A Gap Year Around the World Taught Me to Appreciate Clichés
I am writing to remember what I learned in the last 12 months of our life traveling to 37 countries. I originally wrote this letter of stream of thoughts to myself, but I’ll take the risk of publishing it. I hope it’s as helpful to you as it is to me.
The word gratitude seems too small to describe how fortunate and thankful we are for our gap year.
I’ve come to understand clichés.
When Emily and I planned our gap year, we did not set goals. This was our first extended free time to examine our life and happiness. I did not want to set expectations in case of failure. But of course, it’s not possible to start a trip like ours without expectations. As we planned our travels, I began to imagine spectacular moments, expect amazing experiences, anticipate great food, and dream up exciting adventures. We did experience all those things, but they deviated sharply from my mental image. We flew a drone on all 7 continents, held a baby panda bear, watched sunrises and sunsets color the giant Moai statues on Easter Island, argued our way out from crooked cops who demanded bribes, and sailed the Mediterranean. With the ups, I experienced the downs. I began writing a book, but halted the project mid-way. I battled depression, disappointment, and frustration. I missed our friends.
In other words, a year of travel was just like living any other year of my life: full of surprises. Even though the circumstances were extraordinary, life resumes its familiar pattern no matter how large or small our lives become.
Living the Dream
A gap year of travel sounds like a fantasy to many: the cost, the time, and the logistics are hard to overcome. A gap year sounded like a fantasy to us too just a few years ago. Even with the means to take a year off work, the decision to “put life on hold” or “set aside our ambitions” were far harder to overcome. A gap year goes against the grain of a lifetime of being told to “work hard and save for retirement”. But like all big, complex challenges, our belief that we could do it started with a small act: a Google document listing 30 places we wanted to visit. Emily and I ranked the places in order of time sensitivity. For example, Cuba was high on our list since we wanted to visit before it opened up to mass American tourism, and The Maldives before the rising seas swallowed it whole.
We had set a goal to visit all 30 places on our list before we turned 60-years-old. Every few months, we revised the list and added more specifics. The foundation lay in putting our dreams to paper. Then we committed to spending the money to do it regardless of how much it exhausted our savings. After all, money is there to be spent, not to be taken to the grave. By the time I realized it was time for me to step down from being CEO of The Cheezburger Network, our list served as a reason and a template for the places we wanted to go. The rest was block and tackle planning. I can rebuild a company. I can reclimb my career ladder. I cannot re-live my life.
Yet, other than fun, justifying taking a year to travel wracked me with guilt. But the best stories are forged from extreme measures.
While the practical aspects of travel came as second nature to me, it took months to settle into the mentality of “not working.” The planning and preparation work was a full-time job that my wife handled with amazing grace and attention to detail. I managed our finances and the odd trips, like buying a scooter off Craigslist in Vietnam and riding it to Angkor Wat, how to live out of a van in the Australian Outback under a 119 degree scorcher, and the obligatory week being coated by dust at Burning Man. We fell into a comfortable rhythm of give and take. Spending 24 hours-a-day for 365 days within 100 feet of your partner is not for the uncommitted. Despite copious amounts of irritations and the occasional arguments, this experience helped us connect after 9 years of working together. It confirmed that we choose to remain deeply in love and affirmed that how we love each other is our business alone. It’s surprising how much you can learn about a person you’ve been married to for almost a decade. Yet, much more to learn remains between us because we are dynamic personalities whose experiences change us in different ways. Even after a year, we still struggle to communicate. What I believe with stronger conviction now is that I am deeply grateful for her patience and willingness to journey.
What we lived was a fairy tale life: a year of nights spent (mostly) in plush hotels perched on exotic landscapes, eating authentic food, and adventuring to our limits. I even learned to appreciate jazz. But for the first half of our year, I could not leave behind my obsession with success. I missed the attention and the thrill of entrepreneurship. It was not until I was ready to give up entrepreneurship that I realized it’s was a choice. I am not destined to be an entrepreneur. I am not owed success. I am not meant to be anything. Every step is a choice, conscious or unconscious, bounded by reality and my fortunate circumstances. Before our gap year, I valued many of the superficial highs of business over the meaningful. Perhaps it was out of necessity. Perhaps it was out of the joy it brought me. But what I want deeply now is to continue a life of learning in order to uncover the secrets of this world and to create something that is loved.
Turning the Corner on Myself
My depression turned the corner in Ho Chi Minh City, about half-way into our gap year. I was watching thousands of people on scooters in the streets below moving like a black ant river. Buses floated in between them like leaves surfing down stream. How did all these people get here? How did they all make a living? How can so many people find happiness? The only answer I could come up with was “in their own way.” That helped me come to terms with what I wanted from entrepreneurship. I learned to put aside a vast portion of the self-imposed pressure of “making it big.” I began to see the priority and the order in which entrepreneurship should be structured. The fundamentals of business are not about size and success, but focus, quality, and a passion to solve the hard problems. Applause does not correlate to success. Still, I know I’ll continue to struggle with this lesson for a long time to come. There will be many lessoned learned this year that I will not understand for a while.
In 2013, I started examining the fundamental beliefs about who I am and what makes me happy with my CEO coach Khalid Halim. He told me then that “the rabbit hole goes deep.” I had no idea how deep it could go. Once I started going down the rabbit hole of “what I do,” it was just another tumble down the hole to examine “what I believe.” I spent the second half of my gap year down there. My education came from watching how others live around the world and reading as many books as I could. During our travels, we were sometimes embarrassed by our advantages. But we learned that it’s better to say “thank you” than “sorry.” It is better to be thankful than embarrassed of who we are and what we have.
There are huge gaps between what people think they believe and how they act in reality. But it’s clear to me that belief drives personal action. It may be often inconsistent because we have not tested our belief. Seeing the inequalities of the world and the pain people inflict upon each other can make almost anyone believe that we live in a world of evil. But a well-tested belief requires a broad perspective. While the world appears awash in fresh pain and destruction, there has been enormous progress made in the last half-century. Yes. Distant history still haunts this world. Colonialism led to the tens millions of deaths in the two World Wars. But since then, humanity has pushed far and deep, albeit unevenly, into building a more peaceful, equitable society. I am not speaking from irrational optimism. We missed three terrorist attacks by just a few days. We have met the extremely poor, the systemically oppressed, and cried at the unmarked graves of genocide victims. We cried because we were confronted with our helplessness.
All That Leads to The Dark Side
The oppression, the destruction, and the genocides started with the fear of the “other people.” Fear that led to hate. Then hate led to the justification to dehumanize the others. There are two universal stories in the world: the beautiful tales of love and the ugly tomes of fear. If we are to see peace on earth, it is time that we outgrew the tight evolutionary grip of fear. Unfortunately, overcoming 6 billion years of evolution won’t happen quickly.
Despite all that holds us back, we live in an amazing world. Our personal liberties and these decades of relative peace did not spread to the far corners of the globe on ideology alone. Commerce and its enormous riches have given us fewer reasons to plunder and pillage our neighbors. Science and reasoning gave us the tools to question myth and mystery. Freedom from destitution gave us the time and energy to fight for human rights. Strong institutions gave us stability and protected us from interpersonal violence. Our romantic notions about the happy bygone years are just hallucinations. As a species, we have measurably never been more healthier, never been richer, never been freer, never been more peaceful, and never been more protective of the environment around us.
Humanity has the intelligence to survive the harsh reality of nature and ourselves. That intelligence is knowing that we have much more to learn. Experts are wrong not because science and knowledge are false, but because humanity is prone to a myriad of cognitive biases and people constantly over-reach beyond their narrow expertise. The world is both complex (made up of many simple parts) and complicated (made up of many unknown parts). The answer to erroneous experts is not to reject science and knowledge, but to make humbler, better experts. In sharing our knowledge with others, narratives matter, but listening matters just as much.
No moment during our travels represented the complicated tangled fabric of the modern world like our time in Antarctica. We were kayaking in Wilhelmina Bay off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula surrounded by more than a dozen humpback whales. In the decades before I was born, whales went nearly extinct because the whaling industry had a powerful economic incentive to harvest whale blubber, bone, and meat for oil, ivory, and food. Generations of these gentle, intelligent creatures saw humans and their ships as mortal threats to be feared. But the rise of the petroleum industry and its products made the hunting of whales less profitable and gave humanity enough time to organize a near global ban. The current generation of whales are young enough to have never seen a whaling ship. To this generation, we are a curiosity. We sat in our kayaks in the monochrome silence watching them poke their huge heads out of the water to take a peek at us, blow bubbles, and circle gently around our small, fragile kayaks.
Complexity versus Simplicity
While we celebrate the success of environmentalism and our collective enlightenment, without petroleum, whales would have been too valuable to leave alive. Yet, with petroleum, every species on earth now face a new threat from climate change. At the same time, the myopic pursuit of economic growth is driving ever more carnage. We camped with hardened men with soft hearts protecting the endangered black rhinos from poachers in the ever-drying lands of Namibia. But the whales and rhinos have a chance just like the rest of us. It’s not a popular narrative to think that oil helped save the whales or that elevating people out of poverty is fueling poaching. Maybe it’s time to rethink the dogma behind our narratives.
Dogma is simple. It is passionate and full of vigor. It is alluring in its false absolutism. On the other hand, moderation is a buzzkill. It is complex. It is not sexy. But moderation and compromise recognizes the diversity of this planet and its many voices. Moderation is governance. Peace. A society that lurches from one extreme to another is an unstable one. I would much prefer a society that continues to increment itself towards more equity and more kindness — even if that means I don’t get what I want right now.
This year has convinced me that the world is still headed in the right direction. The merchants of fear can only draw from a well of lies. To keep going, we need to continue searching for truths and fight in support of objectivity despite our own sacred cows. There are billions of people across every country and every belief to whom mystery is sacred. Unraveling a mystery makes it no less beautiful or spiritual because truth reveals more wondrous mysteries. And to find truths, I must be open to being wrong. I must calmly explore my own conflict and confusion. I must be willing to change with the lessons learned. But as civilizations have come and gone over and over again, progress earned is not forever. The world only moves towards the better if millions, perhaps billions, put in the same effort. As we’ve seen repeatedly, people who start with good intentions can end up murdering and torturing those they profess to protect.
But what can I do? I am just one person on this planet here for a temporary visit. I am inconsequential in the epic of time. What I learned feels like a cliché but for the first time, it is real.
What can I do?
I will not wait. I will choose. If I fail, I will choose again.
My choices may not be the answer everyone is looking for, but they are choices that align to my fundamental beliefs:
- I am here to discover truths. To be curious. To be open to being wrong. To listen without passing judgement.
- I am here to be present. To live an aware life. To live fearlessly. To experience, not consume.
- I am here to connect positively. To fill those around me with the hope of the future, the joy of the now, with honesty from my past.
Today, I am taking a deep breath to eradicate the fear of my future. Every chapter comes to an end, and our time in Seattle will be over after one last summer. Then we’ll start a new chapter in San Francisco. I don’t know what I will do next. I do not know if I can contribute to progress. But I can try. The most lopsided score in history is between those who said “we cannot” versus those who said “we can.”
We’re coming back renewed to do what we love with people we love in a new place we will love.
Finally, we are deeply grateful to our family, friends, and everyone around the world who cheered us on during our gap year.