Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One Year Later: Reflections on a full year out

Another significant milestone came and quietly passed for me yesterday. It was the one year anniversary of my graduation from college: one year since I said my teary goodbyes to my alma mater, to my friends, and to any semblance of life as I had ever known it. It's been quite a year since. I've explored more new places than I care to count; I've met just about as many new people as I did in my first year of college, and at some points, each week seemed to feel like an entire lifetime. In that sense, I've lived an awful lot in the last 12 months, perhaps more life than I lived in the first 20 years of my life. Here are a few of the lessons I've taken away.

We all have a lot more freedom than most of us ever realize. During the course of these 12 months, I've met so many extraordinary people, people with such incredible stories, people who have picked up their entire lives and moved forever to a different continent, people who decided to put "real life" on pause to start living, and people who are on years-long expeditions around the world. Growing up in suburban New York, there only ever seemed but a few set paths that were laid out in front of me. I would do well in school so that I could do well at a good college so that I could get promoted at a good job. Since I started traveling, the world has opened up to me. All of a sudden, I have days where I'm baffled by the sheer number of possibilities my life could take. It's both beautiful and terrifying. (See XKCD.)

You don't have to follow in anybody's footsteps. I always saw people who I wanted to be like. I've always had role models to look up to as I've grown up. But now more than ever, I understand that I have to be my own role model. If I don't live life the way I want to, no one else is going do it for me.

There's real racism out there. Perhaps the most profoundly negative realization I've had this year is just how prevalent racism actually is around the world. Growing up, it never seemed strange to me that I had Puerto Rican cousins, Christian cousins, Jewish cousins, black cousins, the whole nine yards, that when people asked me where I was from, I had to spend five minutes giving them the cliff-notes of my family ancestry. I always kind of assumed racism was restricted to certain parts of the US that I had kind of written off anyway. But this year has shown me just how wide it actually spans. Intelligent people, people I would otherwise respect. It's been an issue that has deeply saddened me as I've seen it play out negatively in the lives of people I care about.

Meaningful relationships are what make the world go round. Though this year has been phenomenal in the sheer magnitude of people I've met and places I've been, there's been a stark juxtaposition between the truly meaningful relationships I have with just a few people and those that I have with the many very cool other passing travelers. Since I left Cornell, I've had the opportunity to travel with many of the people who mean the most to be in the world. What a difference it makes.

People are just people. This was a lesson that took me a long time, the course of years, to truly learn. Many of you who haven't know me long might be surprised to find out that I used to be agonizingly shy. I didn't do well in groups, and it took me ages to open up to people. I make the comment about the people who haven't known me long, because most of those I've met in the last year, I've met because I put myself out there: striking up conversations in museums and hostels, going out to bars alone and leaving with a group of friends, being introduced through a friend of a friend of a friend and making the connection into something real. I used to not understand people – they seemed so foreign to me. But the more I people I meet, the more connections I make, the more I realize we're all just the same. (See The Ghost of Corporate Future.)

Everybody laughs; everybody cries. While the last lesson I've learned from meeting other travelers around the world, this closely related lesson has come from observing: the way a mother hugs her child, the way brothers beat up on each other, the way children play together. We all eat. We all laugh. We all cry. We all love. This year has impressed upon me that no matter how different a culture may be, we all have far more in common than not.

The more I travel... A good friend that I traveled with in Italy last summer sent me a quote some months ago that sums up the most profound person lesson I've learned in these last 12 months. It comes from Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, and reads, "A writer friend of mine wrote the older he gets, the more he travels, the less he knows. I understand what he meant now. It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more of it I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough - to know there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, such as it is for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go."

I hope you take away some of these lessons as well.


Kathy said...

That's a great quote! I always learn something new whenever I read your blog. Carpe that diem travel bud!

JP Gaillard said...

Ben, I thought your writing was good and your insights make some sense. I'd urge you to continue to travel further off the beaten path and see where it takes you reflections wise. you may want to check out my own trajectory, which lasted just over 3 years and which you can read about in www.keep-searching.net. you may find some suggestions of places to go and things to do really far off the "beaten path" in there.

Keep in the wind in your sails!