Updated on March 31st, 2020 during lock-down in Laos with my family as we wait out the COVID-19 Pandemic
Over the past 20 years I have traveled and worked in an out of conflict zones, balanced a growing family in a shifting world of job insecurity and risk, and learned to make decisions with scraps of information together with with a big bag of hope. None of this has been easy. It has always been filled with anxiety and self doubt at the time of the decisions. But each time my wife and I made our decisions based on an assessment of the risk and as much information we could pull together at the time. Each time a decision had to be made and we made it, moved on and were fortunate enough that we never regretted anything.
We are Sheltering Away From Our Home Countries
As the COVID-19 crisis sweeps the world we were faced once again with a decision to make. This time the stakes were much higher, we have two beautiful little kids, 6 and 8 as of writing this. Should we stay in Laos, were we currently live and work? Or should we leave and get back to the US or Japan? Most people we know back home were shocked we decided to stay. But for us, the call to continue our work helping the people of Laos, together with our assessment that we would be safer hunkering down helped us to make our decision. More importantly it has helped us to enjoy our decision…but not without some struggle.
Each border that closed, each flight that was canceled, each time our window to leave narrowed and eventually closed our stomached churned and emotions ran wild. We doubted ourselves, questioned if we made the right decision as other people chose different paths. But each time we came back to our risk profile, we came back to an assessment of all the information we were actively pulling together from embassies, friends, government partners, the news (yes, you need to read the wild reactions too). Each time we decided we were still making the right decision. Each time our amazingly resilient kids just figured emergencies like this were a part of life. For them, they probably are.
In the middle of change, in the middle of unprecedented times, it is hard to have perspective. But there are things that make it easier. There are ways to prepare to make the next event easier to handle. We have learned how build a resilient life, to see that Y2K, the popping of the tech bubble in the early 2000’s, 911, the subprime mortgage crisis, and now COVID-19 were all unprecedented. Unprecedented crisis always happen. That is what a crisis is. Change always comes knocking.
When life kicks you in the teeth, smile back. When life gives you a present, good or bad, say thank you. When life changes, accept it as the one rule in life that never changes, things change. This is not meant to be an inspirational post, if it gets wishy washy then I give you permission to click away, shut down your computer, and walk away. Actually, if it’s a nice day out, go ahead and take a walk now. You won’t get too far, half of the earth’s population is in lock-down! I’ll still be here when you get back.
Things change. Life changes. We change. Our significant others change, our family changes. Jobs come and go. You get the point. But how do we manage all this change? Uh, er, did you read the title? We don’t manage the change, we should just accept it, adapt to it, and move on. I know, easier said than done, especially when you are in the middle of it. But if nothing else, the past 20 years traveling the world, and working in difficult places has taught me it’s a waste of energy to bemoan change.
Don’t believe me? Here is an 8 year turn around as a case in point.
Child on the Way- I’m Unemployed
But Todd, you have a great life, what do you have to worry about? Well, nothing really. Didn’t you just read my last paragraph? I’m a big fan of giving advice ONLY when I live that advice myself. Eight years ago I found myself quitting my dream job, having my first child, and moving in with my in-laws in Japan. Does my life still sound sexy?
First the job. My contract was up and there is no more money in the project to pay for me. I loved working for the United Nations in Northern Kosovo. But instead of wishing things were different, I’m worked my ass off to leave the project with what it needed to survive after I left. I wanted it and the people there to succeed. I’m grateful for the time I had, and would never have changed a thing. Instead I brought the experience from the job forward with me.
Towards the end of June my wife delivered our first child. Instead of being worried about being unemployed at the same time I would become a Dad, I decided to look forward to it. I was given the gift of two months of NOT working to spend with my wife and new child. Who gets that? Not many people. Sure, it required some sacrifices, like moving in with my wife’s parents, living in a small room with the three of us etc etc. But the rewards were so much. Two months not worrying about work, living in Japan, being close to family. Amazing.
Don’t be Lazy
Being calm, thankful, and hopeful is not the same thing as being lazy. I spent my time looking for new work. Actually I spent my time creating my next job. I was working on a Hiking Guide to Southern Kosovo and this landed me another job building the tourism sector in the same area with the United Nations once again. One year later, I found myself changing life again as we moved back to Timor-Leste to run a conflict resolution program. I felt I still had the energy to work in managing conflicts, and my family needed a change of air. So I left my job again, and we moved on to my next dream job. Each time I took the time to decide if I was happy and if my family needed something more. We decided to move and take a three year contract, not knowing what would be next.
In Timor we lived life to its fullest. Our family grew and my jobs changed a couple of time. But seven years later it was time to leave. We didn’t have a new job lined up but we gave ourselves a year. Kay and the kids moved to Japan for the experience and because we could, while I worked and tried to find a new job. Eight months later we were all reunited in Laos. Thankful for the new job, for being together, and for exploring a new country. Of course, now we had to decided if we should stay or leave due to COVID-19. Yes, yes, you already know what we decided. This is not a murder mystery and you know how it ended. I hope you are beginning to see how all of the ups and downs have ended.
Great, you have filled my head with ideas of happiness, joy, and fulfillment, but what next? I still have to face the uncertainty of COVID-19 or some other pandemic, crisis, unprecedented event that will know doubt come again. I don’t have a job, I still have responsibilities, I have bills. Well, life is about making the most of your time RIGHT NOW. I’m sitting here on a Tuesday evening, updating this blog for you, a glass of whiskey in hand. I spent my day locked in my house, homeschooling my son, working full time to keep our office running, and exercising in my garden with my wife. I’m taking action, doing the things I love. I’m reveling in my change, enjoying it, sharing it. I could be sitting on the couch, watching TV, doing nothing. But I’m not. OK, well I do that too sometimes!
But here is my secret boiled down into 7 steps that range from personal finance to career development. This is the foundation that has helped me not only accept that I can NOT manage uncertainty, but it ensures I have the space to enjoy the change, to learn from it, and grow. This plan has allowed me the space to take advance of opportunities when they have found me:
1) Never Carry Credit Card Debt. I know this sounds easier than it is but it is a fact that you are paying more for what you buy today with credit due to the interest fees. If you have credit card debt, make it a priority to pay it off. Once you pay it off take the money you were paying each month and apply it to another fund (more on this below). Pay off your credit card bill before the end of each month. This way you get the convenience of a credit card without having to pay for it.
2) Make a monthly budget. Cut up your expenses, savings, and discretionary funds. Start with bills, then see what is left for savings (retirement, house, emergency fund etc) and then put the rest into your passions.
3) Establish an Emergency Fund. If you are worried about losing your job and paying the bills than this is a must. Try to have at least 2 months of expenses in the fund but build it up to 6 months (more if you are in an uncertain career field like me!). Because you followed point 2, you know exactly how much you need each month to survive.
4) Establish a passion fund. Life is not about squeaking by. You need to ENJOY life. As you know, I love to travel and it would be easy to blow all of my money on traveling. Instead I put a dedicated amount of money aside each month for travel. This keeps me sane and means I don’t go overboard. Last year I visited 10 countries…This year I’m on 3 so far…
5) Keep things balanced. I paid/saved what I could when I was younger, and as my salary increased I have made the necessary increases to my funds. Most of my extra money goes to savings and investing. I’m not able to save 60% of my income because I haven’t let my lifestyle inflate as my career has grown.
6) Always think a few steps ahead. I plan to be in my current job for the next 4-5 years. But I always take something valuable from each job to help me get the next. Be strategic and always look at upgrading your skills, knowledge and understanding. I have a sense of where I’ll be in 5 years. But I don’t know exactly what it will be. I’m excited to find out!
7) Do things for free. If you love something and have a passion for it, do it. Years ago I managed a free Lonely Planet Book and the relationships I made are still with me. The free hiking guide in Kosovo led to a job because I was already the expert in the area. One of the reasons I got my job in Timor was because they were impressed with my blog! Now as I’m getting ready to launch my book on Japan and escaping from “normal” life, I have built up a lot of friends who are willing to help spread the word. Always be useful to others without thinking about your own self interest.
Yes, it’s that simple
I know you are thinking that I’m the exception, that these are just general ideas, and it can’t possibly be you. I have been living and working abroad for the past 20 years, and I wish I had realized all of this from the beginning. I didn’t get my finances in order until I made a plan 12 years ago. I left college and moved to Japan in 1999 with $30,000 in student loan debt. I graduated from Graduate School in 2006 and moved to a small island nation in the middle of crisis with $120,000 in student debt. I was unemployed when I got married, and then again when I had my first child. I have a wife and 2 kids and we are out in the world while COVID-19 is raging. Life is what you make of it, and what you tell yourself it is. I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner and how we all change from this pandemic!
Question: How do you deal with Uncertainty and Change?