Moonrise Over Ouray – Weekly Travel Photo

Rising Moon Over Ouray, Colorado

Situated in the heart of southwestern Colorado the small town of Ouray rests at the foot of spectacular mountains.  Made famous by its hot springs the sleepy little town also serves as a nexus from which ribbon-like roads snake out into the nearby mountain passes as they attempt to wind through the San Juan Mountain Range.  The town itself has a distinctly western feel to it with old-western architecture and the occasional semi-tame wild deer roaming the streets.  Thus, it was the perfect spot to enjoy this spectacular moonrise.  We were freshly arrived and had just checked into our hotel.  Eager to wander a bit and enjoy the brisk September air I grabbed my camera and started to walk the 200 meters to the city’s main drag.  Then, just as I neared it a casual glance up at the rippling-ribbon like valley wall took my breath away.  The moon, made massive by the added perspective of the canyon’s rim, was just starting to come into sight.  Over the next 5-10 minutes I watched, breathless, as the moon slowly climbed into the sky with every crater, valley, and plateau clear as day and visible to the naked eye.  A few quick steps left me standing in the perfect spot to watch the moon climb skyward before seeming to pause briefly balanced perfectly atop a small peak.  This photo is the end result.

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

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

Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of davidberger.net, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  – This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.

Arizona

Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.

Denmark

Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

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.