For most of 2013 I was unemployed and homeless, and it was everything I imagined it could be.
Okay, putting it that way is probably in poor taste: I was out of work on purpose, and traveling with no fixed address was no hardship, it was living out my dreams. Let me put it another way: 2013 will be a hard year to top.
So now at the start of a new year, I’d like to make sense of it so I can understand what to bring forward. Specifically: did I get what I wanted out of it, and was it worth what I lost / gave up?
Quitting my job, leaving a multiple-decade career behind was scary. I worried that I was throwing away a great career and I would come to regret it. This fear turns out to be mostly unfounded. I was incredibly lucky to be able to have my pick of jobs when I returned. While it’s true I didn’t step right back into the career I had when I left, that was never the goal so I don’t count that as a down side.
Getting rid of what I “owned” was less scary; I’ve never been terribly attached to stuff. I say “owned” in quotes because I now think a better way to relate to things you buy is more that you are renting or borrowing it. At some point it will pass to someone else, and there may or may not be an exchange of money when that transaction happens. In the interim you are responsible for taking care of it.
Leaving all my friends and social groups behind was less scary than it should have been because I didn’t understand what I was leaving. I’m lucky in that I have been able to make some fantastic friendships over my life, and it’s easy to keep in touch with folks virtually, but now that I’m in a new town, trying to find a social circle (or several as I had back in Seattle) is going to be difficult. I think the older you get the harder it is to form or join really tight social groups. Of everything I lost on this trip, this is the hardest trade off. Not to say I’ve lost friends; I’ve still got contact with my peeps, it’s just that I don’t see them on a regular basis now and it’s going to take extra work to maintain the relationships long distance.
So what did I get out of the trip? Was it worth it? Short answer: best thing I’ve ever done.
I learned that living without stuff is incredibly freeing. Knowing that my sole physical responsibilities are in my backpack clears out a background noise of nagging worry and responsibility that I didn’t even realize was there before. Car payments? Insurance? Rent? Is my stuff safe? Did Bob scratch that nice new table with his stupid class ring last night when he had a couple too many? Did Bethany like or hate the color of my area rug? Is their mangy dog going to pee on my curtains? (well, I never had curtains, but you get the point). And my god: the clutter!
Noise. It’s hard to imagine the quiet silence when all that is gone.
I learned that meeting fellow travelers is probably the best thing you can possibly do when traveling. Sure, seeing sights is pretty cool, but those are just kind of activities like going to the movies with friends. It’s fun to do, but usually the real point is to go do things with people. Fellow travelers are going to be full of interesting stories, great recommendations for things you need to see and do, and will know way more interesting drinking games than you.
I learned that graphic art is probably never going to come back for me. Growing up I drew constantly. I wanted to be an illustrator and comic artist. My friends told me I was pretty good. I expected on this trip, once I freed my mind from all the day-to-day crap and didn’t have a job that I needed to fill my time with, that I’d be right back drawing and creating cool stuff again. Not so. And that’s okay. For the most part. I do have a friend that gave up her job and is doing intensive art school now and I’m pretty inspired by her example. Who knows what my future holds…
I learned that I love writing, and have a lot of potential outlets. Back in Seattle I had a writing group that met far too seldom, but created fantastic stuff when it did. We’d work on short stage plays or scripts, and talk about ideas for longer things. On my trip I not only kept up this blog, but wrote a novel I’d had bashing around in my head for a while, and started on a couple more. This is what I want to explore much deeper in the coming years. I had thought about this as my creative outlet for years before, but this trip confirmed it for me.
I learned that you can break your foot and still dance on stage with crutches in Barcelona.
And I learned that work, just like “stuff”, is temporary. It can be your life’s passion, it can be your legacy, but it can also be a means to an end, “just” a paycheck, or a distraction. Previously I defined myself in large parts by my work. Now I’ve got a much healthier relationship with it. I am still passionate about what I do and doing it well, but success or failure here doesn’t define me.
So what does this mean going forward into the rest of my, and what lessons do I wish I could share with people who haven’t had an experience like this (yet)?
Detach from your stuff. What you own comes to own you. It’s very true, it’s very insidious, and it’s very difficult to break out of. I have reacquired all the trappings of a city dweller (car, dresser, table, sofa, broom, tea strainer, etc). I now feel the weight of each thing I acquire and hear the background noise it generates in my mind. Keeping a healthy detachment from it mentally and emotionally is key to keeping that noise down.
Do good work. It matters. If you aren’t proud and engaged in the work you are doing, do whatever you must to change that. Change jobs, gain skills, throw it all away and start again. It may take time, but don’t lose sight of the fact that doing good work is important. It is important for you, and it is important for the world.
Dance more. Even if you think you shouldn’t.
People are what really matter. I am in danger of losing sight of this as I throw myself into my job. Making trade offs on spending time with people that matter to you in order to succeed at work should be done with great care and sparingly. Our time here is so short and you only have a handful of days when it comes down to it. Spend them wisely and with people that fill you and enrich you.
And for God’s sake people: if something scares you: do it. In fact, to paraphrase my current company: Just Do It. Fear will always put up things that sound like reasons to not do something. There are a billion ways to tell fear to go suck it. Remind yourself again: you have precious few days, so don’t let them go by without doing something you want to.