Dear Self : An Open Letter to Those Who Wander

photo by  @wayleadstoway

“What advice would you give to your teenage self,” is asked at the end of every Wild Ideas Worth Living podcast, and the answers are often what you’d expect. “Be brave,” “be kind,” or “be adventurous.” All good advice, but not all that helpful because, what do they mean? What would they look like? Especially for a teenage kid?

I’ve often wondered what I would say to my younger self, if I could sit and chat with him a while. It probably wouldn’t be much different than what I share with my students or children. But then recently, the son of my good friend recently left his job, bought a van, and hit the open and free road, and I found myself living vicariously through him. I saw myself packing the van, scouring maps, and anxious to go, to start the adventure, and to see what sort of story would unfold.

So I sat down and wrote him a letter. His name is Austyn, but as I thought and wrote and considered his coming days, I found myself writing more to myself than to him and answering the question, “What advice would you give?”

This is my answer:

Dear Self,

When I heard you were embracing the Road, I instantly longed to go with you. To sit in the co-captain’s chair, arm bouncing out the window, and small worries packed into a small bag. The open road and an empty journal. Wonder and bliss. Life. Or at least, it can be.

Self, know that to you I'm little more than a name on a page, and thats okay! But if you don't mind, I'd like to share some thoughts with you. Thoughts that are bread from experience, from the reflections of those who have gone before you and I, and thoughts that are inspired by the endless train of the faithless who have desperately reached for, and occasionally captured, a glimpse of Understanding on this journey called Life.

I hope you find them beneficial. If not, no worries! Writing these words has brought me back to my own travels with family and friends, like running my finger along a map of life, and I'm okay with that. Because that too is why we wander, so that one day, we have something to look back on.

Self, Be Inspired:

Heading for the unknown is, I think, just as natural and crucial as the need for food, shelter, and love. Throughout history, cultures across the world have valued the process of "finding yourself" - especially in the West - which is why guys like Kerouac (On the Road) and McCandless (Into the Wild) are so damn inspiring, because they're scratching the itch that many of us choose not to reach. These men, and the many that came and went before and after them, wanted to “suck out all the marrow of life,” and they did, making them uncommon among the common and pillars of inspiration.

“Being original doesn’t mean require being first,” Adam Grant writes in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant, “It just means being different and better. (pg 105) As you prepare for your journey, I wanted to give you a few examples of people who did things different and better. They, I think/hope will provide some possible clarity and direction to your coming days and months:

180 Degrees South : Conquerers of the Useless : "My whole life I've been drawn to open country. I always come home a little different."

Life Lessons from a 7-Thousand-Mile Bike Ride: "I had this fear of building {a} routine . . . and so promised myself that I had to do something radically different. I'm gonna do something that scares the crap out of me and see if that changes my brain chemistry."

Loved By All: The Story of Apa Sherpa: “The true beauty of Nepal isn’t the mountains, but the people who live in their shadows.”

Breath: a "deep punch to the creative soul" : Mike Olbinski is a storm chaser, photographer, and an overall inspiration. 

Be Original:

It's easy to be inspired by others and their adventures, because that's life!!! It's also dangerous, because in following the inspiration of others, you can easily lose your own path. As you travel and rub shoulders with others, be cautious. The purpose of such trips is to find clarity, not lose yourself in someone else's noise. 

Like these people:

. . . people didn't really enjoy the moment and were hooked to their smartphones. As if the ultimate goal of travel was to brag about it online and run after the likes and followers . . . "These Instagrammers are collectively sucking the joy and spontaneity out of travel . . . Social media encourages the memeification of human experience. Instead of diversity we see homogeneity. It’s extremely boring” (via).

In short, don’t be boring. Don’t be common. And don't take this picture. 

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Or this one.

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Instead, be original.

"We are all social chameleons," Kevin Ashton writes in How to Fly a Horse, "adjusting our skin to blend in with, or sometimes stand out from, whatever crowed we happen to be in" (pg 224) which makes sense because we all want to be accepted, to have our Tribe, and to know that we are known, that we belong. But we also want to be uniquely ourselves, to stand out, and to provide our own stamp and worth upon the greater world or small Tribe. Just remember, "Being original doesn't require being first. It just means being different and better.”

Be different, be better, AND be known.

Head out on your adventure, like the many men and women who have done and gone before you, at times following their footsteps, like a child struggling to meet the gate of his father's long stride but confident he is headed in the right direction. Other times, veer off and find your own stride. Explore. But then come back.

Be like this guy; not one of "those guys."

Self, Don't Get Lost:

Remember that trip you took as a sophomore in high school? You were planning to visit you sister in Philadelphia and had one friend lined up and ready to go. But with only a week or so before departure, he backed out. "My mom said she's nervous we might break down or get lost" he had said, and you were devastated because you thought the trip was off. When you Dad, he said, "I would think so. That's part of the adventure! Find another friend who would like to adventure with you.” So you did. And nothing happened. No tires exploded and no accident occurred. You didn’t even get lost! But you did stretch a 10 hour drive into almost 18 because, well damnit, there were just too many roads that needed exploring!

Self, getting lost geographically isn't a problem. In fact, you might find it the most enjoyable part or your journey! Getting lost mentally, however, is a terrifying thing. I mentioned Kerouac and McCandless in the beginning, and I did so deliberately because they tend to be the faces of contemporary American adventure, inspiring hundreds (if not thousands) to quit their jobs, wave goodbye, and hit the road in search of "ultimate freedom.” Yet, at the end of their journey what they were left with was a wake of pain, destruction, and death.  And I don't mean physically, but humanly. I mean the kind of death that can only be born from selfishness and the isolated pursuit of personal gain. The kind of death destroys the soul, the spirit, and the beauty of those around you. That’s the death I’m talking about, the living kind, and the kind I hope so desperately to steer you away from.

Self, as you travel, as you spend countless hours driving, thinking, talking, and living, consider this: who can you serve? Initially, road trips were inherently selfish. With a thumb pointed towards the sky, wondering travelers required the help of strangers. They bummed rides, spare change, and simple meals. The more outgoing supertramps were offered a bed. Yet, how many of them actually helped others? How many used their gifts and talents to serve and bless others? Kerouac didn't. McCandless for sure didn't! Both thought only of themselves, their journey, and how others might help enhance their experience. In search of truth or experience or whatever, they forgot the greater and deeper purpose of life: to help others.

There may never be a time such as this, where your days are your own, the road is open, and responsibilities at a minimum. What an opportunity to find yourself! To discover what you are good at, what you love, and HOW BEST TO GIVE IT AWAY!!! You are gifted with many things, and hopefully, those gifts also align with what you're passionate about. So try them out on strangers, offer them to bypassing wayfarers (I think I just made that word up): old ladies walking across the street, mothers with their hands full of groceries, the man on the corner holding a cardboard sign. Whatever it is, and to whom ever it is, FIND WAYS TO SERVE!!! If you do, you will never be lost. 

And Lastly, Self:

Here are some simple pieces of advice I wish someone had told me, when I was your age:

Learn a new skill of any sort - music, photography, drawing, whittling, whatever. Learn something new. You've got the time and endless amount of inspiration.

Journal - a lot! Even the mundane. I would truly recommend a blog (wix, squarespace, etc) only because, from experience, journals tend to be lost or damaged. Plus, if you and your journey truly are an original, people will find your journey inspiring - so why not give it away!!! However, many would argue a 99 cent journal, black pen (I recommend the InkJoy 700RT 1.0 M, found at any Walmart or Target), and a picnic table are just as, if not more, inspiring than a blog. Whatever your fancy, WRITE!!! You won't regret it. 

Take pictures. Keep them safe (like on a blog!!!) You're gonna want them someday.

Write letters. Not emails, not texts. Letters. Especially to people who help and encourage you along the way and to those who come to mind on your journey. Not only will you bless those fortunate enough to receive them, it will serve as a constant reminder of just how many people have helped you along your greater journey. Which should, in turn, inspire you once more to help others.

Thoughts for the Road:

I know you’ve already planned your playlist for the road, so I won’t waste time on that. However, what I can provide are podcasts. Below are a few of my favorites.

Reality: Invisibilia

Feminism in Black and White: Scene on Radio

GREGOR: Gimlet Media

THE TRUE HARD WORK OF LOVE AND RELATIONSHIPS: On Being

DECLUTTER: The Minimalists

GRASS IS GREENER: The Moth

Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis: Revisionist History

Do Meaningful Work and Change the World with Adam Braun

Tom Petty and the Creation of "Wildflowers": Broken Record

Ami Vitale – Traveling the world, Telling Stories, And Creating Awareness Through Photography: By Wild Ideas Worth Living

One Head, Two Brains: How The Brain's Hemispheres Shape The World We See: Hidden Brain

(And if this isn’t enough, there’s plenty more where they came from).


I envy the journey you are about ready to embark upon, and in many ways I wish I could go with you. But maybe this is good enough, joining you in mind and spirit, at least for now. Who know though. If you stop in, and if you have room for the family, we might just join you.


Good luck to you!!!

Safe travels.

(Older) Brian

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  : Adventure : Inspiration