Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year in review

View from Copper Mountain, Co.
A 12,000-foot rock I snowboarded down at the start of the year.

Base camp comes before the peak

Here we are at year's end, and what a year it has been. This past summer's adventures on the lakes and rivers have been some of the most memorable I can recall, and they lead right into a busy fall, full of some very enjoyable weekends spent in the woods. I received this fresh take on life after moving back to the Northwoods in the early spring, but that wasn't possible until I decided to step up and take charge of where my life had been before then.

While working in marketing for an international company in Minnetonka, Minn., I realized I despised the person I was becoming - the person they wanted me to be. At my job, I disliked forcing products down people's throats, I was not profits oriented, and I had very little in common with the suburban drones I worked with. People who were more concerned with their next automobile purchase, or picking a restaurant to dine at according to which one they were least jaded to than they were with the colors and shapes in the sky (not to mention you hardly ever saw the sky).

In my personal life nothing felt real. I was told that a work/life balance is what I needed, and PTO was available for that. They told me to take my breaks and work only the minimum hours because I should maintain the separation of 9-5 and everything else. Not to mention, there was no connection with nature necessary in the city, and as time ticked by I began to feel my eyes, too, going dim...

I decided I needed to get out of that situation. I decided that I didn't want a work/life balance in the terms they were describing because I wanted my work to be my life. I wanted to do something that fit so well with me I would hardly call it work. I wanted to get paid for things I liked doing, for things I'm naturally interested in or have even a smidgen of talent at. I wanted the work I did to be meaningful, to have some substance, to be more than just a paycheck.

Enough was enough, and around this time last year I started putting a lot of thought into what exactly it was that I wanted meaningful work to look like. I started by describing my perfect workday. I wrote down when I would ideally like to wake up (7-8 a.m.), what my next action would be after waking (be outside), and how I would prefer to spend my day in chunks of time, i.e. mid-morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, etc.

As I scribbled and scratched and circled and starred things and rearranged with arrows, I began to see a few common threads. Through the mess in my notebook I noticed a trifecta of themes that had sinews stretching through everything I was trying to explain. I distilled those themes down to three words: inspire, freedom, outdoors.

I wanted to do worthwhile work that I found inspiring and that would inspire other people. I wanted to put myself into a project that I had vested real thought into, not just something to get by on. I wanted my work to unveil more of myself rather than hide more of myself, and I wanted the ability to do that work with as much freedom as possible - to decide when and how and where I would produce. I would decide what level of performance was acceptable, what amount of flack I was willing to take, and it would be my standards I had to live up to, not middle management.

The last word, outdoors, could be lumped in under the freedom category, but I decided it was different enough to stand alone. My reasoning was that outdoors, to me, means something more than freedom, it means culture. Outdoors means respect; it means fresh, new, wild, untamed, unfiltered, and unhumanized. What I mean is I believe the natural world knows best how to heal and nourish the soul of mankind, especially if we’re willing to submerge ourselves in it - be alone, without civilization, without rule.

Although I would love to elaborate further on the process that got me there, I'll skip ahead for the purpose of getting to my next point by summarizing: I discerned I needed to quit my job.

From the start, I needed to have some milestones to build the sort of life I wanted and keep me on track, and while it is popular practice to set New Year’s Resolutions, I didn't want to call them that. See, resolutions have an excuse built in. They are bold, blanket statements that pile high some achievement on a plate, and then seem to say "eat all of it." For instance, you wouldn't simply say "I want to learn how to sail," and then jump on a sailboat the next day and assume things will work out. Is it any different saying you want to cut fast food out of your diet? No, no it is not.

So, instead what I did was look at the past year of my life and highlight the things I liked about it. I gave myself some credit for growing as a person, for failing as a person, for fighting, loving, living, and trying. Instead of viewing a mountain in front of me I needed to achieve and conquer, I looked at what the journey had taken from me just to get to base camp. I took a breath.

I realized I had followed my heart all along, been going with my gut instinct more than I'd realized, and now I was doing it again - and it felt great.

What I ended up doing was writing a sort of year-in-review to myself. I marked down big things that had changed in my life, and I was honest with myself, brutally honest with how each of them helped and hindered me on my greater quest for truth. I wrote exhaustively, as if it was the last time I would ever look back on the year. Some of it I was proud of, some of it was downright painful, but I pressed on. I addressed where progress had been made, pointed out where there were still loose ends, and speculated on things I could have done better but had come to terms with.

Multiple times I even walked away from the exercise and picked back up where I had left off. Over the course of a few days I spewed out all this information. At the end of it, when I felt I had explained myself to myself well enough, I set the pen down and turned the page - 2011 was over. I gave myself some credit for how far I’d come by looking back. Consequently, I acquired the freedom to turn and look back up the mountain I still had to climb - and the courage to try new things.

New Year’s Day 2012 I climbed aboard a bus with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Ski and Snowboard Club. We set out on a 21-hour road trip to Colorado where we stayed a week at Copper Mountain. A weeklong adventure down the side of a mountain... and I had never before been on downhill skis or a snowboard.

"How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?"
- Henry David Thoreau

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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