Charlie Guo is a self-described nomad. For the past two years he has traveled the world, doing amazing stuff.
And his life sucks.
Wait. His life doesn’t suck. Charlie thinks it sucks.
Here’s what he thinks, from a recent essay titled “I’m not living the dream.”:
“The truth is, this lifestyle is fucking exhausting. For most of 2015 the longest I slept in the same bed was 3 weeks. It was an interesting experience, but not one that I want to have ever again. While I have made some lifelong new friends on my travels, the vast majority of friends I make are fleeting. We meet, we swap stories, we leave within 72 hours. Realistically, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see each other again.
“And while I’ve been gone, my old friends have changed. I’ve missed my fair share of celebrating, commiserating, and reminiscing. Facebook has become a window into birthdays, graduations, and housewarmings; so close and yet so far. I’d love to be there in person, making inside jokes and new memories, but I’ve traded that for passport stamps and culture shocks. If anything, I’m lucky that I haven’t missed the truly important stuff — marriages, births, and deaths.”
Charlie is bracing himself for the heaping share of rebuke that the Internet will be dumping on his head for this essay. Probably a lot of the same people who stay up nights judging and pillorying moms whose kids fall into ape enclosures or get dragged off by crocodiles or sailors whose boats run up on reefs and rocks.
“How dare you experience amazing stuff and not express humility and gratitude!”
Yeah, he’s going to get it bad.
But not by me. I kind of sympathize with Charlie, even though I am nobody’s idea of a nomad. Never was. I’m just an expat trying to carve out a good, simple life in a foreign country.
Charlie Guo isn’t a gypsy or a drifter. He’s young and he has already been a far more productive citizen than you or I will ever be. While attending Stanford he co-founded and sold one startup company. After graduation he started another. He’s a software engineer by trade. Most importantly, he wrote a very popular book on startup companies and the ways they manage growth, titled “Unscalable.”
I applaud Charlie for realizing that taking “a selfie in front of Machu Picchu” isn’t the height of “living the dream.” And for the realization that a sunset at sea off Australia, without emotional context, is the same as “a sunset off the coast of Kona, or Koh Tao, or Samara, or Santorini.” That’s not living. That is just collecting postcards.
Here is what I wrote to Charlie Guo and would have sent it to him if I could only find his e-mail (despite the invitation to e-mail him that was posted in his essay):
Charlie, nobody is living the “dream.”
Think about that word — dream: Ephemeral, idealistic, visionary, ultimately unattainable.
You are living the reality, and I congratulate you for that.
I hesitate to prescribe, as I of course know only your writing, but when you say the most you have spent in one place is three weeks, it may be time to rethink your travel strategy. Try hanging around one place for six months — for better AND worse. Stay in the moment of the place where you are. Spend less time formulating your exit strategy.
But then move on, if you wish.
After 2.5 years on an island off the coast of Belize I’m tempted to ban the word “Paradise” from my vocabulary. That word is part of the Dream World. I embrace the good and the beautiful and the sometimes amazing but I also accept the reality that lurks beyond the edges of the postcards. I feel better for it.
Six months, not three weeks. Commit.
You’ll actually get to know a place and its people, in all their faults and glories. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org and write the blog Bound for Belize in which I sometimes point out that Paradise can be ugly.
Good luck. Can’t wait to see where you grow next.
In other words, stop chasing the dream. Keep traveling. But slow down and let the dream come to you.
Charlie Guo is growing. Realizing that things are not quite the way you imagined them is a huge step toward self-realization. I suspect that the next time Charlie Guo steps out on his nomadic adventure he will be far more aware of himself, the places he will travel and how he wants to relate to those places.
Travel is like the startups Guo writes about in “Unscalable”: Mistakes are made when you first start out. What you do with those mistakes is what matters next.
He just needs to give himself enough time to make the connections. Save the parachuting in and out for actual parachute jumps; don’t make it a metaphor for your style of travel.
In March, essayist Jeffrey Grey posited that people obsessed with travel lead mediocre lives. I had to respond to that.
Now Charlie Guo is saying that obsessive adventure travel is leaving him a bit, well, empty. But he acknowledges the connections that mean most to him — old friends and family. While traveling he mourns the absence of a person with whom he can share these amazing experiences.
Is there an answer somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives?
For some people, definitely. But, come on, there is no one-size-fits-all way to travel … or live overseas.
I know happy people who move on every six months to a year to another country; happy people who live here for six months and in the states for six months; happy people who rotate through several different places around the world; happy people who drop in and out of Belize once or twice a year; and happy people who will spend the rest of their lives here on the island of Ambergris Caye.
Every one of them has enriched my life in some way. I hope that I have done the same.
Travel and expat living are both about making connections, not about collecting visa stamps and post cards.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
— John Donne