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Getting Lost

There’s a game I play with myself when I want to explore a city but don’t have a particular destination in mind.

I start walking and I follow the signals and signs provided along the way. I turn left and cross the street because the little glowing walking man indicates that I should. If I encounter an intersection without stoplights, I keep going straight, but at the next such intersection I go right, and at the next I turn left, and continue to circulate between the options at each new opportunity. When I see a coffee shop I’d like to try, or a museum I’d like to explore, or a shop I’d like to peruse, or a park where I’d like to sit and write for a bit, I pull myself from the game, starting again when I’m back on the street.

This is a great way to find new areas of a familiar city or to push yourself out the door in an unfamiliar place. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by options, and this game gives you permission to just go. To discover without planning. To allow chance and circumstance to take the wheel for a while.

It also allows you to get lost. One of the more valuable ways to learn a city, to learn not just the colors and smells and pace and noises, but also how to read them, analyze them, and use them to get where you want to go, is to get lost and then figure out how to get back to your starting position.

It’s difficult to achieve true randomness. Generally when we head off in a ‘random’ direction, what we’re really doing is taking one side street from our usual route to a familiar part of town, or heading in the exact opposite direction from our default path, avoiding anything familiar at all. These can both be useful methods, but the former lacks the potential for extreme new-ness, while the latter eliminates your ability to see the familiar from a different perspective: a landmark from your usual route viewed from across the street, for example.

After years of playing this game, I’ve found that the feeling of being ‘lost’ slowly becomes less of a scary jump into the unknown, and more an intentional reaching out into the world, looking for novel stimuli and finding it. Bringing it home to study in private. Wondering if it’s worth working into your normal routine. Wondering if that normal routine should be shifted in some meaningful way.

That may mean identifying a better way to work. It may mean finding a coffee shop you like better than the one you usually visit. Or it may mean confirming that the commute you currently make and coffee you currently drink are still the best available options, based on your priorities for both.

Consider how getting lost can be about more than just learning your environment. How it can be a means of pulling yourself out of your norms, habits, self-perceptions, and into a space where you’re less certain and more able to explore. More capable of taking a wrong turn and not worrying about it. More able to filter your options and wonder whether this job, this lifestyle, this relationship, this responsibility, this goal, this whatever, is actually what’s best for you and your happiness.

Upon returning ‘home’ to your norm from some great adventure, whether external or internal, you might realize that you’re more at home elsewhere. It could be that getting lost is the only way to find your way to a home, a more ideal life, you didn’t even know existed.

Update: April 19, 2017

I love playing this game. I still do this, and it still confuses the hell out of people when I tell them that I found someplace by walking past it, and that I was in that part of town because I was following the stoplights and pedestrian signs.

Especially in a time in which our lives are so well curated, and our options so immensely filtered through apps and five-star reviews, introducing what amounts of a randomly drawn Chance card, which may be valuable or worthless, can be like opening a mystery gift.

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Calibrate for Travel

A massive misconception I try and stomp out whenever possible is that you have to be wealthy to travel.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m not wealthy. Most of the people I know who travel regularly aren’t wealthy. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have more money to spend on travel, but it’s not a requirement. It opens up more options, but in some ways also makes a person less likely to find the really good stuff; more on why, below.

Unfortunately, money isn’t the only misperception most people have about travel. It’s these misperceptions that I want to tackle as concisely as possible in the hope that more options will seem viable, and the world will seem like a larger, more accessible place.

I Don’t Have Enough Money

This may be true. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck or can’t afford to eat, I would recommend taking care of that situation before you start perusing the web for discounted plane tickets. Travel as a goal might be the excuse you need to focus on paying off some debt that’s been hanging over your head, or to pursue a better paying job.

If you’re able to pull together a few hundred dollars, though, you have the means to travel. Maybe not to one of those places where people go on their honeymoons, but certainly to some city beyond the one in which you live. And the whole purpose of travel is to expose yourself to something new: to experience novelty and a different perspective for a time.

Overland travel is often both cheaper than flying and more of an adventure. It allows you to see the spaces between places, and those spaces seldom adorn postcards and are rarely found in guidebooks. It’s in such places that, so long as you leave yourself open to opportunities, you’ll find adventure.

Adventures are seldom found along a pre-prescribed path (though there’s nothing wrong with guided tours: they just tend to be more expensive and predictable), and restrictions on how you travel (say, you can only afford a bus ticket) tend to also force you to be more creative and put you in the position to encounter more than you would otherwise (can’t afford a hotel, so you stay with a local and see what only the locals see).

Consider that we live in the future, as and such have access to all kinds of tools that make travel cheaper. Communities like Couchsurfing are oriented toward finding locals who have spare furniture you can sleep on, and who may be willing to show you where the locals eat and drink.

Facebook and Twitter and Instagram can be equally useful for this task. More and more I find myself making local connections through friends of friends, rather than through sites like Couchsurfing, and I think that speaks to the evolution of social networks and the mainstream social acceptance of such communities. As time goes by and our parents become comfortable with social networks, we have more access to people who aren’t backpackers or adventurers, but rather just friendly folks who live in Chattanooga who wouldn’t mind at all if you slept in their spare bedroom, and who would love to take you out to their favorite coffee shop. People who want to make sure you leave their hometown with fond memories and new connections.

I Don’t Have Enough Time

This is a more difficult hurdle in some ways than feeling that you don’t have enough money, as there are any number of ways to reduce the cost of travel or save more money for it, but fewer that can reduce the time-cost of a given lifestyle.

That being said, it is possible to orient your life toward travel, the same way you would to incorporate any other hobby into your habits. If you were planning to start swimming in a serious way you would free up more time by reducing the amount of time you spend playing video games, watching TV, or out drinking with friends. “I’ll pass on the bar tonight,” you’d say, “I’m going to hit the pool, instead.” You work it into your schedule even though that schedule seemed full before you made these adjustments.

Likewise, if you brush aside life’s inessentials, particularly the habits that exist purely as a means of de-stressing or decompressing after work or your other responsibilities, or just as a means of killing time, you might be amazed at how many hours you have available to take an overnight trip to the town a few hours away, or to hop a bus for a weekend at the Grand Canyon. The more you incorporate travel into your lifestyle, the more you make time for it. Your goals will change, too, and you’ll find yourself saving a few bucks here and there for your next jaunt, and the whole rigamarole will become easy and passive.

You needn’t travel full-time to make travel a regular part of your life. I know people who work full-time jobs and have kids who still manage to visit cities they’ve never visited twice a month for a few days at a time. If you want it enough, you can make it happen. It’s just a matter of prioritizing and saying, “I’m going to do this,” then figuring out how to make it work using the tools and resources you have available.

Travel Is Dangerous

Like driving or walking to the store, travel can be dangerous, yes. But like those other two activities, the risk is worth it, and is generally not severe so long as you aren’t consistently drunk, high, or rude to locals.

Learn a bit about the place you’re going and treat the area the same way you’d treat the home of someone who’s invited you over for dinner. Respect the house rules and be polite. Don’t get drunk and start breaking things, and don’t be condescending or argue that your house is better.

If you find that the house rules are morally abhorrent to the point where you can’t stomach them, don’t make a scene, just thank your hosts and leave the house. Simple as that.

There are places where crime is more of an issue than others, but there are simple precautions you can take to reduce the likelihood of being victimized, like keeping your wallet in your front pocket, avoiding crowded tourist-heavy areas, and not leaving your purse unattended where someone might snatch it and run off. Be aware of your surroundings and hang out with locals when possible, as they’ll know best which threats are genuine and which are just our internal warning sensors going haywire due to the unfamiliar setting.

Meeting and learning from locals is the secret weapon of any experienced traveler. Figure out a means of making such a connection, respect them and their time, and try to make the experience just as rewarding for them as it is for you, whether it means buying lunch or offering to show them your city should they want to come visit someday.

Remember that in most cases the threats back home are just as real and possible as they are elsewhere. I was more likely to get robbed in Los Angeles than I was while traveling South America, but the latter seemed like the larger threat because I was more familiar with the former. Keep this in mind and don’t let concerns over things that are unlikely to happen keep you from exploring and making the unfamiliar, familiar.

Recalibration

Calibrating toward travel is really about recalibrating away from things that are less important to you. It’s about prioritizing the freedom of movement and exploration, rather than spending all your time, money, and other resources on the perceived security of possessions and locked doors.

It requires that we put more trust in others, invest in ourselves and our own ability to roll with the punches, and pull apart the traditional view of travel. That we see it not as a luxury item suitable only for honeymoons and holidays, but a common aspect of life we consistently invest in, like any other hobby or necessity.

Travel isn’t for everyone, but for those who love it, want it, desire it, are set afire by it, there’s no reason not to do it more often. Look out into the world, figure out where you want to go, and determine how you’re going to get there. Cobble together a plan and take the first step immediately. Do this frequently enough, and the hurdles, what hurdles there are, anyway, will lower until they disappear completely.

Update: April 19, 2017

This is still one of the biggest misconceptions I come across: that you have to be wealthy to travel.

It’s a perception that’s partially the fault of the travel industry, which wants you to believe you have to be spendy to go anywhere. It’s also partially the fault of modern Western culture, which doesn’t have much room for regular travel in the typical pace and rhythm of life and growing up. You maybe travel a little when you’re young, and maybe for your honeymoon, but there isn’t really any other set time for it in most cultures these days, and that’s a shame. Some of the happiest people I know, at any age, are people who spend at least some of their time each year going someplace new and seeing the world from a new angle.

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Expert Sleepist

We spend a lot of time trying to improve our tennis swing. And our abdominal muscles. And our capacity to make money.

There’s nothing wrong with these things. It’s a good idea to know how to make money so that you can support your craft and buy food, and it’s nice to have fitness and athletic goals to work toward.

Unfortunately, in the pursuit of greatness in some aspects of our lives, we neglect other vital aspects.

Sleep, for instance, is more than just a little important. It impacts everything else that we do: keeps our brains primed to form memories and think abstractly. Regularly and completely clearing the adenosine from our systems (the chemical that builds up over the course of a day and makes us tired, and which we disperse by sleeping) has also been connected with the prevention of age-related conditions like Alzheimer’s, and helps us maintain a dependable level of hand-eye coordination, lessening the chances of car accidents or stumbling down a set of stairs.

Being good at sleep, then, seems like a fairly worthwhile endeavor. But how many of us put the same amount of effort into learning to sleep well as we put into learning how to make money? How many of us exert the same amount of time and energy pursuing sleep mastery as we spend on tennis mastery?

We don’t all need to be expert sleepists: it may be that you’re getting plenty of sleep already, and it’s wonderful if you are. The point is that we focus on a few important things to the exclusion of other, sometimes more fundamentally important things.

A lot of the problems we face societally, but also individually, could be remedied with more focused attention on our health, our sleep, our ability to calm ourselves and relax, a trained tendency to look both inward and outward for answers, and the confidence to filter the answers that we find. Can you imagine what the world might be like if we were all capable of calming ourselves when necessary? Capable of seeing the world from another person’s perspective before making a decision about who they are and what they want?

There’s nothing wrong with making money or playing tennis or having washboard abs. But such pursuits are a coat of paint on a house that’s falling apart if the rest of your world is brittle due to lack of sleep, mental fitness, or social stability.

Consider the payout of investing more in these fundamental assets. A deep, restful sleep every night may not be the simplest goal in the world to attain, nor the sexiest to pursue, but the benefits of the effort would positively impact just about everything else in your life. Including your tennis swing.

Update: April 19, 2017

Back when I wrote this, I had come to realize just how valuable my ability to sleep consistently well was to me, and recognized that this wasn’t the case for most people I knew. I took a step back to figure out why this might be the case, and found that it was at least in part that I had recalibrated my lifestyle so that I didn’t do things I would regret anymore.

Which is not the same thing as never making mistakes, which is something I’m sure I’ll never achieve. But rather not doing things that I know I’ll feel foolish or bad about later. Which is something that seems incredibly simple on its face, but is an amazingly difficult point to reach. Because many of these things are expected of us, or are things we’re told we’re supposed to want or supposed to do to get what we want. Coming to a point where I could comfortably say, “Yeah, but I sleep better at night when I do things this other way,” was a huge deal for me.