№ 1: Something of a Manifesto

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
My aim is to get to the place in my life where two critical things begin to overlap: living where I want to live and doing the work I want to do. I have accomplished the first, in that I am finally settled in the Tokyo area after many years of detours. I am now working to bring the other element in line. The Convergence Factor is a first-person blog documenting the process of clarifying my aim and working my ass off to reach my target.

This public writing project is a long time coming (should have started a couple years ago), but quick in finally starting. In the evening of Thursday, September 9, 2017, I received an email containing my schedule for the following day’s work, as I do every evening. Friday is technically my day off, but for much of the last year I have been keeping it open for the sake of picking up some extra classes and thereby earning a bit of extra money. If one wants to put much money aside at all as an employee of what I’m going to call Company X, one must work extra hours. I accept this. However, the schedule I received that evening triggered a perfect crystallization of my long-standing general feeling that my time was not only being wasted in this job, it was being wasted on my behalf by my primary employer and as long as I remained in that position at that company, this situation would not ever improve. Wasting time has never been something with which I have generally needed assistance, but even so every week a thoroughly stupid amount of my available time is effectively wasted or at least hamstrung in terms of productivity by having my waking hours dominated by a low-paying job with shitty hours and pervasive lack of job satisfaction. The job is, at best, adequate in the short term, and clearly a dead end in the long-term.

The income generated from the job is enough to live on, but in Tokyo that’s really about it. Saving much of anything on top of that is a struggle. As a photographer and someone trying to move, start a business, get married, travel, etc., I simply need to make more than I can through my day job alone. And so, I currently have five jobs: one full-time job and four part-time gigs, plus some incidental private lessons and the occasional photo job. I commute a total of between two and five hours a day, depending on the shape of my schedule that day.  I use that time as best I can for writing(1)Most of this post will have been written on my phone and studying Japanese and whatever else I can do with an iPhone that’s rarely more than five inches from my face because of how crowded the train is, but there’s a practical limit on productivity when your day is consistently overly long, overly fragmented, and generally incompatible with the work you’d rather be doing. I typically wake before six AM and get to bed after midnight, working at least six days a week, putting in around ninety hours a week between all my various things.

This is just stupid. The cult of busyness and Tokyo’s soul-sucking culture of overwork destroy people on the daily but they will not get the better of me. I can and will keep doing it for the time being, but only as long as is absolutely necessary to affect a substantive change to the nature of my overall situation.

I do not put the blame for my situation on my main employer, though they certainly aren’t doing anything to make things good for their employees. The fact is that I chose to work for the company in the first place, have chosen to stay there as long as I have, and chose to work in an industry that is currently stagnating in Japan. It’s not as if my company is uniquely bad and thereby notable among an otherwise-delightful range of potential employers. No, the EFL industry as a whole has come to smell a bit funny in mature markets like Japan. My company is not an outlier but rather just another depressing feature of a rather grim language-industry landscape.

It’s not that I think teaching is bad, either. Teaching English as a foreign language is no fool’s errand, even though a lot of the jobs and companies out there are built on foundations of complete bullshit. I’ve got a better teaching job than many, in terms of having a real impact, and doing my job well can have a huge impact on the lives and livelihoods of my students. What’s more, teaching English has been interesting and has done many good things for me. However, it’s time to GTFO. I am grateful for everything that my current job has done for me in terms of allowing me to get myself established in Tokyo, but the point of diminishing returns has long since been passed, and legitimate reasons to remain in this line of work(2)Meaning full-time employment as an English teacher for a corporate language school are approaching nil. Apart from some independent contracts, the pay for this work is simply not commensurate with the work done.

A great portion of my general dissatisfaction stems from my bothering to give a shit about how I spend my days now and in the future. It is my ongoing choice to hold onto the aspirations that are putting me at odds with my current employment situation. (Damn those pesky dreams of a better life. When will I learn?) The strain caused by my current situation is optional, but I opt into it simply because I did not come to Japan to waste away in a nondescript office building in central Tokyo working for someone else and going home every night exhausted and unfulfilled only to sleep four hours and come back to do it again.

No, I came here to do interesting things, make interesting creative work, and to thrive. Am I thriving now? Not so much, but that’s exactly the point of pushing to break free of this cycle. The stupid number of hours I’m working now are optional, and are temporary, but for the moment at least are necessary as a means to an end. This situation will not last forever, which is good, because I would drop dead from fatigue(3)Incidentally, there’s a word for this in Japanese: 過労死 karoushi, literally meaning death from overwork if it were to. It’s by busting my ass right now that I will create a better future for myself down the line.

Every day I see and work with people who are in a position similar to mine. They don’t mind the work itself, especially, but they aren’t happy in the job or in their lives overall. They find the schedule inconvenient and the pay insufficient. Some don’t actively complain about it, but you can feel the resentment seeping out of them. Others do complain, but that’s all they do. Some of them end up leaving the job and the country, sometimes after relatively short stints (six months or less), but others remain stuck for years. There are those who have given up, and there are those who spend years mired in perpetual loops of inaction and false starts, desiring something different and better, but never doing enough to actually tip the balance and progress toward the different and better that they desire. They don’t even get so far as defining what better would mean or what difference it is that they are looking for. In conversation, they may indicate one person or another and what they’re doing, how that person has accomplished something or how they have something the entrenched teacher wishes they had, too, but that’s usually where it ends. Many aren’t sure what to do or how to do it, and so it often ends with the self-defeating I don’t know rather than the open-ended follow-up of but I’m gonna find out. Others get pulled in by the ever-present chorus of naysayers, whose siren song of cynicism leads so many to run their potential full speed against those shitty rocks of cowardice disguised by the fog of well that’s just how it is.

Fortunately, that isn’t just how it is. Doing better and more interesting work with greater compensation is something that plenty of people do, even those who take on the additional challenge of doing so abroad. This is a foundational truth of the situation: it is possible to get out of corporate EFL and into better work while remaining abroad. Plenty of others have done it and I will do it, too. How and when are still to be determined, but are in the works. There is only one guarantee here is this: things will not improve so long as I don’t do anything to change the way things are now.

And so, I have set a goal to get out of full time corporate EFL: March 31, 2018. This is the date upon which that sidebar countdown widget(4)If no widget is visible, I’ve either gotten rid of it or the deadline has passed at the time of reading is based. This deadline is three years to the day after my original arrival when I moved here from Shanghai in 2015, a day I refer to as my Japaniversary. This deadline doesn’t mean I’ll be doing the work I most want to do six months from now, but it will still signal a massive shift in the nature of my living and working life in Japan, and will demonstrate large-scale progress toward the work I most want to be doing. This initial goal is just that: an initial step in a longer process that will eventually take me all the way from my current situation to deriving the whole of my income from a balance of things I actually want to be doing passive income sources.

You might be wondering why the hell I would choose to take on this difficult thing and document it fully in public. After all, if I fail in my endeavor, I will do so publicly. Perhaps counterintuitively, that is one of the bigger reasons for me to do this publicly. Public visibility contributes a factor of personal accountability that is not present when working alone in the vacuum of one’s inner dialogue. Doing this publicly demands greater specificity and action on my part, which are likely to yield better results anyway. There are other reasons to do this, too. Here are some:

  • By pursuing this goal publicly, there is the potential to attract other, like-minded individuals. There is also the inevitability of attracting detractors and trolls, but they can go shove it already.
  • By sharing the messy details of the process, I can help to dispel the myth of the elegant start. Good shit happens messily, iteratively, and failures are a necessary part of the process. Everyone is now so concerned with having their public image on social media so fucking polished as to obscure the hard work and headaches necessary to doing much of anything worthwhile. There are loose ends to tie up, there are massive piles of crap to shovel, and there are unsightly bags under your eyes as you wearily slog through it all. This is neither good nor bad, but it is true.
  • Somewhat related to the previous point: by doing this publicly I may be able to help others progress more effectively in the future. Everything worthwhile that we create for ourselves is built on our own efforts, but those efforts would amount to nothing if not for everything accomplished by those who came before us. I make no assumption that anything I put here will be of use to others, but have benefitted more than enough from the discoveries and experience of others not to rule out the possibility. I would rather be publicly useless than privately withholding value that becomes worthless when it eventually dies with me.

The specifics of what, exactly, I’m out to accomplish will have to wait for the next post, as this is long enough as it stands, I need to pack my life into boxes to move in less than a week, and a couple of world leaders are currently having a pissing contest that may end with NK nukes raining down on Tokyo and rendering this blog a strange artifact of one man’s stunted existence. I will append the relevant information here once I’ve published it in a new post.

If you’ve either made it this far by reading or simply tl;dr-scrolled all the way down here, I’d like you to take away these key points:

  1. Corporate EFL is essentially not a viable long-term option for anyone wishing to stay in Japan permanently or even quasi-long-term, if they actually want a real life here. These things just cannot(5)Yes, I’m sure there are exceptions. Please do not angrily message me with them. mesh.
  2. I am remaining in Japan and that is nonnegotiable. As such, I need to find a good route out of full-time corporate EFL that does not involve leaving the country.
  3. I came to Japan to thrive and do interesting things. So far, I have mostly just lost weeks and months at a time in a sleep-deprived haze. This cannot continue. As such:
  4. March 31, 2018 is my deadline for getting out of full-time corporate EFL. This is a deadline for the first stage only, other stages will follow thereafter.

I can make no promises about how often this blog will be updated, but hopefully a couple times a week. I will, at very least, post a weekly summary every Sunday night to make note of things done, progress made, etc. over the course of the week.

Please do leave your comments and questions, as I genuinely want to hear from the people who wind up reading this. This blog exists to avoid doing what I’m doing in a vacuum, so I encourage you, the audience, to be active and interactive.

Thank you for reading, I’ll be back with more ASAP.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Most of this post will have been written on my phone
2. Meaning full-time employment as an English teacher for a corporate language school
3. Incidentally, there’s a word for this in Japanese: 過労死 karoushi, literally meaning death from overwork
4. If no widget is visible, I’ve either gotten rid of it or the deadline has passed at the time of reading
5. Yes, I’m sure there are exceptions. Please do not angrily message me with them.

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