Getting a Grip on Creating a Life: A Taste of Greater Freedom

From elementary school, to middle school, to high school, to college, most of my life was and is scheduled. Growing up in Miami, Fl, the suburban sprawl made travelling to every destination a 5 to 10 miles walking expedition. This, combined with my lack of a bicycle until 3 years ago, meant I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in school and, after school, living vicariously through action and adventure video games–games like Fallout and Oblivion. It was these escapes that sated my urge for meaning, exploration, risk, and excitement; factors that were otherwise unmet in my more regimented life.

Right before high school, however, I began reading more books–well, I began reading books–on personal liberty and personal responsibility for creating a life I’d want to live. Against the well-intentioned caution of my parents, I bought a bicycle through Craigslist, and experienced an introductory taste of choosing how I spent my time. Even if most of it still was spent doing schoolwork, now I could road cycle to local parks, getting lost in hours at a time; or cycle to the library on my own; or doing whatever else I thought was worthwhile.

Bicycle = Tool to Explore

Bicycle = Tool to Explore

Now, during summer break after my second year of college, I am truly beginning to realize what it means to create my own life. During the weekdays, I tend to spend my time working at a local library, earning capital to invest toward financial independence, while learning from audio-books like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, podcasts like Radical Personal Finance, and books like Good Boat-keeping. During the evenings after work, I’ve reached out to a local church gardener for gardening experience, spent time with community-building enthused community member Gabor Lukacs, walked through nature trails, swam in local ponds and rivers, cooked home-made vegan dinners, watched documentaries like Without Bound – Perspective on Mobile [van] Living, and more. During weekends, I tend to spend my time cycling to and building a net-zero Habitat for Humanity home about 12 mi one-way, and I’ve found weekend bicycle touring and herb first aid walks through Meet-ups.com.

Unlike the compulsory education I grew up with–and sometimes still feel like I experience in college–my time is taken up by activities I’ve deliberately chosen to do because they add maximum value to my life, whether through skills, capital, social connection, or spending time in nature. Although I don’t think I’d continue working at my job at the library if I were financially independent–the opportunity cost with other long-term adventures is simply too great–it is reassuring that I am able to create my own life.

I sometimes fear that I’d be bored if I didn’t have school or work to keep my life active, but I think the older I get, the more I realize that I really can create my own life; a adventure-full, nature-full, love-full, learning-full, and ultimately satisfying life. This is a powerful realization. I’d like to create a life where I can’t imagine myself spending it any other way. Or, if I do imagine something I”d prefer doing, where I can then do that, too.

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Creating the freedom to choose how to spend one’s life, and fostering the confidence and wisdom to act on those urges, are two incredibly important concepts for creating the life one wants to live.

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The Connecticut River by Northampton, MA. I’d like to canoe it through to the ocean!

At the moment, some of the more long-term activities I’d like to undertake include cycling across the US, thru hiking the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trail, sailing across the world, driving a small RV through the Americas, continuing to learn about personal connection and being a part of open relationships, continuing to learn more and more skills, learning more philosophical ideas and potential lifestyles, and more.

Is there anything you’d particularly like to do with your life? What is it? Why? How can you get to it?

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Cliff Diving and Experiencing Nature

A triumphant weekend ride over to Barton's Cove.

A triumphant ride over to Barton’s Cove & back.

A few days ago, two friends and I cycled 42 miles to Barton’s Cove, a Massachusetts campground with acres of forest, lakes, and rock outcrops. With the time constrains of a full undergraduate course load, I tend not to cycle to places farther than 10 miles during the school year, which means my muscles and cardiovascular system were still acclimating to longer bicycle rides. This was also the first time that I ever jumped off a ~15 foot outcrop.

The question is: Why did we go on this adventure? Why did we put ourselves through mile after mile of sweat and muscle use, swim through ~60° F water, and face the fear that accompanies staring down a steep descent into that same water?

I think for me, one of the major reasons was experiencing nature more viscerally than otherwise.

While sitting in a comfortable chair in an air conditioned 70° F classroom or office, it’s often the case where many people become accustomed to this specific comfort range. Events like rain inside the room, wind blowing papers across desks, darkness, or your body’s muscles burning with intense use are more likely to represent calamities than events to be enjoyed as stimuli to one’s senses. A book I am currently reading, Four Arguments Against the Elimination of Television, argues in part that most human built spaces are deliberately constructed to focus the senses on specific work, a design that has unfortunate side effects. The lights are on–and on brightly–so that work may be clearly seen; the temperature is constant, so that one’s attention can be focused on work; the windows are often permanently shut, so that pollen, dust, rain, fresh air, or other extraneous material remains outside. Despite this intentional design indeed being conductive to focusing one’s attention on whatever work needs to be completed, it is also a design that reinforces a narrow range of sensory stimuli.

It’s focused yes–and it tends to limit your growth as a human that thrives on varied experiences and sensations.

In contrast, when one engages in intense physical exercise in natural spaces, one’s awareness is more likely to be broadened and heightened. For example, right before jumping into a steep descent, or piercing cool water, or cycling down a high grade hill, one feels the ephemeral weightlessness of their body, the cool water embracing their skin, or a rushing wind blowing around their face. It is these moments of intense sensory stimulation that can make life more full of excitement, meaning, and, if done with others, social bonding. Discovering and exploring one’s fears–in this case, jumping off a cliff for the first time–also adds sensory stimuli to the experience. In my case, the hesitation, apprehension, and mental debate I felt before making a jump made the resolve of landing safely and abruptly so much the more intense, empowering, and worthwhile.

It is because of these reasons that I’d like to continue carefully exploring activities that allow for broadened and heightened sensory stimulation between my body and the world around me; activities like mountain cycling, cold showers, free swimming, barefoot walking, and more.

If you’re currently feeling a common and understandable narrow range in your own sensory range, it’s okay–we’ve all likely felt that before. If you’d like to increase your range, spending time in nature might just be one of the most effective ways to do so; I’d highly recommend it. You don’t even have to necessarily jump off a cliff for your senses to feel new sensations–a conscious walk through the woods or a city park might just offer the variety your body might be seeking.

Jump off? New experiences can be fun.

Think, then take the jump! New experiences can be fun.

Launching a Birch Bark Canoe and Ojibwe Culture

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Part of the professor/student crew that helped hand build the canoe. That’s me there holding the canoe’s bow (front)!

Throughout this past spring, my Native American Life class and I helped hand-build a ten foot birch bark canoe. Our professor, a member of the native Ojibwe tribe, collected the frame wood, basswood strips, and birch bark necessary from local Massachusetts forests, carried them to a workshop at the University of Massachusetts, and, over many months, the canoe was hand-built there by dozens of students. My class and I enjoyed the unique experience of lacing birch bark to the frame using basswood strips and a criss-cross pattern.

Once the frame was screwed together, the birch bark laced between us and the water, and the lacing holes covered with an impermeable plastic resin, Amherst community members and students drove and portaged the canoe to a bank of Puffers Pond, a local lake. A few minutes and pictures later, the canoe was floating effortlessly across the water.

I think the building of the birch bark canoe was worthwhile not because it required the extraordinary endurance of a long term adventure, but because of the unique materials, people, and history involved. The birch bark, basswood, and many other materials were not only harvested in local forests, but they are the same materials that many natives used centuries ago to create their own birch bark canoes–a distinct advantage that many colonials eventually adopted to traverse American waterways (their large ocean vessels were unfit to travel through relatively narrow streams). Unfortunately, birch bark canoes are rarely built anymore precisely because of colonial-native interaction, particularly imperialism and suppression of native culture. In fact, this was one of the first if not the first birch bark canoe build an American University has undertaken. It was powerful to learn about native transportation, and even more powerful to paddle the canoe through the water that has not witnessed one in at least a century.

This build was also worthwhile because of the knowledge, skill, cultural awareness, and language translation required for me to even help build the canoe. These pre-requisites provided me much more satisfaction than the research and money necessary to purchase a pre-made canoe. This does not necessarily mean that pre-made canoes are inferior to their hand-made equivalent. It simply means that a hand-built item likely provides a greater understanding of what was built, why it was built, how it was built, how it can be improved, and a strong sense of pride.

Another factor I found interesting is that natural materials were not exclusively used to build the canoe. For example, birch bark canoes were traditionally water-sealed using poplar sap instead of plastic resin, and the frame was traditionally laced together with basswood strips instead of metal screws. I do not think this lack of one-hundred percent natural and traditionally used materials makes the canoe build any less meaningful. Instead,  I think using a combination of historically used materials and modern materials can make for a more structurally robust birch bark canoe, while still symbolizing the continuing history of Ojibwe natives.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests--beautiful.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests. Beautiful.

Financial Security or a Life of Adventure–Why not Both!

The video above is a Tedx talk delivered by Alastair Humphreys, an adventurer, writer, and public speaker who cycled the world for four years on less than £7,000, walked across India and the Empty Quarter Desert, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, canoed through the Yukon, and much more. The kicker: when he first pedaled away from his home in Europe he was 24 with minimal outdoor experience.

It’s truly incredible and inspiring what can be achieved with a tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to break societal expectations, and courage over one’s fears.

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Alastair Humphreys, the man who quit nine to five work for, in his case, long adventures; he enjoys eating nourishing food, meeting interesting people, and seeing breath-taking views from across the world.

The type of month to multiple year adventures Humphrey has undertaken are one of the major activities I’d like to fill my life with. There is something holding me back, however–and I think this is a factor that tends to hold many other people from realizing their own goals, whatever they may be.

Money.

For me, it’s money not for the sake of purchasing consumer items, but for the sake of purchasing my freedom from nine to five employment. Let me explain. By living simply, I do not need lots of money to live well. About $7,000 a year fulfills my needs for housing, transportation, food, and other expenses. By saving and investing the difference between my expenses and the income I’d gain from an average American nine to five job–or any other source of income–my investments can, over an accumulation period of five to ten years, provide $7000 a year of passive income. The point when annual passive income from investments match or surpass yearly expenses is called financial independence. Reaching this point would not only mean that I would no longer be required to work for income, but that I can embark on long-term, low-cost adventures without being too concerned about funding or financial security.

At this point in my 21 year old life, however, a part of me wants to eschew the ten years of employment required to amass the capital necessary to achieve financial independence. I’d prefer to begin travelling now, starting this summer. Another part  of me wants the financial security before the long term travelling. It’s been a tough choice for me over the past few months.

Thankfully adventures and financial security are not necessarily mutually exclusive; it’s possible to both have adventures and accumulate capital for financial independence. Enter micro-adventures.

Micro-adventures are short one or two day adventures that can be undertaken even while the majority of one’s time is spent in employment, or another activity that takes up the majority of your time. An example of a micro-adventure can be an evening camping after a Friday spent behind a desk, or a cross-city walk, or riding a train and climbing the nearest mountain over a weekend.

Although I am interested by the idea of micro-adventures, I do not think they are necessarily easy to fit into nine to five life. For one, after a day of work, the amount of willpower required to initiate an adventure might be too high. Also, a series of micro-adventures seem harder to consistently initiate rather than one long term expedition. One of the hardest hurdles for me to overcome is initiating an activity, or creating the system for that activity; It is much easier for me to continue an activity, or simply use a system I’ve already created. Comparing micro-adventures to expeditions, I think it might require great willpower to repeatedly ready and haul equipment to the adventure site, then haul it back home just after one day, or even a few hours. By contrast, it might require less willpower to, for example, tie a canoe (with a rain cover) to a tree and sleep in the canoe, then wake up the next day and keep paddling. Another example would be partially emptying a touring bike’s camping contents daily for a month, as opposed emptying and storing a touring bike’s entire contents after one or two days of riding in a micro-adventure. I do not think these are prohibitive factors of micro-adventures, just factors that I’d like to account for when creating an effective system to undertake them.

In any case, I think I’m leaning toward achieving financial independence before striving for long expeditions. In the accumulation phase, I will try my best to increase my willpower and efficiency when undertaking micro-adventures. I think I’d feel more comfortable watching my investments grow passively as I’m travelling in a tent, rather than worrying about where the few thousands required for my next adventure will come from.

Although my adventures tend to be based in nature, I can also use the term loosely. Whatever path is most meaningful and growthful to you–whether starting a business, an inner-spiritual journey, growing close with friends, etc.–I think it is liberating and encouraging that simple living can allow us both the time to explore, and the financial means to do so.

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A brisk spring sunrise in Deerfield, MA, seen after a Saturday micro-adventure cowboy camping under the stars. Some of the most energizing views in life can be relatively inexpensive to see.

Fear: A Driving Force for Growth

In my life I have experienced fear many times. Some of that fear is what I’m naming negative fear; some of it is what I’m calling positive fear. My current negative fears include the potential for nine-to-five monotony in a cubicle, or fear of living my life in a way that is not meaningful to me. My current positive fears include fear of planning my own long term outdoor adventures and fear of creating and consistently contributing to ambitious goals–like this blog, for example.

I am thankful and excited that I experience fear. Fear to me is my body directing me to the life choices that will lead to the greatest happiness long term. I think the fact that I feel fear from planning a self-directed, long term bicycle trip is an indication that I should do exactly that–that there is great potential for emotional growth in doing so. Likewise, writing this very post is exploring my fear of consistency contributing to an an ambitious goal. I am fearful on whether I will consistently write posts, but that only encourages me to try my best to. Even if I don’t, I think I will have learned something about my capacity for consistency, likely increased that capacity, and explored my fear.

If there is anything in your life that you’re currently fearing, I’d like to encourage you to analyze whether pursuing that fear could lead to personal growth (e.g. giving a speech to a large audience), or if the presence of that fear is an indication to avoid that activity (e.g. an unfulfilling life).