I originally had another post planned for today, but Facebook happened to remind me that today, two years ago, is when I posted by first big blog hit, "Mini-Retirement in your 20s." I thought it would be good to take stock on everything that's happened since then, and whether or not that decision was as worth it as I thought it would be. In that post, I wrote:
So, past Aaron... Have I really found my place in the world? Did the experience of authentic travel make me into the best version of myself? Let me answer that indirectly by the use of five, easy-to-share bullet points!
Since mini-retiring, I have learned that:
1. Traveling is REALLY a luxury, and spending money is far, far easier than making it.
If this sounds obvious, I'm just balancing out the "YOU CAN DO IT!!" rhetoric I effusively spewed in the original post. Looking back, I was quite fortunate to have made enough money to travel for months in South America, and I haven't seen that amount of money since.
Which is not to say I have any regrets --- In fact, I value money and am determined to make it more than I ever have. Before mini-retiring, I had all this money I didn't really know what to do with. Now, I am building a life where money has a far more definite purpose to fulfill, so the pursuit of it is much more meaningful. Which brings me to my second, more important point...
2. Changing your life direction isn't in the travel, it's in figuring out what to do after you return.
Unlike many out there in the blogging world, I knew soon after I returned that I wasn't cut out to be a full-time nomad. My goal in life was never to escape forever, but to find a path to doing something that I look forward to doing everyday, to find a place where I would gladly stay put. I wanted to have a grand adventure away from the comforts and distractions of home and in the process begin to figure out who I was and what I really wanted, in order to orient my life in a direction that addressed those things. When I left, all I had was a lump in my throat and a profound sense of wrong knowing I was unhappy and that my talents weren't being maximized in the direction I was going with my career.
In other words, I was sure I wanted something else --- I just couldn't figure out what it was. And coming home from mini-retirement, looking back, was only the very beginning of a long process of figuring out what direction I wanted to commit to.
3. Constant novelty is fun, but the meat of life is in finding something to commit to.
The point of travel and adventure is constantly exposing yourself to new things, having fun, gathering stories, and learning about yourself in the process. But I realize, even though I'm an ENFP that demands some form constant novelty, that constant novelty gets old too.
It was only some time after I had come home from mini-retirement, through listening to podcasts, reading, and reflecting on my own life, that I made a key realization, one that explains why I never wanted to become a full-time nomad: commitment is freedom. I've always set high goals for myself, and it dawned on me that you only get the best out of something and become the best at something through long, sustained effort, especially through the boring and unpleasant stuff.
When you're younger, life's meant to be a buffet of experiences --- you try everything to see what's bad, okay, better, and best. But it's not meant to be a buffet forever. That is frankly exhausting and stops being fun, and you waste so much energy being paralyzed by the wealth of choices and possibilities available. Committing to something harnesses your energy where it was once dispersed, making you capable of actually accomplishing exceptional things.
So as much as wiser men have extolled the virtue of an ever-changing horizon, I am now more interested in finding a horizon I won't tire of.
4. It took that mini-retirement and many, many more experiences after it for me to figure out what to commit to.
Something I wrote in my journal, dated August 26, 2015, one year after mini-retirement:
Even if I were to wake up tomorrow with all the money to have all the freedom to travel in the world and pursue what I want, I would not instantly become happy. Because what I need is meaning, what I need to learn is is how to work, how to strive, how to persevere for something that matters. I need to learn how to earn something.
I won't deny that I've been lucky, with opportunities having allowed me in my 20s to make a decent living while never maximizing my efforts and the use of my talent. I could afford to be semi-complacent and wait for the next project's paycheck. But at some point, a feeling I couldn't name had just told me I'd had enough of that. Now, I know what it was: I wasn't committed to where I was going. I was just going along for the ride, because I didn't know what I really wanted.
Today, more than a year after I wrote that, I've realized that my wish came true. I've never had a greater sense of ownership over my path nor a greater determination to persevere and succeed. For the first time in my life, I am making stuff everyday and failing at things constantly, and so learning every single day, instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting to be noticed in between projects. I left my old job because I saw the next ten years of my life and couldn't stand the thought of living that way. Now, I have precious little disposable income for a 31-year-old, but now that I basically run my affairs as my own business, I'm no longer passively waiting for projects and paychecks but slowly, purposefully --- and daily! --- rebuilding the life I blew up when I mini-retired, refashioning it in a way that I wouldn't mind living out the rest of my life like that.
5. In this day and age, where the Internet enables people to tell their stories to everyone, your unique story is your greatest asset.
As an artist, as everyone will tell you, we live in unprecedented times. You can now be successful entirely outside the conventional career paths; heck, you don't even need to have an artistic or creative background. Look at all the successful YouTubers and Instagrammers: the vast majority of them don't have a conventional photography or filmmaking background. In fact, that's precisely why they're successful there. Casey Neistat makes a key point when he says that vlogging is the evolution of reality TV, but so much better than it. Essentially, you are being listened to because your story is interesting and your viewpoint is unique.
In fact, two of my two biggest heroes, filmmaker/athlete Renan Ozturk and photographer/athlete Jimmy Chin, in the beginning didn't have day jobs, lived out of their cars, and dedicated themselves entirely to sport and art. Their unique stories and the singular combination of gifts they developed from it --- being world-class climbers who are also world-class shooters! ---- have led them to achievements that are virtually impossible to replicate. Try to make that happen from a traditional Hollywood background. If you are a unique hybrid of things, and you get really good at them, then you have virtually no competition.
As for me, many times I still have anxiety over leaving the "safety" and promise of my conventional filmmaking career path to pursue an in-between existence as someone with a traditional background trying to make things happen in the anything-goes world of the Internet where the largely self-taught can find massive success. But, over the past year or so, all of the most important and interesting career opportunities I've gotten have been a direct result of that very in-betweenness, of my specific mix of being a "classically-trained" filmmaker and photographer who has traveled a lot, makes Internet videos, and also writes about it. And upon realizing these opportunities exist, even at this early point in my new career, I suddenly had a profound sense of Why not?? This could actually work.
My experience has been that the more I live out and commit to my unique path, the more opportunities I get to live it further. And, truth is, I've barely even begun, there is so, so much more I could pour myself into, so there are many reasons to keep trying.
I wrote this post off the top of my head upon seeing the "anniversary" reminder from Facebook. What strikes me is that the main lessons I've gotten from travel aren't actually about travel, which says a lot about why I embarked on the journey in the first place. I was looking for something, threw myself out into the world, came home with a reset mind... And only about two years later did I actually figure out what it was I threw myself out for in the first place.
And that's a good reminder: travel isn't medicine. It's not going to solve your issues instantly. I traveled because I needed that mix of detachment and adventure to shake up and loosen all the fossilized crud in my mind that was concealing deeper problems I had failed to address in my 20s. And finally, after shaking things up for myself repeatedly, I figured it out, and I've never felt more free.
My life now is actually harder than it was before I mini-retired, but I enjoy it so much more. Everything is as uncertain as ever, but at least, I'm off the hamster wheel and on the road I want to take now.
Which is to say: I have a long way to go, but everything has already been worth it.