I did not escape the rat race.
I didn’t even make it to the start.
The odds had been stacked against me since birth. Always the outsider at school. Rubbish at teamwork as a student. Ditched by my cycling partner a few months into a round-the-world bicycle trip (which incidentally kicked off this blog 7 years ago).
In my mid-twenties I took a giant leap, compromising my personal freedom as a bicycle-mounted vagabond in the hope of something better: I got married. Some supposed this meant I would become a responsible adult and get a real job too.
But the career, mortgage and fixed abode remained artifacts of a lifestyle lived only by others. Instead, I gambled it all on telling a story. I blew my life savings spending two years writing a 100,000-word book, honing a single 79-minute piece of film to perfection, and learning all I could about publishing, distribution, and eventually entrepreneurship, for a small business is what it became.
As the Janapar: Love on a Bike project entered its third year, I was further from the conventional life formula than ever.
And this was still the case until a few weeks ago.
* * *
Things began to change earlier this year when I received an email from Chris Guillebeau, the guy behind The Art Of Non-Conformity blog and the organiser of the annual World Domination Summit.
(I could go back further and say that it started when I met Chris last June in Pasadena. I’d cycled there from Vancouver over the preceding two months with my brother Ben. Chris happened to be in town with his book tour on the day we were rolling through. Picking serendipitous moments is easy in retrospect.)
He was wondering if I might present my project at his event. Based in the excruciatingly hip city of Portland, Oregon, the not-for-profit World Domination Summit (or WDS for short) explores one simple question:
“How can we live remarkable lives in a conventional world?”
It could not have been more perfect a place to share this unconventional tale with 3,000 fellow non-comformists from all over the world. But the film was a minor aside to the lecture series at the core of the programme, delivered by some of the West’s most cutting-edge writers, experimenters, philosophers, artists and storytellers.
Unlike some, these lectures were no one-way dialogues or self-promotion fests, for this event was all about the audience. Every one of the dozens of attendees I spoke to had an inspiring story to tell, bowling me over with their ideas and energy and enthusiasm for life — the qualities that had brought them to Portland in the first place.
On the plane home, metaphorical dust settling around me, I knew I had been given much to think about.
Because what many don’t realise is this: nobody lives an unconventional life for the sake of it; because it’s fashionable or fun or easy.
We got here out of necessity or desperation, and now we’re just muddling through, regardless of external appearances or flashy-looking websites.
Yes, we have broken the mould. But this is a platitude, for we are then obliged to forge new moulds, without patterns to follow and with no mould-making skills whatsoever. We spend much of our time shooting in the dark. We must be happy (or at least comfortable) knowing every decision is an experiment, and that experiments fail. And it seems impossible to know where to start, and, having started, often equally impossible to know which way to turn; where to look for satisfactory answers to the perpetual question: “what’s next?”
* * *
Depending on your personality, there are a couple of ways to get a new creative project off to a good start.
One is to dive right in and make a mess and — much later — rearrange the result into something that makes sense.
Another is to take a step back and have a good long think. Take your time. Digest your thoughts. Do something completely different – preferably involving exercise and fresh air – and allow the subconscious space (a lot of space) to process it all. This is my way of doing things, at least.
If you are master of your own time, your life is one big creative project. I don’t mean creative in the popular sense of art, music, writing, whatever. I mean it in the truest possible sense that you must take the raw material of time and create a life for yourself.
Hearing so many stories at the WDS from people seeing their projects bear fruit served to highlight a single important fact:
I had absolutely no idea what I was going to create next with my time.
If I lived conventionally, this wouldn’t have mattered at all. The answer would be on my desk at 9 o’clock on Monday morning.
Living unconventionally, I didn’t have that luxury. The problem was compounded by the fact that I’ve never been good at the in-at-the-deep-end, make-a-big-mess way of doing things. “What’s next?” takes time to answer – I prefer journeys upon which you arrive gradually at your destination. (There wouldn’t be much point travelling by bicycle if this wasn’t the case.)
And so I got off the plane and, for the first time in my life, I got a real job.
* * *
When Tenny and I moved to the English Lake District, I made a silent promise that I would not squander living in this country’s most stunning natural environment by spending my days indoors tapping away at my laptop.
My new job solved this problem too. It would involve tramping around the woods and fields, rain or shine, fixing stuff, driving quads and pickups, building things out of wood.
And not abstract, intellectual problems. Real, basic, in-your-face, right-now problems that I could pick up and look at and touch and inspect, requiring muscle and dexterity and lateral thinking and practical skills and manual tools to solve.
It was as far away from the world of self-employed intellectual work as I could get. And it was based outdoors, all summer, in the stunning surrounds of England’s largest National Park, with a minimum wage and without a screen or an internet connection in sight. I was helping someone every day. On a good day we would clock off early and go swimming in the nearby lake. This was a real job. And it was exactly what I needed.
There’s a hint of autumn in the air now. My promise has been kept; I did not squander this perfect summer. And I’m much closer to the answer to “what’s next?”, even though I’ve spent hardly any time thinking about it.
Seems there is a use for a 9-to-5 after all.
* * *
The World Domination Summit (held again next July) is founded on the principles of Community, Adventure and Service. It’s the third of these elements – Service – which has helped me find a way forward, and which will drive my work for the rest of the year.
So next week I’ll be reaching out directly to this community of adventurers, wanderers and bicycle travellers with one simple question: how can I be of service to you?
A shortlist of ideas has been on the boil for some time, and I’d like to find out which of these ideas excites you the most.
To take part and to get early access to the results, simply sign up for my newsletter before the end of the week, as I’d like to keep this with my core community. (The newsletter is free, and you’ll also get monthly round-ups of the best new content from the blog.)
I’m seriously looking forward to your responses.
Because it means that – finally – I will know what’s next.
How do you figure out what’s next for you?