Checking in: things I've learned

It’s been 8 months since I left San Francisco and 6.5 months since I’ve been traveling abroad. In the short period of time, I’ve gone through many ups (making new friends, discovering lots about myself) and many downs (medical emergencies, heartbreak).

6.5 months never seemed like a long time when I was working in San Francisco especially in the context of growth. Life at work is slow and steady and a sign from upper management that you’re progressing along the path they’ve arbitrarily laid out, also known as a promotion, occurs once a year, if at all.

But from the last half year, I can sense in myself an incredible amount of change. My opinions towards certain concepts have evolved as I meet new people and go through new experiences during my travels. I’ve become more open-minded about alternative lifestyles and what it really means to “do whatever makes you happy” and “follow your heart”.

Along the way, I’ve been keeping a private journal in which I scribble notes on things like this. Below are a few I’d like to share:

On happiness and ambition

To me, ambition was always closely tied to one’s career. If I meet someone and their career path is not as well-defined, then they must not be ambitious. Growing up poor, my immigrant parents, with their best intentions, always taught me that I need to have a good career because that will earn me lots of money and be the launchpad for my happiness.

My mistake was in thinking ambition starts and ends with one’s career.

I understand that a high earning potential is important, but it is certainly not a pre-requisite to being happy. I now believe it is a better mindset to continuously seek sustainable happiness, rather than to be successful in a career and/or make lots of money.

In my previous high-paying job, was I happy? Sure, I felt important being paid for tasks I knew how to do ranging from the mundane and tedious to the weekend-long and soul-sucking. Leaving my office at 1AM, or working overtime, being burnt out, and then spending a bunch of money on fancy new gadgets to justify my suffering was not sustainable. But in some ways, this behaviour is glorified by millenials as a necessary evil to achieving the American Dream.

It’s important to be able to step away from that and really think about whether or not the culture is working for you. To quote Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie:

The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.

On comfort in being different

When you travel and spend a lot of time in different cities with different cultures, social stigmas start to blur since they differ so much worldwide. You leave your country where a certain behaviour is typically frowned upon only to arrive in another country where it is celebrated. You shamelessly revel in this newfound manner, free of judgement. Next, you travel somewhere different and bring that comfort with you, ignoring any societal perception. You slowly build up an identity that is more true to yourself, regardless of what people may think. As you explore the world, you are also exploring yourself.

This applies to a lot of things of varying degrees, for example:

  1. everyday carry– If you’re a man, come to Europe and you might not feel so self-conscious about carrying a tote bag or wearing a scarf in mild weather back in America.
  2. fashion– Needless to say, people dress differently everywhere you go. Get inspired by trends wherever you go!
  3. food and meal habits– Eat with your hands, use the tabletop as your plate, have a strong drink before or after your meal as you please.
  4. taking selfies (and photos of food), which is somewhat stigmatized in America (among 25+), but highly common in Asia
  5. smoking cigarettes are much more common and not as frowned upon in Europe than Canada or the United States

In the end, you are more comfortable with being different wherever you go. You become a walking scrapbook of the favourite parts of your travels.

On trying new things

In Lyon, I’ve paced around outside a bar a few times I really wanted to try and finally managed to overcome the perceived weirdness of asking for a ‘bar seat for 1’ at 9pm at a fancy cocktail bar on a Friday evening. It was awesome. The bartender and I had a nice chat throughout and he even let me help him make a cocktail.

The next day, I had slightly more courage to ask for a table of 1 in a tiny Michelin-rated restaurant.

Finally, I went to a concert by myself. I’ve done this a few times before but this was the first time at a giant outdoor amphitheatre (the other ones were standing rooms). It was awesome! I saw Lianne La Havas and even though I got there close to when the show started, I was able to get a very good seat with perfect views because I just had to find seating for one. Then, before her set was officially over, I decided I was getting hungry and made the decision to get food for myself. No need to see if anyone else was hungry or if anyone minded leaving the set early. I got a hot dog and proceeded to wander around the amphitheatre before setting my eyes on the top which I correctly guessed would have an amazing view of the entire amphitheatre as well as the stage. No one to ask if they would be okay climbing up all those stairs or being so far away from the crowd! Mary J. Blige never looked or sounded better.

On trusting yourself

Trusting yourself is so important, and it’s so overlooked. It’s easy to think or say that we trust ourselves, but what does that really mean?

For me, I trust that:

  1. I have good judgement
  2. I will always make sure I feel safe
  3. I have the means to figure out an escape plan if needed
  4. I have all things considered and I will prioritize certain things if needed

I trust myself therefore I can be flexible with my plans and that has lead to some of the best experiences so far on this trip.

Trusting yourself also means letting yourself live in the moment. Thinking or worrying about where you’re off to next and how you’ll get there takes away from the present. It has allowed me to get by most of my travels with very little planning.

Building on this, your instincts are given a clear communication channel to your mind, which for me leads to higher self-respect and self-love. Win win!

On moving on

Heartbreak in a relationship sucks, but it taught me that even if you had the time of your life, there will always come a time to move on. This can occur at the rise of happiness, the highest peak, or the inevitable falling.

This lesson has permeated throughout my travels. Leaving the campsite/restaurant was difficult and I definitely left on a high. It was heartbreaking to leave a place I had come to love so much along with the people. I had already stayed 1 week longer than originally planned because there were two important groups coming in that week so I agreed to help out. It would have been so easy to stay another week, and another week after that, and so on because large groups will become the norm as summer sets into full swing. But alas, I left! It was sad but also exhilarating to know that my journey was going to continue and that I had amazing memories to look back on. (It also helped knowing I’d be coming back to visit with my parents in early September!)

Interestingly, familiarity has now become a warning sign to me. When things start to feel like normal life or I start to get comfortable with a person or a place, that has become my cue to leave. I’m grateful for this because it means that I am comfortable with letting things go at their peak and that I am continuously seeking new experiences (as I should be during this time). At the same time I am hoping this is a temporary feeling as I do from time to time crave familiarity in a settled place.

On meeting new people

This world is full of amazing people and the only way to meet these people is to get out there. People from completely different backgrounds and upbringings whose life trajectories should have never crossed with yours, yet somehow, you find yourself spending 3 nights together on a tiny island of 2000 inhabitants on a small lake in Northern Italy sharing stories and making new memories. True story.

I’ve met some truly amazing people, lifelong friends I am hoping, and I continuously look forward to the next time we meet:

  1. An amazing girl from Atlanta, Georgia who was spending the summer in Lyon at the veterinary school training to become a horse surgeon.
  2. A friendly couple who has lived all around the world, and are currently based in Paris. They accidentally stumbled upon our little restaurant and ended up eating 2 meals with us and staying late each night for drinks. They have an adopted daughter who is Chinese-Canadian and who currently lives in San Francisco and is my age. Crazy!
  3. The ambitious owners of the campsite and restaurant who, in 10 years, plan on buying a yacht and sailing around the world. I’m hoping they’ll pick me up in Canada somewhere.
  4. An opportunistic guy from Santa Cruz, California who is doing his masters in Mathematics at one of the top universities in Munich for a low cost of 200 euros because he figured out that he wants to be a community college math teacher. For that, you only need a masters in the subject and you don’t need to go to teacher’s college. He also figured out that certain grad school programs in Germany are offered to foreigners at the same low rate as they are to citizens. Although he doesn’t particularly enjoy the fact that he’s in school, he’s loving being in Munich and having 2 years abroad.
  5. A very sweet girl from Northern Italy who is completing her medical residency in Paris. We met in Thailand on the farm, and kept in touch this whole time and she is helping me out a lot by letting me keep my extra luggage at her apartment during the summer!

and so much more!

Parting words

There is a quote from a book that I read which really resonates with me and I return to it from time to time to remind myself. It is from a book called ‘Spaceman of Bohemia’, and it lists 2 coping mechanisms for life.

The first one:

Every decision is a reaction against the fear of the worst: making children to avoid being forgotten, fuck someone at the reunion in case the opportunity never comes again, and the Holy Grail of paradoxes: marry to combat the loneliness, then plunge into that constant marital desire to be alone. This is the life that cannot be won, but it does offer the comforts of battle– the human heart is content when distracted by war.

And, the second one:

An across-the-board acceptance of the absurd all around us. Everything that exists, from consciousness and the digestive workings of the human body, to sound waves and bladeless fans, is magnificently unlikely. It seems so much likelier that things would not exist at all and yet the world shows up to class every morning as the cosmos take attendance. Why combat the unlikeliness? This is the way to survive in this world– to wake up in the morning and receive a cancer diagnosis, discover that a man has murdered 40 children, discover that the milk has gone bad, and exclaim, “How unlikely! Yet here we are,” and have a laugh and a swim in the chaos, swim without fear, swim without expectation, but always with an appreciation of every whim, the beauty of screwball twists and jerks that pump blood through our emaciated veins.

Thank you for your readership!

Jen is the founder of Lunch Money, a multicurrency personal finance tool for the modern-day spender. She is currently based in LA. Follow her on Twitter!

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