Category Archives: The Future
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.
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“
If a college education and an advanced degree are supposed to lead to permanent full-time employment, then I seem to have missed the message. It’s been two years since finishing grad school, and I’ve yet to land a permanent job. Instead, my employment history over these past few years has seen me work formally in five different states and informally in one other country. Even the current job I hold, one that is projected to last eight months, will be the longest tenure I’ll have spent at one place since graduating (and that tenure will span three distinct hiring seasons too). While it is a nice change of pace to hold a job and not be actively searching for the next gig down the road, I know that nothing about my current situation will ultimately be permanent. Come October, my seasonal contract will be finished and I’ll be moving on to something as of yet unknown. Nothing about this arrangement is permanent; everything remains in flux.
As the near-future begins to become less cloudy in the magic gazing ball, it appears as though I’m headed to be a career seasonal—at least early on in my career. It’s not at all like fate has been keeping me as a seasonal transient. Whether it’s been highly intentional or not, I’ve ultimately chosen this lifestyle for myself. For me right now, considering a job with a year-round permanent status is a liability and not a benefit. Last winter while searching for future work, I began to flirt with permanent positions. I applied to a few and was eventually offered a year-round permanent position from a wilderness therapy outfit in Vermont. The job sounded great; I’d love to work in wilderness therapy, especially someplace as spectacular as Vermont. But I couldn’t shake that nagging specter of permanency that would have come with the job. Was I ready to commit my life to an unknown indefinite future that I wasn’t remotely close to 100% sure I’d absolutely enjoy? Of course not—at least, not then. So instead I opted for yet another period of seasonal work. It was just less risky to take an 8-month gamble on a job rather than one that could potentially last forever.
Part of my intentions behind choosing seasonal labor is a way to help me fall into a career path, especially early on in my career. I am quite choosy (and a perfectionist to boot), and trying out different jobs to see what I like and don’t like has gotten me much better at discernment for the perfect fit. Navigating the job market has become much easier with practice, and by now I feel quite adept at always being on the lookout for the next greatest gig. Perfectionism aside, I do realize that no job is ever flawless and that there can always be circumstances that could be improved about any given job. But then—at some point, I realize, there will be diminishing returns for trying out new and different jobs. As I’ve continually refined exactly where I find the most joy in my vocation, the list of potential jobs narrows. Could it be then that I would finally be satisfied with a permanent job?
Another draw to seasonal work is that I can try out living in many different places. I did major in geography in grad school after all, and place as a concept is critically important to me. I enjoy traveling, especially to the point of becoming acquainted quite well with different geographies. Though many landscapes hold an allure over me due to their uniqueness, to think about where I’d live permanently is a very serious matter indeed. Rotating through different seasonal jobs is like speed-dating with geography. I can have fling after fling with a variety of places and leave it at that. No strings attached, after all. But emotionally, I still consider myself a true Michigander at heart (even though I’ve scant been in the state in the past four years). I can’t as yet see myself claiming allegiance to any other state. And though I currently live on Cape Cod, I am only an outsider here. Perhaps instead I can consider myself an honorary Cape Codder for the time being. Doing so provides a relationship with much of the benefits but without all the commitment required to declare residency. I had similar sentiments about place when considering the wilderness therapy job in Vermont. Though I’ve been to Vermont and looked fondly upon what I saw there, I just couldn’t begin to even envision transplanting myself entirely to become a Vermonter. With a series of seasonal gigs, though, I know I can always return to my hometown between jobs. I can openly cheat on my beloved Michigan with as many places as I want to, but it is forming a permanent relationship with just one place that feels like a real transgression.
Being non-committal has definitely been a factor in my history of seasonal work. But I think a larger influence may be that I am just too committal—and sometimes too committed for my own good. I have a tremendous capacity for grit and determination, especially seeing things through to the bitter end. Personally, I feel great satisfaction in bringing things to completion and feel it a shame to give up before the natural termination. For better or for worse, I’ve learned to stick it out. The downside to my tenacity is that I can very easily end up sticking it out in a situation where it is better to just cut my losses and leave instead. Pursuing only seasonal work puts a natural limit on this tendency of mine. If I end up in a short-term job that I don’t particularly appreciate, I can stick it out and then take a stab at something else later. If I were to have a permanent position, I would likely keep at it for way longer than would be beneficial to me personally; there just wouldn’t be an intuitive end or an easy out to the position. Instead, I would be faced with the daily gut-wrenching feeling that I’m not in a position that I want—daily wrestling whether or not to continue to stick it out or to make a change, until many months pass by unnoticed while I was wondering the whole while.
Seasonal labor also puts a natural restriction on my all-consuming exuberance and dedication to my work. I’m a perfectionist to the core, one who takes great pride in work accomplished. My identity is in large part based around the job that I do, and thus whatever jobs I end up taking I take very seriously. This seriousness can easily allow me to become consumed by my work. Even when crafting my master’s thesis in grad school (a monumental task which I didn’t particularly enjoy), I became so engrossed in the task that I lost focus on the other pleasures of life. Though I take pride in my work and the ownership which I have in it, too much ownership can cause tunnel vision and blur my focus on what other things matter to me (and also make me lose track of taking care of myself too). To resolve this tendency, I’ve been taking only seasonal jobs, ones where my job responsibilities are of a smaller, daily variety. Any given day on the job could be good, or it could be bad. I can enjoy the good days and brush off the bad days, in either case going home at night to relax free from any further mental obligations of job duties. Since I’m not in a position for the long-term, I don’t have those additional lingering responsibilities of a higher-level job—that glowering cloud of complicated logistics and organizational politics. I don’t feel burdened by the specters of the long-term sustainability of an organization’s programs or other tricky institutional questions. Given my personality, I find enough even in a low-level job to invest in and worry about. I don’t need the extra responsibility laden down on me by a job description; I just go out and add more responsibilities myself.
Even though I’ve felt very satisfied holding only the status of a seasonal worker, I am not immune from the pressures of career advancement—of holding a job at one organization and rising through the ranks. I can sense the pressure to do so; whether such pressure comes internally or externally to me is still a mystery. Given my upper-middle-class upbringing and my level of education, somewhere inside of me I must be convincing myself that I’m letting myself and others down by not climbing the career ladder—that I should be aspiring for something greater in terms of status. Haven’t I, after all, earned a master’s degree to boost me up the employment scale? But two years after earning that degree, I have yet to use it formally. I have instead chosen to dabble in the realm of entry-level work. What was supposed to be a distinguishing mark now serves more of a trivial fact at best (how many people can say they’ve studied wildfire ecology for two years?) or an embarrassment at worst (Master of Science and still earning minimum wage). Shouldn’t I aspire for advancement? I’m at the point where my immediate supervisors are within a few years of my age—or even younger in a few recent instances. Since I’m a high-achieving person, I feel like I should be doing the same as my higher-achieving peers. I know I’m capable of doing so. But I’ve never had any supervisory experience for any job which I’ve held, and I have no desire for any. I’ve always been the supervised, the one being directed what to do. Alas, I feel the pressure to get a regular, permanent job. But so far I’ve been tremendously fulfilled by my seasonal labor; the positions I take are not a way to make a livelihood—they are in fact my livelihood.
I often really enjoy the seasonal jobs which I do find, and often I wish I could stay on for longer. The longing for rootedness and connection are strong within me. But the prospect of ever staying on permanently still seems daunting and unapproachable. As one friend, another long-term seasonal, put it, “I couldn’t see myself signing up for that job for four years all at once, but I can see how I agreed to work there for one year four times in a row.” With any job that I enjoy, more time would be a bonus, but it’s not realistically expected. I always keep open the possibility that I might return to a place I’ve worked before, and I always strive to be the worker that employers would have back in a heartbeat. But I also value the personal renewal and new experiences that come with taking a new seasonal gig in an unfamiliar location. Ultimately, with each of these temporary positions the season will come to a close. Savoring the good aspects of a job while they last can make each day on the job seem all that much sweeter. As for the undesirable parts of a job, they can be toughed out to the end. Though leaving any position has its necessary pains, the natural end to a seasonal job makes the pain of leaving all the more bearable. We can brace ourselves for the fatalistic closure of any given position, for they were never expected to be for eternity from the beginning. It may be taxing to start and stop so many short-term jobs and meet and then leave so many different people; but similar to a long journey, beginning with the inevitable end in mind makes the ultimate departure ever so slightly more bearable and meaningful.
Above all, the biggest draw to seasonal work for me has been the nature of the work itself. I am in this field full of seasonal positions because I enjoy the work that comes with each successive season. I revel in being out in the field as I perform my work. I enjoy the blue-collar aspect of my jobs (as blue-collar as the educational field can be), and a little manual labor now and then serves both the body and soul well. The variety of my job keeps me fresh, and I feel utterly free from not being tied to an office for administrative work (indeed, my greatest employment nightmare is getting stuck in an office job). What’s more is that I enjoy the comradery of my co-workers—multiple people in the same position, working the same job—an egalitarian crew by job description. As a low-level employee, you’re part of the pack and live and die on the teamwork you provide. I’ve found that I thrive on that aspect, relying on others as surely as I am depended upon by my peers. For sure, I’m competitive and want to perform better than my co-workers, but I don’t desire to rise in the ranks above them. Though I am envious of the benefits and respect that the permanents get and I lust for that kind of social standing among my peers, my greater desire is to be one of my peers as well. I like being a team member. As for leadership on the job, my style is one where I want to lead with the respect which I earn from my peers, not with reverence from holding a higher job title. And thus, I feel uncomfortable having a position of power above people. I want to be an everyman; I want to be one of the people. When I find the work that I love to do, then I’d rather do the work myself. Of what benefit is it to me to supervise people doing the things I’d rather be doing myself?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a seasonal, and for the near future, it looks like that will continue. If I could find the right job in the right place, then the prospect of becoming permanently employed wouldn’t scare me as much. But unfortunately, the opportunities to take a permanent job in the wrong place or in the wrong profession are endless. With taking any permanent position I would undoubtedly be left wondering if there was a better-suited job out there somewhere. I am quite picky, after all, and the prospect of not being able to change daunts me. If I were to take a permanent job, I would have to be ABSOLUTELY sure that it’s the job I need to take. Perhaps it may just the word permanent that rubs me in the wrong way. Permanent. Not to be changed. But even a permanent job can be gotten out of fairly easily (though not as easily as seasonal gigs). Maybe instead we should call them indefinite jobs; jobs that finish when the end is appropriate for the worker, instead of when the season concludes. Even so, the costs of taking a permanent job seems more of a burden to bear than the perpetual onslaught of seasonal labor. So I’ll continue to be a seasonal. At least for now…
I’m a sucker for a good personality test. Still am, even as I get older and my personality seems to cement. I habitually take and re-take old favorites like Myers-Briggs, True Colors, or Enneagram just to see what my results are—generally, to see if they match the way I feel about myself. Retaking the tests as I mature, I’m always curious if my more recent results still match my results from earlier. Partly, this fascination stems from me always searching for new insights into myself—particularly, the kind of insights that feel certain and definite, like those garnered from the results of a scientific personality test.
My early college career was a particularly fruitful time for taking such tests. As an emerging adult trying to understand himself in a college context, such tests provided reassurance; they were like a friend who knew me well enough to point out that I’m not altogether crazy or odd. And with the personality tests came the related career-matching tests; young college me also needed to discern what role he would play in the adult world.
One test that stood out to me way back when and still stands out to me now was a career-matching test—the Strong Interest Inventory—taken at the career counseling center midway through my first semester. When I took this test, I was not looking for career matches in particular—I was still a stubbornly committed engineering major who was only taking the test as part of another class’s assignment. Given my doubts about the necessity of career counseling to begin with (I can figure everything out on my own, right?), offering the test as class credit was a great way to incentivize one reluctant college freshmen to venture into the career counseling office. However, upon having the test explained to me by the career counselors, I became intensely intrigued out of the sheer curiosity of what insights these tests might provide about myself.
The Strong Interest Inventory was not exactly just a career-matching test. Rather, it was a query of what I was good at and what activities I found fulfilling—and then the test metrics compared my results to the jobs in which people with similar aptitudes and interests described as fulfilling. Essentially this test was a comparison of how well my personality and interests would fit into a wide range of career fields.
A week later, after the results of the test were processed, I went back to career counseling to see the outcomes. As a college freshman blindingly intent on the engineering program, I wasn’t too happy with what I learned. Although already disappointed by the lack of joy that I was encountering as an engineering major, I was even more disappointed with the results of the career match survey. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that engineering was not in my top ten job matches. In fact, engineering scored rather low on the list, which gave some validity to the less-than-amorous feelings I’d been having to the engineering discipline. But—what I couldn’t get over was what my top career matches actually were.
Sitting there smack dab in my top ten matches were jobs I’d never even think of considering: chiropractor, corporate trainer, school counselor, nursing home administrator…on and on. Sure, I definitely could have seen myself as a carpenter. But match number two as a minister? (oddly enough, writing a blog post seems peculiarly similar to writing a sermon). And my top match…an elementary school teacher?!? What?!?!? Are you sure you didn’t mix my results up with someone else?
To my abundant surprise, my top ten career matches were vastly different than expected. As high school me had thought so strongly of his performance in the ‘hard’ disciplines of math and science (my stronger subjects in high school) and had greatly relished his introversion (i.e., I didn’t want a job working with people), he couldn’t have seen himself touching any of those occupations with a ten-foot pole. Opposite of my hard-science, asocial bias, my top ten matches were all very much centered on the social disciplines.
As a college freshman, I found the results so far removed from my expectations that they were amusing, borderline comical. I quickly dismissed the results and switched my major from engineering to…biology (to stay in the sciences, of course). I was not quite ready for such a radical switch from the picture I had of myself as an elitist physical scientist, nor did I believe I would desire such a socially-oriented job either. Sure, engineering was not for me, but even less could I envision myself in those other careers.
I tucked the results of that career-matching test away in a folder, somewhat out of personal respect at the mound of high-grade paper it was printed on, and partly out of the sheer curiosity of how wildly unexpected the results were. I mean, c’mon…nursing home administrator?
But reality found a way of having its last laugh on me. Though I shunned the outcome, I nevertheless kept making choices that wound me closer to the results of the test. My majors in biology and environmental studies deepened my love of nature, a passion that I couldn’t help but share with others. So I decided to begin working in the outdoors in a capacity where I could share this passion, first becoming an outdoor guide and then later teaching environmental education. After gaining some experience with youth in education, it wasn’t such a big leap to take on classroom substitute teaching when the circumstances called for filling in a gap in employment. That, of course, led to working in public schools—where the bulk of available assignments come at the elementary level. Thus, out of economic necessity more than sheer personal desire, I found myself working as my top career-match from that test of my freshman year. Inevitably, I have worked as an elementary school teacher.
And you know what? I agreed with the test results. Far from the discordance I felt earlier while in the engineering discipline, I found the elementary job to be meaningful and fulfilling. Being an elementary school teacher was a challenge that I could both accomplish and feel like I was making a positive difference in the world. Somehow the results of that career test snuck up on me. I’m glad they did. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t even have begun to suspect that I would enjoy such a job.
Maybe there is a degree of validity to all these career tests that we take. After all, I didn’t go out in search of the types of jobs matched for me. Rather, one thing just led to another and I ended up stumbling to results myself.
(Perhaps maybe the results of another career-test will sneak up on me—during graduate school, I took a different career test that gave me the top occupations of nanny, combat soldier, gynecologist, and underwater welder. Of those, I’d take the underwater welder!)
Recently I took a trip down memory lane with a fellow co-conspirator of one of my most memorable spring break trips ever, a canoeing/backpacking trip to the wilds of Mississippi. It was a trip to be remembered not only because of the adventure but also because of so many things that frankly went haywire:
One of our cars breaking down on the first night in the country town of Effingham, Illinois; sleeping in our cars in the parking lot of the repair shop that first night waiting for the shop to open in the morning; taking a pilgrimage to the second-largest cross in America beside the freeway while waiting for said car to get repaired; running into a traffic jam at a police checkpoint on the highway late at night in muggy Mississippi—and having the power braking go out in the car during that episode; awaking our first morning in Mississippi to gunfire from local turkey hunters wandering through camp; canoeing down a river traversing from bank to bank the whole time because no one in the group actually knew how to canoe; nearly stepping on rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the trail—multiple times; having a deer run through camp at night and scare the living bejesus out of us; having one of our friends get bit by a water snake while we were bathing in the creek; visiting Alabama’s Dauphin Island on the last day of our trip and finding out there were no campgrounds to stay at—so instead after much searching, eventually knocking on a random parsonage door at night to ask if we could sleep in a parking lot (and instead getting invited to sleep in the church’s retreat center!); a fateful morning of napping on Dauphin Island’s beach, leading to second-degree sunburn and sun poisoning before driving through the night back to Michigan; stopping at a place called Hart’s Fried Chicken and ordering the greasiest things on the menu before the drive; washing all of our clothes at a friend’s house before the dorms re-opened, and then finding out that the dryer was broken; some friends finding ticks engorged in uncomfortable places after arriving back from the trip; it could go on…
Some might say that on this trip a lot of things went wrong. Personally I’m not apt to call these events wrong as such—more so, the events of the trip just went much differently from our idealized expectations of an uneventful vacation. Reflecting on the premises of the trip reveals that running into some snafus seemed likely. We were, after all, only a group of ten friends—sophomores in college—without any significant experience canoeing or traveling in the backcountry (and perhaps our resumes were lacking for road trip experience as well). But despite all the happenings and dangerous circumstances encountered, we all survived to tell the tale. We can look back fondly and humorously at the entire experience because no permanent harm was done (perhaps with the exception of guaranteeing ourselves skin cancer).
This trip to Mississippi stands out from other trips I’ve taken particularly because of the number of things that went unexpected. Looking back, the whole trip could have been written as a comedy sketch. How many goofy things could possibly happen in this episode of college wilderness spring break? On trips I would take in the future, I would apply the lessons I learned from past mistakes. I would gradually get more comfortable in the outdoors, make better trip preparations, and foresee adverse situations before they would arise. Things got a lot easier with more experience. But I also found they got less memorable.
The following spring break was also a canoeing trip with friends, this time on Florida’s Suwanee River. The entire trip went off without a hitch. No car trouble, no inadequate provisioning, no half-baked plans. It really was a trip you could wrap up neatly and put down in the books. But I felt a little shortchanged from it. I felt like I got off that trip a little too easy. Somehow, I felt like I had been gipped. Thinking about the Suwanee trip years later, many fine details of the experience are largely forgotten, and few stories about it have been re-told. The trip itself does not possess much salience in my mind either.
I think this example of these two spring break trips illustrates a trend I’ve noticed in my life. As someone who learns quickly from past experience, I don’t possess anywhere near the level of greenness or naïveté I had in my early college days. I’m now able to get through life easier without committing so many of the egregious errors or faux pas of my younger years. As I get better at navigating the messy world of life, I’ve noticed one unintended consequence: I’ve been making these distinct memories of unexpected circumstances with far less frequency.
I’m aware of this trend, and part of myself is frightened that I’ll stop making memories quite as spectacular as my Mississippi spring break. I’m concerned that life will become mundane and routine, and the vivid experiences of life will slip into the hum-drum milieu of quotidian tedium. I’m afraid that I’ll no longer be making the memories which I’d love to look back upon. Psychological research details how our lives mellow out as we age. I was a mellow personality to begin with, and I’ve already seen myself soften out more as I’ve gotten older. As I mature further and gain more life experience, am I going to find it increasingly difficult to make specific memories? Am I going to run out of things to try that are absurdly outside of my range of expertise—or will I even lose the motivation to try such things?
I wonder if this fear is one of the reasons why I’m wary of settling down, why I keep flirting with transiency and playing hard-to-get with consistency. That instead of doing one thing in one place for a long time, I keep wandering from place to place and from job to job seeking out new places and experiences. I’m no longer absurdly incompetent in a lot of areas as I once was. Years later, I have become very proficient in outdoor travel. I’ve even worked as a canoe guide. If I were to take it again now, a trip like my Mississippi spring break would likely present little challenge to me.
Instead, I find myself seeking out new areas in which I will continually challenge my limits, branching out into more and more disciplines. Once I felt comfortable with my level of mastery at the things that interested me most, I had to start seeking positions further afield where I could step yet again outside of my comfort zone. True, part of my motivation for doing this is the desire to develop new skills in other disciplines. But I am also motivated by the challenge of doing things that I’m not familiar with and the memorable experiences that ensue.
And this process of doing things outside of my comfort zone, I’ve found, is a key element in adding to the memory-making process. It’s something I can control that augments the production of memories. Truly, my working holiday in Australia was partly motivated by this, especially by a desire to break from the monotony of going to grad school day after day and living a stable life in the same house for two years in a row. The scope of my Australian journey was a stretch for me, and how it comically unraveled produced many great stories and memories about how naïve and unprepared I actually was. But—I learned so much from that experience that if I were to do it again, it would be far easier for me—and also much less memorable.
I still find myself drawn to employment positions that are slightly out of my comfort zone and realm of experience as well. In fact, it seems to be a job requirement for me. Substitute teaching in public schools has been a great example of this. I was incredibly nervous before I started subbing, and I still often feel out of my element in the classroom. But I have accumulated a treasure-trove of memories and stories from the experience (although my most vivid memories are of just how awful children can act). Though far from a professional, even after just a few weeks of subbing I’m beginning to feel more comfortable leading a classroom. I wonder if that’s a sign it’s time to try something new?
Am I drawn to the memories? Am I addicted to them? Am I drawn to novelty and repelled by familiarity because I covet the memories that novelty so often provides? Am I scared that based on the trends I’ve seen so far, that I’ll eventually run out of things to do in order to make new memories? Is my incestuous desire for vivid memories stifling my development?
I want to keep making new memories, though, and memories that will stick around with distinction. The question may be how to go about this. How can I still make new memories and lead a more stable and consistent life? Somehow I need to find a way of continuing to make mistakes worth learning from. As long as I survive those mistakes, I’ll be able to look back on those memories fondly.
I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions for 2016. I haven’t started on New Year’s resolutions for 2017 either. Although I sometimes I do make resolutions for myself, it’s far from an annual tradition; whatever goals I do make tend to be more abstract and less definable in regards to their accomplishment. Previous resolutions of mine have included ‘being more spontaneous’ and ‘defying societal expectations’. To that extent, I have been slack in thinking of lofty goals for the upcoming year.
When midnight comes tonight, time will continue to pass just as it always has (disregarding the added leap second, necessarily). The infinite clock of universal time takes no notice of our mere Gregorian calendar and its arbitrary initiation of a new year. But for what tonight lacks in realness, it makes up greatly with symbolism—scribbling down a different digit when writing out the date could just be the needed break that some need to feel emboldened to make a change in their lives. Or, for those more cynical, waiting until the New Year is a great excuse to put off difficult change until later.
For me, I aim to live a life of continual improvement and thus don’t often use the method of making resolutions for a certain date in time. If change is to be had, ideally it should happen as soon as it is possible. Still, over the course of a year we do tend to stray from our ideals, and the prospect of a new calendar offers the chance to pause and reevaluate what kind of person we are and if that aligns with who we desire to be. If we’ve run astray of our intentions, the New Year might just be the catalyst to prompt the change.
But instead of focusing more on changes to come on the eve of 2017, I’d rather focus on what the outgoing year brought. Admittedly, I’d say 2016 was not my best year ever. The first half of the year saw the unraveling of my Australian adventure and with it the confidence that many of my ideas are not foolproof. Back at home, the health of some family members began to dramatically decline. Additionally, the downward spiral of American politics and the direction of the national discourse did not help in giving 2016 a good aura.
But 2016 had its peaks as well. For starters, I ended up traveling quite a lot, and to many new places. I also had the opportunity to try out a couple of jobs I’ve always wanted to try—leading outdoor trips and working on a wooden sailboat. This year was the one where I finally got a good taste of long-distance bike-riding and found I want even more of it. I even kept up my blog through the whole year. These experiences I’ve had, and many more, will be rooted in the year 2016; I’m grateful for 2016 because they happened.
And through it all, I’m grateful that I’m still well-adjusted and here to appreciate what happened. Making it to another year is not a given—it’s a gift and should be celebrated as such. Making it in good health and in good spirits is another thing to celebrate.
Thinking ahead to 2017, I don’t have many goals of what to do. Unlike 2016, 2017 will be less of a mystery upfront—I do, after all, already have my next two jobs lined up through October. I know I’ll be substitute teaching for a bit in Michigan before doing more environmental education in Massachusetts. The greater challenge of this New Year is instead what to be. Am I the kind of person I want to be? If I met myself as a stranger, would I want to interact with this person?
For me, the less frenetic pace of change upcoming in 2017 may lead to some more time for introspection than 2016 allowed for. A less uncertain lifestyle may also lead to the development of habits—either good or bad. Among habits, I’d love to meditate and do yoga more regularly. And 2017 will also present the challenges of existing within the changing context of our society. I foresee 2017 presenting challenges for tolerance and openness in civic life. As we look to our goals for the New Year, we can all look to ourselves and ask if we are the kind and generous and accepting people we would like to be; we can make a resolution to defy prejudice and stamp out hate.
Here’s to a better 2017
Happy New Year!
The dark cloud lingering over the national election is passing, but even darker clouds loom on the late-January horizon. The future of the nation seems to be a spiral of uncertainty. Gains in social progress and human rights hard-fought for over the decades seem to be at risk to an ideology of fear and distrust. How could America stoop so low to have this happen?
It’s easy to get cynical about national elections. Being registered to vote in a deeply red state (Idaho), I knew a vote either way wouldn’t change the national outcome. The Electoral College masks the voice of the people, instead turning the power of the popular vote into a pundit’s game. But with extra hope for democracy, I made sure to cast my absentee ballot. In the end, my suspicions were proven; my presidential vote far from mattered, with the winning candidate leading by 31 percentage points in my state regardless.
I watched the outcome on election night with my shipmates in New York, hovering over a smartphone below decks as the results trickled in. Hopes for a promising outcome were initially high. An air of disbelief gradually set in as key states on the east coast began to turn solidly red. Optimism gradually dampened. Late into the night, the tone turned somber and morose as the reality of the outcome sunk in.
There would have been no other place I’d rather be to watch the results than on the Clearwater. The ship is meant to be a safe place. It is meant to be an inclusive community, free from the hate and bigotry that have marred recent national politics. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves aboard the Clearwater. Whether you like the people you end up around on the ship often becomes irrelevant when you must cooperate with each other to form a functioning environment (though I’d say we really do actually like each other aboard the Clearwater). We’re all we have on the ship; we have to look out and take care of each other no matter who we may be.
I wish the ship could serve as a model for how our nation ought to operate. America is a vast mosaic of cultures and ideas and values that has been functioning continuously for over 260 years. The social narrative of this nation has been one of gradually recognizing that the inalienable rights originally granted in the Constitution are inherent to every human being—rights for women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, religious groups, refugees, gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities, immigrants, the impoverished and beyond. At the large national scale, it’s easy to become afraid of those groups of people who are different than you. We preferentially segregate ourselves to be with others similar to us. The outsiders—they are unknown, impersonal, different. They might try and change our comfortable status quo, we reason. When relations with the alien other remain impersonal, it’s easy to slip into stereotyping and generalizing fear and distrust. But if instead we were to know our neighbors—to actually learn who we are in community with—how different could things be? In the words of Clearwater’s founder Pete Seeger, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” If only our nation could behave like a small village, knowing and understanding our neighbors, then maybe cooperation and compassion could win out over fear.
Personally, I’d hate to slip into the cynicism that I have no control in how the nation goes. We’re the second largest democracy in the world, holder of the largest worldwide economy, and home to 320 million people. America is an immense nation; an individual can easily feel overwhelmed by changes in national politics. But the future of our society, I believe, must be won at the level of the individual. Grassroots efforts at change in this nation have and will continue to bubble up and will ultimately succeed in crafting a society of equality and fraternity. These efforts will face many setbacks along the way. But keep on. Don’t get disheartened. As grassroots activist Pete Seeger believed, “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Though cynical about politics on a national and even a state level, I know voting still remains a fundamental act of resistance. Be part of your community. Go and vote in local elections.
The people’s voice may not have been heard this time, but we will be heard in the future. In the meantime, there is work to be done in the village. Bigotry and hate start locally, even within oneself. This must be stamped out. But it won’t be easy.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
One year ago I was a new arrival in Sydney, Australia, at the advent of my Australian adventure and my project of greater explorations into a meaningful life path. The launch of this blog, In All Directions, shortly preceded my departure and was intended as a chronicle of my travels in Australia—and also an experimental method of reflection and self-discovery along the way.
When I arrived in Australia in late October 2015, I had intentions of staying well over a year. My grandiose scheme had me finishing up a year of fruit picking at about this time and preparing to go on a circumnavigational road trip of the Australian continent as a way to spend my heaps of fruit picking money. A year later, instead of tramping in a van Down Under, I find myself living aboard a sailboat on New York’s Hudson River. Ending up at this particular spot wasn’t even on my radar one year ago, but due to the course of time, it simply ended up being the most reasonable next step to pursue. It’s intriguing the way that the passage of time makes one think about different possibilities with fresh attitudes. Nonetheless, through all my itinerant travels, this blog stuck to chronicle the journey.
One year into the In All Directions project and I can’t come up with any defining conclusions although I can still say it’s been worth the while to continue the exploration. In the past year, I’m more than happy at having tried three different directions: fruit picking in Australia, leading canoe trips in Wisconsin, and working aboard a tall ship in New York. Each of these directions had their individual benefits and drawbacks, but more importantly they have taught me lessons about myself and my proclivities. I can’t say that I’m close to a final discovery, or that I even believe there will ultimately be a final discovery; what I can say is that I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t work for me. Anecdotally, Thomas Edison failed to make a working lightbulb after over 1,000 prototypes, but each failed trial led him closer to eventual success. When asked by a reporter about how it felt to fail so many times, Edison wisely replied that he didn’t fail at all—making a lightbulb was just a project with 1,000 steps. Like Edison, I’m not classifying things that didn’t quite work out as failures; I’m just refining what works for me and what doesn’t.
In everyday life, we all learn from our past experiences. But in order to gain those experiences, we must travel further down the one-way road of time. And to travel that road means going into an unknown future. Along the way you’ll encounter forks and decisions that will affect your route. You can’t travel back and do it all over again; the best you can do is trust yourself that what path you’re going down is heading towards the best outcome. This isn’t a Panglossian philosophy that all things ultimately work out in the best of all possible ways. More simply this is saying that no matter how life unravels itself, there is some measure of good to be made of the situation.
As I continue to try out different career paths and play with different ideas about my future, each direction I try out could lead me down a different path. One year ago I didn’t anticipate that I’d be writing a retrospective blog from Kingston, New York. But that’s what ended up happening anyway. The way life works is that it can only be viewed in retrospect. The future remains an intriguing mystery. One will never know what each path will look like until it’s been traveled.
Unlike my well-laid out Australian plans, life is not something you can plan out meticulously; life is something that you have to live through to understand where the experience is taking you. To get where I ended up right now, I could have taken many a multitude of paths. But on each of those infinite possible journeys, the lessons learned along the way would have been different; a slightly different person would arrive at each destination. Each journey undertaken is unique; chose to embrace the passages that add to the depth of your character.
There are many directions left to be explored, and I too look forward to seeing where they lead.
On the road to North Star Camp for Boys, one passes a somewhat whimsical sign in the shape of a yellow caution diamond: CAUTION: Future World and Local Leaders at Work and Play.
Though I find the sign amusing, I also understand the truth behind it. The campers who attend North Star are, indeed, likely to become leaders of their communities and beyond. North Star is not a representative sample of children nationwide, and though these campers come from privileged backgrounds, they also face high pressure to lead and succeed. Families of North Star campers care enough about their children’s development to send them to an 8-week residential camp, and also have the means to afford it. Hailing from these types of environments, the campers at North Star tend to be more precocious and generally well-behaved—future leaders in training.
But, right now they are still kids. They aren’t fully aware of the significance of their background or how that affects their behaviors or expectations for the future. However, someday, like each successive generation has before, these kids will grow up and realize that it is now up to them to run the society they want to live in.
Whether or not we raise children of our own, we still all share in the same future of the world, and we all ought to share in that responsibility of raising the next generation. At age 26, having children of my own is a distant speculation—but though I don’t feel the evolutionary impulse to pass on my own DNA, I nonetheless feel the societal impulse to raise and nurture. Regardless of whether I procreate, I still have a future in the world to come: I still have that collective responsibility to invest in the future of humanity.
Maybe working with children shows that you are an optimist about the world. In a time of global turmoil, with pressing political, social, and environmental problems, you’ve got to have faith that the world is going to continue in order to devote time to the youth. If there is going to be no future, then why invest in the next generation at all? For me, I still have faith in social progress, that my generation can resolve some of the issues unresolved by earlier generations, and that the generation after will continue with the work left undone by mine.
My own generation—the millennials—is still up-and-coming. We have not risen to prominence yet. Nevertheless we are beginning to see the ways that we can lead and are learning about the power of our collective choice. But we are still learning. We still need the guidance from generations before, seeking advice from parents and getting mentored by those older and wiser than us. In a similar way, we’re already influencing the generation under us.
I’m not sure if the campers at North Star are part of the same generation as me. Even the oldest campers I’m more than a decade senior. These are kids whose entire lives exist only after the year 2000. Though I can relate to them in many ways, the world they are native to is ever so slightly different than the one I grew up in.
For as much as I may paint a picture of working with kids as some deeply-contrived social obligation, I don’t do it for any external philosophical reason. I do it because I have found that I enjoy working with children.
As someone who commonly feels socially awkward amongst peers, it has been energizing to work with children. Just because you are bigger and older, children give you a lot of undue credit right from the start. They look up to adults who want to spend time with them. They find you interesting as a person, and because of that they become attentive for what you have to teach. To a kid, the world beyond their parent’s home is a vast unexplored horizon. Already I’ve done many things with my life that kids find interesting to hear about; I can regale them with stories from the other side of adolescence, about adventure and exploration, about amazing things from this world. Sharing things that have become mundane and commonplace to me could be the first experience a child has with it—and that exuberance a child has when experiencing something for the first time is ever-encouraging.
The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. But it’s not just for the campers at North Star—it’s children everywhere who are the future.
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.