How have I done it?
And why? And what does my lifestyle have to do with my English degree?
In November I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Clark University English department’s annual alumni event. I was asked to address these questions in front of an audience of current and potential English students, to encourage and inspire them, and provide an example of one path their degree might take them down. It was the first time I’d summarized the last eight years of wandering and considered what central theme or line of reasoning might pull together my disparate experiences. The message I ended up delivering was one so global, and yet so central to my thoughts, goals, and passions, that I decided to share it here, too. Like my short piece on turning thirty, the talk addresses the idea of allowing oneself time and space for discovery and experimentation, and emphasizes the value of simply living, and letting the details resolve themselves. Maybe I also wanted to publish it here to remind myself to breath, and to look at the bigger picture when I get mired in the little things…it’s an ongoing practice, this lifestyle. Enjoy.
“I call myself a professional nomad. My career path to date has been…varied. Since graduating with my bachelor’s in English in 2005, I’ve worked in New Zealand, Antarctica, Wyoming, Chile, Peru, and Utah. I’ve worked seasonal jobs to save money for traveling adventures. I’ve found jobs that are adventures in themselves. I’ve been a wildland firefighter, a dish washing supervisor, a housekeeper, an editor, a farm laborer, a fruit picker, a customer service representative, waitress, a handy man, a translator, a snowmaker, a carpenter’s assistant, and more. Utah has become my home base over the last five years. I work as a river guide on the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah, I’m a freelance writer, and I’m the operations director/writer/media coordinator of Ríos to Rivers, a nonprofit organization that I co-founded.
“How did my English degree get me to here? I majored in English mostly because I couldn’t decide between a dozen other career paths. In the end, I chose the course of study that would allow me to do my favorite thing—reading—for the rest of my academic career. The traveling epiphany didn’t come until later. The summer after I graduated from Clark, I went home and put off looking for a job. The world was my oyster, but no one told me I’d have to shuck it myself. So I procrastinated. I made lists of the things I didn’t want to do with my English degree. Like teaching. Like starting at the bottom of a corporate publishing house, or being tied to a desk at a magazine. I felt paralyzed by the idea that whatever path I chose would dictate the rest of my life. I felt trapped.
“Then somebody told me about BUNAC, and working holiday visas, and oh my god I could go work in NEW ZEALAND?! For twelve months?! Travel—while earning a living—and put off figuring out my career for a whole year? Sold! Like any good type-A personality, I intended to secure a job before I even arrived. I made lists of magazines and publishers and newspapers to reach out to. I buried my anxiety about leaving home in Plans with a capital P. But somehow the day arrived when I was to leave, and I hadn’t actually made any contacts. No job. Just a plane ticket and a hostel address.
“I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, early on a Sunday morning. The city seemed impossibly foreign. I wandered the quiet Sunday streets, in shock, trying to gathered the scraps of my Plans around me, to find a way forward into the totally overwhelming newness. At dinner in the hostel that first night, I met two German girls, and by the end of the meal they’d invited me to travel north with them, to the place where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. The invitation was exciting, but terrifying. North was not in the Plans! But seeing two oceans come together…well, that would be pretty sweet. I sat on my bunk in the hostel dorm room and made a pros and cons list. It’s cute, now, but at the time it was everything. My whole life was being decided in those two columns on the scrap of notebook paper. Nothing had prepared me for the world of opportunity that now lay before me. In a moment of profound insight and courage, I chose yes. I would go with the German girls.
“It was terrifying. But that moment of saying YES, of letting go of my Plans and just seeing what would happen is what got me to where I am today—it’s what made me who I am today. I learned that anything was possible if I was willing to work for it, willing to say yes and go out on a limb and grab it. Everything that’s happened to me since, I believe, is because I said yes to that opportunity. It was in New Zealand that I learned about the opportunity to work in Antarctica. And it was in Antarctica that I met the carpenter who hired me as his assistant for the following summer. And so on.
“So what does this have to do with an English degree? Friends of mine who also graduated from the English department are doing all kinds of things: teaching, business writing, editing, publishing, marketing, etc. The reading, writing, and critical analysis skills English majors learn are applicable all over the professional world. But they’ve also been applicable to my lifestyle. And now a brief disclaimer about the lifestyle, eight years in: it is unconventional. I occasionally meet people who judge me for not following the college-career-marriage-house-kids-retirement path. I don’t own a house, or a car. I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t make very much money. I make enough to support myself, but I have to be creative and persistent about it. Every six months I go through a long research and decision-making process to figure out where I will go next. It’s not easy. But it works for me. It makes me happy as a whole person, not just in a professional career sense. Clearly, not everyone may want to travel the world as an itinerant laborer. That’s okay. But the message that I want you to take from my experience is that the English degree is also a valuable tool for life. English students are taught how to think and how to read between the lines, and I believe the world needs more people with these skills.
“In the first few years after graduation, the jobs I applied for were all about having as many different experiences as possible. It didn’t matter so much what was on my resume. Recently I’ve found myself applying for more professional jobs, and have been able to look back over my traveling experience the way I would a text, examining my experiences and what I’ve learned and using examples to support the thesis of ‘I am the best person for this job because…’ My varied work history has been an advantage. People tend to look twice at your resume when you’ve worked in Antarctica.
“I’ve always dreamed of writing for National Geographic. In 2011 I decided it was time to work actively towards making this happen. So I took my savings and went to Chile as a freelancer to research and write about proposed hydroelectric dams in a remote Patagonian region. It was an enormous undertaking, and the learning curve was steep. But I already had the basic skills I needed. Reading, writing, and researching don’t fade over time. I knew how to get the information I was after and how to present it persuasively to magazine editors.
“I was traveling through Patagonia interviewing the people who’d be most impacted by the proposed dams when I met a group of young, local kayakers who had grown up paddling on the river that would be dammed. They were the inspiration for Ríos to Rivers, my nonprofit. A filmmaker friend and I had the idea to bring these kids to the Grand Canyon to show them what a dam looks like and let them see firsthand the impact of a dam on a river. We’ve since led two exchanges: first bringing US students to Patagonia, and then this past August leading the Chilean kids through a 12-day kayaking trip in the Grand Canyon. I never saw this coming. Ríos to Rivers was not a goal I set out to achieve when I was an undergrad at Clark.
“With my nonprofit work, I use my English degree every day, writing fundraising materials, press releases, and letters of appeal. I research grants, I develop blog articles, and manage our social media. I’ve also learned new skills, leading students into incredible landscapes and interpreting history, geology, and politics for them. I didn’t plan to be a river guide either, but it’s become a career for me, one in which I am constantly reading in order to teach my guests about the rivers we run, showing not telling, like a good writer should. My point, beyond the fact that the English degree is eminently suitable for almost any career path, is that although you may not know what you want to do now, you’ll figure it out. It will come to you. And along the way you’ll figure out what you don’t want.
“Give yourself time. The idea that you must know now what you want to do forever is terrifying, and I think unrealistic. Go out into the world and try things. Do things. Explore. Experiment. Gather experiences and let them teach you about yourself and the world. Or maybe you do know exactly what you want to do. Awesome. Do it! But if it turns out that it doesn’t actually make you happy and fulfilled, that’s okay. Allow yourself to change and grow. Gather experiences. And trust that your degree will help you sort through them and learn from them.
“I didn’t believe that advice when it was given to me. I think we’re all better at living in the moment than we know—but ‘the moment’ is too often full of pressure to make everything happen now. So I repeat: give yourself time. Things have a way of revolving and resolving themselves.
“So. Susan’s key take-home points:
1. Don’t follow a mainstream career path just because you think you Have To.
2. There are ways to earn money without getting stuck in an office. Hint: consider working abroad.
3. Your English degree doesn’t expire.
4. Say yes.
And yes, #5: Gather. Experience.”