The Scariest Question to Ask a Thru-Hiker
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. –Howard Thurman
That’s a good question, but it’s not too scary. No, what many thru-hikers dread answering is this question:
What are you going to do AFTER the trail?
From what I’ve read, one thing that can make a difference between finishing a thru hike or not is your purpose for doing it. That’s why Zach Davis, in Appalachian Trials, suggests that anyone attempting to go the distance should make three lists: reasons to hike the trail, potential outcomes of finishing the trail, and potential outcomes of giving up on the trail.
On my first list I had your standard love-the-outdoors type items, but other entries clustered around the idea of coming alive. More precisely, the idea of what work, when I finish hiking, will make me come alive.
One way to read Thurman’s quotation is that your work should make you come alive and that your greater aliveness will meet the world’s needs. Another way to read it is as an invitation to come alive outside of work, maybe in your family life or in a hobby or vocation for which you have a lot of passion.
After 12 years of feeling only moderately to fairly “alive” at work, I’m choosing right now to play around with the former interpretation. As I’ve mentioned, my job has unqualified and legitimate value to a lot of people but fails to give me a sense of concrete productivity—of tangible impact.
A few years back I read Matthew Crawford’s excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, and man did it resonate with me. Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy but left that field to repair motorcycles when he realized that a lot of what “knowledge workers” do has a slippery, hard-to-quantify, and harder-to-define value. Worse, he claims, it’s knowledge work, more than “straightforwardly useful” work, that can best be outsourced overseas, so if we’re going to save American jobs, we had better not throw away technical-vocational courses or funnel all high-schoolers into a college-prep pipeline. He quotes Princeton University Economist Alan Blinder: “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”
Re-reading Shop Class last spring I was freshly struck by just how hard it is these days to focus intently on anything. In the book’s margin I wrote this:
So much of my daily life is a basic failure to engage deeply—that “focal practice” . I see how FB, imgur, email—even articles that comprise my legitimate work—undo my focus. I see how short my attention span is. I long to get lost in a pursuit—cooking, dancing, reading, writing … things that I used to rely on easily but to which I’ve lost the capacity to attend. That’s what I miss: attention. Having it.
Of course, my failure to attend isn’t unique—by now it’s a pretty thoroughly documented phenomena of modern life. But did Crawford’s ideas about straightforwardly useful work apply to me? If my work had less distance between cause and effect, could I rebuild my attentive capacity?
Is absorption itself somehow evidence of work with tangible impact?
Not long after writing that marginalia, I started hiking a lot and noticed immediately that while my mind does wander, out in the woods I’m free not only of distractions but also of the need to distract myself. I can go for hours. I want to go for hours. I am engrossed.
Moreover, in contrast to my day job, hikes made me feel I’d gotten something done, a paradox the irony of which was not lost on me—clearly the only person this “work” had a “tangible impact” on was me. I didn’t build anything, I didn’t move any product, I didn’t raise (or make) any money. In the harshest terms, I really just met my own need for exercise and escape.
But also, yes: I came alive.
Another contrast to my day job? Routine chores at home. “Oh goody, workday’s over—time for NPR and housework!” –my Facebook status one day last year. Who puts “goody” and “housework” in the same sentence? And yet folding laundry, cleaning, unloading the dishwasher … the concrete need for these tasks to be accomplished, and the satisfying fact of their being done, was self-evident in a way few “senior research analyst” tasks—no matter how theoretically worthy—ever can be.
So, sure. It would be great if someone would pay me—like I’m paid now—to hike and keep my own house clean. That obviously won’t happen. More importantly, it wouldn’t be enough even if it did. As tangibly satisfying as physical tasks are, it’s just not that intellectually compelling to, say, put one foot in front of the other 30,000 times (an average day hike). A brain likes to be engaged.
So back to that list of reasons to hike—about finding the right work for me. What might that be?
Taking a 2,190-mile walk might not seem like the most practical way to answer that, and I’m still not sure how exactly how the two connect. Instead I’m leaping here and trusting the value of getting away from life’s dizzying distractions. On the trail I’ll be absorbed. No, not in career-guidance, self-help books or life-coaching sessions, but absorbed nonetheless. Somewhere in that contemplation I know I’ll find an answer.
Just deciding to take the journey, I sense, has started the work already.
Already, all sorts of wildly different-from-what-I-do-now jobs, from goat farmer to salsa teacher to yoga instructor have crossed my mind. They have the obvious appeal of being concrete and hands-on. They also feel pretty unrealistic from a lack-of-experience and pay-cut-from-what-I-do-now perspective, but hey, isn’t thru-hiking all about teaching us how little we truly need?
More plausible is that I will do some combination of writing coaching and educational/editorial consultant work. It is tangibly satisfying to improve someone’s communication by tightening their text or correcting their commas.
But who knows? One of the most exciting things about an undertaking as gargantuan as a thru-hike is that you just don’t know how it’s going to change you.
One thing I know won’t change is how important it is that I write. Since starting up blogging again a few weeks ago, that idea—the truth of it—has brought me peace and a sense of purpose. It may never be my career—I get Elizabeth Gilbert’s sensible warning against burdening your “big magic” to pay your bills. Still. Even if it never earns me a six-figure income, writing always does make me come alive.
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