Yes, you can leave the North America bubble
It’s not the only place that matters
I resisted moving to South America, as much as I enjoyed my time there during my mini-lives over the past several years.
But yesterday, after selling or giving away all of my stuff, I moved to Colombia.
In some ways, life is clearly better for me in Colombia than in the U.S.. I can get all of the fresh vegetables I can carry from the farmer’s market for less than $10, I can afford an apartment in a building with a pool, and my health insurance plan — the best available — is about $100 a month. Even though I’ve learned I can be miserable or happy in just about any kind of weather, the climate is an added bonus: 75˚F and sunny all year.
I have to admit, the lack of American*-level convenience was one of the factors that held me back. Can you imagine living without Amazon Prime? Still, I can get items from Amazon within about 2 weeks (after paying 30% extra on shipping and import taxes).
But the challenging parts of living in a developing country are the parts that make it worth doing. For example, since I’m operating in Spanish day-to-day — and interacting with people from a totally different culture — I’m forced to constantly assume that I’m wrong. The foreigner is always wrong. This is a kind of “patience therapy.” At first I get frustrated easily, but the relaxed rhythm of Colombian life eventually takes over.
For reference, New York City has the opposite effect. It fools me into thinking that I’m right, and there’s somewhere I have to be.
It’s hard to quantify the value of immersing yourself in another culture. Like a cold shower, it’s all at the same time shocking, refreshing, and invigorating. Once I reached the level of Spanish where I was able to give directions on the street, I felt like I had discovered a secret level on Super Mario Bros..
Suddenly, the world felt bigger. Not only could I now travel in newfound comfort in 13 countries, I had — in the process of learning and living — developed a new understanding of humanity at large: Having a sense of the universality of emotions like happiness, fear, and love; and the myriad ways of navigating all of it, brought vibrance to every face I saw on the street.
When Tim Ferriss asked Malcolm Gladwell what advice he would have for his 30-year-old self, his response was quick, and simple: “Leave North America…. Which is — despite the fact that it pretends to be the only place that matters — is not the only place that matters.” He then recalled an opportunity he had to live in Jamaica. “I should have done it,” he said.
I wonder about the details of Mr. Gladwell’s decision-making process when he passed up that opportunity. I imagine that the conveniences and familiarity of his home country felt even more comfortable when wrapped in a blanket of fear of the unknown.
Of course, it was a different world twenty-two years ago. There was no Skype or Facebook. He couldn’t just log onto JOL (Jamaica Online) to send an email to a friend. My own geographic flexibility would be unthinkable without impromptu FaceTime chats with my parents, and scheduled Hangouts with close friends.
I also imagine someone as accomplished as Mr. Gladwell was driven by his career aspirations. When you feel like you’re in “the only place that matters,” competing with your Washington Post colleagues, running off to Jamaica looks like career suicide.
I personally had to overcome the sense that by running off to South America, I was somehow admitting defeat in “The America Game.” But, this isn’t the first time that I’ve left the well-worn path for something counterintuitive. Eight years ago, I left my life as a product designer for Silicon Valley startups — job opportunities nipping at my tail. I didn’t have a plan in mind, but I eventually transformed into a writer, teacher, and podcaster. These are all things I can do from abroad, and in fact, I do my best work when in Colombia because I’m just happier here.
Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if I had stayed on that path (as if I could have stomached it). I’d probably be using my good fortune to build products that do whatever my mom doesn’t do for me anymore, paying $3,000 a month for a studio apartment, and looking for the next molecular gastronomy restaurant to cross off my bucket list.
I know that sounds sanctimonious, as if my flexible lifestyle weren’t made possible by innovators in Silicon Valley and beyond. It’s just that sometimes I think about how each of us could be living a life different from the one we’re living — a life that would actually make us happier — yet we have no way of knowing about it. We’re like dogs that haven’t figured out that the doggy door isn’t just a solid wall.
I think about a well-intentioned product designer in his studio apartment, shoving the last bite of pad thai he ordered from Seamless into his mouth while rushing to his Uber to drink craft cocktails. While surrounded by people discussing the latest TechCrunch article, he feels a faint sense of dissatisfaction — a sense that he’s not good enough. He takes another drink and forgets about it.
I wish he would reconsider. I wish he would seek out discomfort, face his insecurities, and live a life on the great frontier that technology has expanded for so many of us.
And even when I hear a real innovator like Elon Musk fantasize about colonizing Mars — as exciting an idea as that is — I cringe a little. The same way a magician waving his hand will keep you from seeing the dove he’s pulling from his pocket, I fear it will make people forget about the Earth, and humanity, and human experience — and how much of all of it each of us has yet to explore.
* I don’t like to call U.S. Citizens “Americans” (Colombia is also in The Americas), but I’m not sure what else to call us.