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Doing the Time Warp, Again and Again

One of the many things I’ve had to adjust to since I started traveling full-time — in addition to the difference in climate and culture and language and food — is my perception and treatment of time along the way.

When I visit my family in Missouri, for example, I tend to sleep in until 9 each morning, stay up late, maybe take a nap in the afternoon, and base my eating habits on those of my family.

In Iceland, I’m far more likely to doze until 10 or 11, stay out until 5 the next morning, and eat meals based on my social schedule.

When I’m in transit, time ceases to be a standard of measurement that I can rely on as I gradually shift between time zones, sometimes for days on end. Trying to adhere to a regular schedule under those circumstances becomes an exercise in futility, and so I try to time my sleeping for when I’m on a plane or other secure mode of transportation; I schedule eating for when I’ve landed for a layover or arrived at my destination.

When living alone and far away from my family and existing group of friends, I tend to wake up early — maybe 6 or 7 — and go to sleep at around 1am. My eating schedule is unruly, and I’m far more likely to eat one large meal and snack all day than to eat three regular meals.

This last schedule tends to be best for my creative process, as it allows me to pounce on a clutch of creative energy when I feel it rising up and ride that wave until it disappears, resulting in a whole lot of work I can be proud of. I also tend to eat healthily, work out off-and-on all day, and generally feel a sense of happiness that doesn’t go away. I’m able to socialize when and how I want, but also able to disappear for days without consequence.

It’s wonderful.

Knowing this, it seems like the logical next-step — based on my penchant for moving closer and closer to an ideal lifestyle, whatever that happens to mean for me at the time — to find a nice spot somewhere in a foreign country and just settle there. Put down deep roots. Enjoy the pulsing of the ocean as it sends wave after wave of creativity my way, leading to a personal renaissance of sorts.

I’ve considered this. I frequently consider it, in fact.

But I’ve come to realize over the past few years that without the periods of discomfort — without the seemingly spastic change in cultures and languages and foods and perceptions of time — the periods of solo excellence don’t have quite the same shimmer. They’re still productive and wonderful, but not as productive and wonderful.

You might say that the imperfect fuels the perfection of my ideal. Like looking at a black and white TV and then at a modern color screen, the contrast between the two serves to make the latter even more vibrant than it actually is. At the same time, the difference makes the former more tolerable at the same time, in a quaint, ‘isn’t that novel,’ artsy kind of way.

The result is that I know what circumstances are my favorite in terms of being happy and comfortable and creative, but I also know that the alternatives to that lifestyle have value, and are enjoyable for completely different reasons. They challenge me. Keep me growing. Learning. Without those imperfect moments, the perfect ones would slowly (but surely) become drab and monotonous. I don’t want to lose that.

I would also almost certainly miss out on opportunities to evolve my lifestyle preferences. Without seeing what else is out there, giving them all an earnest shot at becoming my new fave, I would find myself doing the same things over and over, my perspective shifting not a bit. I’m not willing to lock myself into that kind of formulaic fate.

So although walking into a time warp  may sometimes wear me out, and though in the moment doing so may seem stressful or dull or imperfect, I know that I’ll continue to do it again and again.

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Surf, Sand, and Digital Sabbaticals

Digital sabbaticals are big right now, and I know a whole lot of people who have taken then and enjoyed the time spent away from their various devices.

I take them involuntary all the time — one of the benefits/downsides of traveling so frequently — and I enjoy them to a certain extent, but I want to take a stab at changing the metaphor usually associated with the digital sabbatical, and how technology is viewed as a whole.

Generally when someone decides to take time away from their various gadgets (sometimes just one, like a phone, and sometimes the whole of the Internet, or anything that needs electricity to function). This is often seen as a Walden experience: like Thoreau and his pond and his own extraction from modern civilization, with associated introspections.

I like that metaphor, and I want to keep that aspect of it, but I would like to add an origin: instead of starting out in some vague, non-cabin-in-the-woods modern day lifestyle, you’re coming from a futuristic, robot-operated home perched above an ocean.

This mechanical seaside home of yours is usually great, and you enjoy the myriad benefits of living in a clean, enclosed, safe space. The robotic furniture and appliances are real time-savers, and while they are cooking your food and serving up entertainment, you’re free to sit and let the slow, surging sounds of the tide wash over you.

Sometimes, though, you want to cook your own food and choose your own TV shows and ebooks to imbibe. Sometimes you just want to get away from the unrelenting convenience and experience a little hardship; put some callouses on your hands and live in an environment that’s not climate-controlled or shielded from the elements.

Due to the lack of such things in our ordinary, beach-front housing, we start to romanticize just how great it is. Chopping wood! Ants in my shoes! Hell yes!

Of course, it’s great to experience that non-convenient world, and quite the novelty for people who live in the First World, but there is a reason such things are sabbaticals, not lifestyles. Few people chuck their phone in a drawer and then never take it out again; they keep it in there a week and then it’s back to the beach house. Back to the constant noise of waves and automation.

Why is this? Are we inherently flawed? Unable to appreciate the simpler things in life? Has modern technology removed our innocence? Our desire to truly be human?

No. None of those things. And those questions (which are invariably a part of the conversation when digital sabbaticals are brought up) are why I wanted to propose this new metaphor: we are not bad for wanting convenience and background noise. There’s no shame in enjoying having that iPhone in your pocket and loving the rush of checking your email or Facebook messages.

Like anything, having an unbalanced life because of digital distractions is not ideal, but you know what? So is not having a life because you’re too busy in the woods chopping wood and eating what you hope are not poisonous berries. One is not inherently noble and the other inherently wrong. There is no virtue in living ‘simpler,’ in the Walden way. There is no virtue in living ‘simpler,’ in the minimalism-inspired-gadget way. Both are equally valuable and awesome at different points in a person’s life, as long as both are enjoyed in moderation, along with at least a small portion of the other as a side dish.

It’s easier to demonize (this goes both ways, by the way), but down that path there’s nothing but unmeetable demands and undesirable lifestyle choices. Why must we always fall to one side or the other of a fence that was built only to create such a division? When you can walk the line between one way of living and another, why opt for an extreme instead?

Simplicity, mostly. Ideas are simpler and more contagious when they’re extreme. It’s also the extreme version of a story that’s retold: the man who lives on bear meat and who is thinking about forgoing his only possession — a loincloth — in pursuit of greater minimalist freedom makes the news, while the man who led a balanced life of cabin-living fisherman and city-dwelling web developer doesn’t even make page 6.

I think, in some way, it’s also the desire to be part of a group. To have a title. Someone who eats mostly raw foods but will eat the occasional cooked dish or meat is not welcomed into the ‘raw food’ clan. Achieving a title like that requires one to be all or nothing, or to create one’s own group (I humbly propose ‘Rawish’ for the aforementioned group-less soul), which is a whole lot harder than adopting the garb and rituals of an existing one.

(By the way, I’m not trying to pick on any groups — like raw food eaters — here, just making a point about why groups are a desirable aspect of community living, and therefore we’re far more likely to opt-in if there’s an existing rulebook, rather than writing our own).

So if you want to undertake a digital sabbatical, enjoy it, but do it your way, and don’t feel bad when you are called back to the beach house and its myriad allures — even the noise of the waves unrelentingly slapping up against the shore. You can take a beach-dweller away from the ocean, but demonizing anyone who misses the sound, the surfing, and the convenience that come tandem with such a living situation is tantamount to telling someone that heading into the woods is unnatural or wrong: it’s one side of a coin that needs two sides to be worth anything.

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What Wouldn’t You Do?

I’ve been known to monologue endlessly about the importance of knowing oneself. It’s a topic that — if included on a Venn Diagram — would be a massive circle overlapping all others. If you don’t know yourself, how can you know what goals to work toward, or what you’re willing to do to reach those goals?

The oft-unasked inverse of that question is “What wouldn’t you do to reach your goals?” What lines are you unwilling to cross? What personal changes are you unwilling to make in order to fulfill your hopes and dreams?

This is an important question to ask yourself, because knowing what you will do is only half the picture. It defines the ground floor, but you don’t know where the ceiling is. You can’t have a complete, stable structure without a surface on which to hang the chandelier.

Put a different way, what aspects of your morality are more important to you than the goals you’ve set for yourself? Which would you trade for the other? If you’re dying to be the top dog in your field, would you kill a stranger to make it happen? How about a friend? Family member? Or taking it in another direction, would you commit corporate espionage if no one you know is directly impacted by the fallout and you’re unlikely to be caught? Certain to never be caught?

I wrestle with these kinds of questions, not because they’re likely to be situations I’ll face (I doubt I’ll ever have to choose between killing a guy or not, with my entrepreneurial ambitions hanging in the balance), but because the answers tell me something about myself, and help me make decisions in the real world that would otherwise seem quite murky and difficult.

Knowing that I would much rather succeed moderately and adhere to my standards than succeed wildly, knowing that I had broken my ethical code (something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life) allows me to make better decisions when, say, I’m trying to decide between business models or expansion opportunities. Which one better aligns with my sense of morality? ‘Difficult questions’ become far simpler when you’re able to eliminate options based on what you know will make you happy and what will lower your quality of life.

Of course, everyone has different moral standards and priorities, so this isn’t something that can be taught; not as a statement, anyway. The only way to know which paths are ideal for you to take is to better know yourself, and to do that, you have to ask yourself questions. A great many of them, if you want to know yourself intimately.

I like to ask myself one tough question per day, and really ponder over it until I come up with a confident, comfortable answer. They don’t have to be complex questions; even something as simple as “Your house is on fire, and you can only grab two things (pets and people don’t count) as you run out the door; what do you take with you?” works well, and the true answers (not the ones you feel you’re expected to give) might surprise you.

The more you know yourself, the better your decisions and lifestyle will be. Take the time to ask yourself questions and answer them honestly. Otherwise you’ll never hang that chandelier.