Relevance

These days, many people know where Iceland is. At least in a general sense. Even more people than that know something about the country: about the glaciers, the puffins, the funny sweaters.

A few decades ago, this wasn’t the case. The chances of a person knowing anything about Iceland were slim, because Iceland was beyond their radar range. It wasn’t, as far as they knew, relevant to their life.

Folks know about Iceland, now, because millions of dollars have been spent explaining why it’s important to potential visitors. Why they want to go there. Why it’s relevant to their life and aspirations. There are people who visited the country in the 80s, who then told everyone about the puffins and such, but couldn’t get anyone to listen. It wasn’t that no one cared when these earlier visitors told them about the place, it’s that the place didn’t seem relevant to the listener.

But talking about a country isn’t the same as explaining its relevance. Knowing something exists isn’t the same as giving a damn.

I could tell you, for example, that there is a sovereign nation called Comoros out there in the Indian Ocean. There’s another called São Tomé and Príncipe over off the West coast of Africa. Or another, Kirabati, Northwest of Australia.

But of what use would that information be without context? Without a connection to your life? Unless you’re a person who simply enjoys knowing things for the sake of knowing things, there’s no touchpoint for you and these places. No tangibility to these, or any of the hundreds of other islands, countries, landmarks, and geographic markers around the world that might be incredible for all we know.

Relevance shifts and evolves as you grow. Over time, what’s important to you changes.

Suddenly, Kirabati pops up on your radar because you take up snorkeling, and it’s a string of islands in the middle of nowhere. Iceland appears because you’re ambitious and adventurous, and they’ve done a great job of explaining to foreigners why they are a solid option for bucket list-worthy pursuits.

Or you take up cooking, and spices solidify out of the fuzzy nothingness along your periphery. Or information about the events leading up to and following the Cold War take on harder edges, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, because you’re spending time in Romania.

These places, things, and bits of information have always been there, you’ve just never had reason to see them. To reach out and grab them. To investigate further.

Part of what inspires me to keep growing is thinking about what I’ve learned already, seen already, and experienced already. Things I didn’t know to look for because I didn’t know they existed. Things that have dramatically changed my life for the better.

Knowing that most of what’s out there is still unseen, supposedly non-relevant to who I am now, and what I want from life, gives me plenty of incentive to keep trying out new hobbies, living new places, experimenting with my life, and interacting with anyone who’ll share something of themselves.

I can’t wait to see what else is there on the map: invisible to me, and remaining so until I’m the person I need to be to see it.

Update: April 16, 2017

I wrote a new book recently with a chapter in which I make this same point as a thesis statement. Relevance is relative, and the more you learn, the more you experience, the more of the world and its many nooks and crannies become more clear and interesting. Learning to cook has opened up entire new aisles of the supermarket for me, because I now know what to do with the ingredients shelved there. Learning about biology makes the natural world seem like a much bigger, richer place: it always was the big and rich, you just didn’t know until you had the context you needed to recognize it as such.