The Five Best Things I’ve Done with My Life So Far, and Why You Should Do Them Too
Almost everything I’ve learned that was worth learning, I learned outside of school. I’ll let you decide whether that is a statement about our education system, or a boast, but whichever the case, the observation holds true.
I’m not old. I’m not gray-haired and wizened, but I have lived a life somewhat different than what others have chosen, and with that comes a certain perspective unavailable to many people. What I’d like to share with you today is a short list of what I’ve come to recognize as the ten best things I’ve done with my life so far.
There is no need to treat them as Mosaic Law. I’m merely trying to present to you some ideas about life, and about how it should be lived. About the choices I’ve made, and the effect I’ve seen them have on my life.
Submitted for your approval: The Five Best Things I’ve Done with My Life So Far, and Why You Should Do Them Too
5. Get Lost
Not in Riyadh or Pyongyang, sure, but get lost.
You don’t have to go so far out of your way that you put yourself in danger, or seriously derail your life, but at some point in your life, some point hopefully soon, I do want you to knock the cobwebs off the screen door and get lost.
I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time, not too long ago, I found myself again headed West in order to go East. About a third of the way into my eighteen hour flight, I discovered a discrepancy in the flight plan my internet booking agency had given me. According to the computer screen mounted behind the head of the man sitting in front of me, our flight would be arriving two hours after my connecting flight was slated to leave Hong Kong. Naturally, this was a problem.
I was angry. I was upset. I made sure to find someone to whom I could say that I was angry, and that I was upset. For two hours, I stewed in my seat as Garlic Breath sitting next to me just wouldn’t shut his trap. I wanted to grab one of the employees and rattle her around until she screamed, because it was her company’s own damn fault, and she was going to hear about it for God’s sake, but in the end, there was nothing I could do to change anything about a bad situation.
Realizing that one is powerless is strangely freeing. The next time the drink cart rolled ‘round, I ordered a glass of red wine and told myself that I was going to relax, calm down, and let things take care of themselves. And just like they always do, they did. I was issued what I like to call a one-night-stand visa by the People’s Republic of China, and the airline, realizing their mistake, paid for a hotel for me.
As I sat in the bus, staring at Guangzhou’s neon nightmares and palm-lined off ramps, waiting to arrive at my lodging, it occurred to me that I might simply not return in the morning. I could leave the hotel any time for the morning, by a train ticket, and disappear into Cathay. Despite the Draconian-sounding warnings the Chinese embassy leaves on its website, getting around China is remarkably easy. No visa, no passport, no problem. I could be like a period disappearing into the parchment as the ink dries, the invisible punctuation to a border guard’s imprecise calligraphy.
I was happy with that fantasy, only as real as the lights decorating the karaoke bars and massage parlors we passed.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, you need to learn to let go of the plan once in the while. The plan is useful, but it can often be a bird cage for our soul. Worse, it gives us the illusion of control when in reality we never possess such a thing.
Of course, one does not need to disappear into the sweat of a Guangzhou fog to appreciate this lesson. So here’s what I suggest: Choose a day, any day (though preferably a day on which you are supposed to something deathly responsible), and walk out the door, no plan in mind, headed in the direction about which you know the least. You could drive, I suppose, but I’ve found that the discoveries one makes on foot are more numerous than those seen from behind half an inch of easy-shatter safety glass. Talk to a stranger. Examine the flaws in your neighbors’ lawns. Move without aim and without expectation. Walk until you feel the heat exhaustion creeping on you.
Your feet know where to go.
4. Live Somewhere Your Relatives Would Hate
Be Burroughs for once in your life.
No, don’t fuck a minor. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I mean that you need to go somewhere and be an alien for a little while.
Americans reading this: Australia, New Zealand, and the UK do not count. Don’t be a pussy.
I know this a thought that might shock your high school social studies teacher, but travel is not a magical talisman. People who travel are not in any way wiser or cleverer than those who don’t. Just consider the travels of some people, who travel all the way to Mexico for their honeymoon, where they can travel to the daiquiri bar before yoga, and then travel to Walmart for an extra box of tampons, before traveling to the latrine, where yesterday’s chalupa is going to do some traveling of its own. A prepackaged tourist “experience” of Europe or the Caribbean has no greater potential to enlighten than the Magic Kingdom does. What count are the thoughts and observations made by the traveler, and how he can take them and apply them into his own theory of living.
Leaving America for the Orient was one of the best things I ever did with my life, and it’s not for any of the reasons that Ms. Bowen, with her festive holiday sweaters, could ever have said.
The best reason to live abroad in an exotic locale is that you will realize precisely how much of what we are led to believe is important is in fact the opposite. Don’t observe the indigenous population in hopes of shedding a sapphire, vaguely left-wing tear over the common humanity you share with them. No, observe them to realize just how many miserable people there are in the world.
Misery is not a uniquely American condition, though we do excel at it (here is the cue to begin chanting the appropriate acronym). However, you will quickly discover that even in the most backwards, industrial cloaca that people, beyond vulgar hunger and lack of material comfort, generally suffer for the same stupid reasons: a marriage too early and a young family too large to fit on the same pleated sofa as one’s extinct dreams, consumerist lusts for things meant to impress strangers, and a thoughtless obedience to the will of whatever local beigeocracy is in charge, telling people to take and keep that job counting other, more interesting men’s money, or to take that loan in order to get that house, because children belong in a house and not an apartment.
The scales will be lifted from your eyes. Much of what we desire (or what we think we desire) is the product of belonging to a tribe. It is natural to want status in a tribe, indeed, it is one of the most natural desires in the world, driving the mechanisms of society and civilization. But once you’ve seen the stupid things that count for status in other cultures – the horrid gold watches, the bizarre plastic surgeries, the mountains of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, the children kept like pets by ladies of fashion – you will understand that these instincts drive us to worship absurdities.
3. Make Something
I’m still not sure, but I’m beginning to suspect that making something is better than doing something.
This is coming from someone who tries to break his routine and do something different every day. I value experience.
But I can’t hold my experiences in my hands. I can’t take them, at the end of the day, and examine them with pride. And while I can talk about them, describing them with the finest details and the most genuine enthusiasm, I can’t really show them to other people. Photographs aren’t enough. I want the thing itself, but I can not share the thing itself if it only exists now inside the confines of my mind.
Make something. Not just anything, but something meaningful to you. Modesty will prove no good shield; your passion will shine through like the afternoon through a lace curtain. People notice these sorts of things, and it can and often does lead to opportunities that don’t come to people who can’t give people something they can see with their eyes, and feel with their hands.
I wrote a book.
2. Start Your Own Business
One time many moons ago, I plucked up my courage and drove to the China Buffet at the local Miracle Mile. While I sat and waited for the manageress to emerge from the kitchen, I must have rehearsed in my head a thousand times the pitch I had planned the night before. In an instant, catching me off guard, she was there, in a little red blouse styled like a qipao, slacks and an apron, this squat Chinese women with hard black eyes.
I don’t have to tell you that I forgot immediately whatever it was I had planned to tell her, and whatever it was that I did manage to say, she was not impressed. She did not want me to make a website for her restaurant. I was disappointed.
Admittedly, starting my own business was something I never would have considered even just a few years before. Before I could accept an idea like that, I would have to go through the long process of shaking off the American middle-class peasant mentality of security, security, security, with one’s gaze always straining for the future, but one’s feet always planted firmly in the present.
At one point in my life, I had it made up in my mind that I was to be an architect. It was the perfect, boring middle-class choice for someone with quasi-artistic pretensions. And even though, just weeks into the program, I discovered that I hated it, I still fought with myself and for that imagined future for an entire year before conceding to my instincts.
Why did I fight? Yes, because it was the safe choice. The respectable choice. And one that would make my parents happy, though I didn’t about it like that back when I was in the middle of everything. In professions like architecture, there is a path clearly laid out, with just enough minor choices to be made for the callow to convince themselves that they have liberty.
There is a certain comfort in knowing that one shall spend four year in undergraduate, one year in grad, and a sixth year as an intern, before beginning one’s long journey towards a comfortable oblivion. I have read that the insane work load of architecture school has a permanent affect on the spirit of those who experience it, making them incapable of enjoying free time for the rest of their lives, unless their hands are occupied in some task, no matter how menial and dull. Perhaps their families are rather cold.
After quitting architecture, and yes, after failing that first time to make a sale, I’ve learned to love risk and uncertainty, and in them I have found something even more satisfying than the comforts of a manufactured journey. That satisfaction, of course, is the satisfaction of a man gets in knowing that he has created something of his own labor, wholly his, and he has used it to create wealth, to support himself.
Nowadays, I’m guiding a small-time film-making company, making promotional videos, web series, and animations, and finally, after months of trying, making money doing it. I can’t describe to you how good it feels to push through those steps, of having the idea, making the decision to go forward, doing work for whoever will take it, even for free, pushing like a moth against the confines of his chrysalis, until one day, someone is offering you real money for your services, and you know that it has all begun to pay off.
I know that not everyone wants to be a businessman, but I do suggest that everyone give it a try. The experience will give you lessons you can’t learn well anywhere else, but can apply to all aspects of your life.
I like that idea: business as the school of life.
1. Read Voraciously
I saved this one for the last and most honored spot because it is the one thing that has had a direct connection to all the others. In a way, my voracious reading from age 8 onward made fertile the soil in which all my subsequent ideas were to be planted.
Young people given to complaining and insolence often ask why it is so important that one read, and to date I’ve never heard a teacher provide a satisfactory reply. Perhaps I can furnish one: One should read not because reading is some sort of self-evident good; unlike many teachers, I do not make the claim that reading should be done for its own sake. One can read for pleasure, of course, but even if one does not find pleasure in reading, it is still of great benefit.
The real reason, and the best reason, is that it will expand your understanding of what is possible. Forget for a moment about what is impossible. I want to leave this impression with you, of a cosmic dome expanding around one’s inner self. Any ignoramus can walk into a book for the first time with a world so small that touches the bristles of his forearm hair, only to leave it shrunk infinitesimally.
Let me drop the idiosyncrasies for a moment. All of the points I’ve already detailed above – whether they be suggestions to travel or start your own business – all of them would never have entered into my consideration had the idea not implanted in me by some stealthy scribe, on the internet, in a book, in an article. Hell, even in a newspaper, once in a long while.
The sheer volume of ideas that accumulate in one’s head after one has spent two or three hours of every day of the year simply reading, even for pleasure, is immense. And even if one does not detect it (for we are all as passengers who do not notice the movements of the sun), they will have an effect, and they will change the way one sees the world.
Come to think of it, there’s also a good reason to write in there somewhere.