8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

Turkey’s Riviera and the City of Bodrum

Bodrum Fortress and Harbor - Turkey

As the tepid water runs across my extended fingers in the bathroom in my small Pensiyon in Bodrum I find it a fitting parallel.  The shower head is in need of a soak with most of its nozzels obscured by calcium deposits. The water itself is slowly warming to the touch, though I can’t truly tell if it is just my flesh adjusting to the luke-warm water, or if hot water has finally made its way up to the third floor of the building and to my room.

Masts in Bodrum Harbor - Turkey

The room itself is unremarkable.  Despite a higher than normal number of errant black hairs on the sheets, it is clean enough.  After a sniff to confirm that the sheets are, in fact, freshly washed (they are), I settle in.  It’s nothing special – but then again, it’s a Pensiyon in a beach town.  That’s what you would expect. At 40 Turkish Lira a night, the private room with a small Queen sized bed is a decent alternative to the local hostel, which boasted one of the lowest ratings I’ve ever seen on HostelWorld and HostelBookers.  The bed is comfortable enough, though too short for me to sleep in it normally. Luckily, I’m not sharing the bed with anyone which allows me to sleep sprawled diagonally across it.

Turkish Butcher - Bodrum, Turkey

My room seems the perfect parallel for my time in Bodrum.  I go through phases where my opinion of the city is stone cold, then others where it warms slightly, and then the occasional moment, albeit brief and fleeting, where I am hot for the city and feel tempted to advocate it and the surrounding area.  It’s not really Bodrum’s fault.  As with oh-so-many relationships it’s more that we’re just not an ideal match and that my timing is off – in this case by a matter of a few days.

The Shipwreck - Bodrum, Turkey

This city and those on the rest of the peninsula are resort cities.  They consist of overpriced restaurants  gimmicky nick nack shops, sprawling harbors full of gorgeous yachts, specially designed tourist boats, and a smattering of local fishermen’s multi-colored one-man boats.  It has a smattering of pebble beaches that ring crystal clear water that is so inviting it’s easy to forget that summer hasn’t quite yet arrived. Unfortunately, this time of year the beaches are littered with old construction materials, debris, and unattractive flotsam.

Colorful Fishing Nets - Bodrum, Turkey

The challenge is, I don’t like resort cities.  I’m not an all inclusive resort type of guy.  I also don’t like gravel beaches. I grew up on the golden sand beaches of northern Mexico and am perpetually spoiled.  I go stir crazy if i’m supposed to just sit by the pool (or seaside), drink, eat, and do nothing.  I’m a history and stimulation junky.  I need old streets to explore, pristine natural beauty, and rich culture that smacks of authenticity – not postcard-poised tomfoolery.   As a result, all of Bodrum’s greatest assets are things that I’m disinterested in and apathetic about.

Boat Sailing Sea of Flowers - Bodrum, Turkey

When deciding to head to Bodrum, I failed to realize just how new the whole area is.  It’s a resort peninsula and it is fairly obvious that most of the construction has occurred in the last 30 years.  Even today there is heavy construction to be seen everywhere.  The hills are blighted by massive white and beige scars where new developments are being dynamited into the side of the hills.   The architecture that has been used and marks the area reflects modern Turkish design which revolves around ugly squares and rectangles.  It’s an odd mash up between old soviet architecture, the nightmarish cement architectural movements in the 60s and 70s and an almost Asian influence.   On the upside, the use of whitewash on almost all the buildings does help offset their lack of character. Yet, this is far from unusual.  It’s the same in heavy resort areas all around the Mediterranean and reminds me of parts of the Costa Del Sol in Spain. It’s also perfectly in line with what a lot of people want and are drawn to.  There’s a reason Bodrum is a huge tourist destination and for what it is, it really does have a lot going for it.

Sailing at Dusk

If you peruse a history book, you’ll find that Bodrum has a rich history spanning back thousands of years.  The city sprawls around the base of an impressive, and extremely attractive crusader castle which is highly unusual and the city’s defining landmark.  The streets in the city center are white marble and boast a fair amount of greenery.  They’re not unattractive, and have a clean feel to them.  There are even a few winding alleys and old side streets that cut between them and which tease of the historic city that Bodrum is built upon.  Yet, unlike Antalya which still boasts a fairly robust old city, Bodrum’s is more or less non-existent. Its main attractions can be seen in a matter of hours, and despite boasting the ruins of one of the ancient 7 wonders of the world, all that is left is a smattering of column chunks…most of the ruin was carted off by archaeologists and by the Crusaders who built the Castle.  Bodrum knows what it is, and seems to have committed to that identity fully focusing on the water and all that is connected to it.  There are a line of old windmills that overlook the city – the type of thing that the Greeks have leveraged to great success and which could be a not-insignificant tourist attraction.  Yet, only one of them is restored, and even that is in dilapidated shape.  The rest are more ruin than windmill and in such a sad state that they’re barely worth the visit, let alone a photograph.

Castle Peacock - Bodrum Castle, Turkey

And yet, I came to Bodrum largely for the sun and it has delivered. The moments I’ve enjoyed most here have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, when the sun was out.  The sunsets are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the water…well, the water is its own attraction, even if it is still too cold to swim.  I’ve entertained myself by day wandering the city, eating, and then relished the late-afternoons which I’ve spent at small beach-front cafes enjoying a beer, smoking my pipe, watching people, and the gradual shifting shades of Aegean sunsets watched against the backdrop of castles and sailboats.  It is a fantastic way to recover and recharge after Denmark’s long and dark winter. Forcing myself to slow down and to just relax also has its benefits.  It may bore me slightly, but it is no doubt good for me.  I can feel myself finally catching up on sleep, and that my mind is sorting through and planning things that have been pushed to the side as more pressing needs draw my attentions.  I’ve even managed to finish the latest Game of Thrones book and to do some recreational reading.

Bodrum Windmills - Turkey

At night the city’s fish market turns into an intertwined and charming combination of fresh fish stalls and chaotically organized restaurant tables overflowing with Turks, Russians and Germans.  The official tourist season started April 1st – the day after I departed – which meant that all of the secondary attractions (the hamams, some restaurants,  the ferry to Rhodes, etc.) were all shut down.  The city’s nightlife was also much less than I imagine it might be during high season.  Despite how quiet the town was, I did manage a day-trip to the nearby Island of Kos which was charming, if equally sleepy. At some point I’ll have to re-visit Bodrum during high season and with friends or a romantic partner in tow.  I suspect that if I do, I’ll enjoy the city in a whole new way.  So, Bodrum – I bid you farewell … until next time.

A Cat In Kos Castle’s Court – Weekly Travel Photo

Cat Guarding Kos Fortress

While the sound of men at arms, craftsmen  local officials, and traders has long since vanished from the stone walkways and carefully fitted walls that shape Kos Fortress one small army still remains.  The fortress of Kos is manned by a small band of warrior-hunters. Predators that seek out vermin, set upon them, and then plop down in the grass to carefully lick themselves clean, paws stretched high into the air.  Some might argue that they’re the purrrfect guardians for a castle that served its purpose in times of peace and war for generations but which has now retired from service. These guardians casually tolerate visitors – the occasional tourist who makes his way across the site of the old draw-bridge, pays his three lira and gains access to the castle grounds.  Grounds that, at the time of my visit, looked more like a garden for wild flowers than former military instillation. The scent of pollen was thick in the air, mingling with the fresh aroma of ocean salt to add a wonderful sweet perfume to the air. The low rumble of purring cats was accompanied by the audible buzz of the fortress’ airforce – thousands of bees hard at work darting from flower to flower while being equally careful to avoid the casual swat of bored cats relaxing in the late-afternoon sun.

The old crusader castle at Kos, built in part by the Knights of St. John in 1315, was one of my favorite parts of my day-long visit to Kos. The mixture of wild grass-filled moats, and wildflowers so thick they covered the ground with bands of color reminiscent of a rainbow, was deeply relaxing and soothing. It led to an hour of pure relaxation and bliss, made that much better by the nearly complete absence of other tourists.  As far as the guardians?  Well, the cats kept a close watch on me – suspicious but hospitable – as only cats can be.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Turning 28 Abroad and Reflecting on Success

Hiking Tirol Region, Austria

As I sit here in a small internet cafe on a blustry Turkish day in the small coastal town of Bodrum, I find it hard to believe that I’m already celebrating my 28th birthday.  I suppose it isn’t the most remarkable of birthdays.  It’s not one that signifies becoming a man, earning new rights, or one of life’s cornerstones.  Yet, this past year was one of my favorite so far.

At the risk of sounding like an overly optimistic braggart, I’ll confess that life is good.  Or, if I throw modesty to the winds it would more accurately be described as spectacular!

At this time last year I had just returned from my introductory visit to Turkey. I was preparing to head to Italy where fantastic new opportunities and friends awaited.  I was also finally getting settled and adjusting to life in Copenhagen. The remainder of the last 12 months saw me continue to fall madly, deeply, passionately, in love with Copenhagen.  Bolstered by the support of my parents and brother, it also saw me visit Africa for the first time in the form of Zambia and Botswana, as well as a return to Asia by way of Dubai. Later we would pause in the Czech Republic, Germany, England and Scotland.  I  spent Halloween in Canada having just wrapped up a polar bear safari, and then prepared for the new year with a re-visit to Prague. The new year came and with it a quick trip up to Norway. Now, as I write this post, I’m on the tail-end of a trip to Austria where I learned to ski in the heart of the Alps and, a culinary and cultural meander through Turkey.

Each of these adventures provided fresh, exciting, and wonderful learning experiences. They fed my voracious appetite for new stimuli and a better understanding of the world. They were also largely made possible, either directly or indirectly, through the endless support of family, close friends, and you, my readers. It was one of my best travel years to date and it really pushed (and tore down) a lot of my old comfort boundaries.  Last week I broke 500,000 views on youtube (thank you!). The website continues to perform well and I’ve been approached about a number of exciting opportunities which will help showcase VirtualWayfarer, my photography, my writing, and my videos. It is an exciting time with a lot of irons in the fire.

Beyond pure travel though, the year also brought challenges and change.  I’m in the midst of finishing up my Masters degree and will be polishing off my thesis come August (assuming all goes according to plan).  I’m very happy with my progress, the grades I’ve gotten as part of the program, and above all the wonderful experiences I’ve had while doing a two-year masters abroad.  Still, it has been 21 months since the last time I was back in the US. That in and of itself poses a wealth of challenges. Over the past year we lost several extended family members and several close family friends. Those are always some of the most difficult moments while abroad.  It is easy to beat yourself up for not being there or being able to return to say goodbye.  They also make you wonder if you’re making a horrible mistake and doing a grave disservice to friends and loved ones by spending time so far away and apart. Luckily, Skype and Facebok help bridge that gap in a way that still amazes me. Not a week goes by that I don’t spend an hour or two in casual conversation with my folks and brother, despite the long distances between Zambia, Arizona, and Denmark.

Positive Choices and Perspective

This past year was possible because of decisions I made and priorities which I set and stuck to, despite significant challenges.  I’ve chosen to keep my daily expenses low, not to adopt a dog or cat, and to avoid buying a house. At a certain level my tangible ties to a specific place and things are limited – something which is rewarding, but also has a certain cost to it and comes with a periodic sense of weariness and transience.  I’ve had two succesful careers outside of my time spent as a student, but even those were selected, honed, and sustained only so long as they moved me in the general direction I have chosen for myself financially, intellectually, professionally, and personally.

What only a few select friends know and truly understand is just how difficult it can be for me to drive myself forward towards the goals I’ve set for myself. To overcome the doubts, the false turns, an inclination for stability, fear of the unknown, to face the profound weight of expectations, and then persevere.

The face many see is one of confidence. Of someone who unflinchingly tackles the unknown and the exotic.  Who embraces new things and new challenges with a smile and a laugh, while leaving behind the stable and the comfortable again and again. Yet, beneath the confident image is a raging sea of uncertainty and discomfort.  I am, by my very nature, a long-term thinker.  I weigh potential benefits, and if left to act based on impulse, operate conservatively.  I’m rarely reckless, and seldom completely impulsive.  When I was younger, I suffered from a fairly strong case of social anxiety. It is something I’ve overcome and mostly conquered but, at times I still feel physically nauseous when preparing for important social events or acting outside my social comfort zone. It can still be so strong that I’ve been tempted to consider anti-anxiety medications and similar tools – but I’ve always come back to the same conclusion.  It would treat the symptoms but do little to overcome the source or to help me truly move forward in my personal development. After all, discomfort is not necesarilly bad, and sometimes it is a strength. Part and parcel of that inclination towards conservative action is a strong desire not to come across as appearing silly or ignorant.

Perhaps that is why I find travel so addictive. It constantly forces me to push each of these boundaries and to become a stronger person. I still get slightly sick to my stomach before a long bus ride or flight. Figuring out public transportation in a new city is not only an exciting challenge to unravel, but also an unnerving one. Travel takes simple things that we are used to and familiar with – such as toilets and bathrooms – and turns them into new challenges.  It provides new foods, new peoples, new languages, and new cultural norms. It also allows us access to new communities we have previously avoided or missed out on.  Most recently, this was embodied by my trip to the Tirol region of Austria to learn how to ski. It took until I was 28 to learn, in no small part, because I was deeply anxious over my complete lack of knowledge and skill.  Sure, there were plenty of excuses to justify the delay, but at the end of the day, it came down to a fear of the unknown, looking like a fool (even in front of complete strangers half a world away), and failing to perform at the level I expect of myself.  As has happened so many times before, the fears I had built up in my head and the what-ifs were mostly hollow.  Oh, sure, there were moments of embarassment as I had to ask basic questions and as I stumbled my way through the ski and spa culture.  Challenges that included figuring out everything from what to tip my ski instructor to what (not to wear) and how to get comfortable (quickly) with sitting naked in a sauna across from a mixture of German and Austrian men and women.

As I reflect, this year has re-affirmed time and time again that it is all about moving forward.  About constantly pushing the comfort zone, and re-visiting past successes.  It’s not only a matter of pushing our personal comforts, it is a matter of re-visiting those new conquests until they become comfortable and burned into our muscle and conscious memory.

In my Ignite Phoenix talk a few years ago I told people to “Just Say Yes”.  This is something that was re-affirmed in a major way once again this past year, but it is hard and seldom gets easier.  It is a constant challenge and for every two uncomfortable YES!s I manage, there is at least one “No” or “Not Today” to go with it.  Still, I consider myself a YES person, not an “If only…” person.  The truth of it is that if you’re unhappy with (or merely content with) the opportunities life has presented you with, if you look at other people and dream of doing things they’re doing, or wonder what that life might be like – then you’re probably justifying inaction with excuses.  While luck may exist, it is more often a matter of choice. Of not putting things off, or justifying passing on opportunities by qualifying everything with, “If only I…” or “If only it…”.  The choices we make and the role of fear in shaping those choices is paramount to crafting who we are and who we want to become.  We can justify inaction by looking at others and using their own success and appearance of confidence to justify our inaction or we can drive ourselves forward one small step at a time.

As I prepare for life after my Masters degree, which will entail a return to the corporate world, I know that I have to fix my end goals in mind’s-eye and then strive to work towards those goals while being very aware of how I may act (or fail to) in order to hedge my bets. It’s the small things – like failure to book a flight or to get paperwork filed before an application deadline that are fatal to our success and pushing our comfort zones – not big decisions.

This year has also led to conversations that have re-affirmed and helped me better formalize my understanding of the pressures that go with success.  The truth is that the more success you enjoy, the greater the yoke of responsibility that comes with it. Years ago, one of my college suite-mates committed suicide. It was a shock, in no small part because he was profoundly succesful, both socially, academically, and within the local community.  Despite being in the final stages of University, I remember noting that one of Arizona’s State Representatives was present and spoke at the funeral. His death, and others like it, have contantly reminded me that while we often look at our peers and those people we view as profoundly succesful, inspiring, and (perhaps) useful for a bit of introspective self intimidation, what we overlook is the unspoken pressure to perform that goes with success.   My old suite-mate had one failiure that he felt so overwhelmed and doomed him, that he lost sight of all his other assets and successes.  While his was an extreme case that resulted in extreme action, we all take similar, if greatly diluted, actions on a regular basis.

There is a deep fear of failure. To even admit its existance potentially shatters that image of confidence, success, and casual ease.  As I push myself to succeed and I face the prospect of failure, I am constantly reminded of the lesson his actions taught me. I am reminded that failure, while daunting, is seldom half as uncomfortable as the fear of failure itself.  I am reminded that to enjoy success and to grow as an individual, I have to come to terms with the challenges of failure, of external judgement, and of decisions and actions that may be the right course for me, but which may differ from those otherwise expected of me – be it by family, by friends, by culture, by work, or by social contract.  I must also remember that inaction is often every bit as damning as a failed attempt. Luckily, this past year – as with those before it – has shown me that I won the familial lottery and have been blessed with incredibly supportive parents.  That alone makes it much easier to push myself forward and develop as a man; to grow as an indivdual into who I choose to be – not what fear and failed opportunities leave me. It also makes it easier to be selective as I seek out the friends I choose as company and the people I surround myself with.  People who inspire me, who drive me forward, and who challenge me. These are the foundations which sustain true success.

So, as I reflect on the past year, I invite you to join me in looking at your own lives, choices, fears, and the challenges that go with them.  It need not be something as major as jumping out of an airplane, or catching the next flight to the most war-torn part of Africa.  Instead, start simply and aim for repetition.  Order something outside of what you would normally eat, take a public bus for the first time, or force yourself to ask a question or voice your ignorance when a topic arises that is beyond the scope of what you know now, at this moment. Read, research, and browse. Surely, the end result will be new perspective, new opportunities and new confidence. All of which will better prepare you to say YES the next time opportunity presents itself.

So, I leave you with these thoughts and a heartfelt thank you for your support, your wisdom, your knowledge, your curiosity, and for helping me challenge myself and mature.  Each year, and each new experience, moves me closer towards who I want to be as an individual.  Which is not to say I am not deeply happy with who I am now.  Today.  But, life is a process of continuing growth and for the chance to craft who we are into something even wiser and more capable.

Safe travels, open roads.