What Can Happen When You Say "Yes" To Your Adventure?
For the first 27 years of my life, I’d say I lived a life of probabilities.
Through grade school, I was good at math and science, so there was a high probability I’d be good at engineering.
After high school, I attended Georgia Tech, because it was probably one of the best engineering schools in the country, and there was a high probability that I’d graduate and land a good job out of college.
At Georgia Tech, I studied Industrial & Systems Engineering — a discipline that itself is rooted in statistics and probabilities.
After graduation, I took a well-paying job with IBM as an IT & Business consultant because it was probably one of the best offers I would receive, and IBM was probably one of the most admired companies in the world. There was a high probability that I’d begin my professional career in the real world on solid ground.
And for almost five years as a traveling consultant with IBM — it was all true. I found myself on high profile and challenging projects for some of the largest corporations in the world. I labored beside bright and driven individuals. I felt a flourishing career brewing. I felt important and I felt successful.
But over the course of those five years, slowly, reality set in: the work I was doing and the many, many hours I was spending felt empty, disconnected, and meaningless.
It may have looked like this:
But it felt like more like this:
And here’s the thing: I could tell most of my colleagues felt the same (whether they admitted it or not). We were merely going through motions. Not hating life, but certainly not loving it. Not living with curiosity or fire. Just plain bored.
This existence seemed to beg the simple yet infinitely impossible question.
Was this really the beginning of the rest of my life?
And then on January 18, 2012, while sitting in a conference room in Charlotte at a client meeting, I received a call. My college friend Shannon was killed in a car accident the night before.
Soon after the dust and emotions settled, as is common with any sort of unexpected passing of a close one, I began to seriously reflect upon my own mortality. Suddenly big burning questions about work and life that had been fighting a quiet struggle on the sidelines erupted:
Am I spending my fleeting time on earth doing things that matter?
Am I fulfilling my potential? Utilizing my unique gifts and embracing my passions?
And what are my gifts? What are those passions?
All of these questions led to the overarching theme of: Who am I? Who am I meant to become? Why am I here?
As those big questions marinated in my mind, I saw flashes of unrealized dreams and potential regrets. One dream in particular coming to the forefront, a dream that I was putting off until some unforeseen day in the future: my dream of going on a long-term, slow traveling adventure.
As cliché as this may sound, in the moments after I learned about Shannon, I heard a voice very clearly in my head say:
“What are you waiting for? Now is the time.
This is your chance.”
I didn’t know who said it, where it came from, or why. But the call to action was crystal clear.
The next week, feeding off of the emotions of Shannon’s death, these questions and dreams fresh and at the forefront of my mind, I did what any sensible person would do. I booked a oneway ticket to…
…departing 5 months into the future. (Okay, so maybe I was a little sensible.)
And then, I asked for a 7-month sabbatical from my job.
Yes, in that order.
Perhaps Shannon’s passing reignited in me this particular dream of long-term travel, because travel was the very way that Shannon and I became close friends. We had studied abroad for a summer semester in a small city in France called Metz. Metz was the place where we both developed our passion for culture, exploration, adventure.
What I was about to do with this trip to Iceland, you have to understand, went against the life of probability I had been taught to live by. Engineering, IT, and business consulting is about planning, analytics, measurement, results, straight-forward answers and efficiency.
By listening to that voice and saying ‘Yes’ to such an adventure, I seemed to be throwing down a challenge to my everyday life. Deep down, I seemed to be asking the question:
What happens when someone moves from an engineer’s life of probabilities, well-laid plans, straight paths, clear answers, to-dos, being driven strictly by results and accomplishments…
…to a life of possibilities, an unknown and unplanned path, big burning questions, only want-to-dos, and being driven purely by excitement, curiosity, and enthusiasm?
What happens when one stops trying to predict their path, calculating their every step? What does that path look like?
Well, it turns out it looks a little like this:
After a few weeks in Iceland, I headed to the United Kingdom and Ireland. I spent a month and a half in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Scandinavia, I passed through Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. I traveled around Poland. I celebrated Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. I moved southward to Croatia.
With no set agenda and no plan, I just went places that I felt pulled by. Maybe I decided to meet a friend somewhere. Maybe I took a suggestion from a random traveler or local. Maybe I just liked the name of the city. Maybe I accepted an invitation to someone’s hometown. If something tickled me in a good way, I’d say ‘Yes.’ And I guess by the looks of this map, I constantly said ‘Yes’.
And for this brief period of unstructured time, I did only the things I wanted to do. I read many books. I met many people. I learned how to build a website and created a blog. I started writing about my travels. I explored artistic pet projects in photography and videography.
One day, I found myself in a small city on the Adriatic coast, Zadar, Croatia. While in Zadar, I received a message from a Lithuanian friend I had made in Vilnius, Lithuania:
Suddenly the image of weird buckle shoes and funny square hats popped into my head (which is, at least, what Americans may think of when we hear the word pilgrim). And which, if I can be honest with you, really offended me.
Me? A pilgrim? On a pilgrimage? Not a chance.
Maybe I was just ignorant to the word, so I did what anyone would do. I went to Wikipedia.
“Wretchedness.” A little dramatic, Wikipedia. I was on an epic journey around Europe, of course. Fulfilling a dream and crossing off some bucket list items? Absolutely. Taking the time to reflect on life and my direction, while exploring some new, creative endeavors? Sure. But let’s face it: I was a single, unattached, twenty-something guy traveling around Europe. My intention was anything but holy or spiritual.
But the term pilgrim stuck with me. So I allowed myself explore it.
When I got past the mental picture of the guys with the buckles and the funny hats, I found origins of the pilgrimage was indeed rooted in spiritual practice or religion. There’s the Pilgrimage to Mecca, still one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which has Muslims journeying to their holy land each year. Jewish law once required Jews to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for Passover. For hundreds of years, Christians have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Then I came across pilgrim-like journeys across other civilizations. People from Italy, Egypt, and Asia braved the arduous journey to Greece to ask the Oracle at Delphi a burning question. From Australia, there’s a phenomenon known as a “walkabout” — a call for a long walk into the outback to visit holy ancestral grounds. Certain Native American tribes would send their adolescents on “Vision Quests” into wilderness to gain insight into their life direction.
Even still, I found other journeys that could be considered “pilgrimages” albeit less religious or spiritual ones: A car buff taking a trek down Route 66 in his vintage Corvette, or perhaps a history scholar of ancient Rome traversing along the Appian Way in Italy.
In all of these instances of pilgrimages, quests, wanderings, adventures — I noticed a strong common thread among them all. And this common thread was in the way they started.
They all started with “A Call.”
A call to a journey, to embark on an adventure.
In fact, as I researched more, this is what mythologist Joseph Campbell labeled a “Call to Adventure” in his concept of the Hero’s Journey — the idea that most religious, mythical, or even pop culture narratives are just variations of a single great story, where a hero is called to an adventure, goes on the adventure with all of its trials and tribulations, and then returns home with the wisdom he or she has gained.
So in the case of religious pilgrimages, there was a law requiring it — that was “the call.” In ancient Greece, it was a burning question that called them to the Oracle at Delphi. Or in the less spiritual examples, it was a call to pay homage to something near and dear to the individual.
Or sometimes, it was a wake-up call.
Maybe the car buff was fired from a job, which finally gave him the time to drive down Route 66;
Maybe the history scholar was diagnosed with cancer, so she finally embarked on that trip to visit the ruins of ancient Italy;
Or maybe the unexpected death of a college friend reignited a dream gone ignored.
I began to consider that maybe I was on some sort of unplanned pilgrimage after all. Even if I didn’t have a destination in mind.
But in all of these instances “The Call” was not enough. The pilgrim, the wanderer, the journeyer needed to make the decision to heed the call. The journey only began when they said ‘Yes’ to their adventure — it only started when they decided to depart.
While “The Call” itself may be inexplicable, divine even — the decision to say ‘Yes’ to the Call is an act of free will.
And that decision to say ‘Yes’ is the thing that mattered most.
There’s a part of my journey that I don’t share publicly, but I’d like to share with you today because I think it helps paint a picture of what can happen when you decide to say ‘Yes’ to your adventure.
After Zadar, I ended up going to Belgrade, Serbia, where I stayed for 1 month. While there, I made a friend who would soon be working in a small village in Northwestern Germany. She invited me to visit. I had 5 days before I had to meet my sister in Barcelona, and just enough funds left to justify the inexpensive flight. So of course, I said ‘Yes’ to this adventure as well.
And so I spent a weekend in that tiny German town. And on my last night, I pulled up the train timetable and looked at a map to chart my course to Barcelona.
As my eyes traversed the direct path between where I was in Germany, and onward to Barcelona, I noticed something that gave me chills.
That path went through Metz.
The same Metz where Shannon and I had become close friends. The place where we had both discovered our love for travel.
And so with 2 days to spare before Barcelona, I booked my train ticket through Metz.
When I got to Metz, I rightfully acknowledged the bracelet of Shannon’s that I’d be carrying around with me tied to my backpack the whole time, for no particular reason initially other than I wanted to remember her as I traveled. And with that bracelet, I spent a day wandering around Metz. I visited the classroom where we studied. The bars we visited. The parks we walked.
And in one of the parks I decided to leave that bracelet in Metz, along with a note to my friend:
“Thank you for sending me on a trip of a lifetime. Little did I know this would become a pilgrimage in your honor. Thanks for all you taught me. And thanks for leading me back to where it all began. We’re each playing our part in a larger story.”
I didn’t expect my trip to have such a grand ending.
But because it did, it taught me the importance of saying a hearty ‘Yes’ to our adventure — whether that adventure takes us halfway across the world, on a new career trajectory, or just down a new path to class or work.
We say ‘Yes’ to our adventure when it calls us because we can learn something we can never learn in the world of probabilities and reason alone. And that is Faith & Trust. That when you heed that call, you’re putting trust into something you cannot see; you’re putting faith into something that cannot be calculated. Blind faith in yourself, in your heart, in the Universe. Or as Steve Jobs says “your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
I always loved that commencement speech and quote by Jobs. But by living purely an engineer’s life of probabilities, I would have never truly learned the lesson he was trying to teach.
The thing about faith and trust is no one can teach you how to have faith and trust. You can’t acquire it by reading about it, or by thinking about it. There’s only one way to learn it. And that’s through action. By heeding the call. By saying ‘Yes’. By walking that path. A path that’s unique to you and a path that only you have the power to know.
The hardest part is the not knowing.
But in reality, we can never really know. We never can be certain how things will unfold. Our well laid plans always have the potential to fall through. Everything is uncertain.
What gave me the courage to say ‘Yes’ to this adventure and take this unplanned path was my friend Shannon. Because I’m pretty sure dying at 27 wasn’t part of her life plan. It shattered my belief that everything can be calculated, everything can be predicted, and that the world of probabilities is the only world to live inside. And so if I couldn’t count on living strictly in a world of probabilities, I knew I had better look elsewhere.
There’s another reason to say ‘Yes’ to your adventure.
When you heed the call, you’re making a statement to yourself that you believe your life has the potential to be an interesting story. And when you start to view your life like an interesting story — like a mysterious myth, like a beautiful piece of folklore — and you begin to view yourself as the story’s hero — the protagonist or the pilgrim — something magical happens.
When you start to live your life like an interesting story, it has no other choice than to become one.
When we say ‘Yes’ to our adventure, when we embark on a pilgrimage, or a journey, or whatever it may be; when we step off the road and into the unknown, our life essentially becomes an adventure.
We become the hero. We become a pilgrim. We become an interesting story worth sharing — a story worth sharing because it offers a glimmer of faith and trust.
And when our life becomes the interesting, beautiful story it always had the potential to be, we’re ensuring we’re each playing our own part in a much grander story. And in the process, we give faith and trust the chance to show their faces. And occasionally they do show their faces.
There’s some sort of perfection in the way my trip turned out. But it’s not something that can be calculated and proved with equations and probabilities. It’s not something that can be engineered. There’s no sort of planning or predicting that can uncover the kind of perfection I stumbled upon. And this, I believe, is why a physical journey is often used to symbolize our journey through life.
Because to the naked eye, the way these dots connect doesn’t make any sense at all. But it makes perfect sense to me.
And so the question isn’t will you be Called. Because you will. We’re summoned daily.
“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
I hope you do.
The above was the full transcript to Matt’s TEDx talk in April 2014: Say ‘Yes’ To Your Adventure. You can watch the video here:
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