Freshly returned from my trip to Seoul, Korea, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a quality life. The reality in South Korea, including Seoul, is that despite the bright and colorful lights, modern skyscrapers, chic cafes, and trendy restaurants, the everyday Korean is actually struggling. The economy has been in the shitter for years now, the job market continues to be sluggish (and quite prejudice toward the majority of Koreans who do not have an ivy league education), and even a highly educated, extremely experienced person struggles to find work that pays well in Korea these days.
This doesn’t leave Koreans with much choice when it comes to work. However, it are the resourceful ones who are the luckiest. During this recent visit, I reconnected with several friends and former colleagues—all who I had not seen in at least 10 years. Besides the natural progression of time and the many twists and turns life has thrown at us over the years, three of my friends in particular have found resourceful ways to include meaning into their lives. Every single one of them admitted that their work paid very little, but all three claimed to be enjoying what they are doing. Perhaps it was because they had no other choice and had resigned themselves to the reality of their current lives: they each knew they were not going to find jobs in Korea that paid well so if they had to work, they might as well do something they enjoyed. In each person’s case, he/she had nothing to lose. There was no real meaningful opportunity elsewhere to make more money, even if it meant taking a job they didn’t like, so they might as well use the skills that they already had to create a job that at least brought them happiness and personal satisfaction, no matter the modest financial return.
Of the three friends I reconnected with, my friend Jae seemed to have found the most success in finding a way to have a true quality life. Educated in Australia with years of teaching experience, Jae decided to venture out on her own and start a business as a private English teacher in a suburb of Seoul. She acknowledged that her work didn’t bring in much income, but she loved it nonetheless. By doing only private lessons (vs. working for a school or institute), Jae was able to design her own schedule, choose her own work location, and dictate her own rates. Her clients of choice were not children but adults, usually middle-aged or wealthy seniors who wanted to learn basic English in preparation for their first trip abroad to an English-speaking country.
“It’s really easy English,” Jae told me as she gave me a tour of her gorgeous classroom in the town of Yongin. It is adjacent to a trendy coffeeshop with a large picture window looking out onto the street. Inside is a mural of the world with clocks showing the time in Seoul, London, and the United States. Below the mural is a low bookshelf full of English text books and workbooks and an array of school supplies for her students. “I help them read their plane tickets, fill out their customs and immigration forms and assist them in knowing just enough English to get by—and they love it,” she said. “I’m lucky that my clients are so satisfied with the very basic lessons I provide. And I love it too,” she told me, citing the satisfaction she gets from designing her own lessons, decorating her own private classroom—which she found on her own and rents on a monthly basis—and most importantly, the freedom she has to arrange her own work hours, allowing her to work only three days a week with flexible hours on the days she does work.
I was so happy for her and envious of her at the same time. But when I thought about what drove her to this arrangement, I realized that while I don’t get as much satisfaction from my work as Jae does, she probably would trade in her own business for a higher pay check and the benefits I receive working my 9-hour-a-day job with its 1-hour commute. For Jae, it’s all about making lemonade, I realized. And she was lucky to have figured it all out.