Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Jump Off

Back in May I made the tough decision to steer away from a looming future in international politics and diplomacy, and embrace an unknown outcome in trying to make a living as an adventure photographer/storyteller/videographer. Or maybe I was going to become a climbing guide. Or perhaps a ranger for the National Park Service. Possibly even a SAR responder. The truth is, I really didn't know exactly what I was going to end up doing, or how I was going to do it, but I packed a minivan with my possesions all the same and left Boston fading in my rearview mirror as I headed West on I-90.

For me this was a huge jump. I had spent the last five years earning a degree in International Relations from an "elite" university in the Northeast (with super duper honors too!!) with the plan to become a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department. Think "James Bond meets Barack Obama meets Richard Holbrooke" - that was gonna be me, I swear. Unfortunately for our country and diplomatic corps, I hadn't factored into my planning the full ramifications of a single chance trip to the local climbing gym with one of my friends in our sophomore year of college.

Thus began an all consuming passion with climbing and adventure that would take me through South America and Patagonia my junior year, and all over the Northeast and rest of the United States over the following two years. Soon I found myself hanging out with a new group of friends three nights a week at the local climbing gym, and headed up to New Hampshire to climb and hike every weekend.

By the time I was finishing up a year of work at my first post-college job and looking for research assistant positions and job opportunities in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., I knew something wasn't right. Despite my (still) enormous interest in matters of international conflict and negotiation, I found myself extremely depressed while looking at different job possibilities, research positions, and graduate school programs. While they all sounded fascinating in theory, when I actually envisioned what my life would be like if I chose any of them I saw a future severely lacking in the adventure, joy, and enthusiasm that I wanted in my life.

If you had asked me, I wouldn't have been able to say exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I was happiest being outdoors as much as possible, not sitting at a desk in a suit (even if the President were sitting on the other side of the desk). Without sounding cliche, I wanted (and still want) to live a life that I fully loved - one in which I woke up excited at what I was going to do every day and made a living by doing the things that I truly enjoyed, not merely by working a job that paid the bills and gave me a little bit of time off to get outdoors.

And when I thought deeply about what I truly enjoyed, I saw images of vast granite faces, snowcapped summits, the smiling faces of friends around campfires, golden shafts of light pouring through verdant forest, persevering through bitter storms and torrential downpours, constantly reshaping what I considered myself capable of, the blue-gold light of dawn washing over beautiful landscapes, and the satisfying soreness that comes only after a long day spent on the move. When I read climbing magazines and blogs, listened to stories from the Dirtbag Diaries, or watched videos from Vertical Carnival and the Camp 4 Collective, I said to myself, "THIS is what I want to do!" I dreamed about a life on the road, climbing and inspiring others with the stories and images of my adventures and those of my friends.

I was haunted by the words of Irish filmmaker/photographer Mickey Smith about his love of surfing and filming along the coast of Ireland - "If I only scrape a living, at least it's a living worth scraping. If there's no future in it, at least it's a present worth remembering." I looked around and saw too many people spending more time dreaming about what they loved doing rather than actually doing it. I was scared to death of the same thing happening to me.

Yet I was hesitant to let go and step off the path that I had begun to lay for myself. My time in school had shown me how screwed most of the people on this planet really are - people who live under despotic regimes or in countries too poor and wracked with corruption, conflict, and strife to offer them much of a chance for a long, happy life. I knew how lucky I was to not only be born in the United States, but also born to parents who could send me to a good highschool and university. I felt I owed it to others beyond myself to work toward making the world a better place (or something cliche like that). In this view, a life of climbing and adventure appeared terribly selfish and inconsequential.

But around the time that I reached the depth of my depression this spring - when I was looking for something, anything, to help give me some guidance - I heard a small quote that changed everything. Strangely, I heard it not just once but numerous times within only a few days, after never having seen it before. First in a friend's Gmail status bar, then written on the side of a friend's backpack, and then again in a book I was reading. It came from Howard Thurman, an American author and theologian, who once said, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." The simplicity and power of his statement captivated me. It didn't make my decision for me, but it struck an inner chord that had been silent for too long.

A couple of days later while walking home from work I made the decision to move back West. That night was one of my happiest moments in recent memory. I didn't stop smiling to myself for hours.

Now, three months later, I still don't have a solid answer to the question of what I am going to do. I am still interested in pursuing all of the options I mentioned at the beginning of this post, though I am leaning more and more toward adventure photography/storytelling/filmmaking. In late May I spent two weeks in Arizona on a photojournalism project about security along the Arizona-Mexico border, and I made a small photo-essay of sorts of the climbing that I did during my roadtrip back across the country, both which I'll post soon.

Despite the shockingly few number of digits in my bank account, I am more psyched than ever about the coming weeks and months. I recently spent half of my savings on a new computer, camera, and other gear, and I can't wait to get out and use it all to produce what I hope will be some awesome and inspiring photos, videos, and audio stories. Later this week I am heading down to Yosemite to climb and shoot photos and video until the end of October, and then I'm off to Utah to take a WFR course and climb/shoot for most of November.

This is the only life you get. Are you going to spend it doing what you love and what makes you happy, or merely wishing that you were doing so?

Or, in the words of a Mr. Andy Dufresne, are you going to "get busy living, or get busy dying?"

I choose living.

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