Exile Lifestyle

by Colin Wright

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It’s boggling how much information we have access to today, and yet how misinformed we can be about so many things.

Part of the issue is that we very often talk past each other when supposedly discussing or debating. But another part is that we frequently aren’t even talking about the same issues, even when we seem to be.

When we talk about population, for instance, we’re typically not talking about the raw number of people who live on the planet, but instead using it as a stand-in topic for the erosion of tradition, concerns about the direction of consumption-based capitalism, and a multifaceted wariness about global climate change and the overall state of the environment.

If you haven’t listened to my podcast Let’s Know Things thus far, this is a great place to start. And if you enjoy it, be sure to subscribe, and go back and listen to the (ever-expanding) archive.

You can listen to the most recent episode, about the topic of population (and so much more) using the player below, or you can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Lifestyle for One

My apartment smells of sautéed onions and fresh-minced garlic.

I love the smell. Not everyone would, but I do.

I also tend to fill my space with the fragrance of curries and peppers, or on the other end of the olfactory flavor wheel, hot oats and cinnamon. I cook these things liberally, gleefully glazing my meals with my preferred flavors throughout the day.

Sometimes my preparing/eating routine falls roughly into line with what might be considered standard dining habits, but very often they’re more in lockstep with the work I’m doing, or the book I’m reading. I’ll take a break from editing my podcast to start boiling potatoes. I’ll step away from an engrossing novel to do the preliminary washing and slicing and seasoning required for the dish I’ll be making in a few hours, when I’m hungry.

The smells associated with my meals align with my preferences, and so does the method of consumption.

I typically read a book, or listen to a podcast, or watch something on Netflix while eating. I consume while I consume, and in both cases, as intentionally as possible — I have a lot of pop-culture catching up to do.

I love that my meals are ‘boring,’ rather than social. I love that I have the opportunity to pace my day based on what I want to accomplish. I love that my space, my apartment, is custom-fitted for me and the work I do and the lifestyle I live, rather than for guests I might someday have, or someone else’s ideas of what a space should look like and contain.

It sounds horribly anti-social, I know. But that’s kind of a loaded term, isn’t it? Anti-social?

It implies that social is what we should aspire to be, while quite often ‘social’ gets in the way of what we really want to accomplish.

Why not ‘pro-self’? Individual-focused? Me-shaped?

There are immense benefits to having a good group of friends. People you can reach out to when you want a conversation and a beer. People you can discuss heady topics with when you’re feeling intellectually stopped-up. Folks who help you track time and make memories, sometimes by just being there.

But there are aspects of one’s development that can actually be stunted by an over-focus on socializing. Not being able to be alone — and to not just survive, but thrive, as an individual — seems like a limiting trait.

We’re all on a spectrum with this, of course, but it’s difficult to know where you actually belong until you’ve pushed your boundaries in both directions. Felt around for extremes so that you can more easily guide yourself to a healthy balance point.

Part of the inherent challenge in a lifestyle of travel, for me, has been putting myself out there, into the world, at the mercy of others, nothing fully within my control. It’s a social extreme, and one I’m glad I’ve experienced, and am glad I will continue to experience.

I’ve become good at it.

That said, I don’t know that I’m ever so tired as I am after an extended trip, during which I have little privacy and am incentivized by the situation to seek out new conversations and relationships to get the most out of my surroundings. Again, this is a super-valuable experience, and there are immense benefits to such an undertaking; but the loss of me-time, internal-time, mind-time, can be suffocating.

When I try to explain why I prefer to have a great deal of time alone, I often say that when I’m around people all day, every day, I feel like I can’t catch my breath…but with my thoughts. It’s like I’m mentally huffing and puffing, grasping and trying to hold onto the ideas and feelings and assessments I know are there, but which I can only seem to glimpse. It’s like I can never quite manage to take the deep, satiating mind-breath I crave.

There’s an immense liberty in living alone, in eating alone, in going to movies alone or having a coffee alone.

It’s also quite a privilege: in many places around the world and for many people in those places, it’s simply not a viable economic option to have one’s own space, one’s own kitchen, one’s own time to sit with a coffee and a book.

I treasure that I’m able to do this.

I also worry.

I worry that I’ll push too far to one extreme or the other. That I’ll injure existing relationships or miss out on potential new ones by cloistering myself too enthusiastically. I worry that at some point my me-shaped life will fail to sync with the world outside, and the mental adapters I’ve always used to bridge the gap will no longer allow me to transmit and traverse between them.

I worry that I’ll love it too much. That this focus will put other things, potentially valuable things, out of focus, to the point that I can no longer remember why I even considered them important.

I worry that I’ll unintentionally limit myself while trying to expand my internal horizons.

After years of bending on absolutely everything, choosing when and where and what you eat can be a revelation.

A lifestyle for one means having that feeling, but for everything.

Building a life that’s you-shaped can feel like putting on clothes that fit, after years of walking around wearing a sleeping bag.

But it’s important to maintain malleability, and to keep experimenting: with yourself, your life, and with others.

Life can be a balancing act — perhaps especially when it’s seemingly ideal.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

Intentional Milestones

Something that I took for granted while on the road was the number of milestones that were built into my life.

I’d arrive in a new country, I’d try some new food, I’d meet a new group of people, I’d start a new project — all things that are native to a full-time traveler’s lifestyle.

Yes, I wouldn’t know where I’d be sleeping the next week, and sure, I didn’t know which languages would be useful in the coming months, but I was able to use each end-point as a launchpad for what came next.

What I’ve learned during my first month here in Wichita is that non-predictability isn’t something I can count on here, living this sort of lifestyle.

Yes, there are plenty of opportunities to learn and be exposed to valuable difficulties, but they aren’t key components to this pace of life. They’re available if you seek them out, but they aren’t inextricable from everything else. They’re à la carte add-ons, not unavoidable entrées.

With the exception of super-high-end travel, where you essentially control every aspect of your environment despite technically being in a new location, living on the road means constant shifts in rhythm and thinking and societal expectations and pretty much every other aspect of life.

When you’re staying in one place, however, in most cases you have to expend extra energy to find these opportunities. You can practice new languages, but you have to work for it — find classes or friends who will practice with you. You can discover new foods, but you have to work for it — track down cuisines you have no reason to know about, find places that serve them, or recipes that you can replicate.

You can be forced out of your comfort zone, but in general, you have to be the one doing the forcing.

Many aspects of the typical geo-stationary lifestyle are fixed and predictable. This is useful on a societal level, because it means we have stable utilities and resources, housing and workplaces. But this sort of system creates so much security-gravity that pulling away, kicking off to do something different from what’s provided by default, requires a remarkable amount of effort.

I’ve only been in Kansas a little over a month, and already that pleasant-but-worrying inertia has become a familiar houseguest.

As a result, once a week I check in with myself and change things around.

I rearrange the things I have scheduled on my calendar (“What if I record my podcast at night instead of in the morning? What if I write a blog post mid-week instead of over the weekend?”), figure out some new items to add to my ‘Let’s Try This’ list (recipes to cook, songs to learn to play on guitar, books to read, software to fiddle around with), and clean the whole apartment, resetting it to zero.

I find that this, along with ambitious deadlines for my projects and even my consumption habits (“Let’s settle in and finish reading this book by this weekend!”), allows me to structure my time in a more productive way than what I find myself falling into by default.

The idea is that rather than simply marking the time that’s passed by weeks and months, I can instead keep track of milestones: things tried and learned, projects worked on and finished, and lifestyle/health goals accomplished.

I’ve been speaking and writing about how to better spend your time, energy, and resources on the important things for many years, and I knew there was a latent advantage to traveling in this regard, but I didn’t expect it to be such a pronounced one.

Reorienting my more geo-stable lifestyle in this way has thus far helped make up for that gap, though I’ll be continuing to experiment. Pushing oneself out of well-worn grooves and deciding to off-road becomes increasingly difficult as those grooves become deeper and more pronounced.

Working to find the right balance point between stability/security/predictability and novelty/experimentation/evolution, for me and my priorities, will no doubt keep me busy during my time here.