Category Archives: Millennial Life

I’m Allowed to do This?

Permission

 

As an outdoor educator, I get this interaction all the time with school children. A child in my study group will see something very enticing in nature, be it a rock outcropping to climb or the edge of the water to explore, and they’ll look at me imploringly and ask ‘am I allowed to do that?’ They ask permission for they come from a world of rules and expectations enforced by supervisory adults. But in the realm of outdoor education, of course you’re allowed to do this, kid. You don’t need my permission to explore and wonder. The outside world is so full of fun and interesting things to interact with, and it’s my goal to encourage you to explore what’s there of your own volition. Boundaries about what you’re allowed to do or not only come into play when safety is on the line, and quite frankly, you can be very adventurous outdoors while still being safe.

When I am these children’s outdoor instructor, I momentarily become the supervisory adult figure in their eyes (and for a few hours at a time, I become the actual responsible party for their safety and well-being). As that adult figure, I am often viewed by them as the permission granter. But at my last outdoor education job, one of the program’s main objectives was to teach children to explore the natural world on their own accord. To discover their own limits and abilities. To get wet, messy, and uncomfortable. To understand their own power and agency, all in the context of the natural environment. The limitations for such explorations were dictated by maintaining acceptable behavior, both in terms of environmental Leave No Trace standards and the ethics of belonging to a safe learning community. What these kids often don’t understand is the incredibly wide range of things that are acceptable behavior. It’s okay to climb a tree. It’s okay to pick up insects. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your feet wet and clothes muddy.

The worlds of these children are likely structured a lot differently than at camp. Ours is an age of helicopter parenting and risk aversion, and the kids bring this ethos with them to camp. A lot of their lives are already dictated and laid out by permission-granting adults, and ‘no’ is a word quite familiar in their lexicon. If these children see something that intrigues them, they often look to the adult who is present to gain implicit or explicit permission that, yes, indeed, they are allowed to do this. They do not believe strongly in their own agency in decision making—instead, they are accustomed to following along the path of acceptable behaviors as dictated by adults, unlikely to deviate from that path. Hearing ‘no’ is a response they so often receive that many of these children don’t even bother to try asking if they can do something.

My analogy with children, of course, is not one-hundred percent transferable to adult life (children, after all, need a lot more guidance and boundaries) nor is every child the same, but the sentiment of seeking permission is quite relevant. Even though I’m an independent adult and have been for a few years, I still often feel like a child who still needs to seek permission in life. Somehow it still feels as if there is some authority, older and more powerful than me, hovering above watching me, ready to either grant or deny permission to do certain things available in adult life. As an adult who faces adult-size opportunities, I often have to stop and think to myself ‘am I really allowed to do this?’

Growing up, I was an extremely obedient child—not only to what the multiple adult authorities above me dictated, but also to what I felt was expected of me as a child. Upon becoming an adult, I realized that there really is no one left above me to grant permission to do things (save for legal authority, but that’s a different related subject). After age 18, you can sign on the dotted line yourself. You can grant yourself permission to do the things you desire to do. But becoming a legal adult doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you instantly become your own independent person; you are still subject to the ties of relationships with those who have ethical authority over you. Older adults, parents in particular, are still evaluating your actions with a critical eye. Your employer still has expectations for you to uphold as their subordinate. And most importantly of all, you still have to live within the realm of what greater society deems acceptable behavior and within the bounds of legality.

But even given all that…there is so much stuff that you’re still allowed to just up and do without even asking permission. The most compelling—and also frightening—example of this is that I could chose to create a child. Who granted me permission to have that option, seriously? Procreation is such a weighty decision that it really feels like the procreators ought to first write in to a governing board to get permission to reproduce. But oddly enough you can just go ahead and do it anyway. Exploring relationships is similar too. You don’t have to get your parent’s approval anymore to go out or to be back in time for a curfew. You are free to engage in relationships to the depth and level that you desire. Other, much less extreme examples of what you don’t need permission for exist as well. For example, as an adult you get to choose where you live. Again, there is no governing board that reviews applications for which geographical region you wish to reside in, nor do you need permission from a parent or teacher. You can just pack up and move house. You don’t need a conventional salaried job either—and whatever job you have, you don’t need to keep it forever. You are not an indentured servant to your employer; terminating employment agreements is always an option if the match is no longer right. Your free time is yours to explore your own interests as well. Set your own sleep schedule. Read whatever book you want to…or don’t read at all. Vacation somewhere obscure…or stereotypical, if you will. You don’t need people’s permission in order to determine if eccentric pastimes like playing accordion or LARPing are acceptable. Go ahead and do it.

So as an adult there are not specific people who reside above you with the final authority to either grant or deny you permission to do things. The choices are wide, and the choices are yours. But even then, the freedom to choose certain things still doesn’t mean that everything is a good option. I’m allowed to smoke cigarettes, for example, but I care not to do so because of health risks and a dislike of the activity. Even though we are free to choose, a wide swath of our decisions are nevertheless still based upon the general aura of what is acceptable to do in our society. But even then a lot of what society decries as irresponsible is still acceptable or optional behavior. Dumpster diving is still an oft-frowned-upon choice I will pursue. So is dirtbagging—living out of my car for stretches of time while playing in the outdoors. But so long as what you’re doing isn’t morally reprehensible or illegal, then you’ve got a lot of free reign of things you’re allowed to do.

You don’t need permission to do these things anymore.

Although sometimes it still feels like you need to get permission.

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85% Ideal

B-Grade-line-paper

 

It’s tough sometimes being a perfectionist. The constant struggle of realizing that everything you are ultimately striving for will fall short of your expectations. The notion that everything, inevitably, has its flaws. That there is nothing in life you will encounter that will match your 100% ideal situation.

And maybe it’s hardest of all to be that perfectionist while coming of age. So many big life decisions are to be made in the process of adulting. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be with? These are some of the big unresolveds that those who are adulting face. To the idealist young adult, those questions must be answered with only one adjective: perfectly.

But here’s the trouble: perfection doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, I haven’t found it yet. Five years out of college for me now, and I’m still refining my answers to the fundamental questions of adulthood. I’ve still been on a quest to find the ideal situation for me, getting closer and farther away all at the same time.

This search for the 100% ideal situation is part of the reason I have been ambling around all this time with a resistance to settling down to one particular set of answers. To settle down, in a sense, is to accept something that is less than perfect. To settle is to give up the quest for the ideal situation early—to sell yourself short of your full potential. As that strident idealist, I’m unwilling to compromise on perfection. The end result of this, however, looks like I’m aimlessly wandering all over undecided on the big adult questions: where do I want to live, what do I want to do for a vocation, and what people do I want to surround myself with.

In all that time of trial-and-error, I would have thought that I’d have gotten a better definition of what is the one ideal for me. Instead, I’ve found that there are, in fact, a lot of different options that work surprisingly well for all of the major life questions. Each place I have lived has had its pluses and minuses. Each job I have worked has had its positives and negatives. All the people I have associated with have had their good qualities and their not so good qualities. Nothing I’ve found has ever been 100% perfect, in the sense that it was 100% perfect for me, in my characterization of the word. But from what I’ve found, a lot of options, while not being 100% ideal, have been much, much better than I could have ever anticipated.

Nor am I a flawless match for anything either. In my quest to find the ideal situation for myself, I also have to stop and acknowledge (though it can be difficult) that I myself am flawed and imperfect too. I have shortcomings as well. I can never be the perfect employee, the ideal friend, or the flawless member of a community. But it is heartening to know that these things don’t require perfection as a pre-requisite. Friends, communities, and employers aren’t looking for perfection; they’re just looking for your best effort.

So then, I suppose, settling for something less than ideal isn’t selling yourself short of perfection. Instead, it’s a realistic acknowledgement that nothing can ever be 100% ideal, especially from the start. We often take things to be just as we know them in the moment, but forget that everything is slowly growing and changing too. By settling down in a place, or in a job, or with a community, or with a person, you are acknowledging the fact that though the current situation may be less than ideal, in time and with work and effort the relationship between the two can grow and expand beyond any level it is at the start. And everyone’s idea of perfect is different too. Certain situations may match other people’s preferred ideals more than mine match theirs. But that’s part of the beauty in getting things to work—since we’re not all looking for the same perfect as each other, a degree of imperfection is—ironically—perfectly acceptable.

So maybe we should lower our perfectionist standards—not our hopes and dreams for perfection, but what level of idealism we find acceptable to make things work well. As that uptight perfectionist, it’s hard to settle for anything less than 100%. But even 85% ideal is still very high, especially considering that absolute perfection is unattainable. I was a straight-A student in high school. But when things got more difficult (and also more interesting and fulfilling) in college, I relaxed my uptightness and ending up learning to accept a few B’s here and there. And yet, even short of absolute perfection in the grade point average, I still grew incredibly as I found myself in some very imperfectly ideal situations outside of the guise of 100% perfect.

Future Lust

Life Timeline

A Life Well Planned?

 

Back in the days of early college, as an eager freshman, I made a schedule for myself of what classes I wanted and needed to take to graduate. That personal project provided a good framework for me in successfully navigating my course through college. Though it was a schedule, it was very much a shifting one; revisions were constant as I switched my major from engineering to environmental science, finally settling on biology. Classes fell into and out of my master schedule depending on which minors I became interested in, and which minors fell out of favor. As that young, expectant freshman, I constantly looked ahead at my master class schedule; I was excited to get past the prerequisites and take some of the most challenging and interesting upper-level classes. The future seemed more exciting than the current prolegomena.

As you can tell from this anecdote, I’m a planner. Charting out my college courses was a way of making a schedule for myself, a way of organizing things in a logical, sequential order. My master class schedule certainly helped guide me in getting the most out of college, at least in terms of packing classes in.

Then, after graduating, I still found myself trying to plan ahead. The tendency to create a schedule for myself bled over into my life post-college. Very quickly, my college master schedule morphed into a behemoth of an itinerary. Instead of a time frame of semesters, it became a time frame of months and years. Instead of classes, the items on the schedule became different jobs to work and travels to take. My schedule grew into one giant Excel spreadsheet I refer to (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) as my “Life Timeline,” an unwitting plan for the rest of my life.

As a tool, my Life Timeline has been helpful in navigating post-grad life, just as it assisted me in arranging a class schedule during college. As someone with a multitude of interests, perhaps too many to reasonably pursue, it has provided a framework to allow exploration of as many of those interests as possible. On the timeline is a list of jobs I’d like to work and different places where I want to live. Piecing all these temporary gigs and seasonal jobs together on my Life Timeline is like working with a giant open-ended jigsaw puzzle. Somehow, I tell myself, I can do it all. I can fit all these possible options into one cohesive itinerary. I can schedule an efficient life of trying out my options.

At a casual glance, it may seem like I have my future all planned out, at least maybe to a dozen years in the future. And sometimes it can be the case. My Life Timeline can sometimes act with a deterministic will on me. It can put on the blinders to other spontaneous opportunities, causing me to work with a one-track mind to accomplish the next item on the list. Having a timeline sometimes makes my future seem more rigid, less open. I will look ahead at my perfectly scheduled life, seeing with envy all the things I want to do that haven’t arrived yet. A veritable lust for the future.

Looking ahead at my Life Timeline, replete with fun new gigs and interstitial adventures on the horizon, it is far too easy to get ahead of myself. To wish that I was at a future stage already, enjoying and experiencing the adventures to come, instead of the hum-drum I seem to be in now. This is a future lust. A tendency to rush through to the finish instead of enjoying each opportunity in the moment and seeing what it brings.

But don’t ever devalue the present because you’re always rushing forward to the future. It is the present right now that is making you into who you are. Life is a piece of music; the beauty is in the entire composition, not just the finale. Hopefully, most of the steps—those vitally important steps—have been enjoyable and also growing experiences. Relish the process of becoming, and stop longing to arrive at some perceived utopian future state for yourself. Unlike college, with earning a degree salient on your mind, the post-grad future is inextricably open. Be okay with arriving at an unknown destination.

Remember: you have more time to do the things you want to do than you might think. Consider where you were just one short year ago. When I look back even one year from today on my Life Timeline, I didn’t accurately predict where I’d be now. And that’s usually been the case. Even though I have a schedule that ‘plans’ out the rest of my life, it remains a flexible schedule, constantly growing and changing based on the person I am becoming. Don’t have such a lust for the future that you miss out on the opportunities in the present and the way it shapes your future.

 

Patient Trust (excerpt)

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 

 

To see the aforementioned Life Timeline, click here.

This post was also published on “The Post Calvin

Friends of Circumstance, Friends of Intention

Social Networks

 

In an era of social networks, the word ‘friend’ is used pretty casually to describe the mere association of different people in the same social circles. Think, for example, about how many ‘friends’ you have on social media. But even before the advent of Facebook, the word friend was used loosely in everyday conversation. “Hello, friend,” is used as a welcoming but generic greeting. Losing an acquaintance in a public place, you would describe them to others as your ‘friend’ rather than your ‘stranger.’ Even in a group of people you don’t really know, outsiders would refer to you collectively as a group of ‘friends.’ Regardless of how close people are to each other emotionally, it is still the more polite thing to refer to each other as a friend rather than a more categorically appropriate word: acquaintance, colleague, co-worker, housemate, to name a few. Since the level of your friendship with those in your social network varies according to the situation, doesn’t it also make sense to describe those particular friendships with more diverse terminology?

According to one theory I’ve been told about, people only have enough emotional capacity to be close to 8 different people at any given time. This group of eight would then comprise your close friend circle. Would that mean everyone else is a non-friend? An acquaintance? A near friend? If it is true that only a limited number of people can ever be among your close friends, then how many of these people are in that circle based on the unanticipated circumstances of your life, and how many are from your own intentional keeping of them as a friend?

As an introverted person, I tend to prefer a smaller friend circle anyway, with those few being the ones that I know most intimately. I just don’t go out and seek to be in the company of strangers very often— it’s out of my comfort zone to do that. I find it incredibly difficult to go anywhere on my own time, hang out with unfamiliar people, and come back with some new friends. In order for me to really interact with strangers, I need some sort of external driver to be the reason behind our initial interactions. Essentially, I need to be forced into socialization. I find it nearly inconceivable for me to go up to someone unsolicited and tell them I’m interested in getting to know them (not unlike all those stories of walking up to a stranger at the bar). Instead, most people in my extended social circle come from external situations where it was first necessary to spend time with them in the first place. In college, those circumstances included being in the same dorm, classes, or clubs. In post-graduate life, those situations come from work, rental arrangements, or the combination of the two (especially since I often live at work). These situations and activities often provide the impetus for the initial social interaction with the people I have in turn gotten to know.

With all of these external situations, you don’t really get much choice with who you end up with. For school assignments or dorm placements, the choice is made by the professor or college administration. For employment, it is your supervisor, not you, who chooses your co-workers. Fortunately for me, I find I can work fairly well with just about anyone, whether it be performing job duties or sharing communal living arrangements. As colleagues, we might even do some stuff that is beyond just work or business. Together, for instance, we might hang out, travel some places, or do some fun activities on our time off. But our primary interactions will still come from our assigned duties or daily chores, and most of my conversation in this arena will revolve around practical logistics rather than casual chit-chat. In any case, when performing these required duties we do get to know each other a little bit better each time we interact, and gradually the relational bond between us is strengthened. We become closer from the sake of familiarity and congeniality in our shared circumstances. We might, and probably will, even refer to each other as ‘friends’.

But are all these friendships purely circumstantial, or is there more substance of intention behind them? While personally I can find it easy to be close to people in the moment, I wonder how much of our closeness is due to our circumstances of required proximity and how much is due to our mutual desire to be with each other?

Hence my classification of friends into friendships of circumstance versus friendships of intention. To test this classification and find out if a particular friendship is intentional or not, the experiment is to see what happens to the relationship once the mechanism that initially brought you together passes. It might be that the semester ends, you move housing, or you switch to a new job. Do the people you grew close to in your old situations still remain close? Or, since there is nothing external to force you to interact together anymore, do you slowly drift apart?

Even if a friendship was determined to be more circumstantial in nature, it is far from a negative thing. I have many friends of circumstance everywhere I go. These people are extremely important—invaluable, in fact, to daily life. These friends of circumstances are the folks in your social circle whom you interact with on a day to day basis. Just because these friendships may have developed through required interactions doesn’t mean they aren’t meaningful or authentic. These friends of circumstance are the ones who are there for you throughout the average day, providing many critical roles. They are there to shoot the breeze and provide banter. They are also sometimes there to vent to and debrief with, to console you or to give a hug. But the distinctive thing about the friend of circumstance is that they change quite readily. Whenever people come or go, there are always new faces to fill the important role of this type of friend. The rapidity that people come in and out of your life, especially in transient circles, does not negate the impact that these friends may have on you. A short time together can mean a lot. The circumstantial beginnings of these friendships do not reduce the pain and difficulty in saying goodbye either. Though former friends of circumstance may linger in active memory for a while after parting ways, all too quickly they are relegated to an inactive part of your distant memory.

The friend of intention is different though. Friendships of intention are based upon the two parties involved mutually agreeing to keep each other’s company after the circumstance that initially brought them together ends. It is the other person themselves that becomes the attraction for the friendship to continue. These friendships go deeper than just a superficial working relationship needed to get through the day. These relationships shift to getting to know the other person themselves, instead of just figuring out how to accomplish tasks together. Interactions with the friend of intention are imbued with meaning, rather than just a focus on output.

The friend of intention might stay a friend almost indefinitely, even after geographically parting ways. Maintaining the relationship looks a little bit different after you’re no longer in the situation that kept you externally connected. To some friends of intention, I write and receive letters. Other friends I make sure to visit when I’m in town. Still, I have some friends of intention who I don’t even interact with that often; yet, I know they are always there if I need them, no matter how long we go between interactions. These friendships of intention exist on a different level, and I have confidence in their security. Though much time may lapse between personal visits with these friends, spending time together feels like we’ve never really had much time apart.

Though I have had many friendships of circumstance, I never know when one might become something more. I, personally, have few friends of intention. And most, if not all, of these friends of intention started off as friends of circumstance. But somewhere along in the circumstance phase, we were able to go deeper and transcend that superficial relation. We began to see more in each other that compelled us to keep in touch. This deepening process takes time, though—a long time for me. It takes a while for me to warm up to other people, to accidentally discover interests we have in common and to form the small memories that we’ll share together in the future. Even then, it is difficult to tell if a friendship of intention is taking root. Will I come visit you in the distant future? Will I send you a piece of mail? Will I think of you in my head when we’re apart, wondering what it would be like if you were here as well?

Ever since college, I have made few new friends of intention. In those years, it’s been a transient lifestyle for me. The roots of an intentional friendship may begin to take hold, but all too early the roots are viciously cropped by the compulsion to move. How many of my former friends of circumstance could have become friends of intention if only the relationship was allowed to grow?

Whether by intention or just circumstance alone, individuals in either category are considered friends nonetheless. Though the depth and length of the particular friendship may vary, both my friends of circumstance and my friends of intention play an invaluable, though distinct, role in my life.

Is it Lame to Join a Book Club?

book-club

 

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book”

Jane Smiley

 

An existential question of our modern culture: is it lame to want to join a book club?

The desire about joining seems too old-fashioned. Book clubs are akin to knitting circles—full of graying genteel grandmothers politely gossiping (or at least that’s the perception). Who in their right mind would find interest in such a stodgy old meeting merely to discuss books? Especially in your 20’s when you’re supposed to be young, wild, and free? How lame! Bookworm!

Still, the thought of a book club holds great appeal to me. Admittedly, I am bookish. I spend a great deal of my free time reading. After college, I found that I greatly missed the intellectual discussions surrounding books and ideas. Aren’t college classes, in some sense, a kind of book club?

Maybe in fact I am the perfect candidate for a book club. My appetite for intellectual stimulation is tremendous. It’s a need to satisfy that I just can’t scratch in other ways. My mind needs the mental exercise, and it’s much better when the workout is shared.

But it’s not just the intellectual part I am drawn to…

Back in Australia, when I was living out of a van and driving around on a quest for fruit, I happened to overhear a news program on the radio that caught my attention. The news story was about a wave of young people joining book clubs. Contrary to my perceived notions that book clubs are for elderly women discussing harlequin romance, this radio piece detailed how a growing number of millennials are joining book clubs for both the intellectual stimulation and social comradery.

Me, driving aimlessly around a continent, had an epiphany: a book club is exactly what I’m looking for.

Well, not a book club specifically, but it does perhaps provide the best example.

For, it was not just the intellectual discussions inherent in book clubs that I’d been craving during my ramblings. Equally, it was the social aspect to the club. To have a group of friends who are interested in that kind of thing? How awesome! How radical to commit to doing something noticeably unhip like reading and discussing a book with a group of people. And what’s more, to follow through with the commitment. And then to keep following through…

Because joining a book club is not a one-off fix. It’s not solely just reading one book with a group of people to satisfy a craving. Fundamentally, it’s the longer-term idea of being part of a group through the long-haul. Through both the ups and the downs, through the Moby Dicks and the Twilights.

This need for belonging doesn’t have to occur solely through book clubs either. Fulfillment could be found in many places, like a service club, a volunteer organization, or sports in the park. For me, the point is to be committed to something greater than myself. Arguably, a book club might not be too much greater than yourself, but it is particularly symbolic of making a commitment to a group of people and then following through with it.

And what transient can dare make a commitment to something as far-reaching as a book club? Here today, gone tomorrow. Never in one place long enough to finish a good read. It’s the notion of committing to a club, that idea of rootedness, where the bulk of the appeal lies. Personally, I find it unfortunate that I seldom stay in one place long enough to make it through one book, let alone sustain a book club.

So is it lame to want to join a book club? Not in my book.

Go Find Yourself

DSCN0928

 

My travels in Australia could have been cast as the prototypical coming-of-age journey: a young man goes to a far off land alone to find himself.

But I didn’t go to Australia to find myself. I knew too much of myself already. Instead, venturing to Australia was more an exercise in trying to lose myself—to get out of the person who I knew too well and to try a different lifestyle for a change. Australia would be a place I could be free to experiment with identity.

Young people finding their identity is perhaps the defining mark in the transition from childhood to adulthood. As developmental psychologist Erik Erikson would describe it, the primary existential question of emerging adulthood (Stage 5) is that of Identity versus Role Confusion. Classically portrayed as the angsty teenagers’ struggle for self, this stage of psychosocial development often lasts into young adulthood, ending when the individuals’ personal identity becomes fairly consistent for the remainder of life. Though the age individuals go through this stage varies, the greater struggles of Erikson’s Stage 5 will typically be resolved around my age, sometime in the 20’s.

Thus, going to Australia didn’t necessary teach me who I was; more so it reaffirmed who I was already. As a result, I had inherently less identity formation to undergo, and was faced instead with a related identity struggle—figuring out how to live the rest of my life with this person I’ve grown to be.

In my challenges with my identity, there are things I know about myself that I struggle with accepting. There are some things I wish I could be just a little bit different—I’m terribly shy and introverted; spontaneity is quite a ways out of my comfort zone; I tend to take everyday matters way too seriously, etc. The list could go on about things I believe society expects me to be, but that I feel I just don’t measure up to.

Travelling to Australia, I held the assumption that going to an exotic country where no one had any pre-conceived notions about me would allow me to branch out and escape the confines of my identity—in particular my temperament and personality. For once I just wanted to let loose, be spontaneous, hang out, party, and disregard the consequences. I also thought I’d play with some career roles by trying out jobs I’d likely never do in the States—fast food drone, a sociable waiter, the hospitality industry. I’d also grow out my hair one more time before I had to permanently adopt a well-groomed hairstyle for the remainder of my professional life.

Alas, I didn’t find myself becoming the wild, long-haired, care-free holiday-maker I had envisioned before my trip. Instead, my standard temperament took the reins. In Australia I struggled to be outgoing and to meet new people; I rarely was spontaneous and light-hearted enough to party in spite of the consequences; I never found a job in the service industry; and I never grew my hair out before getting fed up with its wild antics.

In the end, I found that I just couldn’t lose myself in Australia, though I put in a genuine effort to try out different roles for a change. Instead, my reliable temperament shone through even in my new surroundings. Like Socrates’ famous mandate I just couldn’t help but to “know thyself” even Down Under.

Moving forward, my challenge is to accept myself for who I know I am instead of thinking that a different persona is more desirable or acceptable. How can I make the best use of the character I’ve developed? What role do I fit into in adult life? Instead of seeing them as weaknesses, how can some things about me that I’m uneasy about be used as assets?

Going to Australia may have been the final throes of my greater struggles in Erikson’s stage 5. Sensing that I was nearing a very stable sense of self, I felt the necessity to try on different roles while I still had the freedom to experiment. For the most part, though, my personal character has cemented, deepened in part by the challenges I presented myself in Australia. Some conflicts of Stage 5 still remain, namely those of finding a career path and determining my role in the adult world. But on the whole, the person who I am today is the person I have found and have chosen for myself. For all its strengths and seeming inadequacies, I’m happy for that person.

The Graduate

The_Graduate_2

 

About this time last year I graduated from the University of Idaho with a masters degree. Being mentally and emotionally drained from formal study, I was ready to leave the cloistered realm of academia and explore the greater world on my own terms. So excited was I to get a jump start on my informal education that I left exam week early and skipped my commencement ceremony in favor of a kayak trip on the Columbia River.

Now that it’s graduation season again, perhaps I should be granted another diploma. Conceivably it could be from the University of Wanderlust. It wasn’t an accredited university. It had no designated faculty, and there were no required courses or class assignments. Tuition was also pretty inexpensive (although room and board could be costly at times). Although there were tests along the way, the entire grading system was based on pass/fail.

Yes, now that I’ve officially ended my coursework of travels, I’d say it’s like I’m a freshly-minted grad once again. My degree from the University of Wanderlust ended up being a year-long program (or else I guess I just graduated early), and I was happy to build my own curriculum too. First I spent a semester in the American West, road-tripping on a survey course of National Parks and cultural highlights. Then, I spent my second semester in Australia, taking classes in fruit-picking and van culture. From this I’ve earned a diploma full of different life experiences at an expedited rate.

And what’s more, my diploma from the University of Wanderlust focused on personal change as much as it did about learning factual knowledge. Though I enjoyed learning a great deal about many of the spectacular places in the United States as well as learning about the way of life in a foreign land, what I had set out to gain through my latest degree was deeper—a more thorough understanding of my own personal growth and moral development. My masters degree at the University of Idaho, though it challenged my intellect, lacked much of the personal growth I yearn for in education. What I needed to compensate for this lack was a challenge to develop my character and to gain a different perspective on the world.

Unlike a typical college education, though, my self-designed degree focused more on the realm of the practical rather than the theoretical. Throughout my travels, challenges were applied and consequences were real. Every event was viewed with the mindset of an opportunity to learn. Daily life became my homework assignments and the people I met along the way were became my professors.

As a recent grad of the University of Wanderlust, I feel fresh and ready to pursue a career path. Admittedly, I still do feel a little bit of the aimlessness and uncertainty of recent grad Benjamin Braddock from Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate. But on the whole, my diploma of travel in the real world has provided the necessary transition from the culture of the academic world to the culture of the working world.

Many of my lessons learned from the University of Wanderlust still need formalizing into words. But how does one succinctly sum up a year of travels? Fortunately for me (or maybe not!) I never assigned myself a term paper.

Home is Where the…(wherever)

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The skyline of Hobart, Tasmania nestled between the sea and mountains

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“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, known or unknown, actual or visionary. There’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.”

-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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One challenge for my time in Australia was to come up with a definition of what home means to me. The origin of this question goes further back, though, stemming from several protracted conversations with friends on the topics of home and place. As part of a generation coming of age in an increasingly globalized society, the question of home is no longer as limited as it used to be. Instead, rapid global travel and communication technology allow for a more mobile and connected society. Our options of where to live, work, and play quite literally span the globe. Yet, the idea of discerning one’s home in the vast world still constitutes a fundamental part of our identity.

As for myself, I feel like home could be anywhere. That’s to say that home isn’t necessarily a physical location in particular, but an idealized interaction with a location in general. Though I have travelled through admittedly very little of the world and have not experienced substantially different cultures, I can see a trend in my interaction to new places. Foreign locations become less foreign with familiarity. Given enough time, I feel that eventually I could make a home on any corner of the planet and be content with that location. This is not a judgement of place, but a judgement of my interaction with places. Home, then, is a process. It’s the homing sentiment.

Fundamentally, to me the question of home comes down to the concept of rootedness. How rooted do I feel to a certain place? My answer to that question is that I’m yearning to be rooted to any place at all. I struggle greatly through my travels with feelings of transiency and impermanence—essentially a new kind of homelessness. I yearn to be connected to a place at a more than superficial level, and any place could ultimately fill that desire. This is why, among other things, when I’m travelling I feel the need to stop at interpretive signs detailing local history—about the actions of city residents long dead or buildings long ago razed even though it may have little personal meaning to me at the moment. Doing such is just one small tangible way of discovering more about a place that leads me to a feeling of connection—that I belong more to a place now that I know more about it.

Given enough time, my habits of interaction with unfamiliar places should lead to a greater sense of home within each place I stop. Along with my habit of learning local history, I also tend to eschew corporate retailers in order to patronize businesses I could find nowhere else, take ambling walks along city streets to understand geographical differentiations within the city, and take note if I see local faces more than once. In short, in each new place I try to understand the local identity. I try to live like a local. This, fundamentally, is the reason why I feel like I could find sentiments of home in any geographical location.

However, though I feel like any geographical location could ultimately become a satisfactory home, some places I visit certainly seem more likely candidates. As someone who studies the natural environment and geography, the landscape—physical and cultural—plays an elevated role in the homefulness of a place. In my Australian travels, some places lend themselves more readily to sentiments of home; towns like Orange, Tumut, or Hobart sparked a sense of rootedness in me quickly. Other places, such as Maroochydore, felt reprehensible at first but inevitably grew on me endearingly. If nothing else, my period of meandering travel in Australia has helped me refine the qualities of a place that most readily resemble a home for me.

In a globalized society, the whole of the earth could theoretically be my home. Such possibilities create a world of geography to navigate in finding one’s place. For me, home is still an ongoing conversation, and I still have a lot of geography left to navigate.

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‘I cannot honestly say that I liked Canberra very much; it was to me a place of exile; but I soon began to realize that the decision had been taken, that Canberra was and would continue to be the capital of the nation, and that it was therefore imperative to make it a worthy capital; something that the Australian people would come to admire and respect; something that would be a focal point for national pride and sentiment. Once I had converted myself to this faith, I became an apostle.’ 

-Former Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies, reflecting on his changing attitudes towards Australia’s national capital Canberra.

A 25 Year-Old’s Retirement

Travelling around Australia in a van, I inevitably run into a different demographic of traveler doing basically the same things I’m doing. This demographic can be described as the older, retired lot who also live out of vans or motor homes and spend their time driving around and living like tourists. For some people, this is their dream lifestyle. They’ve worked hard all their lives to afford a retirement full of travel and leisure. Retirement is their final treat where they can enjoy the fruits of their labours free from the burden of work and outside obligation.

Perhaps retirement is wasted on the old. Wouldn’t it be better to travel when you’re still young and have the energy to see things? Wouldn’t travelling prove more fruitful if you still have the bulk of life ahead of you to be influenced by what you learn whilst travelling? For these reasons, I decided to take my retirement early. But instead of taking a retirement of pleasure and leisure, I am taking a retirement of travelling and learning. I wanted to ‘retire’ while I am still young and flexible, while my identity is still malleable enough to shape the person who I am becoming. If a great deal can be learned by travel, then why hold off those lessons until most of one’s life has passed?

But, another reason why I decided to retire early and to travel now is that I have a gut instinct that I will not be as inclined to travel later on in my life. Instead of always being ready to move on, I have a tendency to linger at a place that’s become familiar to me. Eventually, in the years to come, I sense that I will settle down into a place and a community where I can let my roots grow. Once I’ve settled into such a community, I won’t have the desire to journey as extensively as I am doing now. Of course travel will always remain a way to re-invigorate myself in day-to-day matters, but, I strongly suspect, my future will not be one where I continue to live out of a vehicle on a long ambling sojourn. Consequently, I feel I ought to be travelling now in my youth, while the wanderlust still churns strong inside me. In my old age, though, I project I’d like to live in one place. Life as a continual transient on the road will not be the life for me. Some people may also chose to retire in a different location from where they’ve worked their careers. Again, not for me. Once I find my community, I won’t leave it for a leisurely retirement elsewhere.

Yet another reason why I’ve taken an early retirement is that I’m not sure if I’ll be the type of person who will even want to retire. Inevitably, I feel very impassioned about the work that I do, and right now I’m on an extended quest searching for my life’s vocation. When I do ultimately engage in a line of work that I am passionate about, I doubt I’ll have the desire to leave it just because I reach a mandatory age. Instead, I will follow my vocation and continue to work towards the betterment of society and my community through my career. Life takes a lifelong commitment—and I’m not one to bow out for an early retirement. When thinking about the idea of old-age retirement, I am greatly motivated by stories of people who have lived their passions to the fullest extent of their lives. One story I find particularly inspiring is that of Carl Sharsmith, who had a 60-year long career as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite National Park, becoming the oldest active NPS ranger upon his eventual retirement at age 90, one year before his death. Some passionate people like Sharsmith just can’t be stopped, and I hope to be one of them.

These are a few of the reasons why I decided to take my retirement early. My gap year in Australia is not just a period of leisure and an attempt to postpone a career—it is an investment in the person I will be in the future. Soon enough, necessity will dictate an end to my early retirement and will see my entering of the workforce. But I look forward to this as well, like a person who just can’t stay away from a vocation which he loves.

Featured Image credit goes to the documentary This is Nowhere, which provides a perspective on the lives of nearly 3 million Americans who permanently live in motorhomes and camp in Wal*Mart parking lots

A Working Request

 

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Sometimes searching for employment feels like being lost in a maze

Dear Future Employer,

I know my time of long-term future employment is still a ways off, but I’ve been thinking a lot about occupations lately. That’s probably no surprise, seeing how in Australia I’m always on the lookout for the next job. And, even when I have found a job here, they’ve lasted only a few weeks—so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m constantly on the job search. After all, I do need some means of paying my living expenses and saving up for future travel.

Future Employer, I look forward to the day when we can form a mutually beneficial team, where you benefit from my skills and I benefit from the position. I’m growing tired of the unceasing job search in Australia, and I hope our future relationship will last a bit longer than a few weeks. How much longer our working relationship should last, I can’t say at this point—it could be months or it could be years. It just depends on how well we get along. But, my Future Employer, when I do return to the States and start working for you, here’s a few things I want you to know.

Future Employer, please know that I do not work for economic reasons alone. Though western society may be set up in a way that I need money to support myself, please note that a high income is not my employment objective. If you are offering a position that is not something I want to do, there is no way you could pay me enough to do it for long. I’d rather do something I love as my occupation, even if that means living at just a little lower economic status.

Also, Future Employer, when you do finally employ me you will find that I throw my all into my work. Some might say I’m a bit of a workaholic, though that’s not quite the way to describe it. Rather, my daily occupation forms a huge part of my identity; it was when I was a student and has been in all the various jobs I’ve worked. I find that it’s difficult to separate who I am from the work that I do. Thus, long-term employment is not a decision I take lightly—my future profession must be a reflection of the beliefs and values that I hold dear. So, Future Employer, I’m not just looking for a job. I’m looking for a calling. I’m seeking to use my occupation as a means to make a real difference in the world. In the words of my Alma mater, I’m in search of my vocation—the place where my deep passion meets the world’s needs.

So, my Future Employer, I’ve come up with a list of ‘Working Demands’. If you can’t meet these demands, I’m afraid I won’t be happy working for you:

  • Allow me to take pride in the work I do for the sake of the job. Nothing in a job cuts me down more than being explicitly told to cut corners or to do shoddy work for the sake of earning a dollar.
  • Respect my time, efforts, and contributions. I am not your commodity used to earn you a profit. I am a human worthy of dignity and respect.
  • Treat my employment as an investment, not a liability. As my employer, be my coach to improve my performance, not my overlord to punish me for mistakes.
  • Promote a good cultural environment among the workforce, such that we are not just co-workers but members of a team working towards a vision. As a bonus, I wouldn’t mind getting to know my co-workers well enough personally to even spend time outside the workplace with them recreationally.
  • Let me try out my own ideas to promote innovation, and give me the flexibility to try and fail sometimes, because making mistakes is all part of the learning process.
  • Allow me time to work on my individual ideas, but also have me work in a mutual and collaborative team environment.
  • Keep me mentally stimulated. Provide tasks that keep me learning and growing.
  • Provide me with a variety of tasks in the workplace, so daily assignments are invigorating instead of monotonous and dull.
  • Give me flexibility. The strict pattern of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and wearing business casual has never really appealed to me.

Someday we will find each other, Future Employer. If you offer to meet my working demands, you will find me a strong and passionate worker.

Yours Truly,

Tyler M. Bleeker