The Sojourner’s Dilemma

I love Copenhagen. It is, quite possibly, my favorite capital city in the world.  Yet, recently, I found myself falling out of love with the city. A combination of factors – winter, a cold, the stress of the job search, and a daily commute that ate up three hours of my schedule started to weigh on me. I found that sense of doubt creeping into my psyche, combined with the seeds of bitterness.  It wasn’t until I had a day to walk the city – something I hadn’t done in more than three months – that I had an epiphany and sense of renewed love for Copenhagen.

Springtime in Copenhagen

What I’ve taken to calling the Sojourner’s Dilemma is something no doubt familiar to anyone who has done a long-term study abroad, lived abroad as a sojourner, or progressed to the full-expat stage. It is that inevitable stage in the experience where your love and zeal for a place starts to slip away.  In some cases losing that magic is a very real thing tied to changes in your needs as an individual.  But, more often than not, I believe it stems from a loss of connection with the aspects of the city and daily/experience which were the source of that magic to begin with.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in a city for 6 months or 10 years, it’s when we lose touch with the daily richness that the balance begins to shift from a place of inspiration that puts an added bit of zip into our steps towards a weighty chain that drags us down.

Life Abroad and the Loss of Innocence

Old Woman By Fountain

As I stepped off of the curb and down onto an old cobblestone street in the historic district of Innsbruck, I found myself musing.  A few minutes earlier a light mist, far too mild to even be considered rain, had begun to drift down.  I was surrounded by old buildings full of character, each with a wealth of stories locked away behind oft re-painted and restored walls.  As my eyes scanned the street they settled on an old woman standing beside a water fountain.  It was one of those postcard perfect moments.  The type you travel for; that brings to life all of the magic moments you fawned over, dreamed of, and were raised upon.  I paused and soaked up the details of it. It wasn’t until several days later, as I touched down in Istanbul and found myself wandering the storied city’s ancient and exotic streets, that I realized that perfect scene had been the harbinger of a significant realization.

When I made the choice to re-locate to Copenhagen for a two-year Masters program, I knew that a lot of things would change.  Chief among those was me as an individual.  One thing I never thought about or expected to change drastically was my relationship as a whole with Europe.  True, I expected it to become more familiar, but I think at a certain level I expected that I’d just have more time to relish its magic and cultural diversity.

I now realize that in re-locating to Denmark, a large chunk of Europe has lost part of the exotic mystery that made it such an exhilarating and spectacular place to visit as a child and young adult. This shift hasn’t come entirely from the year and a half I’ve lived in Denmark. If I’m to be honest I think I can trace it as a gradual progression as I took each European trip.

The last year and a half has stripped away my innocence.  It has, in a way, mirrored the shift we go through as we grow up and realize that parents can be wrong, that Santa Claus is mythological fiction, and that special effects are constructs and not reality.  I hesitate to say that the magical has become mundane, because that would be a major simplification and, in truth, grossly inaccurate. Yet, it may, in part, get at the heart of what I’ve come to realize.

Istanbul offered me something that Innsbruck did not.  That taste of discomfort, the raw unknown, the alien. It offered the exotic, the strange, the curious all in addition to the pleasures of exploring a typical city. There was a time when Innsbruck and the other German, Nordic, and British cities harbored that same allure.  Now, though, they’ve become part of me.  The architecture differs, but only slightly.  The languages and people are different, but still close enough of a kind that they feel like kindred populations, strange cousins of a sort.

I suppose what I am getting at is that after nearly two years spent living in Denmark, that once-magical-fairytale land that was Northern and Western Europe has become an extension of the United States in my mind.  Just as a trip from Arizona to Florida offered a taste of the exotic, but remained still very much a part of the world of experiences and flavor that is the United States. The same has happened for me within Europe be it Denmark, Austria, Prague or England.

It’s not a bad thing really. If anything it is a chance to better connect with and relate to these countries.  I’m also not implying that Austria and Denmark are the same.  Far from it.  Yet, a part of me is slightly sad to see that period of innocent wonder lost…not unlike the loss of the innocence and wonder of youth. It also comes with the realization that to feed my addiction to the new, to the exotic, and to that sense of mystery – I’ll have to continue to explore other parts of the world I have thus far neglected.

As Asia, Far Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South America call to me I cannot help but be excited for the feast that is fresh discovery.  Still, I cannot help but realize that it will never be the same as my early love affair with Europe.  It is where my wanderlust was birthed, nurtured, and matured.

The lady by the fountain and countless moments like it also put my mind at ease.  It reminded me that there are still an abundance of intimate moments to be experienced here in Europe. It is a wonderous place full of incredible experiences, delectable food, new surprises, and a lifestyle that most Hollywood directors would refuse to craft into their films, claiming it to be far to ideal to be believable.

This post isn’t about regret, far from it. It is merely about the realization of lost innocence. I would make the move to Copenhagen again in a heart beat. I am love with my lifestyle, with the city, and derive endless pleasure from exploring Europe’s historic districts, winding streets, and cozy alleyways.  While every brick may no longer ooze mystery, the opportunity to spend my days casually wandering through real-life paintings is a true blessing.

In discussing this realization with friends who have pursued or are currently on a similar path, i’ve discovered that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) not alone in this realization.  It is, in a way, inevitable.

To those of you who are dreaming of, considering, or in the process of pursuing expat life – it is a wonderful, informative, and inspiring thing.  Just be prepared and go into it striving to enjoy each and every moment while you can.  Those memories are the foundations upon which great memories and life’s context are built.

For now, I’m off to toss my headphones on, listen to some classical music, and let it serve as a soundtrack to my next adventure.

The open road calls …

Live Better: How I Seek Inspiration

Antalya Near Sunset

A few years ago I made an internal decision:  I was happy dedicating myself to my career and to “growing up” but that I was unwilling to simply blindly conform to what society told me I was supposed to do.  Perhaps the most extreme case is the push to find the perfect girl, get married, toss up a white picket fence and to get a dog all by the age of 25.  On a smaller level, the messages were clear – act your age.  Which is to say, don’t jump into puddles. Grow up. Leave behind your pre-pubescent sense of humor.  Frankly, it’s bullhonkey.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have merit.  I have friends who have done the white picket fence route and love it.  It’s also important to learn how to carry yourself and when splashing through puddles or laughing at dog farts is acceptable.

My philosophy over the last few years has been to look to young children and old men for inspiration.  These two groups operate by their own set of rules and seem to have a rich appreciation for life that most young and middle-aged adults have forgotten.  Children have the wide eyed innocence and curiosity of youth, two things that most of us lose as we grow older.  Old men have a vast mixture of experience, wisdom, and perspective which can only come through a lifetime of experiences.

Want to live well?  Observe what these two groups do and then try it. You may not like it, but if you’re like me – chances are it will open your eyes to a wealth of different experiences which you’d otherwise miss out on.

Just what do I mean?  Here are a few examples:

Child With Balloon - Bergen, Norway

My Inner Child

Today while walking home in a light snow storm I was hunkered down, frowning, and feeling slightly bitter. As I impatiently stood at a stop light debating jaywalking I paused and watch a young kid who was far more entertained than annoyed.  Instead of standing there cold and vexed he turned full into the blustering snow flakes and tried to catch them on his tongue.   It looked ridiculous and childish – but let’s be honest, which was actually more ridiculous?  Him standing there, tongue out, in the middle of a snow storm that he was enjoying thoroughly – or me, standing there muttering to myself.  I almost missed the moment completely.  Inspired, and with a chuckle – I decided to abandon my sour sulking and to follow suit.  Together we stood waiting for the light to turn, faces uplifted, mouths open, and giant smiles on our faces.  My mood changed immediately, and that one small act has re-framed the rest of my afternoon.

As I mentioned above.  I still jump into puddles.  That’s right, I’m 27, 193 cm tall (6’4″), about 190 pounds and if you catch me on a rainy evening , you’ll see me splashing around in puddles like a kid.  It drives some of my friends crazy.  Others, after a brief hesitation, will join me. There’s something liberating about it.  Something empowering, and energizing. There’s a reason that street scene has come to define Singing in the Rain.  More than the specific act though, I think it ties into taking stock of small moments which can be turned into enjoyable experiences.  It’s the small things that can add the most to our day-to-day lives.  When rushing from meeting to meeting armed with a brief case, and shielded behind a suit and tie that’s easy to forget.

Be curious. Kids and their questions can be borderline obnoxious at times.  As an expat, I find that re-visiting a child’s curiosity is a huge asset.  Why do things work the way they do?  Am I confident enough to ask about things I don’t understand?  Why do words mean what the mean?  Re-discover your inner curiosity.  Touch things, ask questions, taste things, smell things, and truly explore the world around you. As “Why” not “Why should I?”.

The City of Edinburgh

My Inner Old Man

One of the first experiments I ran was also one of my most successful.   I was aware that most older men knew how to, and enjoyed traditional dances.  At the time, this was in major conflict with my generation’s views on things like the Waltz or Foxtrot.  As a result, and out of an aspiration towards the ideal of the Renaissance Man, I signed up for a Ballroom/Latin/Swing course at my local University.  My friends thought I was either crazy, or was subtly coming out of the closet.  This was back in 2004 and pre-dated the widespread resurgence of traditional dances that Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have helped bring to fruition. I’ll never forget the first day of class. I had no idea what to expect, and was second guessing my decision.  Then I ended up in a class where there were six girls for ever guy and learning life skills that have been instrumental in helping me become a better business man, public speaker, and more confident socialite.  On top of all those perks, the dancing itself has been a wonderful boon to my routine, and I still dance on a weekly basis more than 9 years later.

This time last year I found myself in a small Turkish pipe shop.  Prices were rock bottom and my curiosity was piqued.  Tobacco pipes have been an integral part of our cultural portrayal of many of history’s greatest thinkers, and philosophers. It was anything but an accident that pipes also played a powerful descriptive role when J.R.R. Tolkien set to crafting his characters, particularly Gandalf, in the Lord of the Rings.  These days, if you see a pipe smoker on the street, he’s likely in his 70s or 80s.  Personally, I’ve never chewed, am not a pot smoker, and have only tried two cigarettes in my life – both of which I found quite unpleasant. I have, however, been known to pick up and enjoy a periodic cigar. So, when I decided to experiment with a pipe stuffed with vanilla tobacco on a quiet Turkish beach my expectations were quite low.  What I discovered was an enjoyable activity that, yes, may not be great for my heath, but which truly was conducive to relaxing, musing, and pleasantly enjoying the moment.  In many ways, I found smoking my pipe to be a more active version of the controlled breathing many do as part of their meditations.  Instead of tossing the pipe as I expected, I’ve kept it and typically smoke it a few times a month.  As you might imagine, this still gets me extremely weird looks from people my age who are either surprised to see someone their age smoking an “old man’s pipe” or who wrongly assume that I must be using it to smoke pot or hash.  Little do the know or appreciate just how enjoyable spending a relaxing afternoon on a park bench, watching bicyclists bike by, enjoying my pipe and lost in my own musings can actually be.

Another favorite has been my discovery of Scotch.  My first introductions to Scotch were, shall we say, uninspiring.  As with most undergrads it came in the form of cheap Scotch and Whiskey downed unceremoniously from overflowing shot-glasses or, in other regrettable situations, the form of the Four Horsemen (a dastardly mixed shot, 1 part bourbon, 1 part Tennessee whiskey, 1 part Scotch, and 1 part Irish whiskey).  After my first few introductions to Scotch’s sharp bite, I wrote it off completely.  It was only later, when chatting with several elderly gentlemen in Scotland that I was introduced to Scotch properly.  It was amazing the difference properly enjoying a glass of Scotch made;  the sweet honey’d accents, and potent peaty-smokey flavors of highland and lowland Scotch enjoyed casually in a relaxed environment.  As with the pipe, it was as much about how to enjoy the activity as it was about the substance of the activity itself.   It might have taken me years, decades even, to re-discover Scotch and to learn how to properly enjoy it if I’d listened to and conformed with my peers.  Even now, I’ll still encounter a periodic snarky comment when someone overhears me order a Balvenie Doublewood on the rocks.  After all, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to – not drinking what or acting as I should.

Men At Play in Antalya

Find Your Inspirations

These six examples are just limited samples which I hope helps more concretely convey the lifestyle approach I’m suggesting, and how it can be applied.  I have no doubt that the same is equally relevant for women.  I’m also sure that there are many activities that old women engage in, which I could draw wonderful inspiration from.

At the end of the day though, I encourage you to re-frame your lives and to ask yourselves what opportunities are available that you’re neglecting, overlooking or missing out on?  Either because they’re not activities that you feel are “appropriate” for your age group, or because you’ve never considered them.  When was the last time you watched a proper musical?  Went to the symphony?  Played Backgammon? Made airplane noises while throwing paper airplanes at friends?

So, start tomorrow – when you leave your house keep your eyes open.  Re-discovery your inner child and be inspired.  Find a puddle and jump in it. Then, ask yourself what your grandfather enjoyed, what he did, and why?  Seek out and explore the foods, drinks, and activities you wouldn’t normally do and don’t forget that it’s as much about the process as it is about the result.

I think you’ll find that the results are life changing.

Why The Term “Multi-tasking” Is All Wrong

The term Multi-tasking has become prolific.  If you have read an article about the millennial generation, Web 2.0, or the power and impact of the internet recently, you’ve no doubt come across it regularly.  It’s often referenced as the great enabler of the world’s tech savvy youths and just as often it’s fiercely debated as the great quality inhibitor. Prominent efficiency blogs like Lifehacker deride the term and lambaste multi-tasking as a quality and efficiency reducer. Surveys have been done, books written, and a ferocious flurry of debate has arisen around the benefits, negatives, and great undecideds associated with multi-tasking.  A debate that has spilled onto this blog repeatedly with the most pronounced instance occurring in my 2 part series on Educating Millennials. Unfortunately, we have it all wrong.

The term multi-tasking has never sat well with me.  Sure, it seems to fit some of the behaviors and is close enough in definition and appearance to what’s actually occurring that it’s been the best and easiest way to describe what’s going on – but as a tech savvy millennial the shoe never quite seemed to fit.

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple actions. Juggling is multi-tasking, patting your head and rubbing your stomach is multi-tasking. The way I search the web, chat, watch a movie and write all at once — That is something different.  It is parallel processing. The difference is subtle, but significant.

What is Parallel Processing?

First, clear your mind of any pre-conceived definitions you may harbor for the term parallel processing. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with parallel computing or Amdhal’s law. The fundamental difference between multi-tasking and parallel processing is the way our minds respond to, and deal with, the actions we are handling.  Using my previous examples, when juggling or patting your head and rubbing your stomach you’re performing two actions simultaneously.  As I’m sure most of us will agree, that’s incredibly difficult and our performance decreases exponentially the more tasks we add.

Parallel processing, in contrast, deals with a cycling, structured, hierarchical list which is continuously executed at a comfortable pace.  The speed with which that list is executed and repeated depends on an individual’s familiarity with the tasks and the time/focus each task requires.  A juggler can’t stop to take more time with one ball without losing the other 2.  An individual switching between browser tabs, a movie, and several conversations can. The advantage that millennials and tech savvy individuals the world over have developed is not the ability to do more at once, but rather the ability to handle more tasks almost simultaneously in a more time efficient and effective fashion.

The Skill Set

One of the fundamental components of parallel processing is task familiarity. If I sat you down in front of a massively multi-layer online game and you had never played before, your entire focus would be consumed by trying to move forward while interacting with the spatial environment. Chances are the degree of your familiarity with the action would be so small that it would consume almost all of your attention to execute it. However, fast forward a bit and you’ll have gained familiarity with the process and be able to automate most of it subconsciously. Before long you’ll be carrying on 5 conversations through the in-game chat channels, interacting with other players, traversing the virtual world and engaging in complex actions all seemingly simultaneously. In these instances, there are simply too many actions to be able to manage and participate in them all at the same time.  You can, however, cycle through actions based on the immediacy of their need and respond to each fully in lightning quick bursts.

One of our most incredible abilities is to take certain tasks, develop a familiarity with them, and then transition them into a familiar ‘second nature’ skill set.  When you write, you typically don’t have to think about how you hold a pencil or what muscles make the letters you want.  Further, as you write words, the familiar ones come to you naturally almost without a second thought.  It’s only the ones you’re unfamiliar with that you have to pause and spell out letter by letter, sound by sound. There are thousands of every day tasks we take for granted as developed skills and hardly notice. If you wear glasses, have taken them off, but still gone to push them up on your nose, you’ve experienced a perfect illustration of how our brain is capable of executing and automating ‘second nature’ behaviors almost subconsciously.

Why It Matters

The modern business environment is not the only thing changing.  The world we know, perceive, and interact with is being driven forward by powerful, expansive new technologies.  Understanding the way in which we interact with these technologies and how they change our behaviors is fundamental to understanding what’s really going on around us. The process followed while writing a hand written letter in the 1800s is almost unrecognizable when compared to the steps and process employed by a modern individual writing an e-mail or research paper. Significantly more has changed than the technology.  The very way we relate to, formulate, and execute actions has evolved.  Unfortunately, despite changing our behaviors, our perception of how the processes should work and the advice we offer on how to execute it, has not changed drastically.

This also becomes very significant in our understanding of what looks like a social disconnect. If you’ve ever walked up to someone engaging in heavy parallel tasking and had trouble engaging them in conversation or getting a response from them, it’s because you’re disrupting the process they’re comfortable with and the rate with which they’re executing the sequence. Chances are, whatever activities they’re carrying out are balanced near the uppermost end of what they can comfortably process. They’re in a rhythm, executing a sequence of actions and able to perform at that rate. Enter the parent or roommate who wants to talk about their day in real time, without consideration for the other 5-15 processes the individual has going on, and you end up disrupting the flow of parallel processing. The end result is always a general break down across the board.  I find it interesting that social norms tell us it’s rude to walk up to a conversation two people are having privately about African swallows and begin talking to them about astrological geometry, but not similarly rude to effectively do the same thing when an individual is using a digital device.

I invite you all to join me in changing the dialog surrounding technology and multi-tasking. Before honest dialogue can move forward it’s necessary that we adopt descriptive language like ‘parallel processing‘ that accurately identifies and describes the phenomenon.

Agree?  Disagree? Thoughts or comments?  Please share them in comment form below.  As always I love your feedback and discussion. Additionally, I’d like to thank Dr. John Crosby for his feedback and collaborative ideas on this subject.