As you can tell, this is a new blog, and I should give a little bit of an introduction with the purpose of it and what I started to achieve.
This actually isn’t the first blog on this domain. I started blogging on what eventually became http://www.shelleyyoung.com in 2008 when I first went to China to study. The name, I Love Bing, came out of a joke I made to my boyfriend that the real reason why I went to China was to eat as much Chinese flatbread (or bing) as possible. At the time, I was an undergraduate studying Chinese Language and Literature and working on my schoolwork occupied a lot of my time, so of course much of what I wrote about was about my experience in China and my experience studying Chinese. The blog was private for a long time and mainly served as an easy way for me to share news and photos with my friends and family back home. A few years after I returned from China, I made the blog public, but my updates were sporadic and haphazard at best.
I originally started writing to chronicle my adventures in China (eating Chinese food).
I worked hard in college, was a straight A student, graduated with the highest Latin honors, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. I graduated during the recession but was fortunate enough that I almost immediately found work at an international education consulting company after graduation. It turned out that all the time (and money) I spent studying and working abroad was useful in building a career in international education. Due to that hard work and my fluency in Chinese, I was able to work with the company’s overseas offices in China.
Before I go further into how The Inner/Outer Fitness Project started, I should provide some information for context about my personality for readers who do not know me:
1) I have a tendency towards perfectionism.
2) I can and will work very, very, hard.
3) One of the things that scares me the most is being called a quitter.
4) Challenge is something I value. Until recently, I would be willing to do work if I considered it an intellectual challenge, even if I did not believe in the “mission” or “purpose” of it.
5) I am competitive by nature. This is closely related to trait #4 above. Even as a child I played sports with the boys during recess, because I thought that playing with the girls was boring since they were not competitive enough.
Probably because of how grateful I was to find a job so easily after graduation with what I thought was a useless major and because of my own innate work ethic, I threw myself into my job. I loved the challenge of it and gave it my all. Over time, I was promoted and moved into new projects and my workload steadily grew. Before I knew it, I was regularly working 60 hour work weeks and on nights and weekends. Because of my work with overseas offices, I had weekly meetings at night with offices in China that would often last until 2AM in the morning. I still had to be in at work at 9:00AM to work with American colleagues and clients, however, and because of my long commute, I had to be out of bed by 6:30AM every day.
The only way I knew how to manage this was to live a very regimented lifestyle. My workload often required me to be in the office until 7:00PM, and I made a habit of bringing my dinner with me every day. I usually would eat my dinner at work, make the 1.5 hour trek home, decompress through a run or yoga class, then collapse exhausted by 11PM in order to be in shape enough to start all over again the next morning. That was an ideal schedule. More often than not, I was delayed for some reason; either I had to stay later than that, or public transportation took too long, or I was interrupted in the middle of the night by emergency phone calls and emails demanding an immediate response. I became a pro at fitting in my workouts at all hours of the day. I sometimes woke up even earlier to run if I knew that there was no way I could fit it in later that night, and it was not unusual for someone to catch me completing my run outside at 1AM or 2AM after one of my international meetings. (I do not recommend this for safety reasons. I never said I was very smart about the way I lived.)
Because my work meant so much to me, I made little time for my friends or any of my hobbies. Friends from college who would come into Boston to visit me told me that I was not the same quirky, curious, and creative person they knew from college. I had become a boring work drone. More than once, my older brother gently hinted that the life I was living was probably not what was right for me, but his advice went through one ear and out the other.
Needless to say, this obviously wasn’t very sustainable, and several years of this will take its toll on anyone. I was someone I did not want to be: stressed out, anxious and irritable.
It took a long time for this to become clear to me though. My perspective finally started to change in October of 2012 when I went through a very difficult breakup. The ending of that relationship left me very deeply affected and saddened. I felt shaken by the loss, as if a wire had snapped inside me, and it made me question all of the assumptions I had held thus far about life.
I can say with no amount of exaggeration that the most important tool that kept me moving forward was exercise.
I don’t mean to discount the help my friends and family extended to me. They were very kind and compassionate to me during that difficult time. But what ultimately saved me, however, was exercise.
I had known for some time about the connection between physical and mental health, but this time I took it upon myself to do as much research on the subject. I consumed books such as Spark and Healing through Exercise. And I threw myself into as much physical activity as I could.
I played soccer and softball and would go on any hiking, skiing, etc. adventure that anyone suggested. When I saw an ad for a half marathon running study done at Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital, I signed up from it. I followed the training schedule and went from running an average of 12 miles a week to an average of about twice that much every week. I created spreadsheets that tracked how much I adhered to the schedule I gave myself of running, strength training, cross training, and yoga. I also made sure to incorporate mindfulness exercises such as meditation into my daily routine.
I skiied for the first time in my life!
…And bonded with my brothers by running a race with them.
I even signed up for an initial assessment with a personal trainer (he was great, but I decided that I did not need it), and he asked me what my motivation was for considering personal training. I told him, “It’s because I believe that if my body becomes stronger, my mind will become stronger too.” He said, “Wow. That’s probably the most unique answer I’ve gotten so far. Most people just want to lose weight.”
It turned out that the loss of that relationship was a blessing in disguise, because it made clear to me the truth that I had been blind to all along.
For too long I thought that the only important thing in life was to be successful and responsible. That was why I worked so hard in school and why I worked so hard at my job. I grew up poor, and my mother was a widow; if I did not work hard and become successful (read: the recipient of some arbitrary status symbol with some measure of financial success) then I was irresponsible. Hobbies and having fun with friends didn’t matter; all that mattered was how well you did at your job. Until that point in October 2012, I didn’t stop to consider the fact that I was neglecting my health through my single-minded focus on my job and that it was making me exhausted and miserable. I thought to myself, “Do I want to look back later on and remember my twenties as a time when I was exhausted and unhappy, and all I had to show for that time was the success of my work projects?” And very importantly, despite enjoying the people I worked with and my work environment, I had no passion for the industry I was in. I only worked hard because I believed that it was the right and responsible thing to do.
I had kept going because deep down I was terrified of being called a quitter. Do you know those scenes in the Back to the Future movies when Marty McFly consistently gets himself into messes because someone called him a chicken? That was the way I felt about quitting. To be called a quitter was to me the pinnacle of failure.
But that personal loss made me reconsider all of my beliefs. Whenever I wasn’t working, I thought, and when I went on my long runs, I continued to think. Over time, I came to this conclusion:
I had to completely redefine my definition of success.
The whole time I had been completely wrong about what I thought was success, and my real, hidden, core values were utterly incompatible with the way I had been living my life. I also did not believe in the work that I was doing and was only doing it because it was a challenge and my responsibility. I was also doing it because I was deeply afraid of being a failure. My pride and selfishness had me working so hard on something that ultimately was not my real passion, and I was neglecting the things that were really important in my life, which were my family, friends, and my mental and physical health.
I was also so focused on this flawed idea of “success” that I did not consider how I wanted my character to be. I didn’t stop to think that what I really wanted of my character was to be a kind and compassionate person. Not only was it not a top priority for me consciously back then, but I neglected my physical health so much that it was impossible to be so, no matter how good my intentions.
I also thought about all the things that I threw myself into whenever I was not working. What was it that I really cared about? I cared a lot about health and learning about to help others become healthy. I enjoyed cooking healthy food and entertaining. I enjoyed taking long runs outside and going to the gym. I enjoyed reading about philosophy and spirituality and how to be a better person. I was fascinated with the connection between mind and body. Was there a way that I could incorporate these interests somehow into a career? I was not sure then, and I am still not sure today, but I knew one thing with absolute certainty: I could not stay in my job any longer.
It took about six more months of prep work before I could finally leave. I called up my old boss at the restaurant I had worked on and off through college and asked him if I could have a job there again. I told him that I was quitting my day job and that it would take some time before I could leave (remember, I am by nature a responsible person and as a project manager, I wanted to make sure that all my projects transitioned properly.) He agreed to take me back once I was done with my day job, and agreed to let me pick up shifts before then to make some extra money. I began working at night and on the weekends there to prepare for my transition. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him for giving me the opportunity to go back. Without that, I would not have been able to leave as soon as I wanted to. He eventually offered me a few shifts bartending, which I had never done before (I had only waited tables and worked as a hostess before), and I found bartending unexpectedly fun and rewarding.
When I finally put in my resignation, I also agreed to a two and a half month transition period out. My friends and family all told me I was crazy, but I genuinely did feel that I owed the company a lot and wanted to make sure that the transition was smooth for them too. It was my first job out of college, and I had learned a lot from my experience there. I was also very ingrained in my projects and had to train new people to take over, and I wanted to make sure that they would be successful in their new roles.
It’s been three months since I quit my job, and I haven’t looked back. I am still figuring out the path towards getting towards where I would like to be, but there is no doubt in my mind that I am getting closer towards it.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I was able to make the decision that I made. During these shaky economic times, how many people are able to just get up and leave the comfortable, safe, and respectable white collar job they have? I was lucky enough that I had a very good support network. I had friends who have been with me through thick and thin and have been non-judgmental, tactful, and understanding about the fact that I now cannot go out as often as before. I’ve noticed that a lot of them have started inviting me over for dinners at their house instead of going out, since they do not want me to feel uncomfortable about turning down an invitation for dining out because of financial reasons. I have a supportive family that encouraged me to find happiness even if it meant sacrificing job stability. My older brother has been especially supportive and even offered to help me out financially if I needed it. (It hasn’t come to that yet, thank goodness, but it is nice to know that he loves me and is there for me.) My boss at the restaurant was supportive and flexible about taking me back, even though he knew that there would be a chance that I would leave in the near future.
This brings me back to the focus of this new blog. I’ve put a lot of thought over the past year into learning how to become a better person, inside and out, and this blog is meant to chronicle that progress. It is a never-ending process, which is why I call it a Project.
While I still don’t have the answers for myself or anybody else, I hope that writing will help me figure this out and maybe perhaps I could inspire someone else along the way to choose happiness over stability or money or status symbols or whatevver other people call success. Another big component of what I would like to talk about is physical health. I passionately believe in the connection between physical and mental health and believe that if you get your body in shape, your mind will follow, and vice versa. I really believe that during one of the hardest periods of my life, running and playing sports saved me, and I believe that they can do they same for other people going through struggles. So while I am certainly not the poster child for health and have a long way to go, a large component of this blog will be about physical health, healthy living, and spiritual health because these topics are important to me, and I believe that they should be a priority for anyone seeking to leave a vibrant and fulfilled life.
I am sure that these goals will evolve over time, just like people evolve over time. It amazes me how much I have changed for the better in the span of only a year. It gives me hope that with some thought and hard work, I can continue to learn a better person little by little, day by day.