Every journey starts somewhere.
For me, the beginnings of what would eventually become The Enthusiasm Project began during college in 2007. I was an English major, and during one class we had to read and respond to an essay titled “The View from 81”, in which the author looked back on his life after reaching the summit of a metaphorical mountain.
While I can’t link to the essay since it’s not available online anywhere, I can say that it was interesting, eye-opening, and most importantly for me- humorous. This old guy was reflecting on what he’d learned over the course of a long life. He sprinkled in some good bits of (dark) humor, and I loved it. My problem, however, was that while he was at the top of the mountain, at 21 years old, I was barely at the bottom.
So, for my assignment I wrote a response essay that I was very proud of, and much to my shock, was pretty well received when presented. I hoped that this would be my mission statement as I headed off into my 20’s, guiding me along the way (the finer points of how that worked out are a story for another day…).
Even though it’s on the longer side, I thought it’d be a good idea to share this writing now as a way of contextualizing the purpose and philosophy behind The Enthusiasm Project.
Let me just say, it’s extremely tempting to go back and revise old writing before posting it, but I can assure you, this is the original...for better or worse.
The View From Twenty-One (2007)
So, they say life is a journey. Now, I’m not as adept at metaphors as Dr. House M.D., but I guess it’s true. After all, life has a beginning, middle, and end, and most journeys have these things too, unless something goes horrible, horribly awry. After living for more than two decades, maybe I’m past the beginning of my journey, but not by much. If you want to get real technical, I guess we could say maybe I’m fifteen minutes or so down the trail. Or I’m walking out of the sporting goods store with a shiny new backpack and a fresh pair of Birkenstocks. Except that I don’t wear Birkenstocks because they’re really, really tacky, and it’s 2007. Come on, get with the times. I think these metaphors are getting awfully hazy right about now, so it’s probably time to move on.
I guess it’s safe to say that everything so far in my life has been leading up to this point in time. Of course, this is an argument that could also be made for any given point in a person’s life, but if you’ll be so kind as to politely suspend your disbelief for a moment, I’d like to suggest that it’s especially true for people in their early twenties. We’ve spent our whole lives preparing for “adulthood”, and now it’s finally here. As children, how mayn times were we asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As teenagers, we were constantly bombarded with, “Where do you want to go to school? What are your career plans?”
The beauty, and the flaw, of these questions is that we’re allowed to answer them without consequence. Our answers can changes each time we’re asked the question and it makes no difference. If I had to commit to “what I wanted to be when I grew up” at eight years old, I’d be a bus-driver astronaut right now. Unfortunately, however, things have begun to change.
Decisions about the direction in which we want our lives to go aren’t just fanciful daydreams anymore; they’re the foundation for actual plans. The past 7,300-9,000 or so days of our lives have been preparing us to be where we are right now: embarking on the journey– and it’s freaking terrifying.
Growing up, I always had a vision in my mind of the person I wanted to become as an adult. I wanted to be confident, smart, successful, loving, kind, and ambitious. I wanted to be someone who had a positive impact on the world in some way. As a quiet, shy, overweight, and easily unnoticeable child with many interests but no clear direction, skills, or ambitions, this future-self seemed a far cry from who I felt I was.
I didn’t worry though. I had years and years before I would be “grown-up”. Surely that would be plenty of time for some miraculous caterpillar to butterfly-like transformation to take place. Not that I particularly cared to be a butterfly, but you get the picture. The thing is, here I am: “grown up”. Yet I feel pretty much the same as that insecure twelve year old. Although I do have a driver’s license now, plus I can see R rated movies and buy cigars, and that’s pretty neat. Except that I don’t smoke. That’s not the point though. The real point is– I’m scared. I’m scared of the future, scared of letting go, scared of making wrong decisions. I’m scared of settling for less than what I dream of, and I’m scared of wasting the time that I have. And it’s those last two that are the big ones for me.
I don’t want to look back down the road of my life and feel like I didn’t do what I could have, fully aware that by that point, it’s too late. You can only go forward, never back.
So, how can we be sure we’re not wasting our time? I ask this question a lot, but I don’t know the answer. It reminds me of something I found after my grandmother died and I was going through her things. I came across a little bundle of clipping from various newspapers and magazines, the kind that are only kept by grandmas for some reason that nobody really knows, but we all just blindly accept. It turned out to be a collection of musing written by various authors. I can only remember one of them. It was a bit cheesy and perhaps a tad mushy, but I’ve never been able to forget it.
It was a short story about two girls sitting by a pond watching some ducks. After a while one of the girls stood up to leave and said to the other, “Come on, let’s go. Quit wasting time!” The other girl just looked at her and said, “I’m not wasting time, I’m watching the ducks.”
Now I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m almost positive it would be a very awful feeling to reach the end of the journey and realize that I never took time to watch the ducks along the way. But how much duck-watching should there be? Should we all have a specific monthly budget for duck-watching, or maybe some type of duck-watching calculator? No, we shouldn’t. At least I don’t think we should, and I could be wrong (and if that’s the case, I apologize for everything beyond this point).
I think that instead of allotting specific time to “watch the ducks”, the key is to constantly be duck-watching. So, how should we go about doing this? As tempting as it may be to take a trip to the local pond, it’s not necessary. That’s not where you’ll find the answer.
As cliche and graduation speech-esque as it may sound, I believe the answer lies in dreams. Not the ones that come during sleep and can be quite awesome, but the ones that come during waking hours and are even more awesome– the ones that can make the jump from dream to reality if given the chance.
We can’t be afraid to chase our dreams. Sounds simple enough, right? But for me, and I’m guessing for most people, it’s not. I don’t even know exactly what my dreams are, let alone what I should do to follow them, but I think that if I just trust in myself, I’ll find the answer. Somewhere deep inside we already know the answers to all of these questions. The hard part is listening.
There have already been far too many instances in my life where I’ve felt that sinking feeling from deep inside that comes with making a wrong decision or doing something that isn’t true to myself. The feeling that something inside is screaming out as loud as it can in protest, but its cries are falling on deaf ears. I hate that feeling. I don’t dislike, despise, loathe, or lament it. I hate it.
It’s the feeling that I’m failing at life, that I’m not listening to myself. I want to do everything in my power to avoid that feeling. If we spend our whole lives putting our dreams on the proverbial shelf, I have no doubt that our journeys will consists of nothing except this foul feeling. So we have to “follow our dreams”. It’s obligatory. And why not? Think about it, this time is all there is, and there’s not very much of it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Forever.
Now that I’ve made such a big stink about following dreams, it’s worth noting that even though the idea of chasing after dreams might sound great on paper, believe it or not, it’s actually a very difficult thing to do. Dreams won’t always pay the bills, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys the pangs of hunger or longs to live in a van down by the river.
So maybe it’s a bit naive to think that all of life should be spent chasing dreams. If that’s the case, fine. I can accept that, but I still say that we can never allow ourselves to forget our dreams altogether.
To forget dreams is to fall victim to the enemy of all dreams: mediocrity.
All the uncertainty and anxiety about the future boil down to mediocrity and the compromise that must be made in deciding how much of it to allow in life.
What is mediocrity? Mediocrity is settling. It’s taking the safe way or the easy way, which is seldom the way of the heart. Mediocrity sneaks up on you and allows you to bury yourself in it. Mediocrity is easy. It starts by tricking you into sacrificing a little tiny part of a dream...then another part, and another after that. Eventually your entire existence turns into the exact opposite of what you dreamt.
Dreams are the key to avoiding mediocrity. It takes courage to follow a dream, to venture off the well-worn path, but I know it just has to be worth it. I don’t know how I know, I just know. We all know. The ability to dream is fundamentally human. If we ignore our dreams, we ignore who we are. If we can find the courage within ourselves to follow our dreams, then not only will we reach the destination of our journeys, we’ll be content with the road we took to get there.
I understand that I’m not guaranteed a long life. In fact, no matter how long my life is, it won’t be long enough. But that doesn’t matter. We don’t need to be a century old to reap the rewards of our journeys. As long as we have the courage to follow our hearts, we’re already there. As nice as it would be to achieve our dreams, it’s the act of striving for them that makes all the difference. It’s one thing to fail, but it’s another to never try. And that’s all I have to say about that.