Background on the blog series “Lessons on the Road”. I used to have this overly analytical way of calculating whether a year was net positive or negative, kind of like a personal yearly report. So come every December, I’d be stressfully trying to tally up all my experiences: “Did I give enough? Did I learn enough? What things that bother me can I let go of finally? Have I made progress? Which friends am I on better or worse terms with? Did I have more joyful moments than resentful or sad ones?” Reflecting today, I see it as a silly exercise using an arbitrary time frame: what’s in a year, after all? The moments of every day and week are far too complex and frequent to be only evaluated once a year. Now that I’m taking some time on the road with a flexible schedule, these thoughts aren’t pushed all the way to December. I have the bandwidth to evaluate more often, examining whether my recent actions bring me a sense of fulfillment and inch me closer to my goals. I’m sharing my personal lessons in order to inspire you to evaluate your own.
My Company recently told me an interesting allegory he heard about the descriptions of Heaven and Hell. In this allegorical world, Hell is a large banquet room filled with delicious food on a sprawling table. Each person sits at the table with their favorite dishes in front of them, except there’s one problem: the spoons are just too long for them to reach the food (and somehow they can’t use their hands). So the entire time, they’re each trying in vain to reach food that they can’t while it’s in front of their faces wafting up tasty smells. In Heaven, the set up is exactly the same. There’s a large banquet room filled with delicious food on a sprawling table, and the spoons to reach the food are also too long (and somehow in Heaven, people also don’t know how to use their hands). Except in Heaven, people are laughing and chatting, happy that they’re able to eat the food. How? They feed one another.
I love this allegory for several different reasons, but my favorite take away is that each person can find their own paradise by opening up and leaning on one another. In that way during these past few weeks in Korea, I’ve been reflecting on the value of connectivity and human friendships, especially the friends that have touched me on this trip, and how that gives me such a deep sense of fulfillment.
When the opportunity for this trip landed on our lap, my Company and I went through a list of pros and cons.
Pros: (1) we would be able to travel together for once, which is one of our favorite activities (2) my Company would finally experience living abroad (3) we may not be able to get an opportunity like this in a long time and (4) we discovered after some research that this wouldn’t affect us financially as much as we had first imagined.
Cons: (1) I would need to leave my full time job just at a time when I felt I was making good progress after spending the first half of my 20s not knowing what the hell I was doing and then working my butt off for the next 6-7 years; (2) my career, as a result, would likely stall for a year (or so I thought at the time; this hasn’t come true); (3) I felt guilty and irresponsible, as most other people our age were buying homes and having kids (more on this for another day); and most importantly of all (4) we would be isolated from our support system — our family and friends.
California had been my home for over 6 years, and it was the only home my Company had known. We not only had family there, but we had our closest friends all living within 30 miles of us. When I reflect on what made me so incredibly happy the last few years, my memories drift back to Saturday morning bike rides with friends through the redwoods, beer gardens and afternoon wine tastings on a Sunday, and evening walks discussing work, life, relationships and everything else in between. Being on the road would mean feeling farther away from all those people, and not only would we be physically far, but we’d also have to navigate tricky 8 or 16 hour time zones while dealing with language barriers in each new place we visit.
Four months into our trip now, this fear of mine was yet another one that proved to be false. The opposite happened. We were able to reconnect, share and make new memories with people on the road in ways we never would have imaged before our trip. I learned that the world around me feels smaller if I let my world get bigger. In every place we visited, we were able to connect deeply with old friends and make new ones (note: this is a long list so skip to the bottom if you want to read the lessons directly):
- Athens: We randomly made friends our last night there, and we fully intend on visiting them one day.
- Seville: The minute we began our trip formally in Sevilla, we met up with grad school friends of mine whom we hadn’t seen since our wedding. As native Spanish speakers, they helped make Spain feel more welcome our first weekend in.
- Southern Germany & Switzerland: my mom and sister spent time with us for 2 weeks. We had dinner with friends who immigrated to Zurich and went out partying early into the morning with friends from the Bay on vacation.
- Berlin & Munich: We stayed with friends in Berlin whom we hadn’t seen in years. My California BFF C– came out for a business trip and we had a chance to catch up one-on-one without the craziness of Silicon Valley. I met and got to know a cousin from China, whom I’d only seen in photos or heard stories of from my mom and aunts.
- UK, Scotland and London: it genuinely felt like coming back to a second home.
- Japan: Other than Spain, I was most worried about feeling lonely in Japan. I had originally thought we’d struggle without knowing the language or city, but it turns out two cycling friends of mine from over 10 years ago (!!) were living in Japan. While we hadn’t stayed in touch over the years, we reconnected, and our friendship got far stronger.
- Korea: Korea has been the icing on the cake. I blame my social life for how much less I’m blogging. I got to spend time with my childhood friend L– and all her friends here in Seoul. Through her, we met some of the most interesting, kindest people on the road who have shown us Korea from another angle.
This was far beyond any expectation before our trip. Being able to reconnect with so many people made me also realize that I had inadvertently let some friendships outside of my sphere of convenience fade over the last few years. Busy work schedules, commutes, and other obligations made it hard to stay in touch with friends who weren’t in my immediate 30-mile radius. As a result, I had made my own world smaller. If there’s any one thing I regret from the past few years, this would be it.
Luckily, I also learned that friendships – a network or support system – is an organic, fluid and moving mesh. Parts of it grow stronger when you take care of it, like growing roots. But even if you take some time away, you’ll end up strengthening another part of the system, and the old roots don’t die. And it doesn’t need to be hard to stay in touch, especially with far away friends. While it’s not a substitute for the person, technology can help bridge gaps. All it takes is just a little extra time, and this trip gave me that. That’s why I’m pretty committed to keeping this blog alive after we return to the U.S. I’d like for it to become a conversation starter for a far deeper, more private discussion with friends and family all around the world.
In each of these new places on the road, reconnecting with old friends and family has also shown me that many of us are in a state of constant movement, even if we’re not physically on the move. Naturally, we crave improvement and searching for new experiences that will support that improvement. In that way, meeting up with friends from earlier phases in life is especially exciting: you have a foundation for the friendship, but you’re also meeting the person for the first time again. It’s as if we’re all on different routes for our destinations but we can take pit stops to enjoy the moments together and learn a thing or two about a road the other has taken. It reminds me that one of the best parts of a major metropolitan area like Silicon Valley, New York or London is the mix of interesting people and new ideas making real, in-person connections and memories. Having the ability to move, learn, and take those ideas back to a different place to test them lifts us all up. In an era of worldwide protectionism, this should not be forgotten.
Finally, my last reflection on connectivity is that I’m glad I’ve let my work become personal. As I had begun working more over the past few years, I realized that trying to achieve two separate life buckets for work and personal life was really hard for me, and it made me less fulfilled in both. To do something with pride means putting your name on your best work and sharing those experiences with your colleagues that extends beyond simple obligation. By opening the doors to both sides, I have had far richer experiences. Over the years, I spent as much time with my colleagues as I did with my friends and family, and because of that, I wanted them to be part of my support system (and they did). On this trip, being able to connect to current and former colleagues on the road has tied me to a sense of community, shared goals, support and value. It is, in so many ways, tethering me back to reality. It reminds me every day that the work I had done and still do has had real consequences to real people, that people are dedicated every day to this shared goal, and that I still have a community waiting for me back home.
Deeply shared experiences with others – both the bad and the good – make us human and brings a core value beyond the transience of prestige, money or anything those things can buy us. Deep human connections fulfill us, reflecting mirrors to show us that we’re not alone but also showing us what’s possible. Sharing our vulnerabilities gives another person the opportunity to lift us up, forces us to be honest, and in return, strengthens the relationship and community.
Being on the road doesn’t diminish any of this. In fact, as I have learned, it opens it up to greater possibilities. It has widened my scope of friendships, taught me about new cultures, and reaffirmed my deep convictions that in the end, we have so much in common: that laughter is the most universal language we have, that we are each proud of our history and culture, that enjoying someone else’s food is a sure way to gain a friend, and that we crave to share our stories with one another. For these reasons, I hope our future is a more open one, one where we sit at a large banquet table, feeding one another our favorite dishes.