On Turning Twenty Eight

And having written far less than I should have in the interim

Photo by Pat Sunpituksaree. Bagan, Myanmar. 2015.

Photo by Pat Sunpituksaree. Bagan, Myanmar. 2015.

Two years ago I wrote an article called “26 Things I’ve Learned At 26.” It was my most successful post to date – not simply due to readership but because it put a dizzying few years into focus. Although most the insights I shared had been swishing around my subconscious for some time, putting them on paper made them concrete. It gave me a new sense of confidence in the decisions I’d made. These moments of clarity are part of the mysterious power of nonfiction writing. It’s why I normally love to do what I do.

And yet, the months that separated my 27th birthday from my 26th didn’t feel illuminating enough to merit their own post.

I now know that isn’t true. But looking back, my inability to put a pen to paper makes sense. I took so much out of 2013 that I was inevitably due for some growing pains. I’d traced a jagged line across a quarter of the world. I’d climbed mountains and crossed cloud forests, filled journals and fallen in love with photography along the way. Yet at the end of it all, I was left with a strange emptiness. In the rural villages where I’d once been entranced by electric saris and impossible hospitality, I could no longer get past things like the staggering cost of basic amenities. Inspiration gave way to frustration, which eventually crystallized into a motivation to create change.

But I also knew my capacity to do so as a freelance writer was limited.

And so, I moved home, worked an odd stack of jobs, and began shopping around for graduate schools. 2014 would be an investment year. I had more important things to do that write.

In spite of what I perceived to be a grand withdrawal, some incredible things happened while I was 26. I won Passion Passport’s The Bucket list Initiative grant. I gained a strange tangle of skills and work-experience—some useful to this day, some not so much. I even punched the clock on 2014 pursuing my childhood dream of scrambling after lemurs on the island of Madagascar. I now see that I was still doing things that deserved to be written about (thank you so much to people like Sara and Lee who tried to point that out to me all along.) But I was the victim of my own shift in momentum. I’d locked my gaze so far elsewhere that I didn’t notice flags a couple feet away

Reserve D'Anja, Madagascar. 2014.

Reserve D'Anja, Madagascar. 2014.


By early 2015, I’d recalibrated. Once again, I felt traction. I relocated to Australia to accept a graduate position and the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering. I started interning with Engineers Without Borders Australia and met a handful of talented humanitarian engineers who gave me a fresh understanding of how I could leverage my passions of science and storytelling to promote the impacts I yearned to see. I even got to return back to Asia for a brief stint in July to put the things I’d learned into practice. Next I knew, I was on a plane home for Christmas. In the rear-view mirror, 27 felt like an exceptional year.

But once again, laying experience on paper has made things a whole lot clearer. I now understand that there’s no way I could have had 27 without 26—so if I am to celebrate one I must celebrate the other.

This year I’d like to share five things I’ve learned over that two-year period, informed largely by the process of pulling things apart and starting anew.

Tsirihibina, Madagascar. 2014.

Tsirihibina, Madagascar. 2014.

Batu Caves, Malaysia. 2015.

Batu Caves, Malaysia. 2015.

Trinidad, Cuba. 2015.

Trinidad, Cuba. 2015.


1) Set goals based on values not metrics.

The pictures below were taken at Bondi Beach, three years apart. The first, in late 2012. I’d just completed my undergrad and planned to backpack from Sydney west to New York before applying to a variety of journalism programs. I wanted to report on global issues but first I felt the need for greater context. I estimated I had a three-year journey ahead of me: one with a backpack and two at school.

Bondi Beach. Sydney, Australia. 2012. Photo by Megan McAllister.

Bondi Beach. Sydney, Australia. 2012. Photo by Megan McAllister.

Bondi Beach. Sydney, Australia. 2015. Photo by Cem Erey.

Bondi Beach. Sydney, Australia. 2015. Photo by Cem Erey.

Instead, I made it as far as Bangladesh before returning to Victoria seven months later.  From there, I ping-ponging around either side of the Pacific a bit longer. In February 2015 I wound up back in Australia, to study something completely new.

I’m wearing the same jacket, but aside from that very few superficial elements of these two photographs line up. If I’d been able to glance into the future and view these two images in 2012, I’d probably say I failed to accomplish everything I set out to do.

This summer, while participating in a workshop in Phnom Penh, I was asked to chart a similar three-year path. This time; however, I had to map my goals based on values rather than concrete metrics. What did I want my next few years to look like? I wanted to explore other ways of living, to work a job that gave more back to the planet than it consumed, and to surround myself with inspiring people and learn something new every single day. Well, I don’t think that’s changed very much since 2012. And if I had let that list be my roadmap from day one I would have been far more aware (and confident) that I’d been on the right path all along.

Because the future isn’t predictable, any attempt to measure success that far down the line is arbitrary. Instead design a moral code and let that be your guide. Even this; however, deserves an update from time to time. The You of the present is far more experienced than the You of the past. To take Past you's advice verbatim would be naïve and absurd.

 

2) The world changes quickly but not as quick as you.

Of the eight countries I spent time in this past year, six of them I was visiting for a second time. Yet not one felt the same: Bangkok had morphed into a nauseating mega-mall. The stalls in Yangon where I’d once bought tea now sold smartphones. Globalization had pulled apart a world I’d spent months falling in love with. It felt like I’d lost a friend.

Yet once this knee-jerk reaction wore off I also began to recognize this rapid transition for what it was – progress. I committed myself to new curiosities. Why were so many smartphones for sale unless people could suddenly afford them? I began to ask more difficult questions and as a result experienced the city through new eyes. I walked away with a more intimate relationship with Myanmar because of it.

Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2015.

Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2015.

 

3) Invest in people you get along with. Relationships are the most valuable things in the world.

Did I mention 27 was oddly circular in nature?

 I began the year by dropping in on a friend who had hosted me on my first trip to Thailand, now living in Malaysia. I drank beers with an American friend in Australia and Australian friends in Cambodia. I bussed 18-hours to visit Myanmar with a classmate I hadn’t seen since high school. My friend Mimi and I hung out five distinct times in three different countries in one year alone.

My only regret with my current lifestyle is that I don’t get to spend as much time with certain people as I’d like to. I hung out with some of my best friends for a total of maybe six hours this year. One, I didn’t see at all! But writing people off because your relationship isn’t convenient is the second worst mistake you can make.

What’s the worst? Not making the most of it during those rare instances when your paths do cross.

The other week I met a then-stranger for coffee three days before I was supposed to board a flight to Cuba. I had such a good time we ended up meeting up the next two days as well.

With Jack and Neil in Phnom Penh.

With Jack and Neil in Phnom Penh.

With Cyrus in Victoria.

With Cyrus in Victoria.

With P'Ning in Bangkok.

With P'Ning in Bangkok.

With Mimi in KrangKachan.

With Mimi in KrangKachan.

With Yi Siang in Melbourne.

With Yi Siang in Melbourne.

With sisters in Havana.

With sisters in Havana.


4) Don’t just create luck for yourself. Create it for other people as well.

Two of the most rewarding parts of my new life in Melbourne are extra curricular. I spend a few hours per week working on things for Engineers Without Borders and a few more pacing distance with Nike+ Run Club. Ironically, I didn’t actively seek out either opportunity —I didn’t have the chance to. The internship was presented to me after I was invited to a focus group during my first few weeks of grad school. My pacing gig fell into place thanks to a random chat with a girl I met on a jog.

Visit Sin Saroun, an early EWB biodigesters adopter while on assignment for Engineers Without Borders. Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 2015.

Visit Sin Saroun, an early EWB biodigesters adopter while on assignment for Engineers Without Borders. Tonle Sap, Cambodia. 2015.

My favourite thing about Melbourne isn’t the coffee – it’s the connectors. Networking is a major pastime in any metropolitan city, but here it feels far less self-serving than in North America. People recognized a fresh face, asked what I was passionate about and then pushed me in that direction asking nothing in return.

This year, I’m striving to make a conscious effort to repay these favours to the universe.

 

5) Happiness really is best when shared.
 

I’m sure you’ve noticed a trend by now. A major point of tension in my life comes from trying to balance the people I love to spend time with against all the places I want to see. Naturally, I dream of doing both: I’m constantly trying to tug friends around the world with me—not simply because I’d miss them in my absence but because exploration has enriched my life in so many ways. I want them to be able to say the same.

The excuses people give me for not seeing the world used to drive me crazy: 

“I only have X weeks off, Y is a lot to spend on something intangible, isn’t Z dangerous country to explore on your own?”

"Of course, but that’s nothing compared to what you’re missing!" I'd think. Now I see how unfair it was to place my own values upon the luxuries in other people's lives.

I just got back family trip to Cuba. Although the five of us have gone on plenty of vacations together, this trip was unique—each of us picked a few things we wanted to do and we designed a mixed-bag itinerary, split five ways.

The first thing I learned is that no single experience will mean the same to everyone. I wax poetic about this hole in-the-wall paladar we ate at in Havana. My mom still curls her nose at it. The second thing I learned is that even the simple act of compromising can be rewarding. Just as you appreciate something more when you have the chance to show someone why it means so much to you, it feels incredible to see what fills that same person up with joy. Even lying motionless on a beach (sand is basically just dry dirt, in my opinion) doesn’t feel so boring when you know how happy it makes those around to feel.

The McAllister Family celebrate Christmas on the Malacon. Havana, Cuba. 2015.

The McAllister Family celebrate Christmas on the Malacon. Havana, Cuba. 2015.


26 + 5 - I guess that brings me to 31. At 28 I may have gotten ahead of myself, but I can only hope 29 rings in an equally fulfilling year. A sincere thanks to everyone who has played a role in this journey, who's given me some version of this advice flat out, or who's kicked my ass every time I’ve done something stupid - such as put down my pen for almost a year.

I promise to write more in the future.

Love,
Jeff