How often have you thought to yourself during that vacation: “Man, this is the most beautiful place on earth, why don’t I just stay here”?
And how often, once back home, at your desk, in your apartment or house, have these thoughts slowly gotten quieter until they were nothing more than a whisper way back in your head. It’s time to be realistic. After all, you have a secure job that pays the bills. There are family and friends around, and the prospect of a generally good life with retirement coming up. You know, anytime now.
“Everything popular is wrong.” – Oscar Wilde
Well, this is the story of two people who do not want to live like this any more. These are my story, and my partner’s. Together, they combine what is needed to make the cut.
This is going to be the first of a number of posts with a theme: Lifestyle change: 180 degrees forward. I will tell you about our dream. Now, this dream is constantly evolving, so it might change in the course of this series. I am writing it as we go along – please bear with me. I will tell you about our stories and journeys that let us to this dream. I will tell you about how we are going about making the dream a reality. What we learn along the way and how we make choices. And hopefully, I will tell you a story of success. Please enjoy.
Part One: Finding a dream
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir
I know we are by no means the first, nor will we be the last or most original of people seeking a life outside the 9-5. And that’s a great thing! I think too many of us are at the whim of a handful of powerful people, governments and corporations proposing a lifestyle of ‘security’ and ‘normality’. It has been adopted by so many that only very few ever used to question it.
No longer. I believe our “shrinking” global world is bringing ideas closer together than ever, encouraging those who may not have had the courage otherwise to take this step. Some succeed more than others, some fail more than others. But all experiences have a story to tell and this is ours.
Who are we?
Well, I am an academic and as such, I’ve always fit in well with that slightly odd crowd. We are well-traveled, passionate beyond measure about our little research world and generally very open-minded. Our lives are not 9-5, we have friends and colleagues across the globe and we think nothing of packing our bags at a moment’s notice to spend a few months or years in some obscure location to, say, study primates in the jungle, join a lab in Antarctica, or bury ourselves among manuscripts in the British Library.
In light of that, my life is almost ‘normal’: I was born in communist Germany and learned very early on that passion and conviction can truly make a difference and bring a broken system to its knees. When I started school in 1989, my home was ‘in-between’, in-between countries, people, politics. Teachers, books and curricula had been made obsolete without yet being replaced. We spent a lot of time outdoors.
At 18, I went to Boston to nanny for a year in a well-off family with 4 kids. It was September 2001 and the world changed with me. The experience taught me that security and comfort are only ever temporary and can never be taken for granted.
My university studies afterwards brought me back to Germany and, for the first of many times, to Australia. This is where I found my passion: The documentation, study and preservation of endangered languages in the remote corners of the outback and elsewhere. I followed this passion further to England for my Ph.D., to the outback for months of fieldwork among Indigenous Australians, and to Chicago to work at a university. This is where I am now. Still passionate about working with Aboriginal peoples, but disillusioned with academia itself. Despite the selection of odd and wonderful people that crowd in this space, it is an elitist, closed-off and highly selective profession. It is overrun by administrators and eager to foster ideas, but mainly those that agree with the select few top performers. It also is one of the most insecure work environments demanding absolute flexibility of time and location by keeping the majority of its members in temporary positions. In a word, while I love the research and teaching aspect of my work, the setting to conduct both in has become increasingly hostile. Thus, a growing number of fellow young scholars, including me, have become the odd ones out in a world of oddballs.
My partner is probably also odd, but in many different ways. Born in northern Indiana, he has always questioned everything, never taking “this is just how we do things” for an answer. In school, he was friendly with people in many different circles, but never really fit in or fully embraced any of the identities that he saw people conforming to. He was and remains utterly unimpressed with popularity for popularity’s sake or traditions for tradition’s sake. After a few semesters at university, he realized that the system he was being shuffled through was unnecessary. He could study computer science and information technology and acquire skills on his own, without the expense, time, and bureaucracy that traditional education entailed.
He quit and helped start up a fledgling Internet service provider. This failed fairly quickly, but he gained much-needed real-world experience and skills that weren’t being taught in school. He started helping others self-study to learn how to create and operate computer networks. After building a following online, he attracted a book publisher and went on to write a series of books that helped people understand and acquire computer networking.
This led to jobs for a series of software companies making products used by big corporations and large IT shops. Climbing the corporate ladder, everything appeared great on the surface – comfortable, secure, well-paid work. But a deep sense of personal dissatisfaction grew to a breaking point. He increasingly felt the oppression of being a cog in a machine. At best, these jobs remained a means to an end without conviction. At worst, he started realizing that the big companies he helped growing further were the very companies contributing to the massive social, environmental, and economic problems that he saw in the world. He began studying sustainability, systems-thinking, and lifestyle design. He voraciously read counter-cultural authors like Henry David Thoreau, Buckminster Fuller, Terrance McKenna, Michael Pollan, Tim Ferris, Nassim Taleb, Joel Salatin, Chris Ryan, etc. Their experiences opened his eyes to the fact that his path in life desperately needs to change toward a future that embraces quality of life, community, and experience over material things, apparent comfort, and security.
What’s the dream?
“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” – “Because it’s there.”
– George Mallory
So this is what we are bringing to the table: A world-traveled academic and an armchair philosopher with the talents and knowledge to build a sustainable life. Both full of creativity, passion and conviction and utter disbelief in the system. We’d like to live the other life.
Our dream is relatively simple: Find a piece of land in an area of sheer natural beauty. Work the land on permaculture principles. Experiment in sustainable architecture. Organize cultural hiking adventures with local Native American tribes. Provide green healthy spaces for mind and body. Share ideas, skills, experience, and knowledge. Create a place for us and others. Where people want to linger, learn and enjoy life.
We have narrowed our search down to three areas in the United States: Northern Montana, Southwestern Colorado and the Olympic Peninsula and now that you know who we are and what we want to do, my next post will dive into how we are planning on getting there.