The Benefits of Long Hikes

Earlier this year, I did a 600 mile section of the Appalachian Trail. Even now, six months later, I continue to reap the benefits of being out on a long hike. Here are some of the reasons it was so great.

Can You Do It?

A big hike is scary, and you will not be sure if you can do it. And, in fact, you might not be able to do it. But you won’t know until you try. This is the kind of thing that is scary because there is uncertainty about success; which is the best kind of scary. The kind of scary you should lean into and find out the answer. And in the process, learn something about yourself.

Slowing Down

Time seems to move faster and faster every month, but when you are on the trail, time moves slower. Much slower. When you’re done, it feels like it went very fast, but when you are actually hiking, it feels like you will be hiking forever. Sometimes this feels boring, and sometimes it feels fleeting. But in all cases, going slower means you can really feel that you are moving forward.

Faint Signals Amplify

After a few days, all of the initial mechanics of hiking start to fall away. You stop being terrified of the wilderness, and start to accept your surroundings. That makes way for all of your worries and fears to come to the surface about your life in general: will my kids turn out to be jerks? Will I get promoted? Will I lose my hair?

After a bit, those worries and concerns also start to fall away. Then, you’re left with the space in your brain and your heart to listen to the fainter signals. You can drop into a meditative state more quickly and fully, and stay there for hours.

That’s when the real questions start coming out. What am I happy about in my life? How do I want to spend my energy? What are the unifying themes of my life? How can I make my time here the most impactful it can be? Who do I love? What actions should I take to fulfill my goals?

Marking Time

When you think about your time in high school, it’s pretty easy to anchor events. If you remember who was there, you can estimate pretty accurately when something happened because people graduate; and certain classes had certain classmates.

As you become an adult, the month-to-month level changes in your life start to settle down into a more regular routine, punctuated by moments of memorable activity (like life events such as getting married, having a kid, going to the ER, going taking a big vacation).

There is no life event quite as big as taking a big hike. I can tell already that in the coming years, I will think of my life as phases “before the hike,” and ” after the hike.”

If you have a chance, take it. If you don’t, make it.

World Domination Summit Recap

This past weekend, I attended the World Domination Summit right here in Portland, OR. Chris Guillebeau organized this conference for the second year in a row, and this was my first year going.

I didn’t have many pre-conceived notions about what the event would hold, because I know Chris’s audience is diverse – travel hackers, nomads, bloggers, startup people, musicians, and basically anyone who is interested in living a life of non-conformity. So, there is no telling where things will go.

And, as a result, it felt like a little taste of many things. Enough to whet your whistle, and hopefully stir something in you to make you want to go deeper on your own.

Brene Brown was outstanding РI was not familiar with her work before the conference, and am now an instant fan. Her work focuses on authenticity, shame, empathy, and vulnerability. Pretty woo-woo stuff, except she is a Ph.D. researcher on these topics, and has done a ton of quant work proving out the concepts she talks through.

One key takeaway from Brene was that you can’t experience joy without being vulnerable – we must risk something in order to allow someone else to respond to us in an affirming way. What occurred to me was that gay people who have gone through the process of coming out understand this concept – and the vulnerability and exposure of coming out is exactly what makes gay people able to live authentic lives in other ways. Using this very fundamental reality about yourself as an opportunity for vulnerability is pretty empowering.

The other stellar speaker was Cal Newport, who talked about how to “Follow Your Passion” is terrible advice. Instead, he offered up another model that is much more productive, leads to better overall outcomes, and is actually proven to be successful: create a skill that is rare and useful, then use that skill to trade for the values that are important to you.

The model works this way: by developing a marketable skill through the process of mastery, you can use the scarcity of what you offer as leverage for the things you really want. Of course, that means you need to be accurate in your assessment of what skills will be useful and rare, and how to master them. It also means you have to understand what you really want. But it offers myriad ways to a path of success.

While many of the sessions were long on the “why” to do something, and short on the “how,” the attendees made the experience worthwhile. Being around interesting, passionate, motivated people was motivating in and of itself. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Worst Summer Job Ever

NPR is running a series on influential summer jobs. This is the essay I submitted:

For two summers, I worked in Hell on earth – the dirtiest, hottest, most dangerous place I have ever visited.

I worked in a foundry. We made disc brakes for cars and kitchen sinks out of molten steel.

As a summer employee, I did the grunt work. On my first day, I worked a line making sinks. I was in charge of breaking apart the molds after the metal was poured. Hot metal would flow down the spigot, and fill the mold. Within a few seconds, the sink cooled enough to hold its shape. I was stationed down the line with a metal rod held over my head. As each new sink was poured, I jammed the rod into the mold, and wrenched apart the dirt.

Each sink emerged from its mold like a glowing alien, breaking out of a shell. I lifted, thrust, cracked over and over. Then, the line stopped for a break. I set the rod down, and jumped from my platform. I was so hot and dirty that rivulets of sweat cut clean paths through my grimy skin.

Immediately, the rod rolled down and cracked my skull open.

On my first day, after forty five minutes on the floor, I left to get 6 stitches in my head.

No one thought I would make it past the first week. During the school year, I waited tables at Shoney’s. I was in college, studying International Relations. With a minor in Dance.

But I came back, determined to prove myself.

Most days, I was responsible for mixing in additives to the raw steel. The chemistry in making metal parts is very precise. So, after the fresh dip of steel came down the line, I measured out 1 cup of zinc, and 2 cups of magnesium. Then I scrambled up the ladder, and stood on the edge of the pool of liquid steel. I dumped in the buckshot metals, then stirred them in with an iron rod that melted in my hands.

After that, I hoisted a jack hammer to the edge of the pool, where metal had started to cool and adhere to the sides, and I hammered off the hardened steel. Pieces of molten metal flicked up and hit me in the face, chest and legs. Every day, I had a pattern of tiny new burns, instantly cauterized by the heat.

It was grueling work. But, at the end of the shift I had a sense of accomplishment because I had made something new in the world. Every day I left, sweaty, gritty and exhausted, with the satisfaction that the world was a different place because of my work.

Now, I build websites and create marketing campaigns. I don’t get paid to do anything tangible or concrete. I work with my hands only to type. I sweat only when I’m at the gym.

But, every time I am challenged with something that seems impossible, I remember the foundry. I remember my sweat sizzling as it dripped onto hot metal. I remember being wrung out and dehydrated, with metal shavings flying into my eyes, and hours to go before the shift ended.

And the new challenge that I face now simply doesn’t seem that bad.

Because at the foundry, somehow I always kept going. I never slowed the line down. And I never caused it to stop.