All growth requires discomfort, but not all discomfort indicates growth.
I spent this past weekend learning a new language. Not a spoken language, but a programming language called Python. It was incredibly rewarding and it’s hard to believe that I almost paid someone to take that opportunity away.
A few weeks ago I came across a traveling programmer who had written some software to show a map of his travels on an embedded Google Map. He included a drop-down that allowed the selection of different maps, each map representing a different period of travel in his life.
After being thoroughly impressed—and perhaps a little bit jealous—by his extensive travels and the simplicity by which he displayed all this data, I began to envision how I could do something similar on my own website.
His software was fairly straightforward: It looked at the contents of several Google Earth KML files, parsed the map data inside them, and then displayed that data on an embeddable Google Map.
Straightforward? Perhaps. But I didn’t even know what KML files were, let alone how to use Google Earth. The last time I played around with Google Earth was years ago. I had no idea how to create maps with it.
But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
I foresee myself traveling for years to come and I’ve been looking for a good way to track and display my travels for awhile now. I’m currently using the TravelMap plugin on my map page, but it has limited features and doesn’t scale for my nomadic lifestyle. This Google Earth solution seemed elegant, practical, and scalable.
So I downloaded Google Earth and learned how to create lines and points. I watched tutorial videos on YouTube and read documentation. I exported one of the test maps to a KML file and opened it in a text editor to learn about its format.
I discovered that KML files were simply XML files (very similar to HTML). The locations of the points that I added in Google Earth were identified using its GPS coordinates; the lines that I drew between two points were represented by a series of coordinates: start-coordinates, end-coordinates, start-coordinates, end-coordinates, and so on.
With my newly acquired knowledge I set out building several Google Earth maps, each representing all my travels for the past two years, starting with my trip to India in 2010 and ending with my present location in Australia in 2012.
It was around this point where I began to think about what the process of updating my current location with this system would look like on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.
I realized it would require opening Google Earth on my computer, editing the map with my new travels and adding new points and new lines, then exporting the file to KML and uploading it to the web server.
That seemed like a lot of work, especially when I was already recording my travels to some degree using geotagging on social networks like Twitter and Foursquare.
I’m very suspicious of repetitive things when it comes to my time. (It all started when I calculated how much of my life each year was being spent simply looking at various notifications on my computer: 15 hours! I no longer use notifications for anything.) If I’m already recording my location online, why should I spend time recording it again in Google Earth?
How could I automatically update the Google Earth KML file with my latest location without spending any additional time?
After a bit of research, I discovered that Foursquare provides a KML feed for all my check-in data. So, I just needed to create a program that would automate copying the data from one KML file to the other and then updating the path line to show that I traveled from the old check-in to the new check-in.
With my limited knowledge of programming languages, I knew that Python was the best language for this job. The problem was, I knew practically nothing about Python. I was a PHP programmer and I knew that solving this problem with PHP would be both messy and time-consuming.
At this point I’d already spent a lot of time learning about KML files and creating maps in Google Earth. The thought of learning a whole new programming language just to get a travel map on my site was pushing the limits of what I expected to invest in this project in terms of time.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just hire someone else to do this final part?
Never before had I hired someone to write a program for me, but for the first time I found myself taking the thought seriously. Was I getting lazy? Was this laziness the result of being able to afford to hire someone?
I posted the job on Elance with a maximum budget of $250— that’s what this program was worth to me. Within a few hours I began receiving bids, but with each bid I felt myself more and more disinterested with this idea.
Why was I paying someone to take away my opportunity to learn and grow?
That’s when I realized something important: It wasn’t that I was being lazy. It’s that I wanted to pay someone to take away the discomfort of learning and growing.
That one realization changed my whole thinking and instead of succumbing to the discomfort of learning something new, I decided to push into the discomfort and find out what’s on the other side.
On Friday night I found a free Python tutorial online and began learning. I started with the very basics and ignored what I already knew about programming. I completed every exercise, from the very basic to the more advanced.
At first it was repetitive and boring, but as the hours passed I found myself muttering over and over, “that’s interesting”, every time I learned a new concept or understood how something worked.
This learning and exploration became so fun that I spent nearly the entire weekend indoors, peeling myself away from the computer only to eat, fulfill my running commitment, and watch the sunset.
By Sunday morning I began exploring beyond the Python tutorial and started searching the Internet for examples of using Python to handle XML files. There were very few examples specific to KML files and I couldn’t find anything that did what I wanted, but I continued experimenting.
By that evening I had finished a 248-line program in Python that did exactly what I wanted. It’s certainly not the prettiest code but the sense of empowerment and elation that I experienced upon finishing it was worth far more than $250.
The lesson? When it comes to spending time or spending money, always spend the time if you’ll learn something that will save you both money and time in the long-run.
And more importantly, when it comes to learning new things, don’t pay someone to take away the discomfort for you: lean into that discomfort.
On the other side of that discomfort exists a world where you live with more knowledge and understanding than the present version of yourself. It may be hard to imagine that world right now, but push through the discomfort and you’ll get there.
I haven’t finished integrating the new travel map into my site, but here’s a working sneak peak of the Journey Map.
I could feel my brain resisting the change, like stirring molasses with a big spoon my brain pushed against the reality that I was forcing it to accept.
I drove in Australia for the first time today, a short 15-minute ride to the supermarket. But those few minutes felt like hours. When I stopped and got out of the car, my brain physically hurt, as if my brain had just run a marathon. I could feel the new synapses forming in what seemed like previously dead areas of my gray matter, like someone waking up from a coma and needing to relearn things that felt both vaguely familiar and all so wrong at the same time.
Everything that had become second nature from more than 14 years of right-side driving in the United States suddenly felt all wrong. The rearview mirror was on the wrong side, the gear shifter, the turn signal, the steering wheel -- all of it felt backwards. But not the gas and brake pedals: they were the same as in the States. Everything in the car was mirrored except those. Confusing! But there it was, all of it in front of me, awaiting my acceptance, asking me to embrace it.
And then when I started driving I knew there were others depending on my brain accepting these changes. Stay on the left side of the road!
It was tough. Left turns were right turns. Merges onto the freeway were made from left to right. The fast lane was now on the left instead of the right. Exits were always on the left. Rotaries — or roundabouts as they're more often called here — were particularly challenging to get correct. Cars went clockwise around them instead of counter-clockwise.
Everything felt wrong! It was the same weird feeling a right-handed person would feel when throwing a ball with their left hand.
But I pushed through this. I knew this was why I traveled, to feel my brain returning to its pre-adult state, to re-plasticize the hardened gray matter.
Day after day, I drove a little more each day. After one week of driving with a navigator in the passengers seat, I've now graduated to driving alone by myself. And then one day something strange happened: everything began to feel normal. It started to make sense. Left-side driving started to feel normal. And that was an incredibly freeing experience, so suddenly become mobily ambidextrous.
To remember which turns are yield turns, I've come up with an easy way to remember: whatever side of the car I'm sitting on, that's the side that is a yield turn. If I'm driving on the right side of the car, then right turns are yield turns. If I'm sitting on the left, left turns are yield turns.
But still I find myself occasionally mixing it up. When I’m told we’ll be making a right turn ahead, my brain identifies right turns with non-yield turns, which in Australia is actually a left turn. So I’ll hear right, but feel left.
But again, this is why I travel. To grow. To experience something new and unfamiliar. To push myself outside of comfort zones and over the edge into the unknown.
For most of my life, I've only written and shared things post-experience and post-reflection. When I started this journal, I did so with the intention of giving myself a platform from which I could share my experiences and reflections with you as they were happening. However, I gravely underestimated just how difficult that would be.
I've learned that when I'm traveling -- when I'm opening myself to new experiences and spending time in deep reflection -- it's extremely challenging to create and share from that space of exploration. Only after I've processed and reprocessed experiences, stories, and conversations do I feel comfortable sharing them.
But maybe that's my problem: maybe I'm too comfortable.
I tell myself that I'm remaining true to myself by sharing only when I'm ready to share and writing only when I feel compelled to write, but maybe I'm confusing truth with comfort and fear with patience.
One of my journal subscribers recently cancelled her subscription because she felt I wasn't publishing frequently enough. My first thought was fear-based. "What if more people start canceling? Oh, no! I should publish something immediately!"
But then I stepped back and looked at the situation objectively.
My idea of "frequently enough" is not the same as everyone else. This particular subscriber publishes her own work far more frequently than I'm comfortable with; in fact it's too frequently for me.
My enough is not her enough and that's okay; I shouldn't chase her enough and abandon my own (which can happen quite easily if we're operating from fear).
As I realized this, I also began asking myself if my recent low publishing frequency was really the result of 'remaining true to myself', or if I was in fact creating excuses and succumbing to fear and resistance.
If we don't get uncomfortable on a regular basis, growth will stagnate. It's comfortable to lay down and relax on a plateau, but scaling the next mountain and climbing to the next peak should make us sweat. We need to sweat.
(Discomfort and pain are not the same thing; I don't believe pain is necessary, but all growth requires some level of discomfort because growth challenges the natural decay of things.)
At the beginning of this year I conducted a short experiment where I published to the journal every day for ten days straight. It was an uncomfortable but empowering experiment. In conclusion I surmised that I had overcome any previous resistance to publishing here.
It's clear to me now that resistance is still very present and I have much work ahead of me; I need to get uncomfortable.
I began a road trip almost two weeks ago and while I have been keeping notes on various experiences and conversations, I haven't been publishing much more than a few short thoughts.
I've always told myself that I don't like writing about travel from a travel writers perspective. "I'm not a travel writer", I would tell myself over and over. And while it's true that I don't enjoy writing long essays about travel, as a traveler I inevitably make observations as I explore and move around.
I'm realizing now that my aversion to being called a 'travel writer' has been holding me back from recording and sharing these observations (talk about a self-limiting belief).
Starting with this road trip I'm going to start sharing my 'Travel Notes' through the Notes section. You can expect several such travel notes to arrive in your inbox tomorrow morning.
As I mentioned in my latest journal entry, I'm going to start publishing travel notes here on the places that I visit. These notes will contain anything from short anecdotes to odd experiences to conversations with people that I meet during my travels.
My first stop on the 2012 USA road trip was Northampton, Massachusetts where I met my friend Jasmine Lamb. Northampton is located in the western part of Massachusetts. I had never driven that far out west, but I wasn't surprised to find that it didn't feel much different than the rest of the state.
Northampton itself is a small but noticeably older town that was settled in the early 1600s. I couldn't decide if I should pronounce it 'north-hampton' or 'nor-hampton' but Jasmine told me later that she always pronounced it 'north-hampton'.
In the downtown area, there were lots of cafes that seemed quite busy and I got the sense that the town was popular with the younger crowd. A little research on Wikipedia taught me that Northampton has a large and politically influential LGBT community and that the city is part of something called the Knowledge Corridor.
After meeting Jasmine in a local cafe and talking over a cup of jasmine tea (ironic, huh?), we walked around town a bit, first through the bustling downtown area and then on an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail.
We talked on a wide array of topics, but one part of our discussion that really stuck with me was a story she told me about her brother: While traveling in a developing country, he learned that amputee children would often outgrow their prosthetic limbs and then need to wait long amounts of time until someone older than them outgrew their prosthetic limb and passed it down to them (that is if they were lucky).
Instead of seeing the problem and just thinking how unfortunate it was, he decided to invent a prosthetic limb that could be adjusted in size to account for the child's inevitable growth. That way, once the child gets a prosthetic limb, it remains the child's limb regardless of their growth.
Such a simple invention and yet he did something that I think few would-be inventors (including myself) actually do: believe in the invention enough to make it a reality and then overcome the discomfort of following through.
It takes more than belief in the idea to make it a reality. Jasmine told me how her brother also spent many years learning other things related to business -- stuff that he wasn't even remotely interested in -- to make his invention a reality. He was committed to creating a solution to the problem he observed and as a result his adjustable prosthetic limbs are now being used by children in developing countries.
My next stop was Saratoga Springs, NY, where I got to fly a small airplane for the second time in my life. This second experience seems to have given me the 'flight bug' and now I'm itching to become a pilot. I'll write more about the experience in my next travel note.