Apparently I’ve become pretty good at avoiding the real world.
Last year I quit my job, packed only what I needed into a backpack, and left everything I knew for three months to get lost in the cobblestone streets of Europe. It was what I thought of as a break from the real world – a time to reassess where I’d been and where I wanted to go in life. But more specifically, after years on the structured path of school and work, it was a time to ditch all plans, schedules, and expectations for the thrill of risk and uncertainty.
It was a once in a lifetime experience.
Until I decided to do it again this year.
I had come back home and was expected to jump right back into the rat race, just like everybody else. And I followed along for a while – I’d gotten an even better job than I had before and was supposed to stay put and live a ‘normal’ life from that point forward.
But the problem with normal is it’s fucking boring.
While I shouldn’t have had anything to complain about, I realized at one point exactly what I knew all along: success to me would never be defined solely by a career. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life, let alone another year feeling complacent and going through the motions at a job that didn’t make my heart race just because it was easy and comfortable.
I kept quieting these voices in my head – I mean, what kind of maniac quits his job twice in eighteen months to travel around? But as it always does, my heart won the battle against my brain, and I finally pulled the trigger, booking a one-way ticket to Copenhagen…again.
After the initial excitement and anticipation of adventure, I surprisingly started to feel something unfamiliar weighing down on me: guilt. I was questioning myself. Even when I told friends the exciting news, part of me still wasn’t one hundred percent confident about the decision. Did I fail in finding what I was looking for on my last trip? What exactly was I even looking for last time? What the hell was I going to do when I got back home the second time around? Could I really leave what I considered the ‘real world’ multiple times and expect to just seamlessly integrate back into it whenever I felt like it?
Obviously, the minute I touched down in Copenhagen, all these questions and uncertainties seemed ridiculous and disappeared immediately, replaced by the high of meeting incredible people, trying new foods, and navigating my way through foreign streets (…two months in and I’m still cranked to 11 – traveling is the only drug I know without a comedown). And this is when it hit me – a total reverse in in my thought process.
Did I leave the ‘real world’ or did I just enter it?
A lot of people look at months of traveling as the perfect getaway from responsibilities, a u-turn from adulthood, or a way to put off settling down/growing up – I certainly did. Around twenty-two, the ‘real world’ becomes defined by the monotonous routine of adulthood – finish school, choose a career immediately, work your way up to the corner office, get married, sign a mortgage, and retire contently knowing you’ve committed more than a third of your time on Earth to building a life so now you can actually start to live it (to be fair, this path is much more common and expected in America than any other country, but that’s a whole other story – most Europeans and Australians I’ve met have told me it’s actually considered weird if you don’t take 6-12 months off after school to see the world and live internationally for a bit). There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s secure and comfortable – but why is this the only reality in the States?
To me, the real world is outside – outside your comfort zone, your routine, your country, your perception of reality. Where new people come in and out of your life every day, new tastes and smells are everywhere, personal growth is valued more than career promotions, and tomorrow is never the same as today. It’s uncertain and a little dangerous, where street smarts and a friendly smile are the only common languages, where your friends can’t vouch for you if you get into trouble and the only ‘boss’ you have to pat you on the back or critique you is yourself. It’s not a Tuesday night catching up on emails, but instead blurry nights spent sharing bottles of wine with strangers and mornings wondering if you’ll ever see the person next to you again.
It’s walking down the street and locking eyes with someone you’ve never met, but somehow feeling like you already know their entire life story just from the moment of honesty in their expression. It’s joining a stranger for a three hour dinner just because of a little comment she made about your shoes. It’s motorcycle rides across the Greek Islands. It’s the ‘doing’ not the ‘planning.’ The real world to me is when your faith in humanity is validated every day in some way, realizing we’re all in this together – whether it’s showing up to a new city with nowhere to sleep and getting offered a couch by someone who’s known you for less than seven minutes, or when a group of backpackers gather up and share the little food they have with you to help you from starving (because you didn’t realize a national holiday in an alpine village means everything including markets and restaurants are closed for the day).
So maybe I’ve found a loophole that can’t last. Or maybe everybody else is right and I haven’t realized it yet. Maybe you’ll talk to me in a year and I’ll have a completely different point of view.
Maybe that twenty-two-year-old investment banker in New York who spends countless nights sleeping under his desk feels like he’s contributing to the world in a positive way (or at least hopes it’ll all be worth it once he gets that big house in the Hamptons). Maybe that Australian girl who left her job back home to become a barista in Paris for half the money regrets her decision (but I doubt it). Maybe you’d rather wait until you’re old, rich, and retired to find adventure.
Or maybe your ‘real world’ just isn’t mine.
Because the next time I want to take a break from the ‘real world’ I’ll plan on waking up, punching in the timesheet at work, spending an hour at the gym, and eating a nice dinner in the comfort of my home – knowing full well that tomorrow will be exactly the same.