Surviving Existential Dread in the EFL Workplace

Surviving Existential Dread in the EFL Workplace

By Todd Squitieri

So in this article, I’m going to talk about what you can do when your days at your job get monotonous, when the days become repetitive. When you’re waking up the same time every morning to go to the same room every morning, to eat the same lunch every day. Maybe the lunch is something that you have to look forward to and then you leave at the same time and you go to the same restaurant.

And then you cry in shower too small for you and wish you had picked a better profession. Eat alone staring into the face of TV hosts who mock your pathetic attempt at life. Or at least I assume that’s what their saying I can’t afford a TV with sound.

From time to time, we find ourselves facing the existential void and the complete indifference of the world, as Albert Camus would put it.

Questions like, What’s the meaning of it all? Why am I doing this day in and day out? Is this all my life is worth? And Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?

Plagued as we confront classes, day in and day out, of students pounding their desk for more candy, demanding more results, asking for your attention, and bothering you with the petty details of their life. Sound familiar? If not then why are you reading this? Are you some sort of sadist?

We find ourselves getting into different repetitive habits and different routines that we get into that sometimes become so overwhelming that they can often trap us and make us feel like we are in a prison, that we’re living in existential hell and that nothing’s ever going to change, that we’re going to be just robots doing meaningless work, that no one pays attention to us. We want to be wanted, and then discover that the only way we have become wanted in life is from the work that we do. Like prison. Yep, I’m bringing prison into this.

And I’m sure that there are many people in the world who do live this kind of routine and that this is all they’ve come to expect from life. I know my parents lived this way. Maybe yours do or did too! That way of life where you really can’t tell the difference between a prisoner and somebody who’s just working a normal day job.

Napoleon Hill, in his book, The Laws of Success, does make a comparison between people who are working on a treadmill and working by the hour, or maybe they’re working a fixed salary, and also prisoners. And he actually argues that some prisoners are far more fortunate than the people who are working in the real world because the people who are working in the world outside of prison have to worry about rent and housing themselves and getting dressed and clothing, whereas prisoners get all of that provided for them. They also can earn a degree without student loans, and they get free cable TV. Man, prison sounds like a vacation. Hmmm.

However, the one plus of not being a prisoner is your lessened chance of being stabbed while you shower or sleep.

So, there’s an irony there.

So, here are some little things you could do to break up the monotony of your English teaching job when you find yourself going day in and day out, in rhythm. When I was teaching English, I had a very repetitive life at times. I really did feel like an existential hell hole. When this happened, I varied up some of my chores.

Sometimes, I cleaned the house at different times of the day or different parts of the week. Sometimes, I tried different activities in my day job, my work. And sometimes I would just go out and meet new people, see who was in the community and try to strike up a conversation.

Sometimes when you’re teaching English, that’s not always possible because you’re in a community that doesn’t really speak English that well, so they really can’t relate to you or connect with you on a deeper level than some, maybe local people, in your home country can. I’ve also found that sometimes even with minimal language, even with a big language barrier, there still might be more commonalities that you share with a person from another country than with people from your own country.

Another way that you can feel better about yourself when your job gets monotonous is to learn new skills. You can take an online course or you can go to the local university and share an experience with people who are in those classes. You can learn about traveling if that’s what you want to do or learn about new ways of marketing yourself. You could read fiction books if that’s what you love, or you could even take up hobbies and learn a new hobby like hiking or doing a marathon with somebody.

Another way that you can break the monotony is just exercising. Tim Ferriss, of the 4-Hour fame, has recommended this quite a bit in his articles. You can go to the local gym or you could do what I used to do and go run around the local track, listening to some of your favorite songs that make you feel a beat and make things go faster because there’s something about getting your endorphins going and getting your body to heat up that kind of makes you feel good about yourself. Doing this can be really helpful.

I’ve also found sometimes calling relatives from back home can be very, very helpful for me. Just kind of the familiarity of the culture and the world view and the reassurance that I’m not going insane, that I do come from some place with a definite world view that makes sense to me.

Speaking with people from back home can be reassuring and help you kind of get more grounded with yourself in your life in a new country. One caveat to mention though is that sometimes it’s helpful to grow away from your relatives too, especially if they happen to be overly negative and disparaging of the life you’re trying to build for yourself. It really depends on the cards you have, so maintaining distance can also be a good thing.

Another thing that I used to do was take weekend trips outside of my town. I used to visit new towns and villages like Ulsan and Suncheon, in South Korea. And I would just visit and see what they were like and do some exploring there. And then maybe go to a coffee shop and learn new skills, read books, and then also look at and explore other opportunities for growing my skills in teaching, but also outside of teaching as well.

So, these were some of the things that have really kept me going, especially when the days became incredibly repetitive. I had to keep giving myself things to look forward to and different growth opportunities.

It’s funny because there are growth opportunities everywhere you look, including in the jobs that you tend to find the most repetitive or boring or not going anywhere. There’s actually always room for you to make a job more than it really is. And sometimes it’s just a matter of you asking your boss or your supervisor what are some other things you could do or how you can improve or ways that you can make something more interesting or ways that you can organize an event or a cooking class or a meeting or a group TV night.

You’re really only limited by your imagination and you don’t really know what you don’t know until you start really taking action and exploring the possibilities for yourself in your home country and also in the world beyond, asking questions and seeking out what’s possible for you.

Waiting around isn’t going to do it; rather than trying to flee your experience–which I don’t encourage you to do–consider ways that you can grow into your position more and be more helpful to other people because in a way you’ll find yourself out of the existential hell hole that you’re in by serving other people and by being a value to other people and taking action anywhere. Seek and thee shall find.

So, if you start to feel dread or fear and you don’t know what you’re doing and you feel like maybe life is passing you by and you feel like you’re not living your full potential, whatever that means to you, or you just feel a disconnect or you feel like nothing is really going your way and that things will never change, or you’re just not living the life that you thought you would be living and you feel like you can do better. Well, sometimes the best thing you could do is take action. And I got that advice from David Schwartz in his book, The Magic of Thinking Big. A great read, highly recommended.

Sometimes, if you just take action trying to help other people, that is the way out. Many other self-help authors and success authors have also suggested this. And from my own experience, I could certainly vouch that being of value to others and being in the world and helping them wherever they need it (for pay), tends to be one way out of the treadmill.


These are the ways that I’ve discovered for myself to get out of the repetitive monotonous life of working a nine-to-five overseas. And I hope that this has helped many teachers who are considering teaching overseas or who maybe continue to teach overseas and they just need some other ideas about ways that they can improve themselves and their lives and grow out of that.