Fitting feelings of YOLO into a long-term life strategy

A few years ago I excitedly got on a trampoline for the first time since high school. Upon my first very normal rebound off the trampoline a wave of impact rippled through my joints, reverberating in my knees, hips, and up my back and neck. I stopped dead. Holy shit, I said out loud, that’s not at all how it used to feel. That’s when I realized, I’m getting older.

Graffiti quoting one of my favourite Grey’s Anatomy lines on a wall in my Kathmandu hostel.
That was three years ago. I’m 26 now and my own fragility has only become more apparent. Now, I recognize that 26 is not old, and if you’re much older than me you may be scoffing at my wimpiness. To clarify, it’s more the transition that I’m observing; compared to the carefree, resilient years of my childhood and teens, being in your 20s is the beginning of a confronting reality check—you are not invincible.

This new reality shows itself in big and small ways. Last year on a bike trip in Québec I had a small wipe out on a gravel path and scraped my knee. No big deal; it didn’t need much first aid, and didn’t inhibit the rest of my trip. But I was astounded when it took more than a month for it to heal, and a year later I can still see the white-ish mark where it had been. It’s possible that it always took that long to heal from simple injuries and I just never noticed, but it seems to me like my body’s ability to bounce back is a little bit less impressive than it used to be.

I also feel myself being more cautious than I was even just a few years ago. On my first trip to India, I was pretty well convinced that I could get through most things that might occur on my trip. As a passenger on the chaotic and dangerous roads of India, I acknowledged that I may very well die during that ride, but was able to mostly let it go. In planning for this trip, however, I found myself considering the odds of being in a car accident or train accident pretty seriously. It didn’t keep me from traveling, but it was a lot more apparent and disconcerting than it had been last time.

Paragliding in Nepal
Although it had been on my bucket list for a few years, I hesitated for about a week before I committed to going paragliding. I worried that I’d injure myself, particularly on take-off and landing. But I’m so glad I went for it! And it turns out that you land by just standing up on two feet, easy peasy.
More confronting has been seeing some of my friends and loved ones affected by serious illnesses, accidents, and the realities of aging. Every time something terrible happens I find myself thinking about what I want in life, and whether I’d do anything differently if I knew I was going to die sometime soon.

Since I’m on what looks like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it may or may not surprise you that I would change what I’m doing entirely if I knew I was going to die in a month or two; I’d go home to be with family and friends. If I knew I was going to die in a year, I might keep traveling, but I’d want to do it with loved ones if at all possible. Clearly, if my priorities were set in order by a life-threatening event, I would lean way more toward relationships and connection, and away from seemingly frivolous adventuring. 

Meanwhile, with the optimistic assumption that I’ll get to live another several decades, I see obvious inherent value in the trip that I’m on. In the long-term this kind of open-ended exploration is an adventure, a challenge, and an investment in my future self. 

I’m left with a bit of a riddle then: How might I balance the liberating YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that often goes along with youthfulness and traveling with my desire to live a long, thoughtful and fulfilling life?

Let’s think this through then. Along with going home, what would I do if I knew I only had two months to live? 

  • I’d say yes more, just to see what would happen.
  • I’d probably go get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for a while. 
  • I’d stop giving a single shit whether people like my true, vulnerable self. 
  • I’d start expressing myself fully, talk to more strangers, laugh more loudly, and cry more openly. 
  • I’d spend every single day with people that I loved and be present for every minute of it.
  • I’d sing and dance to my music as I walked down the street. 
  • I’d tell people I loved them a whole lot more freely. 
  • I’d enjoy every sip of gorgeous coffee and eat my favourite foods as often as possible.
  • I’d stop worrying about what job I’d have next and whether I’d make a good living. I’d just go find something interesting to do, maybe something that helps other people. 
  • I’d let go of my ego and apologize for things I’ve done, and forgive others for whatever pain they’ve caused me.
  • I’d knock down these walls I keep up to protect myself from the people around me. 
  • I’d stop caring about how I thought I looked to other people. I wouldn’t care if I gained any weight and I’d wear whatever the hell I wanted. Maybe I’d dye my hair a lilac purple. 
  • I’d be terribly sad that I’d never be a mother, and that I wouldn’t grow old with someone. I’d be sad not to see my sister and friends do the same. 

Sounds pretty great, minus the last point (and other obvious downsides of having only two months to live). In fact, sounds like a number of cliché-sounding pop songs from the last several years. There’s also a great (in my opinion) show on Netflix called No Tomorrow that plays out the scenario of having eight months to live and checking off everything on your bucket list in true YOLO style. It’s clearly pretty easy to buy into the idea of living like today was your last day.

Yet it seems to me that we rarely live like this for very long. Why? Because most of us have longer-term visions for our lives than the next few days or months. And that’s a good thing. I personally think saving for retirement is a pretty good idea, never mind the regret that might come along with those tattoos you got when you told yourself to live in the moment. A character on that No Tomorrow show runs up his credit card care-free so that he can live life to its fullest. That’s not exactly sustainable. 
It can also be pretty exhausting to maintain the belief that you might die at any moment. Adrenaline isn’t meant to hang around that long in your body, and emotionally it can be pretty draining. So should we do something about the insights we have when we’re reminded of our own mortality? How might we balance living like we actually appreciate each moment with looking ahead and investing our time and energy in the futures we want? I don’t have answers for this, but I think a big part of living within this balance is realizing that we (likely) have a lot more choice in how we live our lives than we think.

Over the last several months it’s really started to sink in that there are so many ways to live our lives. While I’ve worked within the assumption that my life generally plays out in an office, there are people out there who make their livings on YouTube, or by writing for magazines, farming, making movies, running a restaurant, teaching Pilates, or helping others settle in a new country. Some spend their whole lives traveling and working online, and others spend their lives raising kids and volunteering in their communities. Some dedicate themselves to public service, and others to storytelling, artistic expression, or pushing themselves to the edge of their physical abilities. While most of us won’t have a career on YouTube, thinking about these options makes it clear: the rules and expectations we live within most of the time are pretty much made up, by ourselves, our families, and our societies. The more we can step out of our bubbles and see our assumptions about life for what they are the more we can build our lives more freely and intentionally toward the things that really matter to us.

For example, professional success and earning a decent living are pretty important to me. But when I reflect on how much they drive my life, I realize that I’ve got pretty shaky definitions of success in these two arenas: I don’t actually know how much money is enough; and I have a fairly limited definition of professional success. More importantly, these two things aren’t ultimately what I’m after. What I’m really interested in is what they offer me: freedom to choose; safety and security security; the ability to provide for a family; the ability to enjoy my leisure time and relationships; interesting things to work on; the ability to change course and u-turn if I want to; and the ability to explore my passions and curiosity. With this clarity, it’s starting to sound like an office job and linear professional accomplishments aren’t necessarily the only way to achieve these things. As a prof of mine used to say, what’s the next right answer?

Sure, one of my possible futures has me working in an office, continuing the professional trajectory that I’ve allowed to be a driving force in my life. But in other futures my next step looks a lot more fluid than that. Maybe I’ll find a job online that allows me to travel and volunteer in interesting places. Or maybe I’ll explore my own country, teaching yoga and serving tables from coast to coast. Maybe I’ll find an inspiring organization to work with for a year or two and then take a sabbatical, much like right now. Maybe I’ll finally become fluent in French and bike across France. Maybe I’ll find myself having a baby in the next couple years, or maybe I’ll find myself in grad school. 

For me, it’s taken some time and space from the life I used to lead to start seeing these options, and honestly, they’re still pretty tame. But I hope that I can maintain and develop this mindset, and have faith in myself that I can find and create the life I want to lead regardless of which path I take.

Doing my best to stay safe while living dangerously.
Fortunately, finding a fulfilling balance in life doesn’t have to be expensive or dangerous. Many of the items on my two-months-to-live list above are, in fact, danger free. For example, I don’t have to run up a credit card or risk my life to express myself more openly and lovingly to those around me. While a lack of deadline makes some of these items a whole lot more scary (for me anyway), I know that challenging myself to be more vulnerable and courageous will pay off both today and decades from now, even if it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.

Sometimes when I’m having a rough time, feeling full of doubt, or completely lost or uninspired, I imagine 80-year-old me looking back on this time of her life with fondness, gratitude and wisdom. I hear her tell stories to her friends and grandkids about that time she took a risk that was probably stupid but led to an incredible adventure. Or that time she fucked up at work and thought the world was crashing down only to discover that life is so much bigger than that. Or that time she swallowed her pride and told someone she loved them even though it made her cry. I’m inspired by 80-year-old me, because she knows from experience that there are far fewer rules than she thought there were at 26.

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On dreams and thanks

I’d say I’m a dreamer (and I’m not the only one).

I’m proud to have developed the tendency of deciding I’m going to do something and just going for it. This is what my ex-boyfriend and I did last summer when we bought tickets to France last February for a four-month summer trip because they were on sale, despite not having the slightest semblance of a plan and no money. It’s why I’m here in France doing an exchange for a year. It’s why I’m going to spend a month in India with my friend Sarah next June, and why I’m now planning on doing a second month there on my own after she’s left. I’m proud of these leaps I’ve taken and the dreams I’ve had and the risks I’ve accepted on minimal plans and minimal funds in the belief that it’ll work out. It’s said that the science to achieving your goals is to speak of them in a positive, confident sense like “I will go to India” rather than “I want to go to India”, and to set specific time frames for achieving them. Lululemon is so fond of this idea that in order to apply to work at the company one must submit their personal, career, and health goals along with their resumé (I love this). But I just watched the incredible record-breaking skydive from space accomplished by Felix Baumgartner. Watching the video of Felix’s capsule it’s easy to wonder how independent and alone he must have felt to be literally 128,000 feet from the nearest person, and the guts it took to step off that ledge seemingly alone. But as the camera cut back and forth from his small capsule, to the 30-odd people in Mission Control, to his family and friends with their hands clasped and tears in their eyes, it struck me that to achieve any goal, especially the big, crazy, seemingly nonsensical goals, your corner’s got to be filled with countless talented, devoted, loving, and passionate people supporting it and you.

My goals may not be as evidently crazy as Felix’s. But I have many people and circumstances to thank for helping me to achieve what I’ve wanted to achieve. From the obvious but oft-forgotten privilege of being born a Canadian woman in 1990, a time and place where women are free to do, say, wear, question, create, and learn whatever they want. From growing up in a loving family with a roof over my head and food on the table, to having parents who value education from wherever it comes. To being surrounded by incredible friends throughout elementary school, high school, and university who have continually inspired, challenged, questioned, and motivated me to always grow and act for what I belief in and towards what I want to do. I’m thankful for that class in grade seven where someone presented the possibility of an exchange to France; I couldn’t go then, but a few of my friends did, and that seed is why I’m in France today. I’m thankful to a family that has always supported my dreams, even when those dreams threatened to take me halfway around the world for a year, or when they take me to India. I am thankful to have the support of my government that has supported me financially in my academic career, and to the level of education that I’m able to expect from my schooling in Canada. I have been incredibly privileged by having a loving, inspiring, and amazing group of people and circumstances in my corner. I couldn’t have done it without you nor without the luck I was privileged to be born into.

Right before Felix began his descent he stood just outside the door of his capsule and looked down at the Earth, with a 128,000 foot descent seconds away. My heart caught in my throat watching him stand there, thinking of that moment where you’re about to do it, the thing you’ve been dreaming of. I will never stop striving for that feeling; I will always dream, and I know that I can achieve anything. Thanks to you.