 100% success because the process taught me to be aware of gut feelings and to not suppress my own happiness because of what someone else might think of me.
It’s Your Ship
At the end of the day when the lights are off, the TV is off and the teeth are brushed, it is just you and the voice in your head that have to rest their weary heads. No one else matters at the moment. Is that voice whispering in your ear or is he fast asleep?
Societal and familial pressure can be very strong but maybe the proverbial white-picket-fence life (or whatever definition of success is thrown around) isn’t for you.
The definition of success is that which makes you happy, period. Keep this thought close to your chest. Live your life with purpose. Live the life you can be proud of.
– But Bassam, you have a great job and you live in Hawaii! If you can’t enjoy life there, you can’t enjoy it anywhere!
– You’d be foolish to leave.
Maybe everyone was right. Maybe I was foolish, but I’ll live with Steve Jobs’ take on the word instead: