Exile Lifestyle

by Colin Wright

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Kansas

I’m moving to Kansas.

When I tell people this, the response is fairly consistent. Their mouths form a partial frown, their eyebrows drift downward, and their heads tilt back and a little to the side in confusion. “Kansas?” they exclaim, not sure if I’m joking. “Why Kansas?”

One person added, “Kansas is a place you leave, not a place you go.”

This warrants an explanation, and there is one, so let’s back up.

For seven years, I’ve moved to new homes around the world on a regular basis, generally a few times a year. When I go to these places, I’m free to explore and learn about the culture. I rent a furnished home and focus on my writing and building new relationships. I’ve had my readers vote on where I should go next, which has led me in some directions I wouldn’t have chosen myself, which proved to be super-valuable.

That’s seven years, mind you, of doing more or less the same thing. It’s different each place I go, but my world, the preferences and connections and work I bring with me, is largely the same.

I conducted an experiment to shake things up not long ago. This took the form of a two-month jaunt around Europe, during which I stopped for just a few days in each of 20+ countries, doing a little exploring, seeing what I could accomplish. This is a method of travel I’ve seldom done, because although I’ve been able to visit a large number of countries, I’ve mostly opted for longer stints. And before I started traveling full-time, I’d never left the US. There are many aspects of travel, as a result, that are still quite new or unfamiliar to me.

I enjoyed that trip, and started to think about what other things, what other projects and adventures, I’d been putting off. What else I hadn’t done yet that I wanted to do.

That thought was spiraling around my brain when I decided, after a great deal of hesitation, to start a podcast.

I didn’t want to just add to the noise in an industry that has been ballooning like crazy, but I thought up a format that I felt was quite novel, and one that I thought I myself would enjoy. I decided to work my way through a handful of episodes and see how I felt about it from there.

After the first episode of Let’s Know Things, I was hooked. The concept of the show has me adding context to current events, which means I get to geek out about all kinds of topics, drawing lines between seemingly disparate things and sharing that information with people who want to hear about it.

What was truly shocking to me was the response the show garnered. I’ve produced and published eight episodes thus far, and have already breached the iTunes Top 10 News & Politics podcast list, the Top 100 overall list, and spent four weeks on the New & Noteworthy section, which positioned me on the front page of iTunes for the duration.

I was, and still am, agog about all this. I was ranked number 70-something out of around 200,000 active podcasts on iTunes. I still can’t believe there are so many people who want to geek out with me about this stuff.

Before the podcast, I was already starting to commit more time and thought to my YouTube series, Consider This. I attempted to shoot a few episodes while in-transit in Europe, and found that the quality steeply decreased, rendering the episodes unusable, if I wanted to maintain any semblance of standards.

The realization that I’d need studio space somewhere only increased once I added the podcast into the mix. Writing is something I can easily do from anywhere — be it from a bus stop in the Balkans, crammed into a budget airline seat, or from the middle of nowhere in the Philippines during a blackout. Producing audio and video is a different creature altogether.

So the question became, “Is this something I really want to invest my time in? Do I want it enough to derail this lifestyle I’ve been engaged in for seven years?”

That question helped me realize that, wow, I’ve been doing this same thing for seven years. Isn’t it time for a change? Isn’t it time to try something else for a little while? Shake things up?

I visited a friend in London a few weeks ago, and on the way out of the US I stayed with some friends in Chicago. I mentioned that I was thinking of finding a flat somewhere, setting up an in-home studio and focusing on that sort of work for a bit. I’d want to be able to roadtrip regularly, though, and that meant buying a car.

Getting rid of my car when I left LA was one of the most psychologically memorable moments of my early minimalist experience. The impact of getting rid of my CR-V cannot be overstated.

The idea that I would need to buy a car, my first in seven years, was stressing me out. There were things I wanted to do that having a car would enable, but I don’t know about cars, don’t particularly like cars, and it grated that these tentative plans were so dependent on finding one; on navigating the ‘buying a car’ process.

The friends I was staying with looked at each other, then back at me, and said, “We have a car we’re not using.” They asked me what I would give them for it. When I returned to the US from London, I got a refund for my train ticket and drove my new-to-me car out of Chicago.

So why Kansas?

When I was in the UK, the Brexit vote took place. This was a vote that everyone was certain would go one way, but on the strength of rural Britain — farmers, the lower economic classes, anti-immigration nationalists — it passed, surprising everyone.

I’m not the only one to have noticed the parallels between what’s happening in the UK and what’s happening during this US presidential election cycle. There are forces in play that have been oft-ignored throughout history, and those groups are in direct conflict with establishment players.

I find this play-by-play fascinating and in some ways existentially terrifying, in the sense that it’s good to see tired old walls rupture, but that we can’t be certain what we’ll find on the other side when they do.

When I was in Boston for a movie premiere recently, I had someone ask me where, of all the places I’ve been, was the most exotic? I answered, half-joking, “Wichita.”

Looking back at that later — thinking through the rural vs. urban and isolationist vs. global dichotomy — I realized that it was barely even half a joke.

In fact, visiting parts of Kansas and other portions of rural America has sometimes been a more foreign experience for me than time spent in, say, Prague. Yes, there are many, many cultural differences between cities in Czech Republic and cities in the US. But there are just as many — and some very striking — differences between coastal US cities and cities found in the US Midwest and South.

I decided that if I was going to do this thing, settle in and try some stuff out, I might as well ensure that I have valuable frictions in my life, as well.

I knew I could go to a place like Missoula, Montana and enjoy myself, because it’s a place with a culture I understand and largely agree with. I’ve lived there several times, and always found it to be calm and lovely.

The culture in Kansas wouldn’t be so easy to grok, for someone with my background and predilections. Living there, I would struggle and be forced to bend, and that’s why I travel to begin with: so that I have no choice but to see the world from different angles for a while.

The last time I had a non-furnished apartment, a car, and a consistent home for more than a handful of months, was in 2009.

To help put that time period in perspective: in 2009, Barack Obama had just been elected for the first time, the iPhone 3GS (which introduced a new, 3 megapixel camera and the ability to shoot video) was released, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was in theaters.

A lot has changed in the meantime, in terms of who I am and how I see the world, and in the world, itself.

And so, I’ve rented an apartment in Wichita, Kansas. For a year.

I bought a car, which I will use to roadtrip around North America as regularly as possible (I’ll be asking for suggestions of where to go and what events to attend, so there will be still an interactive component to my travels).

I’ll be setting up my flat as a home-and-studio, where I can focus on projects that would otherwise be difficult to work on consistently.

I’ll also be using the opportunity to learn to cook, decorate a place of my own (for the first time in seven years), and challenge my perceptions about society, culture, and myself.

I’ll be watching one of the biggest political throw-downs in US electoral history from unfamiliar ground. I’ll also be reminding myself, daily, that there are plenty of good people in the world with whom I strongly disagree about any number of things.

It’ll be an adventure. And I still cringe a little just thinking about it — I’m disconcerted as hell. Moderately frightened that I’ve committed to too much. That I won’t enjoy it, won’t learn what I want to learn, won’t be equal to the challenge.

And that’s why I’m doing it.

It feels good to have these kinds of unknowns in my life again.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

Expectations

Our expectations define our experiences.

Consider Paris Syndrome — a condition experienced by people who have long romanticized the city that lends the label its name, only to one day visit and find it’s not all they’d hoped for.

They wanted romance and beautiful streets. They wanted delicious food and cheerful music. And what they got, in most cases, was reality. A real city. A beautiful city, certainly, but one that is less a movie set and more a fully functioning place where people live.

There are rude people in real cities. There is trash on the streets. Pigeons are everywhere.

These people who romanticized Paris, then, as a result of visiting the city and finding it to be flawed, sometimes become depressed or begin to hallucinate. Some they become anxious, dizzy, or even, in extreme cases, kill themselves.

The cause of this syndrome is not Paris, it’s the expectations of the people who romanticized it.

Going into the city with different expectations — with the understanding that they’d experience something different, but perhaps not what they saw in the movies or read about in classic literature — they would likely have enjoyed their vacation. Instead, because they were comparing a real place to unrealistic standards, they fixated only on the gap between expectation and experience. This kept them from appreciating the potential joys to be found in their less-predictable experience.

This tendency is not limited to Parisian vacationers. It’s something we do with many aspects of life: from the food we eat to the people we date. We build up a caricature of what a thing should be — an amplified archetype — and then mourn when reality fails to live up to this fantasy.

A far better approach is to keep expectations simple and realistic. Have preferences and priorities, but allow them to be frameworks rather than fully realized dream worlds. This allows real life to fill in the details, while your prime needs — which will be much simpler — are more likely to be met.

This also allows you to change your priorities as new opportunities and tastes evolve and arise. To decide that you will meet a certain type of person and fall desperately in love is a nice thought, but fixating too hard on the specifics means you may not recognize the opportunity to fall for another sort of person, or have a different flavor of relationship with someone that you’ve never before considered to be an option, but which begins to sound kind of nice.

All too often we deny ourselves happiness because it isn’t the exact happiness we imagined we’d have.

If things are looking bleak, and an experience not fulfilling, look first at your expectations, rather than whatever it is that’s failing to live up to them. Changing this element isn’t necessarily the best or only solution, but it is one that we tend to have the most control over.

Shoulds & Ares

The conflict between short-term thinking and long-term thinking can be heated and adversarial.

They can also be very important. Because neither perspective is absolutely right or wrong, just different, with different sets of priorities, each represents truth for one group, and misguided, misinformed, illogical ideas for another.

On this episode of my podcast, Let’s Know Things, I discuss this dichotomy using several different examples, ranging from the conflict between a tech-sector billionaire and an online journalism behemoth to the difficulties in choosing between the convenience of now versus the ideological purity of later.

You can stream this episode below, or you can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you enjoy this episode, sharing it with a friend, and/or leaving a review up on iTunes would be very much appreciated! Doing so helps me reach new people, and as a result dedicate more time to this project.