The following is a series of emails exchanged between myself and Coleman Bright. We've done this once before when we discussed the mantra of creating more than you consume. This time we examine the importance of moving away from home and pursuing new experiences. Bright lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a dental student at Oregon Health & Science University. For more from Bright, check out his music and photography.
Hughes: One of my constant concerns growing up has been how to best avoid becoming one of those people who gets ‘stuck.’ It’s easy to get trapped on a predictable path that never leads beyond the familiar, with regard to both experiences and physical location. This played a significant role in my motivation to relocate to Nashville last year. A major move was the catalyst for change that I was seeking. A new city has allowed me to reinvent myself to a certain extent and refocus on what I want from my life. An opportunity that’s otherwise difficult to come by.
When you’ve only followed the path set directly in front of you and stayed in a single place your whole life, you become defined by those around you, rather than defining yourself. You’re never really forced to develop a more complete identity since the draw to the familiar is so strong.
Hypothetical: Graduate high school, attend college at one of the large state universities, move back close to home, rush to get married, pop out kids…this might sound familiar. Blindly following these steps, without giving further consideration to what you actually want from your life and the person you are will undoubtedly leave you feeling empty.
If your goal is to just get through life, you need to do little more than stick to the script and manifest justifications for doing so. It’s a viable option if you’re content with simply existing. The trouble is that what’s familiar is rarely the same as what’s fulfilling. To feel alive and achieve anything worthwhile, you must escape and discover your own path. No one has, or ever will, possess an identical thought process, dreams, or goals. You are a unique being.
For these reasons, I think it it’s incredibly important to leave home at some point and escape your routine. By home I mean the entire state you grew up in (dependent on state size – Indiana: Yes, California: Maybe). It doesn’t have to be permanent, just long enough to experience something new and push the boundaries of your comfort zone. When you’ve spent your entire life in familiar surroundings with familiar faces, it’s incredibly difficult to branch out, meet new people, and experience different things. Moving somewhere new forces your hand at this.
Bright: I agree that branching out is very difficult when you’re in familiar surroundings. It’s hard to say no to your friends when they want to do the same things you’ve grown accustomed to. I recently left Indiana for the first time in my 26 years, and it has been extremely refreshing. I started dental school in Portland last year and I’m 2,000 miles from home.
The key is moving far enough away to cut yourself off from your social circle and current routine. It’s incredible to make new friends who don’t know a thing about you and start with a clean slate. It offers an opportunity to be entirely true to yourself and start a lifestyle based on your unique interests. This first step outside your comfort zone gives you confidence to venture further, try new things, make friends with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and expand your worldview.
Sooner or later, all of us reach a crossroads where we’re forced to honestly evaluate our lives. Some of us find ourselves more quickly than others. Growing up, we often do whatever our family or the people around us do because it’s all we know. We only start to carve out our unique interests and identity when we break out of that adolescent bubble.
Once we find these passions that give us our identity, we begin to value different things than we did growing up. You look around at your friends and realize everyone has changed and so have many common interests that once brought you together. As you get older, it’s healthy to separate yourself enough to realign and meet people who share your interests, challenge you, or offer a new perspective. It’s difficult to better yourself without friends that push you past complacency.
A key to feeling alive and engaged every day is keeping things fresh by being around people who expose you to new experiences and ideas. I feel most alive when I don’t always know what’s coming next, and I’m most fulfilled by new experiences. Research shows that experiences make people happier than material possessions. You’re going to find more of these new experiences if you move to a new place.
I’ve been in Portland for a year, and I still feel like I’m on a vacation. Every weekend I try to find a new trail to hike, new restaurant, new brewery, or just a new part of the city to explore. The simple anticipation of a weekend experience is enough to bring me happiness all week. Sometimes my classmates and I even wake up early and do a long morning hike before our afternoon classes. These are hikes I would have previously planned an entire day around. Now I can get up early, drive an hour away, hike up and down a mountain, and be back in class in the same time that I would have previously spent sleeping in and messing around on the internet. It’s just one way that moving away from home has allowed me to expand my own expectations of what I can accomplish in a day.
Hughes: Your association between Portland and vacation is spot on. I feel the exact same way about Nashville. On vacation you have a tendency to suspend your comfort zone because you’re seeking experiences. When you move somewhere new, this becomes your default mindset. You pursue new experiences with new friends and end up trying things you never would have in your old routine. Sticking to what’s comfortable is not even a feasible option since almost everything is unfamiliar. There are far less distractions and it becomes difficult to find an excuse. The one guarantee a new city offers is the opportunity for new experiences. As humans, we crave this.
When you live in a place where you’ve spent the majority of your life it becomes difficult to find adventure and new experiences. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but damn near. That’s when you begin looking to all the wrong places to fill the void, specifically material goods – things – that offer only a fleeting sense of happiness. This desire for more possessions often manifests itself out of boredom. No matter how much you attempt to convince yourself otherwise, material goods never generate the fulfillment or satisfaction provided by experiences.
I think it’s worth noting that you don’t have to cut ties completely with old friends. They are an important part of who you are, but it’s important to recognize that many of your interests have probably diverged over the years. You shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to branch out and establish a new core group of friends. Many times these friendships we cling to gradually become based on convenience and familiarity rather than something of greater substance. It’s one of those things where you don’t really know what you’re missing until you’re in a new city, surrounded by strangers, and have to establish a new group of friends.
In this situation, most of us take a moment for introspection and challenge ourselves to determine what it is that we enjoy most and want from life; a question that we’re never really forced to answer in familiar surroundings. When you move a significant distance away, you’re provided an opportunity to honestly evaluate yourself, free from distractions, and expectations projected upon you. From here you can leverage your interests and begin to explore communities with similar values. This provides a solid foundation on which lasting friendships can be built. New surroundings allow you to better assess how you want to be spending your time and the people you want to surround yourself with.
Bright: I completely agree that as humans we crave these new experiences. We’re hardwired to need both comfort and adventure, and this dichotomy helps maintain a delicate balance in our lives. Our ancestors evolved to require comfort for obvious safety reasons, and adventure to secure resources, food, and escape predators. These instincts were necessary for survival. However, modern society has given us an abundance of comfort and convenience that has negated our adventurous survival instinct in many ways. It’s become almost too easy and now we have to find other ways to satisfy this need.
In today’s world there are countless forms of passive entertainment disguised as an outlet for adventure: spectator sports, dramatic television and movies, video games, etc. These never actually provide the sense of adventure that we crave. An imbalance here often leads to a mysterious dissatisfaction, unhappiness, or feeling ‘stuck,’ as you said. Sometimes these habits become so engrained in us that it takes a drastic change to open our eyes to the possibilities and directions our lives may take.
For years I had a feeling that I needed to move away from where I grew up, but I never knew exactly why. I just figured that I needed a change of scenery or a break from harsh Midwest winters. It wasn’t until after moving to Portland that I realized it was a bit of a wake-up call. The move was a necessary first step that gave me confidence and freedom to push further and explore uncharted territory in my life. It has proven to be a snowball effect in many ways. Once you have that confidence to try new things, you can continue to amplify this in other areas of your life.
One of my favorite Machiavelli quotes suggests the inevitability of mistakes along the way: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth.” I would much rather my mistakes be made in trying new things and not in passively drifting through life. A life of sloth can be turned into a life of ambition; all it takes is that first step.
For me it was moving away and going back to school, for someone else it could be taking a sabbatical from their job or another big change in their life. It’s important to know that it doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s never too late to make a change. Humans are incredibly resilient. We have a tendency to surprise ourselves if we just take that initial risk. We almost always find a way to fashion a parachute in midair and land safely in an amazing new place. Take a chance and risk mistakes of ambition, rather than playing it safe. These are the only types of mistakes that you won’t regret.