“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”: The Case for Change

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A friend recently contacted me in regards to a career opportunity that would require relocating across the country and leaving behind a life she’s been building for a number of years. It’s a major decision, with a whole host of factors that doesn’t make the decision a basic binary choice. Few choices in life are that simple.

When she called me about it, there was really no question how I was going to advise her: Take the job, make the move.

I believe in change. As a central tenet of 10 Cities / 10 Years, I’ve discussed the importance and empowerment of embracing change. If you’re seeking my opinion on a big life choice, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that I’m going to recommend the path not-yet-taken. I suppose that could be seen as kind of self-serving, a way of justifying my personal life direction by encouraging others to follow suit. And, sure, that’s probably true. So what?

All things being equal, change is always the better choice. We all have a finite amount of time to store up life experiences before we enter the void, so why not try to make them as diverse as possible? Look, either we disappear into nothingness when we die or we go to heaven/hell. Either way, eternity is going to be one monotonous slog. It’s our years here among the corporeal when we get to mix it up some, try strange things, live different places, get new tattoos. Change is the sole province of the living.

Even if your life is pretty damn good right where you’re at, that’s no reason to fear change. If you managed to make a good life for yourself once, there’s no reason to assume you won’t be able to do the same somewhere else. Over the past 9 years, I’ve lived in 9 cities. I didn’t love every single one, and there were definitely times when I realized I wasn’t as happy as I was the city before. That’s the great thing about embracing change as a life philosophy, though. I always knew that the next year offered me another chance to make things better.

Now, I want to stress the “all things being equal.” I’m not advocating masochism or self-sabotage. Not every opportunity is a good one, and it’s certainly not always the right time to pick up and move. In any decision, a multitude of factors can weigh heavily for one side or the other, in which case the choice becomes easy. But, after one has carefully loaded up all the relevant materials on both sides of the scale, if there is no obvious winner, the possibility of change is a 20-ton weight.

Change isn’t for everyone, I realize. And that’s good. The world needs people who embrace stasis. Without the risk-adverse, how could we have a 4th Transformers movie coming out this summer? And Lord knows every company likes to have at least one employee who’s been around for a couple decades. It provides a sense of continuity. People who never make a significant change or step outside their comfort zone are the ones keeping most industries alive, buying the same thing over and over and over (and over) again.

If, though, life offers you a detour and there’s no good reason not to take it, take it. Every time.

I don’t know what my friend will decide because I can’t possibly know all the factors involved in her choice, but knowing her, whichever way she goes, it will be the right decision.

But if you ever come to me with a tough choice, you can go ahead and just assume what I’m going to suggest: Try something new. A change is gonna do you good.

Do It While You’re Young

“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
~ Andy Dufresne

Many years ago, when I was still young, before I started moving to a new city every year, I received the same advice with frequency. That advice: “Do it while you’re young.”

It’s a pretty common bit of wisdom that gets handed down from the old and wizened to the young and wide-eyed. It’s excellent advice, too, if only because inertia is a powerful force, and the longer you put off your crazy, impractical dreams, the harder it will be to ever accomplish them.

It’s also a trap.

If you do do it while you’re young – whatever ‘it’ is in your personal ambition – people will hate you for it. They will slag you off, both to your face and behind your back. They will criticize you for being “unrealistic” and “impractical” or tear you down because you pursued your dream in a way different than they would have (if they had had the balls to pursue it at all).

The advice and the reproach are both a product of deep dissatisfaction. On a number of occasions when the helpful elder was offering their unsolicited guidance, they would follow up their injunction with a woeful story of opportunities missed, paths not taken, planes not jumped out of. If you follow the advice and go after that dream of yours, those same people who told you to go out and do it will think you’re an idiot for actually doing it. Maybe they’re right.

Frankly, most people don’t give up on their dreams because they’re lazy. They do it because of fear, and there is plenty to fear in this world. Pursuing a dream increases your chances of ending up penniless and alone. And if that thought terrifies you, you can always give up.

Few people get out of their youth without at least a few regrets. Most have a list longer than Santa’s.  But while there will always be something to regret (or regert) no matter how well you’ve lived your life, it’s far less physically tasking to regret something you have done than something you never even attempted.

There’s no right way to live your life, but there are plenty of wrongs ways, and most of them involve criticizing the choices of others.

So, do it while you’re young. Whatever it is. Traveling? Yep. Pursuing an art career? Absolutely. Moving across the country/world? For sure. Get married? Yeaaaa…. er, no. Don’t do that. That’s actually the worst thing you can do when you’re young. But all the other stuff, definitely.

Which is not to say that becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or some other profession is a bad choice. Go for it, but maybe do some other things first while you’re still young enough to stay up 48 hours straight for a music festival or free enough to pack up everything and start over on a whim. People who say “Life is short” are wrong. Life is the longest measure of time any one of us will ever know, so don’t worry about running out of time to “find a career.” You’ve got time.

The truth is, we all get old, but only a select few are ever truly young.

Joseph 4

How To Move

“How do you do it?”

I have changed cities 10 times in the last 8 years, which means two things: I’ve gotten pretty good at moving my shit, and the Post Office hates me.

One frequently asked question is “How do you do it?” They don’t mean mentally, I presume, but practically. How do I move? What’s the process for relocating?

This is likely different for everyone, and my time frame for moves certainly tweaks the formula. Most people relocating from one city to another are doing it with the intention of making the new city, at the very least, a semi-permanent home. They are probably moving for a job or a relationship, and in either case they have some form of stability awaiting them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the dedicated nomads, those who might stay in a city a few days, a week, or at most a month. Backpackers, couchsurfers and buskers roll into town with some clothes, maybe an instrument and (with greater frequency these days) a laptop/iPad/Tricorder and make due. Such rapid transitions come with their share of difficulties and risks, but they also unburden the traveler from things like rent or bills (except maybe for a phone).

I guess if there were to be a corollary to the way I move, it’d be someone in the military who gets shipped from base to base on a semi-regular basis. The main difference there, though, is that while they too must live in a state of perpetual transience, there is an infrastructure in which they move. It might be chaotic, their residence might be a crap hole, but the military provides an occupation, both in the sense of finances and time.

I have no structure, except for what I provide myself. I am often asked if I’m being supported by somebody, if my project is being funded. It is not. From day one, the money I’ve had is the money I’ve earned. That’s not to say that there haven’t been financial gifts and people helping me out, because there definitely has been. But they weren’t gifts I was counting on and as a rule the only money I can rely on is the money I make on the job (whatever that might be).

I don’t have the luxury of living like a rolling stone (not that that’s a luxurious life), nor do I have the security of a permanent relocation. Right about the time my savings have rebounded and I’m getting to be completely comfortable in my job and with my friends, boom, I’m gone.

The day after I arrived here in New Orleans, my new roommate looked at me and said, “Just 364 days left.” Exactly. Every day in a year is a short one when the 365th day is an ending.

So, after 7 years of this project (and two moves the year before I began it), what have my experiences taught me in the art of non-permanent relocation?

How To Move

Research: Both before and after I’ve selected a city, I research it. I’ve preached the absolute majesty of the Not For Tourists guides here plenty, but I truly must reiterate that those little black books are invaluable. Unfortunately, they don’t exist for every city, so I can’t always rely on them. Other travels guides are alright for getting a basic lay of the land, but they’re all pretty much designed for tourists with their focus on touristy spots and so-called “off the beaten path” locations that are really just as touristy. If an NFT guide doesn’t exist for a particular city (such as New Orleans), I’ll scan through another guide at the bookstore just to get some general ideas of where to look for housing. I also use Wikipedia to research neighborhoods, and any online resources that provide a voice for the people who actually live there.

I’m always looking for a neighborhood that has the right mix of livability, accessibility to work options and safety (though, this latter point is flexible).

Finding A Place: After I’ve decided on a few neighborhoods that interest me, I start looking for apartments. I’ve never made a move to a new city without already having a living space arranged. So far, I’ve ended up with only one apartment that was a true dud, which was a mix of nearly unlivable size and bad location. But, hey, it was only a year and I survived.

Craigslist is my resource. Yes, it’s full of scams, and yes, there are some wackjobs on the site, but you’re never going to find a better listing of apartment locations for free (free is an important word; remember it). If you insist on living by yourself (and there are definite pluses to that, but also negatives), you’re going to be at the mercy of the landlords. I’ve never had the money to afford a professional apartment finder, so the two times I’ve made solo moves on my own, I’ve had only the word and pictures of the property owner to go on.

In Philly, as I mentioned, this led to a tiny little hole of an apartment. In Nashville, on the other hand, I ended up with a rather spacious two bedroom apartment (all the more so because I had no furniture), though it was in a fairly deserted area. When I am scouting an apartment location from afar, Google Maps is my favorite tool. You can not only see that such an address exists, you can cross reference the pictures the owner sends with the streetview image. (Oh, did I mention that you need to have the owner send you pictures? Well, you do.)

If I’m going to have a roommate (and I definitely recommend this for first-time movers, though roommates in general can be a good resource for the recently transplanted), I post in ad on Craigslist saying what I’m looking for and I let them find me. So far, so good. Now, in San Francisco, I did end up living with a couple of psychopaths, but they weren’t my only roommates and as a rule, I’ve had great success with this process. I like to talk with the future roommates (by phone or video chat) and get at least a little idea of who they are (and let them know who I am).

Anyone who has ever had a roommate or moved in with a girl-/boyfriend knows that you don’t truly know a person until you live with them, but at least you can have a general sense of whether or not you’re compatible.

Once I have a roommate locked down, we search until we’ve found the perfect spot. And by ‘perfect spot’ I mean, place I can afford that hopefully isn’t next door to a drug lord. Perfection is a relative term.

Find A Job: Honestly, though I’ve sent out resumes before moving to my next city, I’ve never had any luck finding a job before I actually arrived in the city. In the line of work I’m in (retail and food), no one’s going to hire a person they haven’t met face to face. But once I’m in my new home, I email blast jobs (again, using Craigslist) and hit the streets looking for places with “Now Hiring” signs or going on the recommendations of locals who have heard of work opportunities. There’s no secret, I just have to keep at it.

Send My Stuff: 7 years of this project has helped me whittle down my belongings to a fairly small collection, but I still have my share of things to get from one city to the next. The United States Post Office does most of the heavy lifting in that matter (both figuratively and literally), and what I don’t ship in boxes, I take with me in a suitcase and a couple of over the shoulder bags.

Getting There: I’ve driven to a new city and taken a bus, but ultimately I’ve found that flying is the most economical. Yes, tickets are more expensive, but what I save in travel time and eating crap food on the road more than makes up for it. Of course, having said that, I am contemplating renting a car and driving up the coast when I move to Boston. I haven’t researched it enough yet to be sure, but there are some spots I want to check out (and I’d love to revisit D.C.), and if I did rent a car, I wouldn’t have to ship anything so I could save money that way. I’ll make that decision later.

Make A Home: This is the truly tricky part. A year is a long time to live some place if I can’t feel like my apartment is my ‘home.’ I need my own space, I need a private area to write, read, listen to music and, honestly, just veg. At the same time, I need human contact and to feel like I’m part of a community in some way. It’s a balancing act that is all the more difficult because I know that in a matter of months, I’ll be gone again.

But I do make a home. I make a living and make friends and make memories. It’s not enough to just make due, I want to make a life for a year.

And that’s how I move. If you’re about to relocate across country or just across state, maybe my methods will work for you. Or maybe not. But these are my means, and for the better part of a decade they’ve served me well.

Advice for a Hypothetical Daughter

I have a great deal of friends who have had babies recently or are about to have them (Good luck Amber), and that has led me to thinking about how I would raise a child.  I have no intention of having a kid anytime soon (certainly not before this project is finished), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts on parenthood.  After all, what is the point of making mistakes if not to pass on the lessons learned to the next generation?

If someday I do reproduce, I imagine it will be a girl.  I obviously have no say in that, but that’s just the way I picture things (and I’m pretty good at predicting my future).  So these are the nuggets of wisdom I would pass on to her, from father to daughter.

And, hey, maybe a son could use some of this, too.

Advice for a Hypothetical Daughter

I don’t care if you’re straight or gay.  You shouldn’t either.

If you are straight, you will compare every man you meet to me.  I apologize for setting the bar so low.

Don’t fall for the first guy or girl who holds a guitar, or a pen, or your attention.  Make sure they know what to do with it first.

Be a skeptic, not a cynic.  The latter doubts because she has lost all hope, the former questions because she still has it.

Read.

Not all guys or girls like a smart woman.  So get used to some people not liking you.

Being pretty matters in this world.  Maybe it shouldn’t, maybe it’s unfair, but it does.  However, ‘pretty’ is something you are, not something you become, so don’t stress so much about your make-up.

You can be skinny and you can be big.  You can be too skinny and you can be too big.  The difference is how much you think about food.

The world will have different expectations and standards for you because you are a woman.  Good.  Because if you exceed them, you’ll already be head and shoulders above every man you meet.

It’s okay to strive to be better than the rest, but it is never okay to hold someone else down.  There’s no point being at the top by yourself.

Read.

Figure out what you enjoy doing most in life.  Would you still do it if you couldn’t make a dime at it?  If yes, do it.  If no, keep looking.

Being married and having kids doesn’t mean you have to give up on your personal dreams.  If you choose to stay home because raising kids is your dream, don’t let anyone tell you that you’ve given up.

I can be angry, disappointed and upset with you, and still love you.

Please don’t test that last one.

Read.

No amount of advice can ever fully prepare you for life.  Only living can.  And literature.

Don’t fault your genetics for your shortcomings.  But if you feel unprepared for life, you can blame me.