We lived a pretty normal life…
We both had solid careers in the Air Force with bright futures ahead of us. Each day, we’d wake up and execute the routine that we’d fallen into. It’s a routine that many of you are pretty familiar with. Wake up, get a workout in, shower, breakfast, off to the office. Spend the majority of the day on answering emails, sitting through meetings, and working on whatever project was pressing at the time. We’d come home, make a plan for dinner, maybe spend some time doing something to the house (repaint this room, lay down some tile, install a new chandelier). It was an extremely comfortable living situation, and by all rights, we were somewhat proud of ourselves.
After all, we were living the American Dream. Solidly middle class, we had a small townhome on the water in Florida. If you looked out our back window, you saw our little sailboat with two jet skis behind it. We had the best of friends living right next door and rarely found ourselves without some sort of social interaction every night of the week.
We took our vacations just like everyone else: snowboarding in the winter, scuba diving in the summers, and quick jaunts down to Orlando to do Disney with whichever family from North Carolina that could make it (to be honest, we’ve been to Disney probably a dozen times now, and we’re still not tired of it).
What else could we ask for? Perfectly stable financially, in the best physical fitness shape of our lives because our neighbors convinced us to pick up triathlons, and not really a single worry about the future, because it was already written.
And that’s what started to scare me.
I wasn’t thinking about the future too much at the time, but when I started to ponder what the decades ahead held for us, I had this feeling of dread. There was also a touch of guilt - honestly, who in their right mind would not be excited about the prospect of having a secure future that promised a higher income than most, guaranteed moves every 2-3 years around the country, and being part of a social network (the military) that would always be there for you?
I guess I wasn’t in my right mind, then.
The very fact that our future, and more specifically my future, was already laid out in front of me was starting to become an anxiety inducing fact. I can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it was because there was no room for excitement, no room for possibility. The Air Force is very good at laying out career paths, almost to a fault. My career path was already set in stone - I would go to work in an Aircraft Maintenance Unit next, as the Officer-in-Charge. After that, I would move on to being an Operations Officer for a squadron. Then they’d push me to a staff job, where I’d work in higher level administrative, strategy, planning, etc etc. After that, maybe get sent to a year of military schooling, then onwards to being a squadron commander. Then a second command gig. Then probably deputy group command. And then more of the same, but at higher levels, more responsibility and involvement, but working in the exact same environments I’d spent the first eight years of my career, but just in a different place, with different people and different aircraft. Where was the room for adventure? Where was the room for spontaneity?
Society tells you a story growing up, in the form of a set of instructions. Listen up, we’re going to tell everyone this once:
Work hard in school. Get good grades. Really push yourself in high school - you’ll earn scholarships and entry into a good university. At college, keep working hard, because employers and organizations will look to see that you were interested in more than just partying. Get that good GPA, graduate with some Latin phrases at the end of your name (Jimmy Ray Matthews Jr., B.A. in Psychology, Minor in Military Studies, Magna Cum Laude). Now you’ve done it - you have earned yourself a career position! Here is your salary. Here is your career plan. Here are your medical benefits, and your retirement, one of the best in the world, will be this much if you stay with us for 20 years. All in all, you’ve earned this, it’s a big warm comfortable fuzzy blanket that should make you feel good and happy and ease the stress from your life.
And the big warm comfortable blanket was just that - comfortable.
But it was also suffocating.
Knowing exactly what I’d be doing for the next 10-15 years didn’t excite me. I realized that I wanted to look to the future and not know what was going to happen, where I’d be, who I’d meet, or what I’d achieve.
And the idea that I could wait just 12 more years for retirement entered my mind, but was cast aside just as quick. I know we aren’t promised tomorrow. I know our health isn’t guaranteed. We’ve all heard the same quote - in twenty years, we’ll regret the things we didn’t do, rather than the things we did.
In prehistoric humanity, back when we lived in caves, there were different types of people. There were those that settled down into the cave, made more cavemen babies, went out into the jungle near the cave to hunt and gather, and just lived as happily as possible. Safety and survival are literally the two things that mattered the most, and they were experts at both of them.
Then there were a few odd cavemen. Raised in the same cave as their family, when old enough, they joined in the hunting and gathering, did their part, fulfilled their duties in the tribe, but had this crazy idea that they wanted to leave the cave. Despite the dangers and despite the uncertainty, they just couldn’t stand another year in this particular cave. What held everyone in the cave anyway? Wasn’t it just fear? Fear of not having the safety and survival they’d built in the caveman tribe?
Do you know what my greatest hell is? My greatest fear? It’s having to sit down with the best version of myself at the end of my life and have a conversation across a table. This other version of Jimmy is the one that didn’t give in to fear. He didn’t trade his sense of adventure for comfort and security. This version of Jimmy made all the right decisions, took the risks, persevered against all adversities because of unshakable confidence in himself. And we sit there, and we have to talk to each other about our lives. He tells me stories of how he climbed mountains, started companies, volunteered in an orphanage, learned to speak X language, developed skills, gave more of himself to his friends and family than asked in return and provided incredible value to the world. Obviously, we’d have some stories in common, but our lives would have diverged a great deal. Maybe we’d recount a certain event early on in our lives, where I’d cowered, or took the easy route, or went against my gut.
He’d reply, “Oh yes, I remember that day, and I remember thinking to myself that I could probably just do it this way, the easy way, and no one would notice I wasn’t giving my all, giving one hundred percent. But I knew better. So I gave everything.”
I think striving to be the best versions of ourselves is admirable. I think the best version of myself would seek adventure, would risk a perfectly comfortable life for one of struggle, if only to find out how much he could really handle.
And so we are. In just a few couple months, our journey around the world will begin.
It took some convincing with Maggie, but she knows that we have to do this, and she’s just as excited about it as me.
We don’t have kids, we don’t have pets, we don’t even have any house plants. We aren’t financially restricted. And we are young; we have the energy now.
Maggie will tell you this much about me:
“If Jimmy starts getting restless and bored… if we’re in a comfortable situation and everything is going perfect and everything is predictable….he just throws a wrench into it and blows the whole thing up.”
So we were basically arguing one night (yes, we argue sometimes, but not about about who takes the trash out, but about the meaning of life) and I asked her if she was truly happy with the situation. If it fulfilled her, if it set her on fire with passion and energy. We both knew the answer.
The next question was “So why don’t we just travel around the world for a couple years?”