Every day I get emails from all kinds of fun people who are getting started on the journey of building an online community. Some of them want advice, and I’m happy to help wherever I can.
I always say to take my $0.02 for whatever it’s worth, and ignore me if something works better for you. Also, I’m focusing here on online communities, but they share many of the same characteristics as offline ones.
This post will look more closely at the underlying philosophy of a community. First of all, what makes a community? Definitions abound, but here’s mine:
A community is a group of people united through a common struggle with the same stories.
Let’s look at the definition and related features in more detail.
To be truly awesome, you have to go above and beyond the efforts of those around you, look for alternative solutions, and refuse to back down from the truth. There’s a whole article about it for those who are curious.
But it all starts with showing up. Or, as a friend of mine puts it:
“I’m sorry you feel bad about not meeting your goals– what I would suggest is that you begin meeting your goals, in order to feel better.”
Insight such as this is difficult for some people to accept. Just imagine the excuses you’d hear:
But that’s not fair! But I tried to do it and something else came up! But some things are out of our control!
You can probably think of other excuses – in fact, you’ve probably heard them many times over. Thankfully, for those of us who do take responsibility, there’s good news on two levels. The first good news is that we automatically stand out. In a world of buck-passers, those who decide to take responsibility are unusual. Yay. You get the yellow jersey by default. (You still have to win the race, but no one is surprised when you do.)
But on a deeper level, the bright side of taking responsibility is that you can own your own success. Sure, other people helped you get there, but you were the one who actually crossed the finish line. You showed up. You did it. If you have to own the struggle and failure, integral parts of any goal worth pursuing, surely you can also own some of the success.
Remember this: many people can help you achieve success, but no one else is RESPONSIBLE for your success.
Just say no. Assert your boundaries. You can’t do it all.
There’s a time and a place for everything, sure, but is that always the best advice?
Whenever I hear things like “Say no five times for every time you say yes,” I think… “Really?” I take the opposite approach, and it generally works out just fine.
I think that the “say no to almost everything” advice is good for masters. If you’re at the height of your career or skill, it makes sense to be highly selective. If Tiger Woods says no to everything but practicing his swing every day, I get it. If Serena Williams never wants to leave the court, I understand.
But most of us are not Tigers or Serenas yet. Not all of us know what we want to do; not everyone is single-minded towards the pursuit of only one goal. Some of us have more than one passion.
So that’s the idea: why not try it all? Have your cake and eat it too.
Approximately one billion people—perhaps slightly less—have recently asked me about what kind of travel gear I use to roam the world and work.
Here’s the thing: I’m pretty basic. I can’t claim complete minimalism, but I’m not really that high-tech of a guy. My strategy is “use what works and keep it simple.”
So here’s what we’ll do: I’ll tell you what I bring with me wherever I go, and the fellow travelers among us can chime in and say what they bring for their own trips.
As regular readers know, I use Frequent Flyer miles to go all over the world several times a year. I’ve written before about how to earn miles without flying, and how you can become your own travel ninja through mass mileage accrual.
Once you earn miles, however, you need to make a plan for using them. One of the saddest facts in the Frequent Flyer world is that every year, millions of miles go to waste. Help stamp out mileage expiration!
Use your miles… but use them wisely. Here’s how.
I’ve known a lot of artists, writers, and musicians. Without fail, they all had some degree of talent and skill. There is no shortage of talent in the world. But I’ve noticed that something happens along the way with a lot of these talented people.
With a few notable exceptions, most of them give up on their goals at some point.
As a fellow creative type, this really troubles me. Why do talented people stop working on what other people say they are good at?
I don’t have all the answers about this. In fact, it’s something that I’m intensely curious about, and I might take it up as a longer project later.
But for now… I do think I know part of the answer. What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent.
At the early stages of working on something, hearing that “you have potential” can feel rewarding. But it’s a slippery slope, because the world expects more than just potential. At a certain point, you have to raise the bar and start delivering.
Wherever I go, I meet a lot of interesting people, but this doesn’t usually happen the way you might assume.
More often than not, I don’t meet anyone through a careful effort to be social (I’m naturally introverted) or through any deliberate attempt at tourism. Instead, it just happens while life is underway.
Here are a few of my recent encounters.
On a flight from Miami to L.A., I sit next to a famous actress. I get the idea that she’s someone special, but since I don’t watch TV and only see occasional movies when on planes, I don’t recognize her right away. As we talk, she tells me the name of the show she’s flying out to work on. We talk for most of the six-hour flight about all kinds of things. She gives me career advice and I tell her how Twitter works. Her work takes her around the world, and we chat about the places we have in common.
I get home and look her up on Wikipedia and the IMDB site. I discover that she really is famous! She’s been in hundreds of movies and shows, including a few that I’ve actually heard of. Oh, and that show in L.A.? It’s one of the most popular ones on network TV right now. I’ve seen the ads, but I’ve never seen it. Now I know someone to look for.
Far away from Texas I meet a Texas oilman, who faithfully replicates ever stereotype I have in my head of what a Texas oilman is like. Over the course of a 30-minute conversation, he tries to sell me on various business opportunities that he is sure would improve my traveling lifestyle. Believe me, the conversation goes on about 25 minutes too long, but I’m trapped. My favorite part comes when he tells me about “this new technology” that allows me to call home from wherever I am in the world. “Uh, Skype?” I say.
No, this is something else and it’s much better, he says. And it only costs $29 a month after the initial $149 setup. He can hook me up with an even better deal if I want. “Uh, Skype is free?” I say.
Yes, but you can do video calls with his service, he says. “Uh,” I start to say, but then I realize that I need to let it go. I dutifully give up. Life is short.
“I’m a Writer”
Whenever a new conversation turns to work, I tell people I’m a writer and I get one of the following reactions:
*General interest. “Oh, that’s interesting. What do you write?” I think this is the most normal reaction. We have a normal conversation and talk about things that are usually somewhat related to something I write about.
*Superstar. I’m a hero! I can do no wrong! These people think I’m like John Grisham or Stephen King. “I read books,” a woman in Atlanta told me once, presumably on the grounds that this was an interesting fact. “Me too,” I said. “I guess we have something in common.”
*Deep suspicion or disregard. This attitude tends to come from people who have odd views about work, and tend to look down on artists in general. They ask where my sponsorship comes from and say “must be nice” when I say I’m independent. (Hell yeah, it’s nice. I make it happen just like every other successful writer I know.) “It’s good you can do that kind of thing when you’re young” is another comment that falls in this category. Thankfully, these kinds of reactions don’t come up that often.
*Absolutely no curiosity whatsoever. This, to me, is the strangest reaction. About 10-15% of people will just say “Oh” and then go on talking about whatever kind of work that they do. I don’t mind this, I just think it’s odd. To each his own, I guess.
My Friends at Miami Immigration
When it comes to immigration and passport checks, these fall into the same general categories as talking about being a writer. On my last trip, I go in and out of MIA three times. The second time I get an immigration guy who is genuinely interested. “How does it work? How many countries are there? Do you have a web site?” he wanted to know.
Well, yes. I do have a web site, actually.
I give him my card. A few days later I show up again, back from another flight to the Caribbean. He doesn’t recognize me at first, but then I hand him the thick passport. “Oh, hey!” he says, then turns to his colleague at the next booth. “Joe, this is the guy I was telling you about. He’s going to every country in the world.”
I smile. It’s good to have friends who work in immigration. I’ll probably get detained at some point, but I don’t think it will be in Miami.
The Contracted Driver
In Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia I discover that almost every car is a taxi. Someone explains that you simply stand on the side of the road and wait for a driver to pull over. You tell the driver where you’re going, and chances are he’ll take you there in exchange for a small payment. After wandering the streets on my last day, I check out of the hotel and take my bags down to the street. Sure enough, a guy pulls over. He speaks no English, but waves for me to get in. I get in and make the universal sign and sound effect for airplane (it involves saying “Whoosh!”).
He repeats the gesture and the whoosh, but the airport isn’t that close, and he wants to make sure he gets it right before we drive off for 20 miles. I point to my bags in the back, make another airplane gesture, and this time I try to make the sound of an airplane taking off. It sounds like nnnneyrrrrrr for a long time down the runway.
He repeats it, I nod, we both laugh, and we take off. Since we don’t share even a few words of the same language, there’s not much to talk about on the way. He’s a good driver, though, and I look at pictures of his children that he shows me when stopped at intersections. The drive takes a while, and I’m wondering how much I’ll need to pay him at the end. I’ve already spent most of my local currency, and have less than $5 left in my pocket.
When we come to the terminal, he holds up eight fingers, which I understand to relate to eight hundred tugrik, the fun currency of Mongolia that has Genghis Khan’s profile on the notes. I have exactly seven hundred left, and offer it to him with the universal is-that-OK? look while making the universal empty-pockets gesture. He accepts, shakes my hand, and waves me off. Good times.
I meet fellow independent travelers from all over the world. In Damascus I travel with a couple from Toronto. We take the bus over from Beirut, hop in a taxi on the other side, and get set up at a hostel. There’s only one room, so I stay with them. Thanks, guys. At 4:30 a.m. on the third day I get up to go to the Damascus airport and don’t meet with anyone, presumably because it’s tiny.
In Eastern Europe I meet a Macedonian couple who used to live in New York. “We like being back at home,” they say, “but we really miss Dunkin’ Donuts.”
In the Dhaka Sheraton I meet a pair of West African gangsters. I ask what they are doing in Bangladesh and one of them says, “It’s not fit to discuss that here.” I get the hint and say goodbye after waiting a few more minutes to be polite.
The Lesson: Don’t Worry, Be Yourself
When I first started traveling independently, I used to worry about arranging things and going out of my way to meet people. Somewhere, somehow I had come to believe that I was supposed to do it that way.
I let go of that worry several trips ago. Now I just do what I want, and often that involves being by myself, writing in coffee shops, or just wandering around. Even if I don’t do anything formal, things tend to come up naturally – from hotel lobbies to Mongolian taxis. The precise balance between planning and spontaneity is something best left to one person to decide on: yourself. Whatever you choose, you’ll probably appreciate it more than if you try to fulfill someone else’s ideas of what your adventures should be like.
When I first started doing media interviews in 2008, I noticed that one question would almost always come up: “Why are you so obsessed with travel?”
(I learned to call it the mountain-climbing question, because it’s the same one climbers are asked about Everest and K2: “Why?”)
The question bewildered me until I got used to it. For a long time, I didn’t know how to answer; the quest to see the whole world was just something that made sense to me intuitively. I like travel, I like goal-setting, so why not put the two together?
I was reminded of this while reading a review of a new mountain climbing book on the Lufthansa flight last week. The journalist complained, “None of these books ever clearly answer the reason why people feel the need to climb mountains.”
I don’t climb real mountains very often, but I understand the desire and appeal very well. I guess if I sat in an office somewhere and read about people climbing mountains, I might want to know more about their motivations too. But because I’m out there working on my own proverbial mountains, I can read about other climbers and think, “Good for them!”
Small Goals, Small Worries
A friend and I were talking about a related subject, and she said, “I think there’s a deep-seated, hidden fear of failure behind the travel quest.” My response: it’s probably deep-seated, but it’s not hidden at all!
Of course I’m worried about failure. It’s getting harder and harder with each country I go to. Crashing into Bangkok is easy; wandering around Baku is… a bit different. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely harder. I know how to overcome my fears, but I’m definitely not fearless.
As I see it, small goals produce only small worries. If something easy isn’t going well, you can suck it up and still get it done. The real challenge comes with a big goal, or a big mountain to use the climbing analogy.
With a big mountain, you know you’re going to need more than just stubbornness. You may get wildly off track. You may encounter unforeseen difficulties. You may even have to come back down the mountain at some point before resuming the climb. Thus, you’re going to need some form of internal motivation.
I doubt that I’m going to get tired of my crazy adventures anytime soon, but even if I did, I’d keep going anyway. I don’t expect that mountain climbers enjoy every moment of the climb, and I bet there are plenty of times they think about giving up. The best ones, however, find a way to keep going even when it’s hard.
Do Your Part, Don’t Worry About the Rest
My theory is: Some things are out of our control, so don’t worry about what you can’t change. But if it’s within the realm of your control, do your part. I can fly over to Azerbaijan and figure out how to take the 15-hour midnight train to Georgia. I can’t control whether the train arrives on time or what happens next, but I can get my ass to the station. I think the universe is cool like that most of the time – show up, do your part, and trust the rest to be OK.
By the way, I’m not saying this perspective is 100% right for everyone. I’m just saying that in my worldview, the concept of an alternative doesn’t exist. Why bother with nuance? Let’s leave that to the people who wonder why mountain climbers are willing to sacrifice so much for what they believe in. I’d rather be climbing.
How about you? Been climbing any mountains lately?
If you’ve ever considered traveling to Equatorial Guinea, you’ve probably heard about the high cost of visiting.
Yes, a basic hotel room really does cost $400-500 a night, and sometimes much more. There are no hostels with merry young backpackers hanging out at the beer garden, and no home exchange vacationers looking to trade housing from an offshore oil center with an apartment in a hipster neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
Couldn’t I sleep on the floor of the airport? Not really—it’s not that kind of place. I’ll be sleeping on the floor of Hong Kong’s airport next week before coming home, but HKG is the Hilton of airport sleeping. If I attempted to stay overnight at SSG, I would at least be questioned, and could very well be arrested. Soft adventurer that I am, I’d rather avoid that.
Thus, when encountering such a situation, I do what I have to do. I pony up the money, all in cash because the country doesn’t accept credit cards of any kind, and head up to the dingy, one-star room. I also find the whole thing fairly ironic, because I’ve stayed in my fair share of dingy, one-star hotels—see this old post for one of my favorites—but I’m not usually paying $400 a night for them. No, most definitely not—but if you were to come to Equatorial Guinea, that’s probably what you’d have to do too.
Notes on the Rich Getting Richer
I also want to say something that will probably get me in trouble, but once in a while you should say what you really think. The thing about Equatorial Guinea, and most other African countries in similar situations, is that the people are poor not because they are meant to be poor, they like being poor, or because they’ve done anything wrong.
For the most part, the vast majority of people in places like Equatorial Guinea are poor because of a lack of opportunities, and a system of corruption that discourages savings and investment. To put it more simply, a few people have a lot of money, and most people have almost no money. None of the development, or at least very little, actually helps most of the people that live there.
Everyone I met in Malabo was nice—well, except for the hotel clerks, who were clearly under orders to extort as much money as possible from visitors. It’s not the people’s fault that government officials are stashing the cash that belongs to the country in their own overseas bank accounts. The president’s son, for example, lives in a $35 million mansion in California. By all accounts, he did not get rich selling ebooks.
This is how it works in Nigeria as well—a country that should be rich is actually very poor. Nigeria produces two million barrels of oil for export every day, but its villages and even large cities often go without electricity. The country used to rank dead last on Transparency International’s scale of global corruption. Then one year it “lost” the record of most corrupt country in the world to Bangladesh. The joke among my African friends was that Nigeria had paid off Bangladesh to take its place.
One theory calls this the “resource curse” of Africa. Countries that have oil or other natural resources, like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, or Sudan, end up with large pockets of the population that are completely left behind. Meanwhile, countries without a lot of natural resources (Botswana is the most frequently cited) tend to do much better in terms of reducing absolute poverty and providing healthcare for their citizens.
Whether that’s true or not, I think it’s sad that corruption and exploitation are the normal patterns of business in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, I should note that my government and most other Western governments are complicit in this arrangement, because the arrangement supports everyone involved. Everyone, that is, except the people who most need the chance to create opportunities for themselves, to raise healthy families, and to make their own choices. I hope it will change but I’m not sure it will.
I also realize I’m a rich, privileged person, writing mostly to other rich, privileged people who read blogs about life planning and unconventional living. So I’m not really complaining about my $400 one-star hotel room, as much as I’d rather spend that money on something else. Some people have a car payment every month; I ride the bus so I can visit random places like Equatorial Guinea. It works out OK.
No, what makes me uncomfortable is that in this case, none or very little of this money seems to be doing much good for people who need it. Some people are very rich, but most are very poor. Maybe the oil workers (and me) are funding the president’s son in his California mansion. Since there’s no transparency and few checks and balances, no one really knows for sure.
Anyway, after visiting Equatorial Guinea I went to its next-door neighbor Cameroon, a fun and lively place. I don’t know a lot about Cameroon, but having lived for some time in similar countries (especially Benin), I found it joyful and lively.
It was also quite hot, but that comes with the territory. I went for a long run that became a short run when I had to stop after 25 minutes in the heat. But it was a fun place nonetheless, and it left me with a more hopeful feeling than I had across the way in Equatorial Guinea.
That’s how I see it from my distorted, privileged traveler’s perspective. I know there are a lot of other active travelers among our group, as well as many people who live in countries hindered by corruption, so feel free to share your own views if you’d like.
From January to September 2009, 21,833 people died in my home state of Oregon. Just like that, each one of them left the world—here one day and gone the next.
Not long ago, three hikers also died on our nearby Mount Hood in a tragic accident.
After their deaths, there was the usual pontification about what they could have done differently. Despite the fact that they were all experienced climbers, and despite leaving for the hike when weather conditions were good, some people blamed their “risky behavior” and suggested various reforms that wouldn't have made any difference in their case.
Then, I scanned through the comments on our newspaper's website. “I don't want to say they deserved to die,” one person said, before going on to explain why they deserved to die for pursuing their passion.
Fatal accidents are sad. I wish they wouldn't happen, and I wish we could bring back the lost hikers. But I also don't think they should have stayed home, and I don't think they are that different from the 21,833 others who died last year.
I propose that the greater risk is to play it safe all the time. Properly experienced, life is a very risky behavior.
I recently read Christopher Reeve's autobiography, Still Me. He wrote about how during his years playing Superman, he worried about dying in a “dumb” accident. Superman Hit By Bus, he imagined the headline. Later, he fell off a horse and was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The book is a fascinating account of his first two years adjusting to a very different (and extremely limited) way of living. He was angry, bitter, and at times wished he had died in the accident. But he didn't regret riding the horse that day his life changed forever. As he put it, if he knew when he got on the horse that he would be thrown, he would have slept in that morning. But there's no way to know something like that in advance; you just have to live your life, risk and all.
From time to time people send me stories like the Mount Hood climbers, or something bad that happened to another traveler somewhere. I don't have a death wish with anything I do, and I don't think that world travel is particularly unsafe. Like Superman, I could get hit by a bus right down the street from my home.
But if something ever does happen to me, all of you can tell the real story to anyone who asks: Chris didn't want to take any risks on missing out. That's why he climbed the mountain.
Instead of trying to live a risk-free existence, let me tell you a few things that are truly worth worrying about:
The road not taken.
The destination not explored.
The adventure not pursued.
The life unlived.
If we're going to lose sleep over something, it seems to me that those are the things that should keep us awake.
Life is dangerous. It's risky. It's worth it.