A professional mountain climber, a world traveler, and a famous storyteller. Three different men who don’t know each other and have completely separate backgrounds, yet when I heard them speak, their messages to the audience were astoundingly similar. Their experience, their knowledge, and their wisdom reverberated in me. Each one amplified the others message, as if they had planned ahead of time that I wouldn’t be convinced by just one or two of them alone.
After a long day of climbing towering walls of ice in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, 60 other college students and I reconvened in a rustic ski lodge to relax for the rest of the night. A presentation was given by some fellow college students about their trip to the Brooks Range in the Alaskan backcountry, and the event organizer enthusiastically raffled off some free outdoor gear to the attendees. Then, Erik Eisele, one of the professional guides that had been leading some of the ice climbing for the day, sat in the front of the room and illuminated a small white sheet with a projector.
He began speaking about his job as a mountain guide. He told us incredible stories of climbing on the Russia/Georgia border as everyone stared in awe at the surreal photos he had captured of giant snow covered peaks as they appeared one by one on the screen. He told us about the unending kindness of people he met climbing the Middle East, about the true spirit of adventure, and how he lives to push the boundaries of what is possible setting first ascents on terrifying mixed climbs in South America. It was funny, because as riveting as the content was that Erik was presenting, he wasn’t giving a lecture. He was just talking. We were a group of kids that thought what he did was cool, and he was just going through a slideshow telling us about it. It wasn’t structured, or scripted, he didn’t even seem to have a defined message or goal. He was just talking about his life. It was genuine, and intimate. Though as he continued to speak about his travels and climbing exploits, something began to change in his tone. It grew more pointed, more focused and directed. I think he really began to realize he was talking to an audience that was at a pivot point in life, as we were all soon to graduate college and start out on a path toward some career.
But what he started to tell us wasn’t about careers, or paths, but the opposite. Erik wanted us to be brave enough to live differently. To take risks, and to be comfortable following a path where we couldn’t see the end and explaining that that’s the way it should be To live a life of adventure in our own way, and to fill our lives with something we were passionate about instead of a corporate 9-5 with a fancy car and a house filled with things we didn’t need. Erik had a job, a few actually, but he worked on his own terms. He owned his time, and whether he was guiding, or writing as a freelance journalist, Erik enjoyed what he was doing and had the freedom to change it at a moments notice if he felt like it. By the end of his talk all of us were really just in awe. You see pictures of people like Erik (and Erik himself, actually) on posters for your favorite outdoor brands, but you never actually find out who these people really are. Yet here he was, telling us all that we could have a life equally as adventurous, we just had to have the courage to go for it. There was a looming discomfort in the room because he had just broken down the perspectives nearly all of us had on how people lived their lives. It seemed too good to be true, and much of the talk following his presentation was filled with criticisms and the identification of shortcomings of that type of wandering lifestyle. I too, wasn’t sure what to think. The photos and stories he had shared were like something out of one my dreams, but yet he didn’t have the wife or kids that I had always envisioned for myself since I was little. I chalked it up to an interesting and thought provoking presentation, but the lifestyle probably wasn’t for me.
Back at UConn a few weeks later a long time friend sent me a Facebook event invitation to a lecture given by some guy, Andy Stoll, who had traveled the world for 4 years after college visiting over 40 different countries. It seemed pretty interesting and being unsure of whether I wanted to leave and travel after school or stick around and get a job, I was pretty excited to hear what he had to say. I was skeptical, though, because all of the travel for free, “wanderlust” hipster bullshit that’s trending right now with people making a lot of money off of those in situations similar to myself, searching for someone to tell them they can easily travel the world and find more meaning in life. So although I was hopeful I would enjoy the presentation, I had low expectations of taking away anything particularly valuable.
I showed up at the small lecture theater at UConn’s student union and sat with my friends in the front of the room. We looked around for a young, hip looking “world traveler” ready to share incredible pictures and stories that I was envisioning because of the previously mentioned “nomad”, “wanderlust” traveler aesthetic that had been burned in my brain by much of the social media I’d come in contact with recently. So when a middle aged Asian guy walked up to the stage with a microphone, we thought he was someone that worked for UConn ready to introduce Andy Stoll. Except that was Andy Stoll, and his presentation was just as far off from my expectations as he was.
Andy somewhat unexpectedly started his presentation with a little brain teaser. Connect some dots into a series of lines, come to find out the only way you can do it is by thinking “outside the box”. “Alright, cool dude, never heard that one before,” I was thinking. Except that wasn’t his message, as once again I underestimated his presentation. Rather, it was “No Boundaries”, a message that he personally connected with and formed based on his own life experiences beginning far before his days of world travel. This set the tone for the rest of the presentation, which was based on the idea of how our perception of life as some linear entity of “school, job, marriage, kids, retire, die” doesn’t exist. He went on to encourage us not to worry about not knowing what our “passion” was, or what career we wanted or even what major we wanted to be in. He told us life was organic, and everyone’s path was really far more diverse than we constantly assume. Just because we choose one direction now, doesn’t mean we can’t change it later. He eventually shared a short slideshow of his travels, highlighting the different experiences he had abroad and explained that our perception of the rest of the world is only what we’ve been shown by the media, and that in reality the world is far safer and more friendly than we are led to believe. He told us that whether you want to make a change in your life, or the world, you need to take a chance and put yourself out there.
I went into the lecture expecting a glorified travel slideshow, and I left after a genuine and inspiring presentation feeling relieved that someone else other than my parents thought it was OK I had no idea what to do with my life. My thoughts for the next few days were a jumble of quotes from Andy and Erik, and I started to feel like maybe it was time to throw away my old vision of my future and accept the fact that I don’t need a vision, because a vision doesn’t mean anything when you realize your life is a constantly changing journey.
A couple of weeks go by, and slowly but surely the inspiring advice given by Erik and Andy take a backseat to internship applications, phone interviews, and lab reports. That’s when another Facebook event invitation pops up on my screen for the Humans of New York photographer, Brandon Stanton. Among millions of others, I’ve followed the Humans of New York stories actively for quite a while. Reading about the diverse lives these people had along with the heartbreaking struggles and challenges they faced, reminded me that me that I was extremely fortunate to only be worried about what I was going to do after I had an engineering degree from a top tier public university. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was one of the first in line to attend his lecture.
Brandon was a lazy college dropout and a stoner before he turned his life around and decided to dedicate himself to his studies. He went back to school and graduated with a history degree, and soon after secured a job as a bond trader in which he was very successful. Unfortunately, he quickly became obsessed with the job. Brandon said his mood was 100% correlated to the performance of the markets, to the point that it was the single largest factor determining how his life was going at any given moment. When the markets crashed in 2008, Brandon lost everything, or so he thought. What he lost in material possessions and money he gained in an understanding of what he wanted out of life, and how he would attain it. It was at that point in his life that Brandon promised himself that he would stop at nothing until he was working on something he loved.
So when Brandon got his first camera and fell in love with photography, that was what he chose to pursue. He worked every single day toward the goal of becoming a full time photographer, taking thousands and thousands of images. Nothing seemed to be working, and he had trouble standing out from the hundreds of other photographers trying to make it professionally, but he stuck with it and continued to work each day toward his goal. Somewhere along the way, Brandon realized what set him apart was his ability step out of his comfort zone and get over the fear of taking pictures of strangers. That’s when his idea for Humans of New York was born, and he immediately moved to New York with just enough money for the first months rent to dedicate himself to his idea for unique street photography.
Humans of New York grew slowly at first, but Brandon and HONY evolved as he went, following what worked and what didn’t. When he discovered that telling people’s stories alongside his photographs were what really interested people, HONY took off.
Looking back, Brandon highlights a few things about his experience and what eventually led to the incredibly successful story telling platform that HONY is today. Brandon explained that when he had the idea for HONY, he didn’t have it all figured out. He didn’t know if it would work, and in fact, most people in his life told him it was a waste of time. But he worked every day, tirelessly, toward his goal of doing what he loved full time, and it worked. Brandon drove home the fact that your idea is never going to be perfect, and you will never truly be ready to execute. You just have to jump in, give it a shot and adapt as you go (take a chance and put yourself out there). This advice hit home, reminiscing for a moment about how I started a small 3D printing business almost by accident, just because I had decided to try selling one of my personal designs online. At the end of the presentation I realized that for the third time in two months, three incredible people, each successful and happy in their own way, had just given me virtually the same advice.
Erik, Andy, and Brandon, were saying the same things in their own way, based on their own experiences. Their paths had all been very different, but because of their decisions to follow their heart and choose a path outside the norm, they found themselves happy, working on their own terms, doing what they loved.
After weeks of reflecting on these three presentations, these are my personal takeaways.
- Progress, change, and discovery is most often made outside of your comfort zone. Most of society never goes here, because its uncomfortable, scary, and awkward. Those that realize this and force themselves to be comfortable living outside of this comfort zone often find success, but it is difficult to convince others that this is true because they cannot see outside of their own perceptions which are limited by their own experiences.
- There is no substitute for fully committing and executing on an idea. A half-assed, cautious attempt is not a fair assessment as whether an idea can be successful.
- Your time is the most valuable thing in your life, and it shouldn’t be wasted on something you don’t care about, regardless of money or other peoples opinions.
- An idea, product, business, or life, is not black and white, set in stone, or linear. Everything is organic. Everything changes, adapts, and evolves with time. The most important step is the first one, and after that you work every day to improve, adapt, and progress whatever it is that you’re working on.
- If you choose one direction and it doesn’t work out, you still have infinitely many others to choose from, and you are no worse off than you were before.
As I finish up school I’m going to try to keep these thoughts in mind. I’m going to try to remember to take risks and get outside of my comfort zone as much as possible like Erik, work tirelessly and fully dedicate myself to whatever I’m working on like Brandon, and accept the fact that life is an ever changing path for which there is no foreseeable destination like Andy, so that someday I will be able to live and work on my own terms like all three of these incredibly wise men.