Category: Reflecting

When the World Conspires with You

Flagstaff, AZ
Flagstaff, AZ

On August 22 I was offered a position to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer at American Conservation Experience (ACE) in Flagstaff, Arizona. My start date would be August 31, and the welcome letter with a list of required gear came the following evening.

As soon as this arrived, my mind built it all up into a mountain: the gear I needed to get, the amount of money I’d need to spend, the things I had to get done in the next seven days. It felt as though I were leaving the next day, even though I had a full week of unscheduled time to get everything done. Bit by bit, the world conspired to get me here with ease.

It all began with the backpack. I searched Craigslist for large backpacking backpacks and found two that fit the bill. One was listed for $75 and was green, the other was $90 and beautifully blue. They were both good brands and hadn’t been used very much. I sent an email to both, explaining that I’d just been accepted to work on the conservation corps and needed a backpack in the coming days.

The woman selling the blue backpack was free to meet on Friday morning, but the woman selling the green backpack ended up being free to meet Thursday evening. Not only was she available earlier, but she suggested meeting at the public library in my town, meaning she would drive in from out of town. To boot, she texted on Thursday to say the pack also came with a rain cover and 2.5 L water bladder, which she hadn’t mentioned in the Craigslist post. As this information trickled in, my desire for the blue pack faded. I biked to an ATM to get cash, certain I’d be making several Craigslist purchases in the next few days—this green backpack being the first.

We met at 6 in the library parking lot. I had brought some full water bottles, books, and my yoga mat along so that I could try on the backpack with some weight in it, as recommended by my friend Emily.

I put in the assorted items and tried on the backpack, not a clue as to the correct way to size it. It seemed to fit just fine, the rain cover and water bladder were awesome extras, and I was anxious to check off the first item of my mountainous to-do list. “I think this’ll work well, I’ll take it!” I said.

The woman replied, “Great, because I’m giving it to you.”

I opened the car door, pulled out my wallet, and began to count out the twenties I’d gotten earlier in the day. “Twenty, forty—

“No, I mean it,” she interrupted, “I’m giving it to you. It’s a gift.”

I froze.

“Noooooooo” I said, my tone dropping in confused disbelief.

“I insist,” she said.

Was this really happening? My emotions were swelling

“Thank you,” I mustered.

As the words left my mouth I could feel their gross inadequacy. I took a step towards the woman and gave her a hug, doing what felt right in the moment.

“Have fun on your adventure,” she said as she headed back to her car, leaving me in awe at the Craigslist kindness I’d just been gifted.


The following day I emailed a Craigslist seller because I was interested in his North Face sleeping bag (15 degrees). A brand new one would have cost $270, but he was selling his for $130. Once again, I briefly explained why I needed the sleeping bag. He replied to my first inquiry saying that he’s actually from Arizona!

We met the next day at a public high school and ended up knocking $10 off his asking price. Then, he gave me recommendations of where to visit and explore while I’m based in Flagstaff.

After buying the sleeping bag I drove to Farm and Fleet to see what they had available. It was a disappointing visit which didn’t help my to-do list, but Gander Mountain was on my way home so I decided to swing by, as this was their big store closing sale. I missed the turn, though, which meant I was even closer to my route home. It was getting later in the afternoon and I needed to be home within 45 minutes, so I considered going straight there. For some reason, though, I exited the highway, got back on, drove back, and made the turn.

Upon walking in I saw that the store was already 3/4 empty and was only continuing to get picked apart at each passing minute, so I didn’t expect to find anything on my list.

After a quick size-up of the remaining shelves, I made my way over to the shoes just for a glance. And there they were: leather boots, non-skid bottom, ends above the ankle, and no mesh on the tongue or ankle. They were half a size smaller than I usually wear, but they seemed to fit all right and my toe didn’t hit the edge. Plus, the closing special? 70% off! I bought $120 boots for $37.

(Update: These boots were also steel-toed, which, I later learned at ACE orientation, are absolutely not recommended. “No steel toe!” I wore the boots on my first hitch and they worked fine, but I now have a pair of non-steel-toe hiking boots to use on my second hitch. I found them in the “Commons Closet” of another ACE house here in town, meaning they were free!)

Finally, near the end of my gear scavenger hunt, I was still searching for women’s work pants. Emily recommended Duluth Trading Company in Mount Horeb, so I drove the 40 minutes to get there on Saturday, hopes high. In the end they didn’t have my size in the women’s work pant they were currently carrying. The woman helping me suggested altering or mending the pair to make them fit, but I didn’t want to spend $70 on a pair of pants and need to make modifications so quickly.

I drove to the west side of Madison and tried on men’s pants at Menards. Then I texted my aunt to see where she gets her work pants. “Farm and Fleet,” she responded, but sometimes she finds some at Savers or Goodwill, she added.

So I drove to the nearby St. Vinny’s and headed straight to the women’s pants rack. I started flipping down the line of size 4s, immediately moving past any regular pants or non-thick jeans. I couldn’t believe my eyes when my hands felt a pair of black pants that were super thick—nearly the same material as the work pants I’d just tried on at Duluth Trading Company.

I look at the tag:

Duluth Trading Company work pants – $7.99

I grabbed them and headed to the fitting room. They were a little short, but would definitely do for one pair. What crazy luck!

Then I stopped at Goodwill for kicks, since it was just a few minutes away and I was already out and about with mom’s car. Once again I went straight to the size 4 section of the women’s pants rack, and oh my goodness, the stars were aligned. Here I found two pairs of Duluth Trading Company work pants and jeans, both size 4 and this time they were the correct length. $7.99 each!

Although these work pants fit great everywhere else, I couldn’t get one pair buttoned but still bought them. The following day while out at my grandma’s I showed her my finds. As soon as I mentioned I couldn’t button the pants, she said, “Well just put on a button extender.”

A button what?

She went into her bedroom and came out with two cute little button extenders that go right on to the button of the pants. I could now button the pants!

I had all that I needed and still three days to go.


I reflected back on how panicked I’d felt merely four days earlier, and then marveled at all of the people, generosity, and serendipitous connections which had helped me acquire what I needed for this next adventure. I knew the frenzied feelings had only been a hindrance when I let them surface the first day, and I let this serve as a reminder to breathe and continue to take it one step at a time.

On Monday evening Emily and Liz came over for one last art night before I took off. Emily showed me how to adjust my backpack correctly and also brought along some old clothes up for grabs, which have already turned into staples for me here: yoga pants, a sun hat, a warm fleece, socks. At one point during the evening, Liz reminisced back to when she’d flown to New Zealand to study abroad in college, and how her body had manifested all of the nerves she’d been feeling on the way to the airport. I could relate; I’ll never forget the feeling of my stomach dropping as I took that first flight to Madrid in 2009.

Art Night

But as I boarded the bus to Chicago early Thursday morning, there were no worries, stomach drops, or fears. My thoughts returned to amazement at how quickly my trajectory had changed. And despite the sudden shift, I felt completely at ease—thankful for the people and experiences which got me here.

All day in route I was nothing but excited to see what Flagstaff looked like from the ground and what ACE would have in store for me. Where have the butterflies gone? Have I done this so many times that I now know to my core everything will work out? Or am I so confident in my ability to adapt and find the good that there’s no room for doubt?

Or perhaps, this time I had the entire universe conspiring along to get me to Flagstaff.

Well, universe, we made it.

Fat Man's Loop


What It Cost

Here’s a rundown of the required gear and how much I spent to get myself to ACE here in Flagstaff:


Backpack – $0
Sleeping bag – $120
Boots – $37
Rain pants – $40
Wool socks – $18
Sleeping pad – $100
Sleeping bag liner – $40
3 pairs of work pants – $24
4L MSR Dromlite bag – $30
Headlamp – $9
Subtotal – $418


Bus to Chicago – $30
One-way flight – $150
Checked bag – $25
Shuttle to Flagstaff – $53
Subtotal – $258

Total: $676

2 Years Facebook-free

I left Facebook exactly two years ago: December 1, 2014.

A month and a half later, I wrote about my reasons for leaving on Culture Glaze. And several months after that, I began the Facebook-free interview project on the blog to feature other people who have also left Facebook.

So what does it feel like now?

Honestly, it feels fantastic.

I don’t want to imagine what my life would look like today if Facebook were still a part of it. You see, the on-the-surface difference between then and now is that I have removed Facebook from my life. I don’t think about it; it doesn’t have a place in my days.

Underneath the surface, my mind has all this space for thoughts, creativity, and reflections. It’s clearer, more focused, and relaxed — reminiscent of how I felt when I walked the Camino. My mind is not bombarded with thoughts of others, of companies, or of news outlets vying for my attention.

I recognize that I have control over what I see and think, and I’m so much more mindful of these choices. I choose where my energy goes.

For me, it all comes back to this quote by Gandhi, which struck me when I first heard it years ago, and which I return to again and again:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

So I ask: Where do your beliefs come from? What sorts of things/people are impacting your thoughts each day?

Are you setting yourself up for the beliefs → thoughts → words → actions → habits → and values that will create the destiny you want?

We only have one life. It’s now.

And in my Facebookless life now, I’m not looking at highlight reels of other peoples’ lives, and thus I don’t experience the fear of missing out or the damaging feelings of comparing myself to others’ best sides.

Rather, I’ve been experiencing what it means to be human, and am seeing again and again that we absolutely cannot compare ourselves to others in the ways we often do. Life is so incredibly complex and intricate. Our situations and histories are unimaginably unique, and most of the stories we tell ourselves are inaccurate and incomplete.

One sentence, paragraph, website, or blog absolutely cannot define a person. There is so much more going on behind the scenes.

I’m a writer who values the written word. Yet despite my snail mailing, blogging, and texting, my primary mode of connecting during these past two years has been face to face. Nothing can replace the tone and emotion in someone’s voice or a friend’s laughter. Likewise, nothing can replace a smile, a grimace, a wink, an eye-roll, or any other facial expression and body language.

I find these in-person interactions much kinder, meaningful, productive, and connective. (It’s no wonder research has found door-to-door canvassing an effective way to open minds to other points of view.)

Ninety-nine percent of the time when I’m alone with my computer or phone, nothing much changes. The internet has amazing reach and capabilities, but…

But when I’m in a setting with other humans — wow. That’s where the magic happens! That’s where real possibilities arise, where new ideas are born, where laughs and stories are shared, where nerves can heighten, where lifelong connections form, where energy is felt, and where your actions can really brighten days.

I’m learning more and more how special and valuable these shared moments are.

I can also appreciate moments in silence. I don’t have to grab for a phone to scroll while waiting. I practice staying present in the moment and appreciating the small things.

This is life, after all. These small moments make up the majority of our existence. It’s now. It’s this. So I’m striving to be there. To be here, to be present. To catch myself thinking about small worries and to replace those thoughts with appreciation for the humanity, creations, or nature around me. To consider what emotions others might be feeling. To act out of kindness, compassion, and understanding.

Meditation is helping me to cultivate this. (Thanks Daily Calm!) It’s nothing far-fetched, out of reach, or sacred. Meditation involves being in the moment. Being non-judgmentally aware of what’s going on in your mind.

And yet that simple practice is so powerful. Sitting and feeling the breath go in and out of your lungs is insane! I’m telling you. But we breathe all day long. We have breathed all day and all night since the day we were born, but when is the last time you took two minutes to stop and listen to it? To focus on the feeling of the air going in, and how it magically, smoothly transitions to an exhale. Breathe now and pay attention to the fleeting moment where inhale becomes exhale. Neat, huh?

And this all just happens. Now think of all the other organs hard at work inside your body. You don’t have to tell them to do anything, they know what to do to keep you alive. Do you keep these organs healthy? Do you treat them with love and kindness?

You see, these are the types of thoughts that have since entered my mind. It’s awesome.

So to sum it up — because I’m getting away from myself here — I’m happier because there’s little to no comparing (and when I catch myself doing so, I tell myself there’s much more to the story, I can’t compare. And then leave the site and get outta there!) I’m cultivating the beliefs and thoughts I want to have in order to live my values. I’m recognizing how meaningful in-person interactions are for me. Not to mention my data and personal information is no longer being sold and used to make profit for Facebook.

I cut out one thing to get much, much more.

Less is more.

If you know me in real life, this goes without saying, but it’s the internet, so: Nearly all of my friends and family have Facebook. This piece is a reflection on what I’ve personally gained since leaving Facebook, nothing more. Thanks for reading my words in this context of its intended self-reflection.

Response to “Things I’m Struggling with as a Musician/Human Being”

My younger brother has been thinking about “being an artist / human / creator in this modern age,” so he wrote about five of his current questions, worries, and concerns, and then answered them. This is a response to that post, “Things I’m Struggling with as a Musician/Human Being,” from his blog I Will Write About Music Here.

Hello, Luke.

As you know, I am not a musician, but still feel as I can relate to these questions. Perhaps my extra ~3 years on this Earth can offer a slightly different perspective, so here are some of my thoughts about each of your questions and responses.


1. Do people have time for art anymore? Is it relevant?

Yes, it’s definitely very relevant, and it’s no surprise we’re both on the same page here.

You had asked what is art’s place within all of the world’s very real problems (poverty, sickness, genocide, war, global warming, political divisiveness, etc.), and I’d say that art is a huge tool for making progress in those issues.

Advocacy is a big way art can help—doing a photography exhibit, cartoon, or concert to raise awareness or money for a cause. (In writing this, I discovered there’s a group called Artists Striving To End Poverty, which must just be the tip of the iceberg.)

Art itself can also change the world through individuals and communities, as shown in JR’s “Use art to turn the world inside out” wish (and results) at TED.

A group of Syrian refugees are using art to preserve their culture by recreating historical landmarks. Ahmad Hariri, who plays a big part in the project, says (emphasis mine), “It felt like a good way to get the message out, because art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.”

And especially with war and any other less-than-desirable situations, people have used (and always will use) art to escape. Think of all the songs sung by African American slaves, for example.

Jumping back to the first half of this question—do people have time for art—I want to note that “people” spans a huge range of lifestyles and cultures. Some of your American peers may not appear to have time, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the people on this planet.

During my year in France, I got the impression that it was quite common to go to an art gallery or museum on the weekends, which Damien and I did every couple of weeks (even though he is very much a mechanical guy); art can be appreciated by all.


2. I feel uneasy about self-promotion. To the outsider looking in, I must look like one helluva self-absorbed guy.

I struggle with this one, too, in sharing things I write or sell (-cough- Korean food guide I spent two years writing and of which I have yet to sell one single copy -cough-). But realize that people who follow you on Twitter or who like your Facebook page, for example, have chosen to do so. They want to see your face, watch you play, and hear your thoughts. So no need to hesitate posting about yourself there.

Where it can feel self-absorbed is going outside of those circles to connect with others. But as you’ve said, this is necessary in order to get your art into the world. If people don’t care or aren’t interested, they don’t have to click/watch/read. They choose. And then everyone continues on with their lives, and no harm is done.

But when your work reaches someone who does care, it could very well have an effect on their life (and yours). There are likely a ton of people who would like to see your face, watch you play, and hear your thoughts—for a variety of reasons—but they haven’t met you yet. So self-promotion increases you chances of “discovering” each other.

Although innate for you and me, I don’t think this feels self-absorbed for everyone. I think the fact that it does for you shows how aware you are of others in the world.

I feel like I’ve probably recommended this to you already (and maybe you’ve already read it), but I enjoyed Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work,” which had worthwhile ideas about sharing one’s creations.


3. Sometimes I find myself falling into the trap of equating my level of musical performance with my self-worth.

You know what, while I can relate to this one (in a non-musical sense), I actually don’t think everyone can. I’ve met people who were terrible at their jobs, but they absolutely didn’t care—for a variety of reasons. A job for some is a completely separate entity, and their job performance is only that. Not all cultures are so “success”-driven like in America, but I’m glad you’re wary of that darn s-word.

I really like your idea of measuring “success” with growth-centered markers (surprise, surprise, after my obsession this year with Carol Dweck and the growth mindset). Or, as you wisely recently told me, you could measure achievement by how close you are to being “your truest you.”

And I admire your large step back into the fact that we are all humans.* As time goes on, I only see more and more examples of how complex (and long! yet short) a person’s life can be. Someone’s website or video is an itsy bitsy item, but a human being—their emotions, past, desires, relationships, society, daily struggles, passions, body language, genetics, creations, community, etc.—that’s a full-blown 4D experience. I’m simplifying this, but someone might be able to give a kick-ass piano performance in front of a camera, yet could be a total asshole. We cannot be defined by one thing.

(*And if you’d like to really freak out your mind, take an even larger step back and see that us complex human beings are minuscule specks of dust in this ever-expanding universe.)


4. Is music my true “calling”?

A few questions to start: Does each human even have a true calling? How do we know? And would “true” mean just one?

I was so excited to learn, upon reading Julia Child’s awesome book “My Life in France,” that she first went to France at the age of 36. Her entire love affair with French cuisine and cooking (including all the learning (starting at zero), experimenting, cook-book writing, and TV hosting) happened after that point. Although I realize it’s silly to use 36 as an arbitrary age comparison, it’s still cool to think: “I can keep farting around for nine more years, and my greatest life pleasure might still be ahead of me!”

As far as following paths goes, I think this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote speaks for itself:

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Later on you’ll be able to connect the dots backwards and see the path you made.


5. I feel stuck, musically. I feel like I’m playing the same things again and again.

Good idea to force yourself into the uncomfortable by forbidding a certain lick or style! You know, I’ve read that Dr. Seuss was bet by his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 different words. The result? “Green Eggs and Ham.” By imposing limits, you can force yourself to be creative.

Exposing yourself to new things can help get your creative juices flowing, too. That can be as simple as walking a new route to somewhere you go often, reading a book or article outside of your preferred genre, socializing with people in different fields from you, etc. Remember that you have (to an extent) control over your input: what you see and hear each day. By controlling the input—and then giving yourself space for the subconscious to make connections—you’ll get unstuck.

I’m not sure how much you’d be able to apply the ideas when composing, but I really liked Michael Michalko’s “Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques.”

So to conclude as you did, none of us have it figured out. And I don’t think we’ll ever feel as if we have it “figured out” (let’s ask Grandma?). Gregorio (age 50) just mentioned the other day that if he couldn’t see himself in the mirror, he feels—in his mind—the same as he’s always been.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with the internet world—for beginning this discussion. It’s never easy to be raw, let alone with an audience, but the audience always appreciates and benefits from it (as does the one who shares their inner thoughts, right?).

Actually, today’s “Daily Clue” email from Amber Rae ended with:

“The vivid detail at which you share the truth that stirs in your soul will move all the people it’s intended to touch. The aim is not to receive mass approval or have everyone connect with your work. It is to reach those who experience goosebumps when they come into your orbit because the realness at which you create grabs them and pulls them close. Be true to yourself, and the work you know you must create, and you will experience the profound joy of honoring yourself and your creative vision.

And as Neil Gaiman reminds us: If you’re doing it right, you will feel like you’re revealing too much of yourself.”

So here’s to many more decades of questioning, reflecting, revealing ourselves and sharing as we both continue on this journey of growth.


The Joy of Being an Adult Beginner


At our weekly Couchsurfing event on Tuesday, I mentioned that I’d gone to Parc du Peyrou the previous day to read and paint.

“Watercolors,” I clarified, “I just bought them a few weeks ago.”

“Are you good?” the Polish girl immediately asked me.

“No! I just started — that would be crazy.”

After a few startled seconds, I saw the realization come to her face that my answer made sense logically.

Most of us forget this, though — that beginners start at zero, and that adults can be beginners. There seems to be this belief in the adult world that if you do something, it must mean you’re good. Or the contrary: If you’re not good, you can’t say you do something.

I see this again and again as I interact with language learners. “My English is bad” or “I can’t speak very well,” they’ll explain.

Hold up!, I tell them. You’re at some point along a very lengthy journey, and languages are seriously complex creatures. You may not be able to speak very well today, just like all learners who were once at your exact level, but you need to pass through this stage to get to the next. With repeated practice, you will improve! Every mistake or struggle is a learning opportunity.*

So whether it’s painting, speaking foreign languages, or anything in between, you can do whatever you want to do in your free time, no matter your current ability. And if you start learning a new skill, it’s completely normal and expected that you won’t be “good.”

Now you can certainly become “good” over time, since improvement is a natural result of repeated practice. But during the journey, the question to ask — both yourself and others — isn’t “Are you good at it?” but rather “Do you enjoy it?”

For me, painting with watercolors has been so fun! At this point (which is only four tiny paintings in), I don’t care what my creations look like. They’re a means for me to explore, to learn, to relax, and to get comfortable with these new materials. I’m thoroughly enjoying the process.

First Watercolors

My takeaway from this reflection? If you’re curious to learn something new, go ahead and start where you are now. Be proud to be a beginner. The experience of learning and seeing yourself improve is exciting and rewarding, and these perks are unlike anything you’ll encounter when you’re already good at something. You’ll push your comfort zone the slightest bit wider, which ultimately brings about a satisfying feeling.

Don’t ignore your curiosities because of society’s pressures to be good, and try not to impose such expectations on others either. Everyone is in the middle of some journey, each which is uniquely carved and shaped by decades of situations, interactions, and feelings. We’re unfinished works of art who advance from encouragement to continue exploring, not from judgement on ability to meet absurd expectations.

And with that, I encourage you to keep on searching, experimenting, and learning!


*For those of you interested in learning a language with a growth mindset, here’s how to get started.

What I Learned Walking 500 Miles on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago (St. James’s Way) is a pilgrimage ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. While there are numerous routes starting at various locations throughout Europe, the most common is the Camino Francés, which stretches nearly 500 miles from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

This past fall I spent just under a month walking the Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés) across Spain. It was comforting to be back in the country where I had once lived for two years, so I was excited as ever for my journey.

Returning to Spain was extra refreshing, as I’d spent the previous year teaching English in South Korea — a challenging environment for non-Korean-speaking me, to say the least.

So to that end, the Camino was very much a joy as opposed to a struggle, a homecoming of sorts rather than a completely foreign land.

If you know about the Camino because of a film or book, chances are the Camino was romanticized, as it tends to be in those media. Many have this idea that it’s a guaranteed life-changing experience that will rock your world — a gift with a shiny bow on top.

I didn’t have this expectation, nor the result.

But while mine wasn’t a huge, instantaneous life-changing experience, I still took away nuggets of knowledge that I have applied to my life post-Camino. I’m sharing these lessons I learned, because you can probably apply them to your life too.

1. It feels good to wake up early and finish something by noon.

On an average day while walking the Camino, I’d be up by 6 o’clock and leaving to walk in the dark by 6:20. While I usually walked until 1–2 in the afternoon, by 12:00 I had always covered so much ground — literally.

Although the journey is meant to be enjoyed (and I absolutely love walking), my favorite part of the day was once you arrived at the albergue in the afternoon, where you’d spend the night.

You had the entire afternoon and evening to do as you pleased, because your walking was done. And I felt so refreshed and accomplished to have seen so much and walked so far during the last 6–7 hours.

While it was much easier to wake up that early in a new environment/routine where fellow pilgrims did the same, I took note of this fact in order to apply it to life back home.

Since returning home, where I transitioned to a freelance life and could wake up any hour I pleased, I set my alarm for 7:15 every day. I signed myself up for some fitness classes that started at 8, as extra pressure to get up and not hit snooze.

Have there been days I’ve slept in? You bet. But I always feel better on days when I finish my work by 4 p.m. than on days when I’m still chugging away at 6:30 p.m. because I had a late start.

Simply put: It feels good to wake up early and get something done.

2. If you’re not sure which way to go, choose one path and go.

My Camino guidebook had detailed maps, plus descriptions of what you’ll see as you enter and leave each town and city. (Sometimes navigating through cities was the hardest part!)

The entire path is also marked by yellow arrows, but the frequency at which you see the arrows is inconsistent. They also come in varied forms: spray-painted on walls, attached to posts, carved and painted into stone, and even pilgrim-made from small rocks arranged into arrow formations on the ground.

Yet there were still a few times when I came across parts of the walk and wasn’t sure which way to go.

In cities, I’d ask locals, but if I was stuck out in the boonies I’d usually see if my book had any tips, look around for clues, and use my flashlight if it was dark. But if these options failed, I never wanted to just stand around waiting for someone else to come along, to see if they knew. The closest person behind me could have been two minutes away or 20. And besides, there was no guarantee that this pilgrim would even know.

So my preferred method in this situation became to just pick a path and try it.

If you start to see some yellow arrows five minutes in, congrats — you chose correctly. But if the path is tiny and appears to be going through someone’s private property, doesn’t match the map, and then goes across a stream that you had to run and jump across in order to stay on the path, turn around and go back. This is the wrong path.

In life, you might not always know the best choice for you, but you won’t find out by staring at the options. Choose one and go with it. If it’s not the right path for you, you can always turn around and walk back.

A few years ago, a former coworker of mine applied, was offered and accepted a job in the Dean’s Office after having worked in a College’s department for several years. There was a pay raise and new responsibilities.

He left on good terms, a goodbye party was had, the department began the search for a replacement, and two weeks later he began his new job.

To his surprise, it wasn’t what he expected, and he didn’t enjoy the new type of work. Rather than sticking it out “just because,” or for fear of having to turn back, he did just that: He talked to his new boss, old boss, and went back to his old job. I think both starting the new job and returning to the previous took perhaps equal amounts of bravery.

Standing still prevents you from progressing. So keep moving. Don’t be afraid to try something; it’s not permanent, and you can always turn back and choose another path.

3. Simple is best. Less is more.

We’ve all heard this one before, and I knew it was true, but the Camino only further proved this to me.

On the Camino, I carried everything I had in my lil’ JanSport backpack from college. And that “everything” was quite small, because, well, I had to carry the weight on my shoulders every day during all my hours of walking.

I only had my walking shoes and flip flops for footwear, and my outfits totaled two: one that I wore, and a clean one that I’d put on after my shower upon arrival at that day’s albergue.

Although I was in a new place every single day, I quickly fell into a simple routine: Wake up, walk, check in at albergue, shower, wash clothes, eat, chat, journal, sleep. Repeat.

It was the simplicity of my days, coupled with the low number of material possessions, that liberated my mind and heart to focus their energies on thoughts and feelings that deserved such energy.

Since returning home, I’ve been going through items I’ve had for years, donating what I don’t need. I’ve done this many times in the past, but I’m being even stricter with myself. I can thrive out of a backpack, and extra items really just weigh you down emotionally. Once you get rid of something, I promise you’ll forget about it so quickly it’s almost scary.

We can survive — thrive — on so few things.

I’ve also learned over time that when in doubt, get rid of the items. If something truly makes you happy, there would be no doubt. Taking pictures is another helpful tip if you’re parting with something of sentimental value. Finally, be aware of what new physical things you’re adding to your life.

There is so much more to be said on this topic, but the message is clear: Simple is best. Less is more. Start applying it to all areas in your life to see refreshing results.

4. Follow the yellow arrows.

As you’ve learned, the Camino is marked with yellow arrows to tell pilgrims which way to go.

Some yellow arrows had a more important purpose, directing you which way to turn when a path diverged, while others on straight paths miles-long were simply an affirmation that you were still going the right way.


Look for the yellow arrows in your life. Look for signs affirming that you’re going the right way, and follow them.

What was the best part of your day? What makes you feel good? What brings you joy? That joy is a yellow arrow, and you need to follow it.

You’ll find that pursuing your passions will only bring more yellow arrows — reaffirmations that this is what you were meant to do; this is you. This is what you love, this is what makes you feel alive.

If you’re not seeing the arrows, take a different path.

5. Break things into small tasks.

Seven hundred and eighty kilometers sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? (That’s about 500 miles, by the way, as noted in the title—but I’m sticking with kilometers for the rest of this, as that’s how I tracked my walking each day.)

I always took the walk a day at a time. My average was around 28 kilometers a day. My highest was 40, and I only did that once. My lowest was 19.6 and it felt like I hadn’t gone anywhere that day!

Even within each day, I’d often break the walking down further, depending on my level of exhaustion, shoulder pain, heat, or just general wanting to be at my albergue already. (Basically when those levels were high, I’d break the walking into even smaller tasks to make it easier.)

The small towns I’d cross throughout the day were perfect little milestones. My guidebook also nicely split up the day’s kilometers into bite-sized chunks.


Just walk 3 kilometers. I’m just walking 3 kilometers — easy! I’d tell myself. And that gets you to the next tiny task.

Any accomplishment and success, or on the flip-side, any dreadful item on your to-do list is merely a product of many, many smaller tasks.

If you’re only ever looking at things as their whole (Walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, teach English for a year in South Korea, etc.) they may seem impossible and far out of reach. “File my federal taxes,” for example, could keep you from touching your W-2s for weeks.

So whatever the task that needs to get done, or the accomplishment you’d like to make, break it down into smaller tasks. Do just 10 minutes today. That’s how things get done.

6. Go your own pace. You don’t have to walk with other people.

After hopping on a bus in Madrid to go to the start of the Camino, an American-looking girl sat down next to me. She was from Tennessee, and was also setting out to walk the Camino.

We chatted on the bus ride, walked around Pamplona during our bus “layover,” and then navigated St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port together on foot upon arrival — where she ended up taking the last available bed at the same albergue where I’d booked ahead of time.

Since we’d spent the whole day together, it started to feel like I needed to account for my whereabouts to her — as if anything less would have been rude or seen as ill-spirited ditching.

“Heading out to wander the street, see you at dinner!” I said, leaving the 6-bed dorm room. Pilgrims we met that night at dinner thought she and I were friends who had come to walk the Camino together.

This all sort of panicked me; I’d come alone so I could do as I pleased. I didn’t want to be stuck, tied to walking with someone already! So the following morning, Day 1 of the Camino, I got ready super fast and said a quick goodbye and “Buen camino” before I stepped out into the dark alone.

Although I had this fear with a few others along the way, I quickly learned that I needn’t worry. It was totally acceptable to be walking and chatting with someone one minute, perhaps walk in silence for a bit, and then drift apart if your speeds are different.

When you pass someone, you can just wish them a “Buen Camino” if you’re deep in thought and don’t really feel like talking with others. On the flip side, if you’re approaching someone who intrigues you for whatever reason, you can just as easily begin a conversation as you walk side by side.

The conversation will end when it ends, and you walk together until you’re walking alone. You’ll run into familiar faces again and again along the Camino, while other pilgrims you’ll see just once or twice.

My main takeaway here is that while I could walk at my own pace and choose who I spent my time with on the Camino, you can (and should) also do this every day in your life.

You are not other people, you are you. Live your life the way you want to live it, not the way that others expect you to.

If you don’t really get joy from hanging out with a certain longtime friend or old college roommate, stop spending time with them. Join Meetup and build new friendships. Surround yourself with people that inspire you and make you feel supported and loved.

You can apply this to even the smallest of decisions. For example, I’ve learned that my body needs ~9 hours of sleep a night. It just does. While many of my friends live on much less, they are not me. So I will gladly retire home earlier than others, and easily ignore any pleas to stay longer.

And I know it’s definitely not always easy to live life at your own pace, without being influenced by the desires of others. But you’ve got to go for it. Live your life, not someone else’s.

7. Take walks.

I love walking. When exploring a new place, I love to just walk around with no agenda. Walking also has this magical way of clearing your mind, letting your subconscious work through turmoil or draw connections while it’s processing events. So, walking was indeed one element that attracted me to the Camino in the first place.

But I’d never before walked for 6–8 hours a day. For a month straight. And while it sounds like a long time on paper, hours would somehow quickly pass without my notice. I’ll never forget the day when 4 hours passed in a snap. I was completely lost in thought and hadn’t talked to another soul; I was so shocked when I saw what time it was.

It was pretty incredible where my mind wandered to, as well. Along the walk, it unexpectedly dug up an old face I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly four years. Listening to such thoughts taught me that I needed closure with this person, even though if you had asked me earlier in the day about my friends and relationships, this person would have been the farthest from my mind.

So that’s the other part: You’ve got to listen. Letting your thoughts enter and run where they please is just one step; following them closely and paying attention will provide much greater personal benefits.

Going for a walk will often spark new ideas, too. I’m telling you: Your subconscious does the work for you, making connections between thoughts that had previously been stored in separate compartments. Stuck on a problem? Go for a walk. Don’t know what to write about next? Go for a walk. Getting angry at someone? Go for a walk.

Most Americans will have to develop the habit of taking walks, as our society — especially in suburbs — is so dependent on driving. I’ve been living in an American suburb of 12,000 for the past six months, and am lucky enough to live less than a mile from our town’s beautiful village center.

So while enrolled in exercise classes there during the fall and winter, I walked. Classmates were so surprised when they first found out. I even got complimented on this walking, as if it had been some great feat — and also received offers to be driven home.

Obviously I don’t think walking 0.7 miles should be treated as anything spectacular. So how can we incorporate walking into our lives? First, can you change your mode of transportation to do any sort of regular errand? (Is the school, your work, library, or grocery store within walking distance, for instance?)

If places are actually too far apart, go for a walk every morning or evening in your neighborhood. If you go with a friend or spouse, it’ll double as some quality time together, while going alone has its benefits too. Finally, if you have a 15-minute break at work, spend it going for a walk around the area. Similarly, you could use part of your daily lunch hour to go for a walk as well.

And remember, walking indoors is still walking — though I’ve deemed spending time outdoors so important that it’s the entire next section.

8. Appreciate nature.

Being outside every day on the Camino — moving — was all things wonderful. By crossing the country on foot, I was able to see various landscapes and wildlife up close and personal.

There were so many views I never wanted to leave; they sang glorious music to my inner being. I’d just look and look and look, trying to soak it all in while smiling from ear to ear, so the memory would last as long as possible.


Since I started each morning walking in the dark, I got to see a gorgeous sunrise every day for an entire month. Seeing these sights and appreciating their beauty really makes you feel positively marvelous.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there’s just something about the green and curves of rolling hills — or the bright teals and deep blues of seas — that’s completely wondrous to the human eye. And appreciating nature’s enchantment and grace does a body (and mind) good.

Aside from the landscapes, one memory that sticks out in my mind is that of the slugs. I saw so many slugs while walking the Camino: big, thick black slugs, some with “slime trails” yards long. I never see these creatures where I’m from, so I’d stop to admire them.

When they were plentiful on the trail, I’d be careful not to step on any. It was important to be reminded that we are cohabiting on this planet with a variety of creatures, and we humans need to treat them kindly — to share.

So, ask yourself: When was the last time you actually stopped to smell the roses? Admired a leaf? Touched a tree? Watched ants and marveled at their ability to carry items that are several times their own body weight?

You can easily put this one into action by noticing nature on those walks you’ll now be regularly taking. Additionally, is there a park, conservancy, river, or wooded area nearby that you can walk to? Why not plan a hike and picnic with friends this month?

Walking the Camino only reaffirmed that being out in nature appreciating the finer details of its plants, creatures, and landscapes is time well spent.

9. Help others.

By choosing to walk the Camino, you’re instantly a part of the pilgrim community: a very welcoming, helpful group. You share food, offer advice, and help whenever you can — even if your only common language is very broken French or gestures.

On my evening in Logroño, upon seeing me take off my knee brace a man let me use his muscle cream for legs. Then, he had me take a picture of his bottle so I could easily buy the same in a pharmacy.

Another example of this helpful community involved my ear plugs. Although they’d often fall out while I was sleeping, I somehow managed to always get them both back in my little plastic container every morning, which went straight into my little blue zippered pouch along with my toothbrush, toothpaste, and retainer.

Then one night, after getting up in the top bunk to sleep, my ear plugs were nowhere to be found. Proud of the fact that I never lose anything because all of my possessions always have a place (I’m like this at home, too), I start to wonder if I had actually left them behind somewhere. I accept the loss and go to sleep without ear plugs in.

Then, a day or two later, I run into a woman who had stayed in my dorm room a few nights ago. She immediately says to me, “Are you missing something small…?”

After a second my mind jumps to my missing ear plugs. But how the heck would she know? She couldn’t be talking about them, could she?

“My ear plugs…?” I ask with hesitation.

“I have them!” she says excitedly with a big grin on her face.

She had seen them on the floor (must have fallen off the top bunk) when she left that particular morning, and so she figured they must either belong to me or the woman who slept below me.

When I realize where we had been staying that night, it totally made sense that this happened. We had been in a tiny village whose town fiestas were taking place, meaning that music had blasted all night (and morning). I had hardly gotten any sleep, so I had been a complete zombie as I packed up that morning.

I was overjoyed to be reunited with my ear plugs, as I’d thought they were gone forever, but also in awe that this woman had taken the time to pick them up and carry them with her — just in case the off-chance arose that she run into me again.

Pilgrims help each other because they share the Camino in common. Taking a step back, we need to remind ourselves that all people of the world have something greatly in common — we’re all human beings. So let’s make an effort to be friendlier even if we think we have “nothing” in common, or aren’t yet aware of our similarities.

A simple way to do this is to smile more often; smile whenever you interact with someone else. Ask your cashier at the grocery store how he or she is doing. Use whatever skills or knowledge you have to help those a few steps behind you; show them how you got to where you are. Treat others with respect and compassion, without expecting that it be first “earned.”

At the end of the day, helping others creates positive feelings on both ends, as well as tangible effects that often grow exponentially.

10. Small changes can have big impacts.

Finally, I learned that usually it’s the small changes that produce large results.

There’s a woman who owns one of the albergues just outside of Logroño, and she’s known for helping people with their feet problems (aka blisters). By chance, I actually ended up staying at her albergue, and everything I read in the guidebook about this kind woman was true.

I didn’t have any blisters (thank you New Zealand hiking wool!), but I watched the Spanish woman help a few others.

“Your shoes are too loose,” she told a man. “That is why you have blisters.”

By tightening his shoes just a bit more, she demonstrated, the rubbing would stop.

While I didn’t have problems with the tightness of my tennies, walking that many hours a day is still a lot of work for the feet. So once I was in flip flops at my albergue for the night, I’d usually sit down and rub my feet for a few minutes. At first I was amazed at how applying pressure to different places on my foot would cause my neck to crack, or other muscles/tendons in my shoulders and elsewhere to crackle and loosen up.

This is more an example of the interconnectedness of the human body, I’ll admit, which is too often forgotten or not realized by most. (This is also why you can stretch your hamstrings by rolling a tennis ball under your foot, by the way.) But I still categorized it as one small change (tightening shoes, massaging foot) having a big impact.

So applying this to life, it’s the things we do every day that matter more than what we do every once in a while. Those little daily actions add up to a huge sum over time.

Taking it one step further, of those little things you do every day, it’s a smaller amount that creates most of your current situation. So by focusing on that smaller amount in any area of your life, you’ll see the biggest change.

Perhaps you’re about to make some small changes based on lessons you’ve just read about in this very list.

And while they might not produce a big life-changing result immediately, reminding myself of these ideas I learned while walking the Camino — and then putting them into action — certainly has made me more fulfilled, relaxed, and grateful.

So here they are again, all together for easy carrying in your backpack as you continue on life’s journey:

It feels good to wake up early and finish something by noon.
If you’re not sure which way to go, choose one path and go.
Simple is best. Less is more.
Follow the yellow arrows.
Break things into small tasks.
Go your own pace. You don’t have to walk with other people.
Take walks.
Appreciate nature.
Help others.
Small changes can have big impacts.

Buen Camino!