We all have our plans – some auspicious idea of what we’re going to do in life, where we’re going to go and how we’re going to get there. But in this letter to upcoming graduates and young alumni, this alumnus warns against sticking to “the plan.” If our ultimate objective is real happiness and true satisfaction, he says, we have to let go of the agenda and open our minds up to just going with the flow. Only then will we end up where we really belong.
by Michael Hollifield ’05
Dear (Younger, Single, Sans-Children) CofC Family, I’m writing with a little advice. First, I ask that you close your eyes and picture yourself in two, three, four, even five years from now. Got it? Now, throw it out the window. I promise, it’s for your own good. I’m not saying plans and goals aren’t healthy – just that flexibility and spontaneity will lead you to places you never dreamed you’d go.
Quick background check: I’m originally from your standard middle-class family (read: no country club membership) in Spartanburg, S.C. I came to the College in 2001, held a job all four years, received a quality education (special thanks to Rhonda Mack, Bonnie Grossman and Holland Williams) and graduated with a decent GPA.
After graduating, I, like most, didn’t know what was next. Sure, I had the dream of working my way up through a global corporation in a major city and getting the corner office. So, after an extra year in Charleston enjoying the life I’d known, I packed it up and moved to Atlanta.
I took the coldest of cold-calling jobs out there – selling graphic wraps and car decals – and I quickly learned that my strong suit was not in sales. I gave it my best, but it wasn’t to be.
Cue the fallback: waiting tables. Don’t get me wrong, I know jobs in the service industry provide stable, lucrative careers. But I always knew it was my in between. So it was an exercise in soul searching and patience when I went to work at a casual restaurant nestled in the skyscrapers of Midtown Atlanta. I waited on the big boys, the giant ad agencies and media conglomerates and on people my age (and younger) whose jobs I knew I deserved. I was applying for their jobs but I wasn’t getting anywhere. It made me resentful. This was 2007, and (as far as I remember) the economy was stable. I remember the press at the time was raving that Atlanta was a “top city for new grads.” Yet, I still couldn’t get anything I wanted.
Finally, I got my break. I ended up waiting on the director of private events for a major club and event venue. She offered me a job as a banquet server and I worked my way up from there, eventually creating my own position, marketing and events coordinator. It was the perfect job for me. I managed the entire marketing program – creating ads, doing sales tours, press releases, you name it – and even won a few industry awards. But, after two years, I still wasn’t even full time, and I was realizing there was no room to grow. It was time to go; I had to advance in my career.
Fast forward to April 2011. I was working for a local bridal website, managing their social media content, and I took my first real, paid vacation to Spain to visit a friend who was teaching English there. I absolutely loved it, was painfully jealous of her lifestyle and, upon returning to Atlanta, promised myself that I would move abroad to teach if I ever lost my job (and had the ability).
Lo and behold, two weeks later, I was laid off. I hit the ground running. After doing some research, I determined that Korea (South, obviously) was the best place to start teaching ESL. I knew absolutely nothing about Korea; I just wanted a complete change.
That August I moved to Seoul, Korea, to begin teaching kindergarteners and elementary school children at a private academy. Mind you, I’d never taught anyone anything. It was completely new to me – and it was quite stressful. Communicating with the students could be maddening, and finding a balance with how to treat the different ages and fluency levels was an exercise in patience. But it was better than the constant fight for advancement, for something better, that I’d been in for so long in Atlanta.
And it was something different. Korea is a beautiful country. The city of Seoul is fast paced, busy and gritty around the edges. The rapid industrialization of Korea has made an interesting balance. Picture high-rise buildings, a serious obsession with luxury goods and an efficient subway system right next door to older buildings with “squattie potties” (toilets in the floor). Strange to most, sure, but it’s what I love about Korea. They are flying forward into the 21st century, but a lot of it is still behind the times (Internet banking, ahem).
I found a good life in Korea. The expat community here is very friendly and assimilating was extremely easy. I learned basic Korean, so the language has not been a hindrance. I also met my boyfriend, a British expat who’s an engineer.
After my first-year contract ended, I faced my big decision: to stay or to go? It was during that decision process I realized that I was actually truly happy. Aside from the obvious perks – the free apartment, trips all over Asia during vacation periods, money easily saved and sent home, cheap food, abundant culture and nightlife – I was just happy. I’d come to see that I was a good teacher. Seeing the children happy and learning made me feel successful. My school’s administrators were pleased with me and they showed it. Positive reinforcement works wonders.
In short, I was satisfied with my job. I wasn’t chasing a bigger office, something better that someone else had. I finally knew what it meant to be living my dream. And so I stayed. I was rewarded by more responsibility in my new post as head kindergarten teacher. No, I don’t make gobs of money, but I
make more than enough to travel around Asia two or three times a year, save and go out five nights a week. That alone is something I wouldn’t have in America. And that is not lost on me.
So – aside from my yearly visits home – I don’t plan on leaving Korea any time soon. I’m not saying my corporate days are behind me. Marketing is still a passion of mine and something that interests me – and one day I’d like to go back to university here in Korea, get my M.B.A. and work for a corporation. I’m just saying that, for right now, I’ve found true happiness teaching in Korea. Is it something I expected? Absolutely not. But this unexpected has led me to a place that I’d never dreamed
All this to say: When you think about your plans for your life, don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it one step, one job, at a time. Who knows where you will find yourself? I sure didn’t.
– Michael Hollifield ’05 studied business administration with a concentration in marketing at the College and is now the head kindergarten teacher at a private academy in Seoul, South Korea.