Lessons Learned from a Year Living and Working in Korea

growth korea lessons

Lesson 1: I Will End Up Working for Myself

“I think the person who takes a job in order to live - that is to say, for the money - has turned himself into a slave.” - Joseph Campbell

The biggest challenge to being in Korea has been adapting to a somewhat unusual work culture, made even more unusual by my distinctly eccentric employer (I have verified her unique take on workplace discipline by asking many friends who also work as English teachers). While the experience definitely taught me how to be responsible to another person's standards of productivity, it taught me a lot about how I, personally, like to work and the conditions under which I am most effective.

Turns out, I don't take directions well. I guess it really is a good thing I never joined the military.

I work best when I can set my own schedule. I am considerably more productive when I have the freedom to work at my own pace and in conditions of my choosing. As long as I have a set project and I take the time to make a roadmap on how to get there, I am more than happy to work for 3, 4, 5, 6, or more hours straight.

As a corollary to this lesson, I can't stand having my time wasted. Due to poor management, I had days where I only taught one class, but still had to be at work for nearly nine hours. Even though I was being paid for this, I still found it frustrating. Almost insulting actually. It aroused the same indignation I feel when I see someone throw out half of a perfectly good grassfed steak just because they didn't have anything to do with it.

I made good use of my time. I wrote a book. I created some of my best writing for this blog (actually, I did that on weekends). I made a wide network of friends on social media. Of course, I did all my grading, lesson planning, and comments with plenty of time to spare.

But something about being employed to do nothing still grated on me, especially since I had to hide everything else I was doing. I would have loved to run private lessons for students, or take on more classes.

Furthermore, even if I am working in a decent job with good pay and good use of my time, I need to be working for something I believe in. I can't be happy working for money, even if it's good money. Money means too little to me, and since I've always had hanging over me a sense of how short life is (sometimes a good thing), I can't long tolerate doing things I don't feel are moving me forward in life.

All this has led me to the realization that working for myself isn't just some I'd like to do, it's pretty much a necessity for my professional fulfillment. I'm sure I will enjoy working for great bosses on meaningful projects, but I'm going to have to end up working for myself or else risk going insane.

“Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense — that nobody can frighten me off from this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.” - Joseph Campbell

Lesson 2: Relationships Require More than Love

“Love is a friendship set to music.” - Joseph Campbell

This past year was one of growth in areas non-professional as well: it was the first time I lived with my girlfriend, A. We had only been dating for 18 months when we moved to Korea, where we shared a cozy three room apartment for the last year. Not only did we live together, we also worked together. And since we were mostly surrounded by people we could not communicate with, we were together pretty much 24 hours a day.

It was intense, to say the least.

In retrospect, this was a surefire way to kill our relationship, but we went into it knowing it would be a challenge and would require a lot of growth. We had open minds and were willing to admit mistakes. Most importantly, we learned to listen.

When you live in such close proximity to someone for so long, you have to learn how to let them be their own person. When they have time away from you, it is easy for them to have their own life, but when that time isn't there, it is vital that you learn when to step back and the intricate dance that is giving space while still being supportive.

Communication, to a degree I never even contemplated, is very, very important.

Needless to say, we are more in love than ever, and our relationship has only gotten stronger. This required a conscious commitment to the relationship and an expansion of the jurisdiction of Love beyond admiration, affection, and compassion into the realm of logistics and profession.

It turns out that the realities of making true love true aren't very romantic, but somehow they end up being more deeply loving than a candlelit dinner.

Lesson 3: Revel in Your Eccentricity

“To find your own way is to follow your bliss. This involves analysis, watching yourself and seeing where real deep bliss is -- not the quick little excitement , but the real deep, life-filling bliss.” - Joseph Campbell

The Korean view on life and the world is not at all a good fit with my own. It is a very materialistic culture, especially where I live. Drinking, partying, fashion, techno-consumption, and appearances are very central to the Korean conception of progress and fulfillment. So when a Twitter friend jokingly referred to Korea as  "The Land of the Not Quite Right," I knew exactly what he was talking about.

As a result, I always felt very out of place. Being an American didn't help either. Many of the things I enjoyed and believed in were borderline rude, like my love of going barefoot.

At first, I was really constrained about everything because I didn't want to offend or disrespect the culture of my new home. When I went out to the park, I kept my shoes on. I let my diet slip to fit in more easily. I had a few beers.

But traveling teaches us who we are by forcing us to decide what is central to our character and what is merely habit formed by social custom. I discovered that many of my eccentricities are very essential to my sense of integrity.

Eventually, I got to the point where I could take a barefoot run without feeling self-conscious. I climbed things-not-meant-to-be-climbed. I asserted my dietary preferences (which is compatible with traditional Korean cuisine. It's only modern developments that have made it less healthy).

As usual, when weird things are done with simple certainty and accompanied by integrity, they don't raise as many eyebrows. In some cases, I even got applause for my strange behavior.

I also made time to spend time with people who shared my worldview and interests. I joined a Star Wars RPG group, and played a few Magic: The Gathering games, reconnecting to my nerdy side. I even found a Krav Maga class and worked my way up to Level 3. I just couldn't see eye-to-eye with most Koreans--we were thinking on different wavelengths--and all of my Korean friends had spent significant time abroad.

I would say one of the biggest lessons I learned living in another culture for a year was that it is really important to be yourself, express yourself, and take some pride in who you are, even if it makes you stand out. Sometimes, it means simply accepting that you're not a good fit for a culture, a round peg in a square hole. As long as you're a halfway decent person, if you approach the world with that sort of self-assured moxie and enjoyment of life, others will not be offended or insulted. Instead, they will be drawn to your integrity and vitality (or you will make them uncomfortable, but that depends on the person).

Lesson 4: There's Always Time for Things That Matter

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” - Joseph Campbell

After college, I lived at home and worked 4 hours a day, at most. Yet, I never got any real writing done. When I got to Korea, I realized that the time itself didn't matter. What mattered was making writing a priority. So I decided to get it done. I actually got much better at prioritizing the important things in general, even with only snippets of time to myself.

While I had a lot of time at work, getting work done there was still difficult because I was not allowed to use my own computer and had to hide everything I was doing on the work computers (again, my boss was unusually controlling, even for Koreans). Staying focused at the office was difficult, and I treasured every spare moment I could sit down and write undisturbed.

The result was that I learned how to make the most of every available minute and how to zone in when I needed to. From a scattering of half-hour segments of free time, I could cobble together a good three hours of writing.

Sometimes this meant shutting everything else out or isolating myself in the library or at a cafe. Many times, it meant that I had to give up a weekend to stay home and write to make sure I met my goals. But if you have set something as a clear priority, you can find the time to make it happen.

The same mentality applied to my friendships. Many of the friends I made I could only see on weekends, and then for only an hour or less. A and I learned how to make the most of the little snippets of interactions we did have by not putting too much pressure on them and by being more direct. When there's not much time to spend with people, it's better to get the small talk out of the way and get right to the significant conversations that define a relationship (even if those just entail lots of joking around).

With people coming and going all the time, a lot of people were reluctant to reach out and make a connection. In some cases, potential friends didn't think it was worth their effort to make a connection with us since we were leaving so soon.

We decided to take a different course and simply appreciate whatever interactions we had. If nothing came of it, at least we had a great conversation.

Lesson 5: You Can't Do Everything

The flip side of the above lesson is that I learned the importance of prioritizing. At first, I thought I could do everything: train, write, be a good boyfriend, teach, coach, etc. That didn't work out.

I learned a lot about my limits, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I had the time and the ability to keep writing and reaching out on social media after finishing my book, but I can only pull so many late nights before it starts to affect me. The mental strain of tracking every second to make the most use of it started to leave me feeling burnt out. I felt caged and oppressed with no time to relax.

When I was writing the book, I got up at 8:30, worked out, and then wrote from 10:00-12:00. Work was from 1:00-9:40, and I would usually edit a blog post from 1:00-2:00, then prep for classes, unless I had to grade book reports. After classes, I had another hour of free time which I used to read friends' blogs, comment, share, and tweet. After work, I had another few hours of writing, editing, and promotion. Then I'd go to bed around 1:00am.

There was no wiggle room and absolutely no time to just relax and mentally recover.

So, no this was not physically straining, but it took a lot of willpower and mental discipline. Near the end, I found myself easily distracted and a bit scattered under a sense of being constantly overwhelmed. Mental strain is a very real thing, it turns out, and just as you can overtrain physically, it is apparently possible to push yourself too hard mentally. The effects are similar:

I was starting to hate something I loved doing: writing. I decided I needed a break, for my sanity.

That's why I haven't been as active online lately.

I also needed to attend to some things I'd been neglecting.

I'm confident that, once I am done teaching English, I will have the time to ramp up the writing and training again without necessarily sacrificing every shred of recovery time.

To tie it all back to lesson 1, I will be much more selective about any future jobs I rely on for my livelihood, to make sure they allow for (or are actually a part of) a more balanced lifestyle. I realize this may involve working myself to the bone again to create something that will eventually allow this flexibility. I'm leaning on a combination of freelance writing and MovNat coaching to make that happen.


Well, that's a wrap up of Korea. I am heading to a templestay tomorrow, until Tuesday, which I will spend in additional reflection while practicing some Buddhism and Korean martial arts. After that, we leave for Amman, Jordan.