Language Matters: Lessons in Editing from Mr. Rogers

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I went to see the Mr. Rogers movie last week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and found it as heartwarming and uplifting as I expected.

If you’re able to see it in a theatre, don’t hesitate. At the screening I attended, everyone applauded at the end. This doesn’t happen much in Portland, Oregon. It felt like we were on a flight landing in Miami from Central America (it’s a thing).

Afterwards I stumbled on an article that details the level of precision that Fred Rogers put into editing the language used on his show. The man was relentlessly focused on connecting with children. He would go back and edit previous episodes if he found they no longer stood up, or if language had changed and required an update.

The article shows how a simple sentence would be deconstructed over and over:

1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.

2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.

3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.

4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.

5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.

6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.

7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.

8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.

9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

I so admire the precision of this work. When I write a major talk—the kind I’ll give over and over in a dozen or more cities—I try to think a lot about the words I use, the examples I provide, and so on. Of course, I’m no Fred Rogers. But the point is every word, every sentence, and every inflection matters. Language matters!

To give oneself so fully to something, and then do it over and over again every single day for decades… it’s no wonder the man made such an impact on so many people. This kind of consistency and important to detail is all too rare.

Link: Rules for Talking to Children

Image: Lonely Planet

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“How could you go back to living a mundane life?”

Cassie de Pecol is on a quest to become the fastest woman to visit every country in the world. We sometimes exchange notes about visa issues, long flights, and drinking wine while stuck in no-man’s-land transit zone for eight hours or more.

There aren’t many people who’ve gone to every country. Cassie is pursuing a Guinness World Record (I like those too!) but for me, I wasn’t trying to be the youngest, fastest, or any other adjective. In my case, I did it for myself.

She said something to me recently that I really liked, and I’m sharing it here with her permission. For context, we were talking about the dreaded “What do you do after completing a big quest?” question.

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Since I’m in somewhat of a similar position, I can only speak for what I’d do. And for me, it’s not about the journey, it’s about the destination and doing something big, impactful. And for me that’s breaking a record, winning a race or doing way better than I did before, or proving people wrong about something or myself.

Maybe registering for a race or embarking on a specific journey, can be short or long, but something that has a substantial result. Like go somewhere for a weekend and produce something no one ever thought you could produce; video, photos, article, etc. And in the meantime, start to work on something way bigger than yourself or something you’ve ever done.

For me, I think if there wasn’t such a stigma to impress others, there wouldn’t be as much of a push to impress myself—as fucked up as that sounds. Easier said than done, but you can do anything you want to do. Sometimes I think of that guy Ranulph Fiennes, he’s like 78 and to this day continues to break records; travel records, endurance, etc.

I wonder if that’s all that keeps him going in life. Once he made that first attempt that was so amazing, how could he go back to living a mundane life? So he made it a life goal to keep going with the records and expeditions, and maybe that’s how he keeps going. Pushing your own limits in some impactful way and forget everyone else. Just keep carving into something for as long as you can hold out for.

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Follow Cassie’s journey on Facebook!

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Five Weeks with Syrian Refugees: One Man’s Quest to Promote Cultural Intelligence

This is a reader profile. (Read others or nominate someone to be featured.)

Having lived abroad both growing up and as an adult, David Durham has dedicated his life to promoting cultural curiosity. Most recently his adventures took him to Greece, where he and his wife, Becky, observed the refugee crisis in Europe first hand. Though they were already veteran travelers, they were profoundly impacted by this experience.

Here’s his story:

I am a lover of culture. I write, speak, and podcast about crossing cultural bridges with a goal of promoting cultural curiosity. I teach French, Spanish, and Global Studies; my wife teaches World Geography. Between the two of us, our students have little hope of remaining indifferent to international cultures!

Ever since a series of trips back and forth to Australia, where I lived with my family for five years as a child, I have been infected with an insatiable curiosity about other cultures and languages. I spent 12 years in Europe and continue to travel there on a regular basis which includes leading cultural tours with my wife, Becky.

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Promoting Cultural Intelligence

Since returning to the US in the mid-90’s, we have observed a polarization taking place in American culture. We believe this is mostly based in cultural ignorance, so I’m on a mission to promote the opposite: cultural intelligence.

The November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris struck a nerve in us, as we have a lot of friends there and the city is close to our hearts. Then the attack in Brussels happened, where we also lived for a short time. We started hearing more and more about the refugee crisis turning Europe on its ear, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. fueled our desire to observe the situation first hand and document what we experienced.

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Jumping into the Story

When the opportunity came to volunteer with a nonprofit working with the refugees gathered in Athens, we jumped at the chance. What resulted was a five-week odyssey that put not one, but multiple faces on the refugee situation — and we came back changed. We developed relationships with Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and Kurds who were intelligent, kind, and generous despite having lost everything.

I befriended a young Syrian man named Hosam, who badly wanted to learn English, as he and his new wife, Noor, were hoping to find a new life in Ireland. One night, he and his best friend, a Palestinian refugee named Manhal, invited our entire team of 15 to dinner at Manhal’s apartment. As Ramadan had just begun, we sat on the balcony, chatted, and waited for the sun to go down at which time our hosts brought out a Middle Eastern feast for us.

Refugees inviting Americans to dinner. Sharing what little they had.

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Another Syrian family, in the refugee camp at the Athenian port of Pyraeus, put down an extra blanket on the concrete parking lot that served as their front doorstep and invited us to sit and share their dinner with us. There were warm smiles all around as we reluctantly accepted their invitation and sat down to a meal of rice and vegetables in a sauce. The husband and wife were a middle-aged couple whom I can only describe as noble. Their children were beautiful, respectful, and gracious.

I came away from this with my notions of hospitality completely shaken and reshaped.

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Bringing the experience home

The refugees we met were not beggars. They were sophisticated, professional, family-loving human beings who had been uprooted from their homes. Many had spent their entire life savings just to get out with their lives.

They were real people with names and faces that will be forever etched in our memories, and we realized that we could no longer remain indifferent to their plight.

We came back from our experiences with the refugees impacted once again by the senselessness of war. We don’t have any easy answers or solutions to the Syrian war or any of the other conflicts in the Middle East.

What we do have is the renewed conviction that, as long as there are people fleeing the horrors of war, wherever they are, their daily needs are just as real as yours and mine.

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So we’re doing what we can, from our little corner of the world. We’re developing and teaching a new high school course called Global Studies. Its goal, like the rest of my professional life, is to promote cultural intelligence. Along with introducing our students to the world, geographically speaking, we are exposing them to important contemporary issues. The worldwide refugee crisis is one of those, along with human trafficking, race relations, and so many others.

We have a renewed interest in the refugees who end up in our own city of Nashville, and hopefully we can inspire our students to take an interest as well.

Learn more about David on his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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The 12 Most Common Questions I Get About Traveling the World (Part II)

I’m no longer going to every country in the world (mission accomplished), but I’m still traveling at least 200,000 miles a year.

As such, I get a lot of questions over and over, both from people who want to travel far and wide and those who just want to learn a few things to make their lives easier.

This series of three posts provides some attempted As to the Qs. This is part II; part I is over here.


  • Why travel? What’s the point?

Have you ever done something that brought joy to your life, even if other people thought it was stupid or just didn’t understand it? Well, that’s what travel does for me.

At first it was about discovery. Being out in the world, I felt different. I felt alive. Something had changed and it was intoxicating. The more I saw of the planet, the more I wanted to see.

Then it was about challenge: I wanted to go everywhere! I set a quest to visit every country in the world, and I accomplished that goal in 2013.

I didn’t stop after making it to country 193 of 193, though. Now it’s about lifestyle—it brings me joy, so I keep doing it.


  • How do you manage to work from the road?

Short answer: my work is my life, and it goes with me everywhere. As a general rule, if I’m in a city where I want to sightsee or explore, I’ll work through the morning and then take off for an adventure of some kind in the afternoon. Then I usually have another work session before dinner.

I like my work, so it’s not something I need to escape from. Also, my work enables me to travel. I’m not independently wealthy, so I couldn’t travel indefinitely without producing an income—and neither would I want to.

I also take a lot of long flights, where I have 8 hours or more to catch up on neglected emails and plan the next steps for my projects.


  • Can anyone do this? 

I’m well aware that traveling is easier for those of us who have passports from rich countries (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, European Union, some Asian countries, etc.). However, this community also has a lot of independent travelers from countries ranging from India to Iran. Visas may be more of a challenge, but it’s certainly not only Americans who can venture outside their homeland.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you can access much of the world of travel. There are plenty of people in the world who can’t do that, of course. But most of them don’t read this blog, or any blog for that matter.


  • What’s the best way to book flights? 

The best way depends on lots of factors, but here’s a simple way: use Google flights to check a whole month’s worth of options at once.

 

Next, use Skiplagged (more info in this post) to check on an hidden-city ticketing options.

 

Those two sources are decent enough to get a quick look at basic paid (cash) fares. But for more significant trips, or if the price is higher than you’d like, you should also search for award travel.

Searching for award travel is a little more complicated. If you only have miles or points in one program, that’s easy enough—you just go to that program’s website and search from there. Note that results for all available partner airlines may not be displayed online, so in that case, you’ll need to call.

If you’ve been building miles & points balances for a while (and you should be!), then you’ll have a few different options. My “go-to” award searches include:

  • United.com (for awards on Star Alliance partners) – Earn miles through Chase Ultimate Rewards, especially the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card

  • Aeroplan (also for awards on Star Alliance partners) – Earn miles through American Express Membership Rewards, especially the Premier Rewards and the Platinum cards

  • AA.com (for awards on American Airlines and OneWorld partners) – Earn miles through AA Citi cards, BankDirect, and ongoing promotions

There are other options, of course, but searching those sites will help at least 75% of the time.

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I hope that’s helpful—stay tuned for part III!

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Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5

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A Quest to Visit (and Illustrate!) Every U.S. National Park

This is a reader story. (Read others or nominate someone to be featured.)

Technical mapper turned visual storyteller Karla Sanders met restless Colombian web designer Andres in Italy and fell in love. Now, they’re back in America and on a quest to visit all 59 national parks in the U.S.—with a twist.

Here’s their story:

About a year into having an Etsy store, I was also working as an in-house graphic designer in Cleveland. To sustain our outdoorsy natures, Andres and I would go hiking in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Our online shop was doing fairly well, but something was missing.

While on one of those hikes, the idea just came to us: why not combine our love of the our local national park and our illustration skills? Our first masterpiece for Hike & Draw was our illustrated map of all 59 natural national parks.

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We were drawn to showcasing these parks in a creative way, to help people remember the places we are drawn to and so often cannot describe with words. In the hustle and bustle of the day today, we want people to have something that reminds them of the natural places they cherish.

We saw our maps and posters as a starting point… but there was still something missing.

That’s when it hit us: Our goal is to visit every national park and design a poster of that park.

Our National Park Quest began in April, 2016 after nearly two years of planning. We’ve been on the road for a few months now, and it’s been a wild ride. We’ve camped most nights, slept in our Subaru Outback, and spent a few nights in an Airbnb while in Nashville.

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A funny coincidence had us arrive in Nashville at the same time Chris was in town for his Born for This talk. The event was great, but it was the people we met who stood out the most. In particular, a woman named Amanda came up to us after the talk and introduced herself. After chatting with her a bit, she said, “If you ever need help Couchsurfing or finding a place to stay, I know a lot of folks out west and can help.” Turns out we were in need of some help much sooner than later.

The very next night we seemed to have only two options: paying for a hotel, or sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The campground we were counting on was still closed for the season, as we recently learned, there aren’t many campgrounds near Nashville. Then, we remembered Amanda.

We live in a society that makes it not okay to ask for help. Asking is often associated with weakness. But although we felt funny asking for help, we did. Not only did she offer to help, she welcomed us to her beautiful home and invited us to go contra dancing—a style of folk line-dance from 17th century Europe (think Pride and Prejudice). We hadn’t laughed so much in a long time.

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Neither of us have ever taken a trip like this before. We keep a tight budget, and decided to stay in campgrounds for the financial peace of mind. Since we work from the road, staying in one park for awhile is a good thing: it gives us time to focus on our business and not always worry about where we’re going to sleep at night.

Living in one spot, it’s easy to get accustomed to a sheltered world: same neighbors, same routine, same comforts. When you leave and hit the road, you’re forced to encounter unknown situations.

From a sheltered world perspective, it’s easy to be afraid of all the things out there. Andres grew up hearing about crime in the U.S., and ironically, we hear the same thing about Colombia. But facing so many new people, or strangers, I’ve learned that many of us want similar things: peace, kindness, and community. And we want others to feel those things too, so helping often comes naturally.

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We just left our third park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, a totally new environment for both of us. We usually only see such things on travel blogs, not with our own eyes. Great mountains lie behind us, and an indescribable sense of wonder lurks over every direction with vast open land, vibrant skies, and dunes that seem to go on forever. Andres and I have felt overwhelmed in this park. 

This is the moment of looking back at all of those steps. The saving. Working jobs we didn’t feel passion for. Starting a business that failed. Moving to a new state in 2014 only to realize it’d been a mistake because we had no money or jobs lined up. Writing weekly goals on a white board, and often not achieving them.

Then, editing our plans over and over again. Writing sponsorship proposals and getting denied. Figuring out where to cut corners so we could save the right amount of money. Establishing our LLC and educating ourselves. Sitting in rush hour traffic day in and day out.

Maybe the majesty of this landscape is unleashing the magnitude of our endeavor and all it took to get here.

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Our quest is young yet, but it’s a journey that began years ago when I dreamed of doing something like this, and just didn’t know what it was yet. Great Sand Dunes is a place where we finally feel like it’s all really happening. This is where I want to tell people: it is possible.

One, and we want to tell people one more thing: if you’re ever on the road and a little lost, try checking out the local public library. This country’s library system is amazing.

We have a hotspot and ways to charge our devices from the road, but we’ve actually worked the most at public libraries (about 5 in 4 states!). They’ve been welcoming and comfortable temporary work spaces with good wifi and quiet desks.

We’ve got almost two years of travel ahead of us, which leaves plenty of libraries and new friends to come. We’d love to meet up with people along the way — feel free to reach out!

Learn more about Karla and Andres on their blog, and follow them on Instagram @hikeendraw.

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One Man’s Quest to Draw 900,000 Buildings in New York City

This is a reader story. (Read others or tell us yours.)

It’s difficult to pin down the exact number of buildings in New York City. One source estimates 860,000, another source pins the number at 1,053,713. Whatever the number, we’ll know eventually, thanks to Australian-born James Gulliver Hancock, who has made it his mission to draw every single one of them.

Here’s his story:

When I moved to New York City, I really wanted to get to know Manhattan better, beyond a traditional tourist experience. New York was my new home, and I needed a way to understand it. Drawing every building is my version of a diary of my experience in the city—and it doubles as my own personal map. When I walk by the buildings I’ve drawn, it’s like seeing old friends.

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If I’d set out to draw all the best buildings or all the brick ones, I’d wind up having that tourist experience I was trying to avoid. I really like the concept of just all the buildings. By concentrating on the city at large, I get to embrace all the fun buildings between the famous ones, like a crumbling brownstone or that weird falling-apart one I pass every day. Going all out provides me with a more realistic view of the city.

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I’m actually not sure how many buildings there are in New York City. The number 900,000 comes up a lot though. I draw, on average, four buildings in a week, so it’s a long-term project to be sure. [Editor’s note: By our tally, this means James is about 1,100 buildings in. Maybe he’ll pick up the pace!]

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One of my favorite drawings is actually a set of two. I did a commissioned piece for a couple who were moving into together. They wanted drawings of the apartments they had lived in separately that they could hang in their new, shared apartment. I thought that was a very sweet sentiment, and consistent with the love New Yorkers have for their homes.

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The idea of a collecting project wasn’t new—I’d attempted to draw all the cars in Los Angeles, and all the mountains in Switzerland—but New York was the first place that I worked on the project daily. And it also wasn’t until I focused so much on a project that it took off (and into the world of book publishing!).

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I have drawn all my life, almost obsessively, in the margins of my books at school, at cafés on napkins—everywhere. My focus through college was finding ways to marry my hand-drawn pieces with different types of media and using computers to bring everything together. A turning point came when I left Sydney and started sharing a studio at the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn. I started making friends who focused on illustration, and then started doing small projects.

I remember the day I deleted all the typical design applications from my computer except Photoshop so that I couldn’t take on any other types of projects. Now I do illustration full-time, and can’t accept all the projects I get offered.

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I think a large part of my success is personal drive. I naturally want to draw, to the point where I don’t just want to do it all the time—I need to do it. No one else can make me draw. Every illustration I do is entirely up to me.

Follow James’s drawings and escapades on his website, All the Buildings in New York, or on Twitter or Instagram @gulliverhancock.

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“People Are Seen As Part of Your Wealth”: A Quest to Interview 365 Strangers

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Ebele Mogo stepped outside herself—way outside herself—when she decided she just had to know what people around her were thinking. So she grabbed her iPhone and asked.

Introduce yourself!

I am a scientist, writer, and entrepreneur originally from Nigeria. I am both analytical and artistic, and I tend to be childlike—so I’m always laughing and I’m always curious.

My curiosity is actually what led me to my quest: to interview one stranger every day for a year.

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What exactly inspired you to embark on this quest?

I have always been fascinated by the way we do not know our neighbors in Canada and America. We share a weird intimacy, sitting next to each other on the bus or living next door to one another, yet we remain strangers. It was different in Nigeria – people are practically family with their neighbors.

On top of that, I realized I had questions for the people around me. Everyday, when I was coming back on my long bus ride from work, I would wake up from my thoughts and daydreams and look around, and wonder what was in the mind of the person beside me on the bus. What were their worries, fears, hopes, successes, joys, dreams?

I had to know.

Why do you suppose Americans and Canadians are less apt to talk to one another?

I think it may be because they can get around their day without really needing to interact with each other. In Nigeria, there are always reasons to run into people, from social functions to family gatherings. People are seen as part of your wealth.

Also, I would say that people need each other more in Nigeria. The systems there are much less seamless. Here in America, since everything is automated from shopping to busing to learning, you don’t really need to ask for directions, or help, or even to cooperate to get things done.

And then the culture of individualism in America may play a role. As we become more urban, and moving from place to place becomes easier, we all become nomads of a sort. This can lead to being less connected to the places and people we are surrounded by.

Did any ways to remedy this stranger-nation come to mind during your quest?

I think one remedy would be finding ways to genuinely care about people and be fascinated about them. Find a way to learn more about the places we are part of, connect to their history, and being active in local activities is a good place to start.  If you’re feeling bold one day, talk to your neighbors or to strangers.

This fundamental shift would allow us to have a stronger sense of connection in our neighborhoods, and we would see relationships not just as something to use for a specific purpose but as an investment.

Were there costs associated with interviewing strangers?  

Not really. I already owned a smartphone and a computer, which I used to document and share the stories I heard. My main cost was transportation to leave my home and talk to people in different parts of the city.

What exactly did you ask people?

I wanted to know what they were thinking and who they were. I asked questions like:

  • What would you do with a million dollars?
  • Tell me something special about yourself.
  • How do you think the world will end?
  • What are you living for?
  • If you would live anywhere in the world where would it be?


 

How have you dealt with a low point in your quest?

The very first person I asked to interview, on January 1, 2013, was standoffish. His reaction made me feel like I was suspicious and stupid – which made me even more nervous to approach other strangers.

Rejection continued to be a struggle for me for awhile. An older woman refused to let her husband talk to me because she seemed concerned I was hitting on him. People said “no” to my request to talk to them for a lot of reasons: they were shy, busy, hadn’t made themselves up, were afraid. There were some days where I could get many no’s in a row and want to cry.

I dealt with it by pushing forward anyway. Even when I was nervous – especially then. The only cure to the nervousness was just to go ahead and talk to people without thinking!

And when people did finally talk to me, they were often nice, interesting, and made my perseverance totally worth it.


 

Did you wind up connecting with any of these strangers outside of the project?

In some ways, the connections were seemingly small. I started to recognize familiar faces in many places I went. I’d see the woman who didn’t want to be on camera because she didn’t like how she looked, the man who thanked us for asking him to share, a hippie in Seattle who told me he loved me. We are all so tender and vulnerable.

Some connections did run deeper. I made friends with a painter in a park in Calgary, and we would get together until I moved – so now we mainly stay in touch on Twitter. A lady in Lagos who I interviewed stays in touch too – we got to have pizza together in a non-interview setting before I left.

One of my favorite stories is a woman I met in Nigeria who owned a bakery. As a surprise to my dad, I ordered a cake from her and had it delivered to him in Lagos on his birthday.


 

Tell us about an encounter that sticks out in your mind.  

I was having a bad morning in Seattle – I’d missed my flight. So I made the best of the day and went to Alki beach, where I met Ray.

Ray had lost half his skull in an accident. He made jewelry by the beach and was very happy and content. He told me about life, gratitude and he told me and my friend that he loved us. For some reason, I believed him when he said it.

He made me wonder: on one hand he maybe be seen as some ‘crazy’ hippie, and yet on the other he had come to peace in life that so-called ‘normal’ people don’t always find. And that paradox stays with me – who is crazy and who is sane?


 

What surprised you along the way?

The outpouring of support I got from friends was a huge surprise, and an inspiration to keep going. I’d assumed this was just a quirky project of mine, but then friends told me they looked forward to reading my blog and watching the interviews.

They said they liked it because it made them see other people and get into their heads and because it made them feel connected to people all over the world instead of just those in their own little bubble.

Even more surprising was that people were inspired. One friend decided to interview a stranger in her own city. And another decided to go outside her comfort zone and approach her city with new eyes by trying new things, visiting historic sites, and going out to do things instead of living in the rut of work and home.

It felt as though I were on this quest with many people’s smiles behind me.

What’s next?

I’m currently starting a doctoral program and launching a non-profit, so after a while I couldn’t interview strangers every day any more. I decided to transition my blog into a space to write and interview people I find fascinating once a month.


 

What made you decide to continue your quest?

Perhaps it’s the scientist and writer in me, who likes to try, see, and to discover. I like to learn and challenge myself; it is the way I grow and the way I fall in love with life.

I wanted to keep interviewing strangers because there are all these cool people in the world that you may never get to know exist until you reach out. And you could wind up being friends, learning something new, or  or just inspire yourself to try new things by connecting with new people.

Funny enough, it turns out that my doctoral research seems to be relating to this as well: I’ll be looking at how the physical and social aspects of the built environment affect risk behaviors for chronic diseases. I would like to use this to inform policy change for better health outcomes as we see high rates of unplanned urbanization in many cities around the world.

Cities tend to be connected to the best and the worst possibilities, and I plan to continue exploring this to see how the potential in cities can be designed for good economic, health and social development.

Ultimately, connecting with people just makes life more beautiful to me.

Follow Ebele at Street-Side Convos or on Twitter @ebyral.

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Adventure Is Worthwhile In Itself

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“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward. Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” -Amelia Earhart

You often hear about how we regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do. Looking back at the experience of traveling the world, this belief shines through whatever hardship I encountered along the way.

Sure, I can remember the struggles. I can remember sleeping on the ground, running out of money, missing my flights. I remember not being sure if I’d make it, if I’d have to give up somewhere.

If I think about it, I can remember sweating it out in Eritrea, detained by the police overnight before I was put on a plane to Cairo. I remember flying to Angola and Pakistan without the required visa, wondering what would happen on the other side.

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There were plenty of mistakes and misadventures along the way.

But honestly, most of all I remember the triumph and the exploration.

This triumph was 98% private. It was almost entirely about proving something to myself, being able to fulfill a vision I had that seemed totally absurd at the time I started.

I felt a sense of exhilaration upon reaching a new country, especially a difficult one or one that involved some sense of challenge.

When I walked on the street in New York City one day after finding the consulate for Guinea Bissau, I was floating on air. Only three countries left! This was really happening!

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Republic of Benin visa

Meanwhile, the exploration was the fuel that kept it going.

Montenegro. Kyrgyzstan. Swaziland. Oman. Andorra. Djibouti.

I didn’t know where any of those places were when I started. And to be honest, I didn’t know some of them even existed.

Bhutan. Yemen. Lithuania. Qatar. Uruguay.

But now I have a place in my mind for the places of the world. I have a memory of each of them, some hazy but others resoundingly clear. There’s a connection between every country I wrote down on a list twelve years ago and then eventually made it to.

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These days I still travel quite a bit. I still encounter that sense of disorientation and jet lag. But I’m not continuously jet lagged every month, the way I was for years.

So yes, when I think back, I completely identify with the sense of “overcoming regret” by saying yes to adventure.

As I’ve written about several times, I do sometimes feel a sense of sadness that it’s over. But mostly I feel extremely glad that I did it.

If you’re thinking about undertaking an adventure, but aren’t sure if it will be worth it… well, there are no guarantees. Anything worth doing involves risk and challenge.

But what if it is worth it? What if it ends up changing your life—how would you value that?

That’s what you should ask yourself. And unless you have a good reason not to—and maybe even if you do—that’s why you should say yes to as many adventures as possible, because adventure is worthwhile in itself.

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Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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The More You Improve, The Harder It Gets

I always love a good quest. While flying Southwest Airlines recently (it’s a long story), I happened to pick up the in-flight magazine and read about a guy who’s trying to become a professional golfer.

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The whole article is interesting but isn’t the easiest to read in online format. The short version is that Dan, an ordinary guy from my hometown of Portland, Oregon, is trying to become a professional golfer despite never having much of an aptitude for playing golf before.

Dan pursues the quest partly because he wants to see if it’s possible. Does talent come about entirely through “putting in the hours”? Here’s a real-life case study to find out.

I especially liked this part of the article:

“The more he’s improved, the harder it’s gotten to get better. Going from bad to good is way easier than going from good to great. And going from great to world-class? That’s rare territory. The line is thin, but the gap is wide.”

That’s why it’s fun to learn new things. In the early days of learning something, you can learn so much, so fast. I tried to play golf once, too. Even though I was terrible at it, I made a ton of progress in the three lessons I took from a friend. Starting at zero presents you with tremendous potential.

But then, before too long, the law of diminishing returns kicks in—and that’s why you have a choice. You can take the time to master something, but it will be a lot of time. Or you can choose to be “good enough” in a lot of things.

They’re two very different paths, neither one necessarily better than the other.

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At the end of the story, the journalist reaches out once more:

“I call Dan one last time. I want to know if he’s ever reached the point of reconsidering, if he fears that the project is limiting his own opportunities. ‘Anything you could do limits other things you could potentially do,” he says. “As long as you’re doing what you want and you’re happy and healthy, you’re on the right path.'”

How about you—are you doing what you want?

Link: Three-thousand nine hundred and sixty-three hours to go

Image: 1, 2, 3

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A Quest to Write and Share 1,000 Poems Using a Manual Typewriter

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Scott James is from Austin, Texas and is on a quest to write and share 1,000 poems before the end of 2015.

You can see a few examples of this fun project below.

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This summer he brought his typewriter to WDS and wrote poems for us during the Portland Experience.

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Check out his Instagram to follow along on the poem quest. If you tag him with a word or photo, you might even get your own poem!

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Will Travel for Vegan Food: A Quest to Visit 547 Restaurants

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

One day, Kristin looked around at the life she thought she wanted—the job, the relationship, the stuff—and realized her heart yearned for something else. So she decided to do something big: travel the country in an effort to go to every vegan restaurant.

Introduce yourself!

My name is Kristin Lajeunesse. I’m a 32-year-old, self-employed business clarity coach and marketing strategist for small business owners. I work from home (or rather, my computer), and enjoy picking up and moving every few months or so to explore new locales.

My quest was to promote and share vegan restaurants and eateries from around the world. Between October 2011 to August 2013, I lived in a van and entirely off of donations in an effort to eat at and write about every vegan restaurant in the United States. I called my quest Will Travel for Vegan Food.

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What inspired you to embark on this quest?

Everything about my life was going according to plan. I had undergrad and graduate degrees, “the” job, lived in the great city of Boston, and had a comfortable relationship. But something still felt off. That’s when I stumbled upon the likes of Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, and Marie Forleo.

I hungrily read their books, scribbling notes and daydreaming of becoming a game-changer. Someone who did something. I made myself a promise that I too, would shoot for the stars.

The idea for Will Travel for Vegan Food hit me like lightning. Once second, I had no idea, the next second, the idea flashed before me. I felt awake. Excited. Alive. I also felt terrified, but I knew I had to do it.

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Tell us about a memorable encounter fresh in your mind.

My mom flew to Missoula, Montana, to join me for a week on the road. We had made it to Salt Lake City and just finished a great meal with some new folks who had reached out to me via my website. On our way out the door, I decided to wait and speak to the owner and let him know I’d be writing about his restaurant on my blog.

A middle-aged woman was waiting for a take-out order next to me. She noticed the stickers in my hand and asked what they were. I showed them to her and told her very briefly about my trip. Without a moment of hesitation the woman said, “That’s incredible!” She dug into her purse and pulled out a $20 and handed it to me. She said, “What you’re doing is so important and I want to support your mission.” I was speechless, though finally found some words of thanks before we parted ways.

I looked up and saw my mom a few feet away. She had just witnessed the whole interaction and was in tears. “Oh Kris,” she said. “That was amazing.”

That moment still makes me cry when I think back on it.*

*wipes tears while sitting here in coffee shop.

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How did you pay for the costs associated with Will Travel for Vegan Food?

The trip was funded by my personal savings and crowdsourced funds via Kickstarter where I raised a little over $12k.

Unfortunately I severely underestimated how much a trip of that magnitude was cost. After all was said and done, the formal journey of traveling the country and eating cost about $100k!

Tell us about how you dealt with a low point in your quest.

I was in Las Vegas for the first time. I’d be celebrating my 30th birthday with a group of people I’d never met before who had heard about my quest and arranged a really lovely birthday dinner. It should have been the highlight of my trip. But I was extremely depressed.

I’d gained about 15 pounds, and I was sad to be without family or friends that weekend. I had a great run on the journey so far—I met so many wonderful people, had incredible experiences, saw amazing sights, and had profound moments of awakening. But my body was taking a turn. It was exhausted from overeating, little sleep (living in the van meant that I’d often have trouble sleeping or would wake up to nightmares of someone trying to break in while I slept), and from constantly being on the road.

It all added up and I just felt like I couldn’t go on.

On my last day in Vegas I was calculating the number of restaurants on my to-eat-at list for my upcoming jaunt through California. There were more than 200. I burst into tears and called a friend in Texas.

Later that day I drove the van to San Diego, left it there, and flew to Texas where I spent the full month of August chilling out. The break wasn’t stress-free, though. I had a lot of catching up to do and I spent most of the time writing. But it was nice to be in the company of friends in the evening and on weekends, as well as getting a lot of sleep.

I’m happy to report I returned to San Diego and my mission. Not only did I accomplish my goal (547 restaurants in total!) but the journey completely changed my life. I’ve had the most amazing career opportunities pop up since then, have been traveling near-full-time since the trip ended and even just released my first-ever book: a traditionally published memoir about the road trip.

But most importantly, I learned SO much about myself. I learned about who I was, and who I want to be in life going forward.

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What did you learn about you?

Before my trip I was highly dependent on other people. I was in back-to-back romantic relationships from the time I was 16 until the day I left for my trip at the age of 28. I’d gotten used to making decisions while considering what other people might want or expect of me instead of what I wanted for myself. I realized that I hadn’t spent ANY time on my own. Through being somewhat forced into the trip alone I had no choice but to figure things out on my own.

It was the greatest gift.

What has surprised you during Will Travel for Vegan Food?

I was surprised to learn how much I actually enjoyed spending time alone—I thought it would feel much lonelier. I was afraid to be alone at first. But once I learned that I had a choice in whether to feel scared or not, everything changed.

Being alone, I gained more confidence, I became more resilient, and found that there was a sense of power and pride in relying on just myself when making decisions about where to go, what to eat, or what to see and do. Plus, I found out I like going to the movies alone, and even enjoyed traveling through airports and in the van. There were no debates, I could just go on my own time and at my own pace.

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Did you receive any support on your quest?

Tremendous amounts of support, yes! I attribute a lot of that to Facebook. There was more than one occasion during my travels that people reached out via Facebook to offer a couch to sleep on, a shower to wash up in, or to sponsor a meal. I’d say nearly half of the people I ended up meeting in person were from initial conversations started between us on Facebook.

Best advice for anyone thinking about taking a quest:

Start before you’re ready.

What did we miss?

I grew up riding horses! Given my current involvement in the vegan movement many are often surprised to learn that I went to college for Equestrian Studies, and had spent all of my childhood and formative years riding, showing, and training.

I’ve struggled with my connection to horses since becoming vegan—it seems like a lifetime ago. But growing up with horses enabled me to learn more quickly about compassionate choices. I learned how to interact via subtle body language; I learned compromise (5AM mornings to prep for shows or skipping a dance at school); I learned how to teach and stand up in front of people and present (thanks to 4-H and giving lessons from about the age of 16).

Competing in horse shows from the age of 8 I had an early lead on understanding what it meant to be humble (both as a 1st place and last place competitor). The show ring taught me about engagement, poise, and how to hold things together when at any moment something could go wrong.

I loved everything about that time of my life and I believed it prepped me for this time of my life for sure. I do not ride anymore though I foresee horses in my future – perhaps in the way of a sanctuary one day.

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What’s next?

My 2015 is dedicated to the promotion of the memoir. I’m also planning to spend some time finding clarity around my business models and modes of income. I find that it’s a constant work in progress. My next big quest is to land a TV hosting gig as a vegan food and travel expert.

Follow Kristin Will Travel for Vegan Food, or via Twitter @wtfveganfood.

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Surfing the Entire West Coast of the Americas: A Quest of Love and Discovery

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Conscious traveling, a quest to surf the entire west coast of all the Americas, a van, and a dog: Jade Heilmann’s experiences on the road were too good not to share.

Introduce yourself!

I’m Jade. Together with my better half (aka Gabriel), our Westfalia (aka BigBlu), and our pup (aka Phi), we make up the We Travel and Blog team. Currently, we’re on a mission to surf the whole west coast of the Americas, from Tofino to Tierra de Fuego.

As an added challenge, we’ve pledged to make it to creating zero waste by the time we reach the tip of Chile. Gabriel and I see all water as holy; surf is our baptism. That’s where the zero waste pledge comes in. We’re tired of seeing trash rolling in the waves with us.

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What inspired you to travel?

Travel is my resting state.

My parents were nomads, so I spent my childhood moving. I had planned a RTW trip after high school, but life got in the way. I put my travel plans on hold in Montreal while I got a degree, a guy, a job, a cat, a house, and everything else I had somehow convinced myself was a priority.

When I had everything but the kids and was still enormously unhappy, I realized I was living a life that wasn’t mine. I took a leap of faith, sold everything, left everything, and went to find my rightful path. I did it out of desperation and was very afraid.

My emotions were out of control, I burned a lot of bridges and made a fool of myself. But the dust did finally settle and things started to fall into place in a positive way.

Not long after leaving Montreal, I found Gabriel. We spent three amazing weeks together but I wasn’t about to start a new relationship and abandon my travel goals again. So I left him to continue a solo trip through Central America.

There was nothing I could do to get him off my mind. He ruined my grand travel plans and I ended up back in the Dominican Republic, where I remained until we decided it was time for the both of us to roam this world together.

Why did you two choose surfing? 

Gabriel and I met on the beach in Cabarete, where he gave me my first surf lesson. I fell in love with him and the surf simultaneously. I kept up surfing while I traveled alone for three more months in Central America, spending six hours a day in the water. I was hooked. The sport was demanding, and the ocean cleaned my soul.

Surfing is different than other sports. It’s not about outdoing all the competition. For me, it’s about striving to do your own best and reach your own limits every day. Slowly, very slowly, over time, you start getting better. Surfing isn’t a fling, it’s a life-long commitment; you could even say it’s a marriage.

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Explain what the ocean does for your mind. 

Surfing takes place not on a court, an arena, a track or a dojo. It is out there, in the limitless ocean. Out there I’m communing with nature, trying to read the rhythms of the water. That’s a superpower as far as I’m concerned, and surf makes me feel like a superhero.

I can understand the world around me at an intuitive level I was blind to before. Of course, the ocean has a mind of its own and some days you’re just going to get your @$$ whooped, that’s all part of the lesson in conquering your own emotions instead of some sort of external adversary.

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Tell us a story from your coastal surfing trip.

The desert is a magical place, but it speaks in time, which is a hard language to learn.

We spent two months in Baja. After 60 days it’s hard to remember what life was like in the rhythm of the rest of the world. The desert has its own rhythm and timescale. Gabriel and I felt like we had traveled right off Earth to another planet. We had ample idle time while waiting for the right tide in the middle of nowhere. Individually, and as a couple, we found that our world explorations warped and turned inward.

We scarcely met anyone else in Baja, and that solitude was very important to us at that stage in our trip. Our mission, and by association, the blog, gained a lot of focus during those two months. We started questioning absolutely everything. Our internal worlds were wiped clean, almost like the desert itself, and we had a unique opportunity to rewrite into it whatever we held most dear.

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How do you pay for your travels?

Traveling in a van means gas is our biggest expense. We adhere to a budget of $1,000 a month for the both of us, and that has to stretch a long way. Everything from gas to visas to toilet paper to vet and mechanic bills comes from that budget.

We used to afford traveling through savings, but our growing blog and photography sales are starting to make a difference.

Finally, we trade and barter as much as possible along the way and do other little things to save cash, like share the cost of gas with travelers we pick up that need a ride or a place to sleep.

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Tell us another story.

Before we left the Dominican Republic, we went paragliding. Our guide, Tony, put us in the back of his pickup truck after we’d spent the night camping in Rancho Ruisenor.

However, the weather was unpredictable. Rain and wind chased us from Constanza to Bonao to Jaraboca. Even though we weren’t able to take off we still got a gorgeous look at the land itself from a great vantage point.

The next day, Tony picked us up again and we found sublime conditions. There was no better way to say goodbye to a place we loved than flying over the majestic landscapes.


Travel tips:

Barter and trade.

Seriously. Use your talents and skills for something in return, like food and accommodations.

Use Duolingo to learn local languages.

No matter how difficult, speaking the common language in another country is worthwhile. We love Duolingo, and it’s free.

Always make sure you leave the ATM with your bank card.

I’m currently on hold with my bank trying to get a new one sent to me in Mexico. Whoops.

Bonus VanLife tip:

In the US, the more cul-de-sacs on Google maps, the better the neighborhood for stealth camping.

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Tell us about an encounter fresh in your mind.

As a newlywed couple, we had a rough start in the Pacific Northwest. We were accustomed to the freedoms of living in the Dominican Republic and found ourselves in reverse culture shock upon returning to the States. Driving rules and street crossing culture were different, media consumption was everywhere (even at the gas pump!). It was off-putting.

One November evening, unbeknownst to us, was Thanksgiving in Astoria, Oregon. We accidentally walked into a community dinner offering free meals to the homeless, thinking it was a restaurant open to the public, and we were welcomed with open arms.

Gabriel and I spent the whole night chatting it up with locals, some with homes and some without, many fellow surfers, all with great stories.

The great debate: aisle or window?

The emergency exit row, any seat.

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Has anything surprised you while traveling?

Even though I’d dreamed of backpacking alone in Central America, I was really disappointed by the reality of the trip. It wasn’t the location, but instead my fellow travelers who caused this.

I was embarrassed by the behavior of too many of my peers, insensitive to the local culture and out to find a Beverly Hills party on a trailer park budget. I found us to be negatively affecting the heart and soul of the cultures and environments we visited. I actually quit traveling for awhile because of it.

Finally I came to terms with the fact that balance is better than bias, and it was better to be a conscious traveler than not travel at all. When Gabriel and I set off on our journey, this became the cornerstone of our travel blog, and the whole reason we write about our adventures: to inspire readers to travel for real, soul-expanding experiences.

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Gabriel and Phi, our pup.

Whereto next?

I am writing this from the gorgeous sunlit dining room of the Holy Molé BnB in Erongarícuaro, Mexico. After almost 6 months on the coast and in the water, we decided it was time to get grounded, so we came to this farm to get our hands dirty, and we’ve been happily planting seeds for the past week.

From here, we’ll eventually end up in Ushuaia, but we keep getting sidetracked along the way. Every turn BigBlu makes draws out a new destiny for who we’ll have become when we finally get down to the tip of the Americas, and we’re blessed to have the privilege to follow our hearts and the path that is rightfully ours.

Stay up to date with Jade at We Travel and Blog or via Twitter @wetravelandblog.

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Man Takes More than 1,000 flights Without Leaving the Airport

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For more than twenty years, he flew to a different European city — every Wednesday. He never missed a week. Mr Mul (born in 1932) made more than 1,000 flights over a period of 20 years.

Travel is what you make it. In the early days of my travel quest to visit every country, I would get defensive when people asked why I only stayed in most countries for a relatively brief period of time. Unlike this guy, I left the airport and usually spent several days in a place—but still, I totally get why someone would love flying for the sake of flying.

It was all about an experience, about losing himself in the window seat and venturing to a different place. No matter that the place was “air world.” Some of us like air world just fine.

For every person who does something like this, I bet there are many more who have a similar idea but never follow through. Maybe they decide that it’s silly, or maybe they try it a couple of times before stopping.

But this story shows that you don’t have to stop. If you find something that brings you joy, embrace it and call it your own.

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Hat Tip: KLM
Image: Maarten Van Haaff

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All-Female Film Crew Hikes 338 Miles of the California Aqueduct

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Drought is on the minds of every Californian these days, but Samantha Bode took the water shortage a step further. First, she began to think about the water of Los Angeles itself—where it comes from, and why.

This thinking led her on an exciting journey.

Introduce yourself and your quest.

My name is Samantha. This summer, I’m backpacking all 338 miles of the Los Angeles aqueduct, from Owens Valley in Inyo County to Upper Van Norman Lake in Granada Hills.

The city of LA gets most of its water from hundreds of miles away, often leaving ecological destruction in its wake. On top of that, California is experiencing its worst drought on record, and people are not conserving water at the rate they need to in order to preserve this resource they need to live.

We’re taking the journey and making a documentary, The Longest Straw, to raise awareness of water importation and management. We hope to encourage people to form a personal connection with their water by seeing where it comes from.

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What exactly inspired you to embark on this quest?

Years ago, I took a trip to Mono Lake, a gorgeous saline soda lake north of San Francisco and east of Yosemite. I saw an LA Department of Water & Power (LADWP) vehicle, and was curious why they had a presence over 300 miles from LA.

I learned that the town of Lee Vining and of the Mono Lake Committee had been engaged in decades of legislation, debate, and struggle with LADWP (along with the city of Los Angeles).The people of LA were impacting the people of Lee Vining, and most of Los Angeles had no idea.

From there, the conclusion felt natural: I had to educate people on where their water comes from. People know about the drought. It is on the lips and minds of every Californian. But when you hear about the drought on the news, or over the radio, or through the internet, there’s a wall disconnecting you from the water.

I don’t need to know everything about the drought. I don’t need to know the exact science behind water. What I am trying to do is help people connect the dots between their water and the source of that water. After those dots are connected, it will be easier to see the bigger picture.

Scientific facts don’t raise much awareness, but seeing a freakishly low reservoir, listening to stories of people affected by dry wells, feeling the hot air that is void of precipitation – that is what gets people connected and interested.

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You’re right in the middle of your quest. What’s a typical day like for you as you prepare?

Both Angela, my co-producer, and I work “normal” jobs. Between those and pre-production, which is a fancy way of saying prep-work before actually taking the trip, we basically work two full time jobs.

On any given day, we do one or all of the following for the film: field emails, draw maps on Google Earth, write blog posts, keep up on our social media, plan interviews, edit video, and plenty more.

Pre-production is exhausting. But, we know that it is worth it. Angela and I know that what we’re doing has the potential to change people’s perspective, and rekindle that dying relationship with their long-time lover, water.

Of course, the hardest part is still to come: the 70 day, 338 mile journey.

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Tell us about a memorable encounter fresh in your mind.

Meeting members of the Big Pine Paiute, a people who once lived on the land that the aqueduct now passes through. Their perspective on water usage in the region is unique in that it stretches back thousands of years.

We lucked into attending Fandango, an inter-tribal event for American Indians throughout California and the Southwest. While there we saw traditional dances of the American Indians of the Owens Valley and Mono Basin, and share in the traditions of these people.

We also went on a water tour of the Big Pine area with Harry Williams, a member of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe. He showed us the ancient irrigation ditches that the Paiute people used to irrigate the valley long before the ranchers and LADWP came along. He told us of the great relationship that the Paiute people have with water, living in an arid place yet still being able to survive and thrive.

Something he said still echoes in my brain: “The Bristlecone Pines are some of the oldest living things in the world. They have tree rings, and their tree rings show that in 14,000 years we’ve had 10-year droughts, 20-year droughts, 50 and 80-year droughts, and 200-year droughts, much like this three-year drought. So California is suffering, sure, but I think this ain’t nothing compared to what could happen.”  

That’s powerful, and very telling of the disconnection most people have not just from their water, but their natural surroundings, too.

What are the costs associated with planning and producing this journey?  

Beginning to end, production of the feature film will cost $50,000. Some of those funds will be raised via our Indiegogo campaign. We’ve also received product donations from our sponsors, Adventure 16, Steripen, Whole Foods, and GRaid.

But just as important has been the support from people. We’ve met friendly activists who work in fields related to the aqueduct who have agreed to appear on camera and put us in contact with other people who have helped our seemingly insurmountable project possible.

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How have you dealt with a low point in your quest?

It can get discouraging at times to think about how long in the making this film has been. We began working on The Longest Straw in November 2013, and at the time, we thought we’d be done within a year. Here we are a year and a half later and we just began the backpacking journey.

Every time I’ve felt discouraged or lost in the process of this film though, a new person would come up to me and tell me that The Longest Straw is already strengthening their relationship with water. “Sam, I thought about your film when I was in the shower this morning, and decided to cut it a little short,” or “Sam, I thought about your film while my husband was washing dishes, and I smacked him because he was leaving the water on too long.”

Also, every day we get a little closer to leaving. Watching this project come together has been so much more rewarding than rushing through the steps, especially because the project that is now coming into fruition is so much richer than what we’d pictured at the start of this process.

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What has surprised you as you’ve worked on this film?

The people of Los Angeles really don’t know much about where their water comes from, and a lot of them don’t seem to care. But for the people in Inyo County and the Mono Basin, the aqueduct is a part of their everyday lives. They’ve had to live with the repercussions of our water use for over a century.

What blows me away is that most of the people live in Southern California with the water being imported from Northern California.  That means our water is shared by various people all over the state of California.  If people were to think of it as such, as our water, I feel like we would be more apt to come together to think of ideas for its future preservation.

I feel like if the people of Los Angeles took a little time to actually know where their water comes from, they would come to a better appreciation of that source, and begin to work with the people in the Owens Valley and Mono Basin to ensure the future preservation of that water for all.

What did we miss?

Unlike a lot of film crews, ours is almost entirely female! We didn’t intentionally seek to have a principally female crew – instead, amazingly talent people we already know reached out and expressed an interest in participating in the film, and only once we began filming interviews did we realize.

That said, we love to have so much girl power on our side!

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So what happens next?

The trip itself! We’re hiking now.

Follow Samantha’s quest at The Longest Straw or via Twitter @thelongeststraw.

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Going Back to Kindergarten at Age 28: Melia Dicker’s Quest

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Have you ever wanted to go back to your school days knowing what you know now? In her part-Billy Madison style, part-personal development quest, Melia Dicker did just that.

Introduce yourself!

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a kid, I loved to write stories and draw, but as I got older, I began to focus on school at the expense of everything else. I put immense pressure on myself to get perfect grades and test scores.

I operated under the assumption that doing well in school would lead to a life as a happy, self-assured, and financially stable adult. But six years out of college, I realized that I was none of those things. The habits that had made me an excellent student were the very ones that made me terrible at being an autonomous adult.

I avoided taking risks because I was afraid of making mistakes. I was used to waiting for instruction, so I had a hard time making my own decisions. After so many years of following the path laid out in front of me, I had very little idea about what I wanted to do with my life.

So I undertook a quest I called “Reschool Yourself” to give myself a fresh start by reliving my school days. I got permission from my elementary school, middle school, high school, and university to spend a week in each grade alongside the current students.

I moved back in with my parents and started kindergarten again at age 28. I spent that fall doing whatever the other students happened to be doing. I played tetherball at recess and filled out science worksheets; I took algebra exams and stayed up late talking with other students in the hallway of my college dorm; and I rediscovered my love of writing, drawing, and music.

In essence, I let go of what I thought I was supposed to do and began to get a sense of what I wanted to do.

Starting at the beginning: Kindergarten.
Starting at the beginning: Kindergarten.

What exactly inspired you to embark on this quest?

I was running an after-school program and had begun scrolling through a bunch of photos from the semester to put together a slideshow. I saw photo after photo of my energetic students smiling or goofing off – and then I saw a photo of myself, pressing my phone to my ear and looking miserable.

I kept scrolling. There were more photos of happy kids, then another one of me scowling, my face pinched with stress. This was the first time that I’d seen myself objectively, and I didn’t like what I saw.

At that moment, I knew that I needed to make a change in my life. I didn’t want to send my students the message that adulthood was a burden, something to fear and dread. Even more, I didn’t want to be the person in those photos.

To clear my head, I drove out to the California coast. It was the first time that I could remember doing exactly what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. I suddenly found myself having actual IDEAS again. It felt foreign after packing my days so tightly that I didn’t have any unscheduled time.

I thought about what I would most want to do if I could do anything, and this was the answer that came: “I wish I could be a kid again.” And then: “I wish I could do school over again.” School was where I’d learned to follow instructions instead of my own intuition. It was where I’d lost touch with my hobbies, and the joy and wonder that I’d naturally had as a child. It seemed like a crazy idea, but I also didn’t have a lot to lose by trying.

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Are there costs associated with Reschool Yourself?  

The total cost was $8,900 for six months of project and living expenses. I was stunned by how much I needed to live on, even when I’d cut back on most costs. I deferred my student loans and paused my retirement contributions, but I still had to pay for my health insurance, cell phone, everyday supplies like contact lens solution, and gas for my car. I lived with my parents for the duration of the project, so I didn’t have to pay for rent or food, except when I had the occasional outing with friends.

My project costs were around $2,500 of the total budget. It covered the tools that I needed to document the project — a new laptop, a digital camera, a FlipCam, and a mini tripod — as well as web hosting, software, and a few books on writing and publishing.

I funded most of the project through donations and crowdfunding. I was humbled by how generous people were in supporting my dream. I even received several donations in the mail from people around the country whom I didn’t know.

On top of that, I earned a bit of income by working a few hours a week, filling in for the receptionist at my dad’s office in the afternoons and tutoring high school students in the evenings.

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Working on art in first grade.

How have you dealt with a low point in your quest?

The hardest part of my journey was experiencing how poorly I treated myself when left to my own devices. I didn’t sleep nearly enough; I let my worry, anxiety, and self-loathing run rampant; and I worked myself into the ground because I simply didn’t know any other way to be. I felt as if nothing I did was good enough.

When Darren, the man I would later marry, visited me for a week, I had planned a date for us that included dinner at the farmer’s market and a drink at a local pub. We’d both been looking forward to it for months. But I went through that day feeling stuck.

I couldn’t muster the words to write what I wanted to on the blog. I got a parking ticket, which was more than just an annoyance when I didn’t have a real income. I felt like I was surrounded by reasons to be happy — a loving partner, an evening filled with fresh food and live music — but I still wasn’t. I ended up standing in the middle of the farmer’s market crying and apologizing to Darren for ruining our date.

Blogging about my experience that day was therapeutic. So many personal development blogs are written as people look back and share lessons learned. My writing was a window into my awkward and sometimes painful growth that was happening at that very moment.

Until then, I had hesitated to share anything heavy because I didn’t want to be a downer. But people responded more to that post than the ones that were full of excitement or humor. They commented that they knew exactly what I was going through, and they offered words of understanding and encouragement.

What kind of support did you receive during Reschool Yourself?

Darren was actually a huge influence. He taught me to be kinder to myself by his own example. He didn’t suffer from guilt or shame, and he didn’t beat himself up over anything. His attitude was that he was always doing his best with the knowledge he had at the time, so there was no need to feel bad about himself. He knew how to work hard and then enjoy his downtime.

This was all revolutionary to me; it ran contrary to the way I had operated since I was a teenager. By spending enough time with Darren, these habits began to rub off on me.

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What has surprised you during Reschool Yourself?

When I told people about my school do-over, a lot of them said, “I wish I could do that, too.” Readers of the blog shared the kinds of school experiences that I was reliving, like lunchtime in the cafeteria, P.E. class, and school dances. I posted pictures of nostalgic scenes with the caption “Remember This?” — Fisher Price Little People in the kindergarten classroom, lockers in the high school hallway, and shower caddies in the dorm — and enjoyed hearing from people about the memories that these images evoked.

I had no idea how deeply the project would resonate with anyone else.

Tell us about a memorable encounter fresh in your mind.

At my elementary school, I became friends with a third-grader, Lisa. She was all skinny arms and legs, with short blond hair and an impish smile. One day after school, she grabbed my hand and dragged me down the hall to her guitar class. I’d grown up playing the piano and had been interested in learning the guitar, but I’d always been too intimidated to try.

Lisa threw me into the deep end before I could protest. The teacher, Mr. Madison, welcomed me in and lent me one of his spare guitars, and Lisa pulled an extra chair into the circle for me. Mr. Madison showed me the A chord, which his students had been practicing, and I very tentatively gave it a try.

On the other hand, Lisa wailed on the A chord like she was on stage at Madison Square Garden. Most of the other kids did, too. They weren’t yet concerned about making mistakes or looking silly in front of other people. They were just having fun playing music and learning how to do something new.

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Being around kids every day made me less self-conscious. Since that afternoon, I’ve taught myself quite a few songs on the guitar and still play when I want to relax. Learning the basics was much easier than I’d expected, and I’m grateful to my little buddy Lisa for making me try.

On my last day of elementary school, Lisa hugged me tight and said, “I’m not letting you go!” A few moments later, her turn came up at foursquare and she released me, calling “BYE!” over her shoulder. I had to laugh, because Lisa lived fully in the moment, something that I aspired to do myself.

What did we miss?

Choosing to go on my quest was likely the most important decision that I’ve made in my life, because it led me to a much happier place that has shaped everything that’s happened since. I took a big risk by quitting a stable job to go after my dream, without a clear picture of where I’d end up.

But as I learned to listen to my instincts, I kept pushing myself to the edges of my comfort zone, and I took another big risk by moving across the country to join Darren in his native Mississippi. Fast forward several years, and we have a little boy, a strong community of friends, and jobs we love. I still struggle with my demons, but the project gave me an arsenal of tools to keep them in check.

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Photo credit: James Adamson

What’s next?

I’ve been working for a long time on a book about the Reschool Yourself project. It’s been extremely challenging to write, and I’m looking forward to finishing it soon. In the meantime, I apply lessons from the project to my daily life as often as possible: I savor my downtime.

I’m less inclined to do things out of obligation rather than desire, and I strive for only achievements that truly matter to me. I practice treating myself like I would a friend.

Follow Melia at Reschool Yourself, or via Twitter @reschoolproject.

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Decide for yourself what you want, then find a way to make it happen.