There and Back Again
“Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure were all the time before us.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I just quit my job.
It wasn’t my job’s fault. Great company, one that does something that genuinely benefits society. Great boss, one who taught me a lot and is someone I like both professionally and personally. And a great role, one that seemed to fit me well. There were aspects of my job that I found frustrating, of course, but that’s true of any job.
So why did I leave? After all, plenty of people are looking for work right now and I was lucky to be gainfully employed. And my understanding of the way the world operates is that having a job allows us to earn money, which we need in order to purchase goods and services. Like food, clothing, and shelter. And health insurance. And the new iPhone (which is awesome, by the way).
Let’s blame my decision on Africa. More specifically, let’s blame it on the fact that I’ve never been to Africa. Or India. Or Patagonia.
Why does that matter? I think it’s safe to say that most of us here in the United States have never visited those places either, and it’s not an issue.
It’s an issue for me because I love to travel. Which sounds stupid, because almost everyone says they love to travel – what I mean is that I really, genuinely love it. I think there’s a subset of us that truly has travel in our blood, and it’s in mine. I get itchy when I think about all the places I haven’t been. My stomach tightens with envy when I hear friends talk about great trips they’ve taken. When I think back to the most memorable moments of my life, a huge percentage of them happened while I was traveling. If I’m lucky enough to be sitting in a rocking chair at age 90, I know I will feel profound, irredeemable regret if I didn’t make every effort to see as much of the world as I could.
Fair enough, but can’t I just take vacations from work? Sure. That’s what most of us do. Even with a full-time job I was able to regularly take trips to other countries. Earlier this year I visited Iceland and last year I made it to Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Peru.
But how long a vacation can most of us take while we’re working full time? At my job I could probably get by with a two week vacation, but that would be pushing it. And let’s say I managed to take two weeks off… How do you put a dent in Africa in two weeks? It would take me two days just to get there. Then I’d have to either concentrate on one specific area, which would mean I’d miss countless other interesting places, or I’d have to rush around, which would mean I couldn’t really get to know any one place. I played that game earlier this year in Iceland, hurrying around the entire country in a week-long blur. It was a fantastic trip, but I hated having to leave so soon. I wanted to spend at least another three weeks there.
John Muir liked to talk about the problem of being time-poor. He saw lots of Americans becoming financially wealthy – and he had no problem with that – but he felt too many of the people around him had become so busy that they unintentionally made themselves poor in experience. To him they seemed to be rushing from one thing to the next on some kind of culturally-reinforced auto-pilot, never taking time to appreciate the wonders around them. For Muir those wonders were primarily related to nature, but they don’t have to be. His point was that in a modern, industrialized society it’s very easy to find yourself fully booked up with day-to-day responsibilities that may or may not be meaningful. His advice? Try being time-rich for a while. See what happens when you slow down and focus on the things that matter most to you.
I’m going to try being time-rich for a year or two. I plan to leave San Francisco and travel around the world, starting in Southeast Asia and then visiting Nepal, India, eastern and southern Africa, and South America. I’m intentionally leaving my itinerary open and I’m sure it will change. If I’m having a great time in Laos, I’m going to stay there as long as I want. If I keep hearing that Bhutan is amazing, maybe I’ll add it to my list.
Given that I just turned 40, I’m getting jokes about this being a mid-life crisis. There’s probably some truth to that… Hitting 40 helped make it very real to me that time goes by crazy fast. But I don’t feel any sense of panic. And nothing about this experience is intended to help me ‘find myself’ or uncover the meaning of life. Melville has it right in his quote above – at the end of even the most incredible trip, you’re still you, and you’re right back where you started. I’m more than comfortable with that; I’m happy about it.
Articulating my feelings has never been one of my strong suits, so let me borrow a song for help. Leaving my job to travel around the world feels a lot like this.
So long for now, San Francisco!