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Do Life Changing Experiences Really Exist? Three Reflections from a Month on a Bicycle

[ 0 ] February 6, 2012 |
Silhouette of a bicycle

Image by Bernat Casero on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

A few months ago, my friend Ethan Waldman told me he was taking off work to go on a long bike tour of the Northwest. I’d call this a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but Ethan is the kind of guy who will go on to have many more. Here’s his story.

On September 10th, 2011, I shut down my computer, triple-checked my extensive packing list against what was in my bags, and boarded a plane to Seattle, WA. In Seattle, I would re-assemble my bicycle and other gear which I had already shipped to the west coast a week prior. It was in Seattle that I met my cousin, Dan, a yoga teacher and writer. Together, we boarded a train to Vancouver, BC, to begin what would be a month-long unsupported bicycle tour of the pacific coast.

The trip was simultaneously nothing I expected it to be and everything I had wanted. Bicycle touring was an interest for years at this point, and I had worked hard to get myself to this point.

I’d like to share the three most important lessons I learned from the planning, execution, and return to normal life from the trip.

Ask for What You Want

In the lead up to this trip, my greatest source of anxiety by far was the thought of actually sitting down with my boss to request the time off. Before the conversation happened, I had already run through a thousand progressively worsening scenarios in my head, including being fired on the spot simply for asking.

Before even having the conversation, I was already lowering the number of days I would accept for the trip and offering to take more than I needed to unpaid. Luckily, Dan provided the reality check. “Ethan, you’re succumbing to demands that haven’t even been made yet. Ask for what you want.”

“Ask for what you want” was a great piece of advice. My boss did not react badly to my request for two months unpaid. It provided the starting point for a series of negotiations that ended up as me taking 3 weeks of vacation time (everything I had saved up) plus one week unpaid. In the back of my mind, 1 month was the minimum I would accept for this trip. I got what I wanted! I can only imagine what I would have ended up with if I had started the negotiations off at 1 month. Almost certainly less.

The lesson here is that you need to ask for what you want. The worst answer you’ll get is ‘no.’ Don’t compromise what you’re willing to accept before you find out if the other party is willing to accept it as well.

Less Really Is More

As you can imagine, you have an extremely limited amount of space when you’re carrying everything you need in small packs (called panniers) on your bicycle. After you fit in your tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, and cooking equipment, there’s even less space then you expected for things like casual clothing, shoes, books, and electronics.

Before the trip, I angsted over what to bring. These sneakers or those sandals? These jeans or those pants? iPad or laptop? When I boarded my plane to Seattle, I still wasn’t sure if I had made the right choices.

But once I hit the road and started living with my decisions, all was forgotten. In my experience, the process of choosing what to downsize to was a lot more difficult than living with less. Sure there were times where I wished I had brought an extra layer or a different pair of shoes, but overall, my experience with living with very few items was positive.

There was this feeling that I can only describe as a lightness that I felt when I knew I had everything I owned (at the time) with me. There was nothing I needed that I didn’t already have. Conversely, I found returning home to closets, cupboards, and drawers full of “stuff” were overwhelming.

I think the phrase “less is more” has become overused to the point of cliché. In my experience, less was only more once I was actually living it– certainly not before while I was “thinking” about it or considering it. It was this realization that has inspired some other big changes in my life. More on that in a minute.

Change Comes Later

While I was planning my trip and talking about it with others, the most overwhelming response I got was something along the lines of “this is going to be a LIFE CHANGING trip for you.” To be honest, I was really hoping that it would be. I had the foggy notion that I would quit my job when I got home and focus full time on my “side” business.

With the pressure of expectation about serious life change, I would check in with myself from time to time while I was riding. “I don’t feel any different…I don’t think my life has changed.” Even when I got back, I didn’t feel like anything had changed.

Now that I’ve been back to my regular life for 5 months, I cannot deny that the trip WAS a life changing experience. My love for living with fewer possessions led me to the tiny house movement. I have given up my apartment and moved in with family to save money so that I can build my own 120 square foot tiny house on wheels.

I honestly do not think I would have decided to move my life towards minimalism and building my own tiny house if I had not experienced a month on a bicycle. When people ask me, “but how do you know you’ll like living in it? Have you ever LIVED in a tiny house?”, I can confidently answer yes. For one month I lived in a 2-person tent with about 30 possessions. And believe me, it was awesome.

The lesson here is that real change doesn’t happen to you DURING an event. First, you have to experience something, and then you have to spend some time living with and reacting to that experience before a change will occur.

Coming off of my liberating experience of bicycle travel, and living with less, I’ve thought deeply about ways that I can help others achieve this same feeling of lightness in some small area of their lives. After all, I’m not saying that you should move into a tiny house, or go on a bike tour. Those are my dreams, not yours.

How I’ve Been Inspired to Help You

One area that I do have expertise in is email. Specifically, I help people learn to deal with the staggering loads of email they receive and create systems to automatically organize their inbox.

I’ve found that I can replicate that same feeling of lightness in others people’s lives, when I show them a better way to handle email–and liberate a lot of their time in the process.

That’s why I’ve just released the most comprehensive free resource I’ve ever put together on this topic. It’s called the Automated Inbox Blueprint, and it will show you everything you need to create an email inbox that organizes itself. Here’s where you can download it.

Ethan Waldman helps people live and work in harmony with technology at the Cloud Coach blog. Right now, people are liberating themselves from email hell using the free Automated Inbox Blueprint.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

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