It was December of 2013. I'd just finished my last class at McGill and was trying to make sense of my thoughts and feelings as I considered what's next?
I was excited to be done with school, but had grown to love Montreal and the sense of independence I'd established through the last few years, so there was also a hint of bitterness to the closing of this chapter. I didn't want to move back to New Jersey and I didn't want to work a "typical" engineering job.
Because I'd done little by way of setting up an alternative, I took the default route. I moved back to New Jersey and began firing off online applications. I applied (almost blindly) to engineering and non-engineering jobs largely outside the North East, with a strong emphasis on renewable energy companies in the Mountain West.
For some reason I still felt entitled to be given the position I wanted, in the place I wanted to live, although I knew nobody in the industry, had little-to-no related experience, and knew nobody in that region of the US.
I guess you could say my approach was steeped in entitlement, maybe even delusional. I'd read one too many Steve Jobs quotes and thought the way ahead was stubbornly standing by your "vision".
Toward the middle of February I was tiring of the online application process. I'd garnered a handful of interviews but none of the positions "did it for me", so I flew to the place where I hoped to find work and build a new life: Denver.
For the next 6 - 8 weeks I stayed with a guy I'd met on Craigslist and an old (elementary school) buddy of mine, while working at Jamba Juice, and visiting job conventions and corporate offices in person.
Time and again I was told to apply online, and I began to see the writing on the wall. There were two options:
Stick it out, get another job so that I could afford to stay in Denver, and build a network so that I could land a job OR
Swallow my pride, return to the North East, and apply for engineering jobs back home
I chose #2 and returned to the North East a little humbler than when I'd set out. Within a month I was working for a friend of a friend while applying to bigger corporations on the side.
Four months later, after a few phone and in-person interviews, one of these larger corporations made me an offer and I took it.
Deep down I still didn't want to live in New Jersey or work for a big corporation, but here I was doing both. I stayed tuned in to Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, and the channels that fed an alternative state of thinking and living as I worked toward the idea of leaving New Jersey and working for myself.
While it was exciting to work toward something, I was hanging my happiness on the future. Pinning it on leaving New Jersey and working for myself meant that while I was still in New Jersey and working for someone else I was failing.
Looking back, this was a stupid way to live, and maybe it's just a millenial thing. We wear badges of idealism, impatience, arrogance/ entitlement, and are too damn selfish. We're the generation of "me" and "now" and could stand to learn something about "us" and "later".
For the next year and a half I worked, wrote, and lived home. In the fall of 2015 I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel: my savings was stacking up, my blog was getting decent traffic, I'd written my first digital book, and had completed a marathon with just seven weeks of training. My sense of self belief was swelling and I again I was caught considering what's next?
After Thanksgiving, I gave my two week notice and was surprised by the level of encouragement and support that followed. A lot of people were understanding of my taking a risk, because they wished that they'd done the same thing at my age. They wished they'd gone out, explored, and given their dreams a real shot. That's exactly what I planned on doing.
Two weeks after my last day, I touched down in San Jose, Costa Rica, and went on to spend the next eight weeks volunteering on a permaculture farm and travelling.
On the Earth Rose farm, volunteers lugged logs uphill, flattened land for a future greenhouse, cleared paths around the volunteer barracks, made Earth (a mixture of soil, manure, and lime), tended to the coffee plants and multiple greenhouses on the property, and prepared & shared meals with the owners, project manager, and other volunteers. In our free time we walked to the local general store, explored the streams and rivers nearby, cliff-jumped like it was our day job, and played soccer with the locals.
And while the work was hard (at times), the lifestyle was simple and refreshing. A perfect segway from working in an office to travelling through a foreign country and:
surfing, reading, watching the sunset, and enjoying ocean-side bonfires in Dominical
hiking Cloudbridge, swimming in an ice cold river, making friends with a Brit and a Ute, drinking at a local saloon, fishing for trout, reading in hammocks, summiting Costa Rica's tallest mountain, and watching soccer in San Gerardo de Rivas
visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, watching monkeys, eating sweet bread, reading by the pool, and chatting with other travelers and internationals in Quepos
visiting Mercado Borbon (the market) for lunch and produce, running the University of Costa Rica campus, making friends at Hostel Bekuo, meditating & writing, watching the Super Bowl, and couch-surfing in San Jose
lounging on the beach, cliff-jumping (from 60 feet up), fishing/crabbing with German travelers, and talking politics with a hodge-podge of internationals in Montezuma
catching a sail fish, grabbing a couple cold ones at the Beer House, and hanging with my Dad and Uncle in Jaco
eating fish, strolling the beach, and hanging with my Dad in Playa Hermosa
Before I left Costa Rica, my friends and family voted on where in the US I would return to. I wanted to go somewhere low cost, peaceful, active, and outdoorsy to explore self-publishing, so I let them choose between Missoula, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. After sixty votes had been tallied, Missoula was chosen winner.
Over the course of the next four months in my "new home", I spent time:
living communally - I spent the first few days in Missoula trying to find a place to call "home" for the next month or so. At this point I wasn't sure whether I'd stay in Missoula for one month, two months, or more, so I wanted to keep a month-to-month option before deciding, and it wasn't long before I found exactly what I was looking for. A furnished bedroom, in a house of 8, on the outskirts of town, across from a park, at a low cost ($465/ month), with a month-to-month option. I signed on for one month to check it out and found it so fitting that I ended up signing on for another three months at the end of this period. The first two months were an absolute joy because I had a nice routine and great roommates, but over the course of the following two months a couple roommates moved out and a couple new roommates moved in. I started losing sleep because these new roommates were hard drinking night owls whose dogs would whine day and night (because they weren't walked enough). I started becoming a little delusional, and after a month or so, saw a real need to get the hell out of there. Sleep is too important.
living low cost - while in Missoula, I kept expenses very low. The combination of living in a low cost apartment (where utilities were included) and holding out on buying a car meant that my monthly spend never topped $1.2k per month. If you can pay attention to (and manage) the major expenses, you can live well for very little.
reading and writing - On average I read two books per week while I was in Missoula, and when a book struck me as a "keeper" I took notes. During this time, I also wrote relentlessly. To re-establish the writing habit, I committed to writing, editing, and publishing a post every day for the first 10 days in Missoula. After this experiment, the next 6 weeks were dedicated to researching, outlining, writing, editing, and publishing a title on digital distraction. A handful of friends responded to the content and provided feedback for taking my writing and book creation process to the next level (thank you guys!). Following this title, I focused on a book on morning routine, while simultaneously re-purposing and re-launching a book on the exercise mindset. During this time, I felt like I was abusing the inboxes of my friends and family, and I started second guessing the approach I'd chosen (creating a catalog of books). My plan had been to launch 3 books to better understand the book creation and launch process, after which I would focus on creating and marketing one "professional" title before year's end. I've since decided to tone back the e-mails and asks, return to the New York City area, re-enter the workforce, and continue writing as a side venture rather than the venture. The four months I spent in Missoula provided plenty in terms of writing and digital publishing experience, and I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to focus on it in the way that I did.
exercising - I'd walked a ton while in Costa Rica and maintained a strong walk ethic when I first arrived in Missoula, but at the same time I was craving something more physical. I hadn't lifted a weight since the fall, and hadn't really strength trained in a couple years. The time felt right, so I started lifting again, and I gave Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a shot. For a couple months I trained hard, but once I got more involved in producing books, I de-commited from both activities to focus more fully on writing. Life became: write, walk, read, repeat.
experimenting with diet - nearly a week after I arrived in Missoula, I read The Warrior Diet, and started experimenting with one meal per day (the fast-feast cycle). Throughout the day, you can nibble on fruit, have a small serving of veggies, grab a handful of nuts, or make a protein shake (if you've just exercised), but when night rolls around, it's time to feast. At this point, you load up on protein, veggies, healthy fats and grains and all those things you've held off on throughout the day. You eat until you're stuffed because you won't eat like this again for another full 24. The simplicity of this diet is what drew me in and I started getting ripped (feeding my vanity) within a couple weeks, but after three weeks, the low energy, focus, and mood made me reconsider. Maybe this diet requires a longer commitment and maybe I'll try it again in the future, but right now I'll go for something more moderate.
getting hooked on coffee - having come from Costa Rica, where I'd gotten to see the coffee process from start to finish, I had a newfound appreciation for coffee when I arrived in Missoula, and the local roasters and shops fed this appreciation. I started having 2 - 3 cups/day and jumped fully into Missoula's bustling coffee scene.
hosting my Mom and Dad - during Memorial Day weekend, my parents came out for a visit. During this time, we drove up to Flathead Lake, hiked, enjoyed some local grub and beer (Missoula also has an excellent micro-brew scene), caught a live show at the Top Hat, checked out some local historic sites, and rode bikes around town. All-in-all it was a great time, and I'm glad they got to see the hidden gem that is Missoula.
visiting Seattle - shortly after this visit, I flew to Seattle. While there, I dropped by Amazon's HQ, visited the EMP museum, walked past the Space Needle, grabbed coffee at Starbuck's Reserve Roastery, sat in on a virtual reality presentation and discussion (hosted by the father of VR), and made friends at the hostel (Seattle City Hostel). We talked travel and American politics, played Jenga, caught the Western Conference finals at a nearby bar, walked the waterfront, and rode Seattle's Great Wheel. While Seattle was not enthralling, the hostel scene was.
Before I'd even flown to Costa Rica, I'd celebrated the New Year in the Poconos. During this time, a friend of mine mentioned that he and a small group were considering a hiking trip in the West.
It wasn't until mid-May that I heard about the trip again. At this point, I'd grown stale in Missoula, so I said, "Hell yeah!". It was an opportunity to see some of the most notable national parks in the US and spend an extended period of time in the great outdoors, so I booked tickets for the middle of June and left Missoula a couple weeks earlier than planned.
Over the course of our 10 day adventure, we spent time:
over-nighting in the Great Sand Dunes - we probably only hiked out a couple miles, but the fact that we had to climb a few hundred feet in sand meant that it wasn't easy. After rounding the top of three domineering dunes, we walked along the top of a dune and found a site in a valley with enough flat space for two tents and a growing stretch of shade (as the sun began to play peek-a-boo behind the dunes). We caught sunset from atop a nearby dune, picked the guitalele and ukele for a while, and turned it in early.
hiking twelve thousand feet up - the following day while looking for a campsite, we came across a park near the end of the road. We were on the fence about doing the hike until a group of hikers strolled into the parking lot raving about how beautiful it was. We decided to give it a go. After a couple miles, the trail was covered with snow and grew steeper and steeper. We moved past the tree line, scrambled across multiple snow banks and rock beds, and climbed atop ridge after ridge before we found ourselves a couple hundred feet above the lake we'd set out for. The scenery and solitude were well worth the hike.
attempting our first fourteener - a couple days later, we set out to summit Wilson Peak (a 14 thousand foot behemoth) and were 3 miles into the hike when the boom of thunder and swirl of dark clouds told us, "Not today!". We got the message, turned back, and made it to the car just before the start of a downpour and summer storm.
hiking the Fiery Furnace at mid-day (in 110 degree heat) - the rain had pushed us out of Colorado, so the next morning (after spending the night in Moab) we set out for Arches National Park and registered for hiking the Fiery Furnace (permits are limited). We got to the site, set out on the path, and spent the next 3 hours wandering the labyrinth of rock scrambles, tight corridors, dead ends, gaping canyons, and wild rock formations. Before leaving the park, we scrambled up a rock formation that jut above the canyon and stood atop it like Rafiki holding baby Pumba in the Lion King. By the time we got back to the car, I was gassed, and the other guys could tell. We visited a couple more sites and then made our way back to our campsite to swim in the Colorado river, have dinner, and unwind.
summiting the tallest mountain in the Rockies - the following day we setup camp outside Aspen and were chatting with some folks from a local outdoors store about hikes when one of the crew had the idea of giving a fourteener another try. The folks from the store advised us against it and said we probably wouldn't reach the summit. We decided to give it a shot anyway. The beginning of the trail wasn't all that bad, but once we got above the tree line, regular breaks became a must. During these breaks we'd talk a little bit, but there wasn't much of anything said while we were hiking up because moving at elevation already leaves you short of breath. When we reached the top, we got to chatting with three Continental Divide hikers and found out that we'd coincidentally summited the tallest mountain in the Rockies. This was the highlight of the trip for me.
From Costa Rica to Montana to Colorado and Utah, 2016 was a hell of a year for adventure. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to experience and see all that I've experienced and seen this year, and thought it'd be worth sharing some lessons from along the way:
It's all about the system. (Costa Rica) While on the Earth Rose Farm, it became clear that our project manager didn't have a plan. It was a free for all. He'd get us started on one project, then shift attention to another project without finishing the first one or considering the materials/ resources needed for the next one. This haphazard, unorganized way of doing things drove many volunteers away and highlighted the importance of planning ahead and putting effective systems into place. With that said, I still look back on the Earth Rose experience with fondness because it was a beautiful area that provided an opportunity to make friends (that I'm still in touch with).
You've got everything you need. (Costa Rica) All across Costa Rica you'll find people living below the poverty line, and while you may expect these impoverished folks to be bitter and unhappy, you'd be surprised. Many Costa Ricans enjoy the simple life and are perfectly content with their lot in life. They've got a place to live, work to do, the bare necessities (food, water, clothing), and a family and community to share with. Passive consumption and selfishness sit at the root of our discontent, whereas real happiness doesn't take much at all.
Publishing a book is one thing, selling it is a completely different ball game. (Missoula) I spent my time in Missoula exploring the writing process more than marketing. I'd send one bulk e-mail as a weak attempt at promotion, then I'd message a handful of friends asking for reviews in exchange for a free .pdf copy. What I learned, is that if you want to sell books, you have to put together a real marketing plan and make sure that these books look professional solve real problems. In other words: what you reap is what you sow.
People are the most important thing in your life. (Missoula) You can't do it all alone. I don't know how many times or in how many different ways I'll have to learn this lesson, but I constantly get burnt in trying to do things without asking for help. There's no substitute for a great support network. There's no substitute for family and friends that you can trust and have a good time with. While I'd gone out "chasing dreams" trying to build the life I thought I wanted, I realized that I had a great thing on the East Coast and that I'd just grown too selfish to see it. Sometimes it takes these round-about journeys to come back to where you started and see what you've got for how great it is.
Focus on one step at a time. (Hike) Whether it be hiking up the sand dunes, 12 thousand feet up, or 14 thousand feet up, they were all done the same way: one step at a time. I remembered this lesson from hiking Chirripo: once you've got a clear goal, march toward it one step at a time and don't worry about what's to come or what's behind you. When you stop and think for too long, doubt and indecision creep in.
Stay humble. For the past couple years I've been stubbornly selfish. I de-committed myself from just about everything I'd been committed to: volleyball, the Estonian community, friendships, New Jersey, etc. I got so caught up in myself and the life I imagined was for me that I discounted the very things that had made me who I am and the very people that had been there for me. The past six months were a strong reminder of how important it is to be a part of something larger than yourself, and how important it is to consider others and the big picture ahead of "Me, me, me" all the time. While there is truth to "following your passion", "chasing your dreams", and all those messages that have become so popular, there's also reality, and we can't allow ourselves to become delusional idealists. In life there may be a time where you'll have to sacrifice the now for later, do something you don't want to do, or do something you didn't plan on doing. That's life, and as Mike Tyson once said, "if you're not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you."
So there you have it, what I've done and learned in 2016 (thus far).
Hopefully you've found something worthwhile in reading this, and hopefully it helps you as you consider what's next?
And if you ever do go dream-chasing, remember: what you go out in search of, may have been right in front of your eyes all along.