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Home is Grad School, Abroad is Kindergarten

I’ve spent the last two months or so traveling around the United States, and I enjoyed every moment of it (yes, even the stressful, no-sleep-for-days-and-living-on-caffeine moments).

I learned an amazing amount about the US and the people living in it.

I’ve now been to almost all of the states in the union (still looking at a double-handful that I need to check out in the near-future) and met a ridiculous number of the readers, other bloggers, and random awesome people that are scattered all over the country. I feel privileged to have been able to make their acquaintance and check out their hoods (thanks everybody!).

Though I learn a lot traveling around in the States, I always learn a whole lot more much faster when traveling in a new country.

I think of it as the difference between being a Graduate student and a Kindergartner.

When you’re in your own country, you have a lot of background in the subject of the history, geography, sociology, and psychology of the area, whether you think you do or not. Just by existing that long in one place you take in a lot of information, and if you’ve been doing this for a number of years you’re bound to have a huge depth of knowledge, even if it feels like you are simply going about your everyday existence.

When you learn something new, it’s generally some advanced-level stuff.

When you’re in another country on the other hand, almost everything is new and shiny and unfamiliar. Look at that! And that! And that! They have cars like that here? What’s that thing they’re eating? How do I use the toilet?

A short jaunt to the corner convenience store can be a massive education. A stroll to the library an even bigger one. And trying to negotiate pricing and benefits when finding a place to live? Don’t even get me started.

This is a big part of why I love traveling to places I’ve never been. The ratio of effort and time to what I learn is incredibly favorable.

I still enjoy taking on some advanced level American education from time to time, but it’s nice to have millions of little, easy victories to perk myself up with when I’m thinking about how many years it took me to find out that there are two distinct types of barbecue in North Carolina (Eastern Style and Lexington Style) and that in Santa Fe residents are legally obligated to build their houses in that wild adobe style.

I required 25 years of background knowledge about the US before I thought to ask about such things.

On the other hand, I landed in Bangkok yesterday, and I figured out how to use the train today (and successfully identified all the currency). Whip out the coloring books and Legos, because I’m back to basics.

I’m thrilled about my return to Kindergarten. I’ll be sure to tell you what I learn, and how I do on my report card.

Update: January 26, 2017

This is still so true: I feel like the deluge of learning overseas is almost all simple stuff that everyone else understands already, while the things I learn in the US, which is more familiar terrain, requires vastly more effort, but is also far more advanced.

That said, I’ve found the same can be true of fields outside one’s realm of previous experience, not just locations. I’ve been learning to cook, of late, and every time I learn a new technique or recipe, things that I feel like everyone in the world already accomplished long ago, I get that same childish feeling of accomplishment I would get as a child after completing a puzzle or successfully tying my shoelaces. A different sort of victory, but still valuable.

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Time Released Personality and Your Brand

As someone who brands people and companies for a living, I reflexively pay very close attention to my own online and real-world persona, tracking what works and what doesn’t, keeping careful mental notes and figuring out ways to improve my brand (and help others do the same).

I’ve been watching one facet of branding in particular as my name and work and story have been passed around with greater gusto online, and that facet is something I’m going to called ‘Time-Released Personality.’

Time-Released Personality

A personal brand is incredibly valuable because it:

1. Communicates who you are clearly to strangers who wouldn’t otherwise have reason to stick around long enough to find out, and

2. Gives you an excuse to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you fit inside a standardized box with a standardized label adhered to it.

The trouble with many personal brands, however, is that they have a powerful opening line (“Hi, I’m Charles and I’m a mixed-martial-artist astronaut with only one leg!”) but no depth to back it up for the long haul (“What else? Ahm…uh…did I mention I only have one leg?”).

It’s all candy shell, no chocolate.

Chronological Storytelling

The solution to this problem is to know at what stage in your relationship you’ll divulge different aspects of your personality. You don’t want to introduce the parents and look at childhood photos right away: there’s definitely a time for that, it’s just not on the first date. Slow down, Tiger.

I’ve got a practical example of this in action.

My image — which is usually the first thing people see when they encounter my site, my interviews, or any of my work — is minimal, designerly, adventuresome-yet-calm with a bit of an edge and some jauntiness thrown in for flavor. That’s my real personality, and I do my best to convey it as quickly as possible without confusing anyone.

If that first impression catches someone’s attention, they’ll likely explore further. They’ll read the About page and find out that I’m very serious about my philosophies and that I start new businesses as a hobby, not a job. They may go through my photos on social media and find out that I party sometimes, that I hang out with interesting people, and that find myself in strange (and sometimes uncomfortable) situations. These are also real aspects of my personality.

Sending an email my way could result in a conversation about a shared childhood obsession with tabletop wargames (Warhammer!) and collectible card games (Magic ruled my early teens) and the fact that I wanted to be a chaos theorist, then a comic book artist, then a journalist, then a painter before I finally settled on design and illustration in college. I was a geek and a half. And I still am.

But none of these things matter unless the right information gets across first.

Don’t Be a Hodge-Podge, Be a Pattern

If people didn’t know that I moved to a new country every four months, ran businesses from my laptop, owned 50 things, hung out with interesting people and worked maybe 4-8 hours per week, would they care that I spent a year in high school wearing only Hawaiian shirts without any idea that it might be a fashion faux pas? No. People do that all the time, there’s no intrigue there. The order in which the information is consumed is vital in conveying the right message.

And the message is everything, because this message tells a story.

It’s a story that will be slightly different to every person who dives into it because some will have read and watched and listened to slightly different things than others, and that’s okay. So long as each person walks away with a good, rounded-out sense of who you are and what you’re all about, you’ve succeeded in creating a brand worth touting.

If you’re going to bring awareness to a cause, increase your perceived value and expertise or create a movement, the story is your most valuable asset.

Tell it well. And in the right order.

Update: January 26, 2017

It’s true, there was a period in my life, early teens through high school, during which video games, Warhammer, and Magic cards were essentially all I spent my time and energy (and money) on. Just my luck that I would leave each of those folds right before the geek-chic movement took hold and such things became cool.

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Habits and Planting Seeds

I’m wandering through the aisles of your average, run-of-the-mill supermarket. I’m also losing my mind.

Back and forth, back and forth. I make my rounds through the aptly named ‘Breakfast’ frozen foods section, mentally waving at the waffles (‘Hi waffles!’) as I meander by for the fifth time since I arrived.

How long have I been here? 30 minutes? 40? How is it that I don’t have a single thing in my basket?

I know where stuff is, that’s not the difficult part. The problem is that it’s been two months since I left New Zealand, the last place I had a home base, and since then I’ve been on the road, zooming around the United States, living on energy drinks and junk food (and the odd salad when I had the chance…I seldom did).

What I’m realizing now, in these hallowed, frozen halls, is that I have no idea what I eat. My habits have completely deteriorated, and with them the reflexes I remember having mere months before when I would enter a grocery store.

I can remember what some of these habits were, they just don’t seem to apply now. I’d grab pasta and some kind of sauce, but they don’t have the kind of pasta here that I would get in New Zealand, so that’s a wash. Energy drinks! I buy those! Oh wait, that was just a tic I picked up on this road trip. Shit. Hot Pockets? Ice cream? Nope. No thank you.

I wander a bit more, starting at the beginning, thinking what I need for where and who I am now.

‘Well, my diet has sucked for these past two months, so I should get something light. I’m really focusing on working out before I leave for Thailand, so I need a lot of vitamins and protein, and as little fat as possible.’

This in mind, I snag some nuts, some puffed-something-or-other health food snack, and a water (not a vitaminwater), knowing that soon I’ll have new habits in place, and going grocery shopping won’t be such a chore.

Habits grow quickly, so make sure that you plant the right seeds. It’s much easier than trying to uproot the trees that will grow from them.

Update: January 26, 2017

Man it’s weird reading these posts in which I recount how terrible my diet has been during portions of my travels. I remember thinking, even in the midst of the worst energy drink binges, that doing so didn’t really feel right. It didn’t seem to suit me. And that though I didn’t like coffee, it would probably turn out to be a better fit for me someday.

Turns out I was right, and after I started drinking black coffee, replacing all other types of caffeine from my diet, I felt more like myself than every before.

And at the time I’m writing this, I’ve spent the last six months cooking every meal I’ve eaten, which means I look at the grocery store far differently than ever before. It’s a much more exciting place, far more packed with possibility, when you know what to do with all those ingredients you otherwise walk right by.