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Deconstructing a Life Changing Experience

Last Friday, my adventure came to a close.

I returned to Boulder, Colorado, after 89 days on the road, 36 states, and 12,044 miles. It really just felt like time to go home. I had seen the things I set out to see, visited the places I set out to visit, and ultimately had the life changing experience that I set out to have.

But digesting that life changing experience is something I’ve struggled with over the last week.

When you get home from a trip like this, nothing really looks different. The people you return to are pretty much the same. The town is still there, with its same bars and restaurants. But you are different. Which means you experience that place in a completely different way.

As I’ve adjusted back to a more stable, “real”, existence, the presence of this three month adventure has faded into memory. Every present moment fades, even the moments that change your life forever. And reconciling that fleeting nature of life with the ever lasting memories imprinted in our human consciousness is difficult to digest.

Because as the days go by, that adventure, those experiences, move farther and farther into the distance. But the memories remain, rushed to the forefront of my brain on seemingly random occasion. I’ll be sitting somewhere alone, and instantly be transported back to the mountains of Montana, or the desert of Southern California, part of me aching to return, while another part understands the need to move forward towards new adventures and experiences.

There are many things I learned on this trip, many of which I will share here over the next few weeks, but I also know that I will be deconstructing this experience for a long time to come. I will constantly be learning from the time I spent on the road, because even as those moments fade into the past, the memories that remain provide context for an experience that could not be fully comprehended in the present.

I am no longer “that guy on a motorcycle trip,” but I am a person who had the courage to be free. I am a person who had the courage to drop everything and go travel. And I can hang my hat on that experience, knowing that even as time goes on and my life changes, I will always have that summer that changed my life.

 

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Letting Go of External Validation

Can you define the happiest moment of your life?

Up until recently, I thought I could pinpoint it down to an exact point in time.

During my senior year of college, I was convinced that my sole purpose in life was to become a management consultant. I perfected my resume. I talked to all the right people. I read all the right books. I went to all the right networking events.

I was sitting in an art class, just finishing up some drawing in the late evening during the middle of October almost two years ago, and checked my email as I started walking out the door. 

And in my inbox sat an email from McKinsey inviting me to a first round interview. 

I was absolutely ecstatic. 

I started hyperventilating and had to pace back and forth across the hallway in an attempt to burn off the adrenaline that had been so instantaneously flooded into my body.

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You Can’t See Everything

When I first left, I wanted to see everything. I had this idea that I might go to all 48 contiguous states, see all the major sites, eat at all the best ice cream shops, and visit all the best bookstores.

I tried that for a while. I would figure out where I was headed that day, and then make sure to stop at all the places where I thought I had to stop. I checked a lot of things off my list and learned that the things you remember are the times you got lost or break down or get caught in a storm. But I still tried hard to see everything. I went completely out of my way to ride through tiny slivers of Rhode Island and Iowa. I walked the entire Freedom Trail in Boston. I moved quickly through most places, typically staying no more than a day or two, so that I could move on to the next destination and experience the next new place.

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The Hardest Part About Riding a Motorcycle Across America

I have always enjoyed my alone time. As an introvert, social activities drain me of energy, making it easy to justify spending time by myself. I remember having numerous conversations with friends before I left in June about how excited I was to spend days without speaking to anyone else, free from the distractions of other people. That opportunity to be alone in my own thoughts, experiencing new places and reading as much as I wanted was one of the biggest factors that helped me decide to take this adventure. 

And I have greatly enjoyed having that experience. I have gone days without speaking to people, and weeks without seeing a familiar face. I’ve explored who I am and pondered big questions for hours at a time, free from distraction, as I travel from place to place. Being alone benefits you in many ways, and is crucial for understanding yourself.

But I get lonely. Very lonely. 

I thought I had been lonely before, but there is nothing that compares to the loneliness that sets in after ten hours on a motorcycle. And dealing with that loneliness has been the hardest part of this journey.  Continue reading

5 Books You Should Read Immediately

  1. Meditations – Ryan Holiday recommends this as the best book ever written. You won’t be disappointed. Marcus Aurelias simply wrote about things he learned while living as the most powerful man in the world, and managed to write one of the most profound set of lessons and bits of wisdom ever. This book is one you can read at any point in time and feel as though the writing speaks directly into your particular life situation. If you read only one book in the next year, or 10 years, make it this one.unbroken
  2. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption – Louis Zamperini should have been the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Instead, he survived a plane crash, lived over a month on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and somehow suffered through years in Japanese POW camps during World War II before coming out alive. Reading this account of Zamperini’s life can be so outlandish it feels like reading a novel. The movie comes out soon, so make sure to read the book before you see it.Mastery_Cover
  3. Mastery – We all strive to be good at what we do every day, and Greene lays out a straightforward path, supported by historical examples, towards the mastery of one’s field. The road to true mastery takes years of learning, followed by a period of creative experimentation. Greene argues that the geniuses we revere, the Einsteins of the world, are simply people who have achieved mastery, and that this power can be achieved by anyone who truly devotes the time and energy because it comes from the evolution of our brains to think creatively and find patterns. It will open your mind to the possibilities of human intellect and make you think deeply about what you choose to do with your life.OmnivoresDilemma_full
  4. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Everything we eat is made of corn. And it’s slowing killing us. Read this book because it will open your eyes to the grotesque ways we produce food, the dependence we have on those industrialized processes simply to sustain our population explosion, and the glimmer of hope that can be found within certain people and places who believe there are better ways of eating. It will change the way you look at the grocery store and change the way you make decisions about what to eat every day.American_gods
  5. American Gods – In part, this is just a wonderfully written story. It has everything great about a novel: magic, mystery, travel, zombies. But it also critiques American society and beliefs in a particularly creative way. The story centers around a protagonist who gets mixed up in a war between the old and new Gods in America. The old Gods are those brought to the country throughout history by immigrants – Greek, Norse, and Christian. The new Gods represent those things that Americans now hold so dear – Technology, Cars, Television, Consumerism. The clashing of these two ideas, religion and modern technology, plays out in a way that is both thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking.

Slowing Down

For the majority of the later part of July, I traveled back roads. Some dirt, many paved. I made my way across Maine, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, passed Sugarbush and Killington, stayed in Lake George, Burlington, and visited Lake Placid. These roads wind around mountains and lakes, through gullies filled with swamps, past farms and cornfields. They led me to Thousand Islands, where I crossed the border into Canada and was forced to ride down highway 401 which skirts the Northern border of Lake Ontario en route to Toronto.

The transition from country road to interstate is one I’ve made countless times throughout my journey. It triggers a shot of adrenaline, as you quickly shift up into fifth gear, taking the machine to its limits in order to match the speed and power of the trucks and cars zipping by the entry ramp. My motorcycle is really not all that fast. It’s five speeds are realized at only 50 miles per hour, making the transition from 50 to 70 or 80 one that requires serious metal and determination.

Once on the interstate, you settle in at 60 or 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery blow by without much of an opportunity to really see anything. There isn’t typically much to see anyway, apart from concrete embankments and the occasional overhead crossing.

On this particular occasion, merging on to highway 401 headed towards Toronto, I happened to have a strange conscious realization that cars kept passing me. Granted, this happens frequently, but on this rode, in this moment, something seemed different. On this particular stretch of road, I seemed to have a realization that I was simply moving slower than everyone else. Cars blew past me like I wasn’t even moving, each coming up behind me before impatiently exchanging lanes and moving off into the distance.

And in that moment, I realized that I’ve slowed down. Being on the road has forced me to do so, as each occasion where I’ve rushed to be somewhere or meet someone has led to problems.

The motorcycle overheated when I rushed to make it from Tennessee to DC in a day. I got stuck in traffic and was thoroughly soaked when riding as fast as I could to Boston. On the day I was determined to do 400 miles for the first time, I felt a slight resistance as I opened the throttle near mile 350, panicked upon noticing that the rear tire looking harrowingly thin, only to learn that in actuality, my chain needed tightening upon arrival at the shop the next morning. These problems, some bigger than others, but all stress inducing nonetheless, seem to have an uncanny ability to arise in each occasion when I start to rush myself.

When arriving in Toronto, this theory of my slowing down was confirmed by the speed at which everything moves. People walk as fast as humanly possible. Busses and taxis rush around town, depositing their passengers with nothing more than a brief wave of the hand. Service at restaurants becomes a game of brevity in words in order to shepherd in the next set of guests. And yet I moved as if in slow motion, always behind everyone, stopping and staring at buildings and shops, taking in sites that everyone around me took for granted.

I used to be exactly like this, if not even more so. I reveled in efficiency, planning my morning down to the minute, using every walking moment as a time to catch up on an audiobook or the latest podcast, rushing from meeting to meeting without so much as 30 seconds between each one. There is great power in efficiency, and I am sure that I will go back to many of these old habits because of the benefits of routine and order. 

And in fact, I must confess that I have rushed myself even after having this realization. Making my way from Erie to Chicago, I rushed to do my first 500 mile day, which led my bike to shutter and the tachometer to shoot to redline just as I entered Chicago, leaving me stranded on the shoulder of an eight lane highway for two hours before the tow truck arrived and only further confirming the importance of slowing down.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve constructed my imagination of time and space with the visualization of large walls, each of which constitutes an Event. The size of the wall depends on the size of the Event, obviously leading some Events to dominate and cloud the visibility of future Events or overshadow more recent Events whose wall can’t compare.

This method is one that worked extremely well in an academic environment. Exams and project deadlines become large walls that demand serious attention to overcome. The end of a term looms in the distance as a constant exciting reminder of the freedom that comes beyond it.

But this method, by its design, creates what I’ve come to call “The In Between Moment.” All the time between Events simply becomes time leading up to that Event. This time is now simply the time in between the things that are important, and I would rush to move through it in order to reach those all important Events. Further, when an Event grows large enough, it overpowers everything and demands constant attention in thought, regardless of whether or not that thought provides any benefit.

The constant attention required by the road while riding a motorcycle has forced me to change the way I perceive these Events. In each of the instances where I’ve been in a hurry, I have used this old model, viewing the destination as an overpowering Event and the ride required to get me there as an In Between Moment. And this leads me to not really enjoy that ride. It becomes a chore, something that must be done in order to get to some greater prize: the destination. And in my hurry to reach that destination, I have faced problems and made mistakes that have made my hurry simply futile. 

So I’ve slowed down. I’m beginning to live in each of these “In Between Moments,” rendering them obsolete by their very definition.  

I still move fast on occasion, but I move fast because I like going fast, not because I’m rushing to get somewhere. I move fast because I love the sound of the wind rushing past my face and the roar of the engine as the world moves all around me. But I take it all in, I try to be in tune with my environment and enjoy the miles. I slow down the way I think and simply live in each of those moments. Not In Between Moments, but Moments of their own.

The Power of the Natural World

Earlier this week I traveled through Eastern Canada. I spent less than 24 hours in the country, in part due to the mosquito infestation where I camped that caused me to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and put 100 miles between me and that wretched pair of trees before 7 o’clock.

But in that brief time, I witnessed a truly odd natural phenomena.

I rode into Saint John, New Brunswick in order to experience the tide changes in the Bay of Fundy. The bay has the most drastic tide changes in the world, with water levels rising and falling 55 feet between high and low tides. Saint John sits nestled around the mouth of the Saint John River, which flows directly into the Bay of Fundy.

I made my way to that particular spot on the bay because it is home to something called the Reversing Falls. Really the only factor that played into my decision to go here, as opposed to any of the other, more iconic parts of the bay, is the fact that Saint John is on the northern coast and I could avoid making a two day trip riding around to the southern coast.

A bridge spans the two steep cliffs that rise from the banks of the Saint John, atop which sits an observation deck and a gift shop/restaurant combo. Looking up the river, you see a paper mill to the left, lapping up the water for industrial use, and small houses dotted to the right.

The water was flowing calmly from river to bay when I first arrived. Nothing particularly exciting. The guide at the gift shop told me to come back in an hour or two though, because then it would be high tide and I would be able to see the falls.

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Water moves slowly from left to right

Not expecting much, I sat and read for an hour, started to feel restless, and figured I should go see whether or not anything had changed. I was not disappointed.

When I returned, it was now high tide. And during high tide, the bay flows up the river. Since the tide change in the Bay of Fundy is so dramatic, the water level in the bay rises over 12 feet higher than the water level in the river. Consequently, water in the bay moves from high to low, in this case up the river.

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Water moves quickly from right to left

It doesn’t just move though. It flows. Rapidly. So rapidly in fact, that it causes significant whitewater just under the bridge. Large whirlpools form in various spots above this whitewater, a by-product of the tumultuous mixture of river and bay. These whirlpools bubble up intermittently and suck viciously for a second or two before losing steam and dissipating into the chop.

Sitting there, watching the bay overpower the river and reverse its direction entirely, was so overwhelmingly odd that it made me question the entire concept of direction itself. Navigating across the country looking at maps all oriented with North at the top and South at the bottom engrains an obviously false understanding that North is ‘up’ and South is ‘down’. And yet the only reason for that orientation is that we have decided it as such. Nothing but our European cartographic history serves to define the directions we use to explain our world. But sometimes that orientation doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense that a bay should flow up into a river. It doesn’t make sense that water could flow in a direction that only hours before appeared to be ‘up’.

But it does. It happens at the Reversing Falls in New Brunswick, Canada every 12 hours, like clockwork.

Sometimes things happen that don’t make sense. Sure, we can explain scientifically exactly why the Reversing Falls act as they do. The gravitational pull of the moon and sun create tides that move around the world with the rotation of these solar bodies. Those tides cause the water in the bay to rise up higher than the water level in the river, which obviously leads that water to flow from high to low. But standing there, watching it happen, you don’t think about any of that. You can’t rationalize what’s happening. You can only sit in awe as your world seems to be turned completely upside down in a way that makes no sense. Because sometimes, nature will do things that just don’t make sense, no matter how well we can explain them.

Fighting Frustration

Two events have led me to extreme frustration over the past week:

First, en route from Scranton, PA to Boston, MA, I got lost. Not once. Not twice. Six times. A trip that I had pegged at taking about 6 hours ended with me stumbling in to my friends apartment at 9pm – 10 hours after leaving Scranton. It also didn’t stop raining the entire day. My feet looked like prunes from literally sitting in water all day.

Then two days later, as I left Boston and headed towards Maine. I got on a toll road, only to realize that I had absolutely no cash. I had somehow spent all my money the night before. So now I have to mail in a check for $1.25 to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. And of course, I don’t have a checkbook with me.

Needless to say, both of these incidents made me very frustrated. Frustrated with myself for making completely boneheaded decisions. Frustrated that I was wasting time. Frustrated that I didn’t know what I was doing. And these feelings of frustration would just compound, leading me to make other bad decisions and only make things worse.

After not having any money to pay the toll, the frustration was overwhelming. The feelings from days earlier when I kept getting lost all came back and were completely clouding my mind.

So I stopped.

I just stopped. There was a Dunkin Donuts (of course, I’m on the East Coast) across the street. I went in, sat down, and wrote down all the things that were frustrating me. And that led me to realize that none of the things I was frustrated about were really that important and I had no way to change what had happened.

Earlier in the week, I read the book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. Graham’s explanation of why he doesn’t waste time worrying is one of his many nuggets of gold:

Worrying is the one game in which, if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness.

Just like spending time worrying about the outcome of a situation, getting frustrated at things that you have no control over, no ability to change, is equally futile. You can only move forward and learn from your mistakes.

So now I obviously don’t let myself run out of cash. And I’m taking a bit more time figuring out where I’m headed each morning so I don’t get lost as much. More importantly, I’m not letting the frustration that comes from making stupid decisions build up to the point where I can’t handle it. I’m acknowledging those feelings, letting myself feel them, and then I’m letting them go. Because there is nothing I can do to change the situation. I have no ability to change the past. I only control my present thoughts and actions.

I’ve had plenty of mishaps on this trip. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty more. But these mistakes are part of the journey. They’re probably what I’ll remember most.

But getting frustrated with them isn’t doing me any good. So I’m learning to let that frustration go.

What do you do?

The other night I was out at a bar in Washington, DC. 

I’d had enough drinks to overcome my social ineptitude with woman, that sweet spot after about 4 beers where I forget about my physical insecurities and have enough liquid courage to start a conversation with the cute blonde standing just off from her friends.

A brief smile and introduction lead us to the three question exam that determines your social fate in DC: 1) Where did you go to school? 2) What did you study? 3) What do you do now?

And I fail those three questions by a mile.

I went to Occidental College, a liberal arts school only known in DC because of the recent sexual assault scandal and Barack Obama’s open drug use

I studied Economics and Math. Economics gets me a few points, but the Math thing quickly takes me back down due to it’s nerdy associations and lack of any reference to the words ‘political’ and ‘science.’

I do nothing. I don’t have a job. My current occupation as a ‘motorcycle enthusiast’ is exotic at best and neurotic at worst, neither of which appeal to the girl in her third year as a consultant who has real goals in her life.

So I of course get pawned off onto her male roommate, a guy who is surprisingly taken with my story and listens intently as I regale him of tales from the road.

Being stuck in Washington, DC for the last week since my bike broke down in the middle of Virginia has been a nice reprieve from the shower-less days and bed-less nights that became the norm during my first two weeks on the road. I’ve visited with many friends I hadn’t been with in years, seen the sights, and gotten to meet a few of the locals, including aforementioned girl from the bar. 

Most people find it interesting that I’m on this adventure, but still seem slightly taken aback when I tell them about my lack of ambition, open timeline, and absence of a plan for tomorrow. And I think it’s great.

Because ever since I can remember, I’ve had a definitive answer to the question: What do you do?

Over time my life has changed, but I’ve maintained an answer to the question, whether it be student, athlete, intern, or, most recently, product owner (which was a bit squishy, but using project manager solidified things somewhat). It’s always been something that sounds ‘right.’ But now I have no right answer. 

Do I tell people I’m a writer? Aside from reading and riding my motorcycle, I’ve probably spent more time writing than anything else over the last three weeks. But it sort of feels like the guy  who rides his bike to work and tells people he’s a cyclist. You’re not fooling anyone with those tight shorts. Maybe a little more practice and it becomes admissible, but right now it’s borderline offensive.

Do I tell people I’m an adventurer? I mean sure, I’m on an adventure, but I’ve basically been on highways and stayed in or near civilization, which hardly feels like it qualifies me for that moniker. 

So what do I say? 

I just tell people my story. I keep it brief – I’m on a motorcycle trip, I’ve taken some time off from working to explore America and myself, and I’m writing a bit about it on my blog. I’m doing things I enjoy, like reading, traveling, seeing old friends, and eating good food. I tell them I’m safe, healthy, and happier than I’ve been in a long time.

We define ourselves so frequently by the things we do and have that it’s been completely refreshing to define myself by the things I don’t do and don’t have. 

I don’t have a job. I don’t live anywhere. I don’t have much stuff.

Not having the ‘right’ answer to the question has given me an interesting perspective into the judgments I make so often in my life about those around me. Competition is one of my strengths. I usually can’t help but size other people up when I first meet them. But every time I do that now, I’m on the low side of the scale that adds weight for accomplishments and subtracts for lack of ambition. 

I’ve learned to accept that. I accept that each day when I wake up, the world spins on without caring at all about what I do with my time. 

I spent a lot of time working very hard to give myself something to say when people asked me what I do, but sometimes, it just makes sense to not know what to say.

So for today, I’m pretty happy not having an answer. 

Know Thyself: An Ancient Maxim at Risk

One of the skills you pick up quite quickly riding a motorcycle is how to be alone with your own thoughts. There really isn’t anything else to do. Sure, you can listen to music or an audiobook, but when you’re riding 6 to 10 hours a day, there are going to be some long stretches in there where you’re doing nothing but burning down miles and entertaining yourself with your thoughts and imagination. 

However, I read a recent article that indicated the majority of men actually prefer physical pain over simply sitting and thinking. The sample size was small, but I imagine similar findings would hold as those samples increased given how quickly most of us reach for our phones or other distractions during any moment of silence. I’ve quickly picked this habit back up after spending only three or four days in Washington, DC, and I see it with my friends, peers and nearly everyone on the street.

We do this because the age we live in doesn’t seem to value the once openly professed maxim “know thyself,” perhaps most famously inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the Ancient Greeks.

Sun Tzu describes the importance of knowing thyself in battle:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Peter Drucker explains why knowing thyself is critical in the modern workplace:

[Y]ou’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself—not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.

Knowing yourself and being alone with your thoughts are inextricably linked. Command over your thoughts leads to command over your body. Many of our actions are driven by habits ingrained in our subconscious brain, but learning to control these thoughts requires a deep understanding of yourself, how you operate, and how you think.

If modern society leads us to feel less and less comfortable in our own heads, this has dire consequences for our ability to innovate and solve difficult problems. 

When Albert Einstein first began his work as a physicist, he learned that his preferred method was not at all experimental. He didn’t enjoy academic life, but was drawn to theory and preferred using thought experiments and metaphors to think through difficult problems. 

When he made his first breakthrough and developed the special theory of relativity, and later the general theory of relativity, these conclusions were the culmination of countless hours spent alone at his desk deep in thought. 

Einstein is an extreme example, but his process shows that mastery of any skill or field requires intense concentration. Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat criticized 10,000 hours is the classic benchmark for time required to become an expert, but regardless of validity, focus and attention over significantly long periods of time is necessary for learning. 

In fact, our brains have evolved in such a way that this deep focus and concentration will in fact lead to mastery in any who choose to pursue it. Robert Greene writes in Mastery:

All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to other. Through such intense immersion over many years we come to internalize and gain an intuitive feel with the rational processes, we expand our minds to the outer limits of our potential and are able to see into the secret core of life itself.

If our society does not regain an understanding of the importance of knowing oneself, there will be fewer and fewer people who can truly become masters of their fields. These masters are critical for the progression of human existence, because they push the boundaries of our knowledge past its limits and into the unknown.

So go outside. Take a long walk. Meditate. Spend time alone with your thoughts. We seem to be forgetting that being comfortable in our own heads is critical for human learning and innovation.