Ten Years a Nomad is an honest account of what it is like to travel full-time, passing through over 90 countries over a decade. Nomadic Matt, as he is known, took off to live the dream. Anyone who is considering the same would do well to read his story.
The travel bug caught him the way it catches so many of us. Work a boring job and commute in the snow and it doesn’t take long to want something different. (It’s somewhat the opposite when you live in a sunny beach community; you know that every resort area and vacation destination is full of obnoxious drunks leaving trash and breaking glass). The guy who was not yet Nomadic Matt booked a two-week vacation, a temporary escape from dissatisfaction.
What he discovered was that travel allowed him to assume a persona who was more confident and adventurous than he was at home. Nobody knew him and he was free to behave however he liked. It wasn’t just an external but an internal adventure.
Ten Years a Nomad is full of practical details that can really help a wannabe nomad figure out how to get started. He talks about meeting people on the road, breaking the news to his family that he quit his job to travel full time, and how he built his business. He shares some savings strategies, such as living off PBJ sandwiches and then cutting out even the jelly. He describes dealing with scams and the frustrating, boring parts of travel.
(It really helps when you assume from the very beginning that you’ll spend hours standing in line, that something traumatizing will happen in security, that something will leak in your luggage, your flight will be delayed, and that’s before you even leave! Then, whenever something actually goes smoothly you can feel excited and lucky).
Matthew Kepnes offers a fascinating, compelling, and achievable vision of the nomadic life. He also makes a convincing case that maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Try it if you like, you can do it if you want to, but remember that you bring yourself with you. Also remember that other people travel from “over there” to wherever you live. Pack a copy of Ten Years a Nomad to read on your next trip.
When I planned the trip, there was no sense that I was also planning to change my life, that my trip would be the first step to a rejection of nearly everything and everyone I had ever known.
I don’t know if who we are on the road is closer to our real self than who we are at home—having changed so much in my life, I’m not sure if the idea of a real self is all that useful, honestly.
It was on the road that I felt most at ease, most alive, and, most importantly, happy.
HERE’S ONE THING THAT IS CERTAIN about travel: All your plans will go out the window.
Apparently there is a feature on Goodreads that shows the most commonly abandoned books. I found out about it from a Boing Boing article. The graphic showed the first few titles on the list, which naturally caught my attention. I had read… all of them?
I had to see the rest of that list!
I clicked the link. It got even more interesting as I scanned the list. I didn’t hit one that I had not already read until #8, a book I had abandoned as COMPLETELY UNREADABLE after the second chapter even though I felt obligated to cover it on my book blog.
“I’d be better off going out to the garage and pounding nails through my hand,” I thought at the time, and it seemed fair that hundreds of other people had also quit on this one.
The rest, though? These were great books, fantastic books! In a few cases they were some of my personal favorite books of all time.
I read through the list, lost count, realized I would be better off subtracting the titles I hadn’t read rather than counting the ones I had, and came up with my total. Out of the top fifty most abandoned books on Goodreads, I had read forty-five. Two or three of those I could have skipped, but I still found them worth reading.
In my opinion that makes it a really excellent list of Fifty Best Contemporary Novels! (Plus a couple-few nonfiction titles).
What was it, though, that led so many people to abandon such excellent reads? Potboilers, page-turning thrillers even?
A lot of these books are quite long, and I think that plays into it. In my twenties I started seeking out what I call BFBs (Big Fat Books) because I “read too fast” and I wanted something that would last me the week. I looked for books that weighed in at least at 500 pages, hopefully 800 or more. My philosophy is that almost all books are 220 to 300 pages, so almost any title will make the cut, but for a publisher to put out a very long book, the author has to have made the case that it’s worth all that ink and paper.
This is part of why I finally caved and read the Harry Potter series. I figured if so many grade school children were reading and re-reading and re-re-reading these doorstoppers, they must be pretty good. Whatever people might think, any book that helps kids build their reading chops and extend their attention span is a worthy book.
I think another reason, probably the prime reason, that people abandon these great books is the reason they started reading them.
It’s easy and obvious to get ahold of a very popular book. Either someone hands it to you and commands you to read it, or you see it everywhere, or you throw it in your cart at Costco next to the bulk hand grenades and family-size sardines. There’s minimal selection effort.
What this means is that fewer readers need to put in their normal paces to choose something more their style.
True crime, for instance, is so on-point for me that I’ve only dropped two titles, one because I literally dropped it at the bus station and never managed to procure another copy. Out of print! Now I’ll never know why the Menendez Brothers did it! The other was after midterms and I ran out of steam.
(It would be intriguing if we could harvest data on when people tend to abandon books; are there trends here of seasonality, holidays, taxes, etc?)
On the other hand, I have a really hard time pushing myself to read series fantasy or sci-fi. I know that about myself, so when someone suggests that I read their favorite series, I tell them it’s probably never going to happen. Dude. You have to WANT to read thirty-five-hundred pages of a story. It don’t read itself!
I looked again at the list of abandoned titles, and particularly the five that I hadn’t read. One I never will. Life is too short. What about the other four, though?
One I was consciously “saving” because I’ve read a few short pieces by the author and I knew I would enjoy more. This showed my habit of hoarding what I think will be the very best books, because I don’t want them to be over, which is why I stopped reading The Lord of the Rings in middle school and didn’t finish until my late twenties. (To impress a boy)
Another I’d never heard of, which makes me go OOH! *takes notes*
Another was on my “saving it” list, literally on my library wish list, and come to think of it, so was that other one I’d been saving
And I’m 44 so when did I think I was going to read them?
The last of the five is on my phone actually at this moment. Got a good laugh out of that.
What all this shows about me is that:
I read a LOT
I have apparently very middlebrow, popular tastes
Or, more charitably, I’m good at trend analysis
I probably match with almost everyone on LibraryThing because I’ve probably read a large portion of their collection
I may one day run out of popular books to read, because every time I see one of these lists I am better able to narrow my focus and see what’s left.
Lists of popular books always make me wonder what’s so special about them. Why are they so popular? Sometimes I see it coming. I was an early reader of The Hunger Games because I was reading Publishers Weekly at the time, and before it even came out I knew it would be good. I reviewed it and ran around telling all my book friends about it. It was the first time in many, many years that I stayed up until 2 AM to finish a book, even though it was Friday night and I had nothing else planned all weekend.
That’s what I want for everyone. I want everyone to be so excited and captivated by books that we’re constantly grabbing at them, desperate to get through at least another few pages before life intervenes. Leisure time is so underrated these days. I think most of us lose at least an hour or two a day staring into the abyss of our phones, swiping endlessly away and not even remembering why, or what we saw, scrolling scrolling scrolling.
Think how many books we could be reading instead!
Start by consciously abandoning any books that simply aren’t for you. Be brave and admit it like all these fellow readers did. Go through your shelves and give back all the popular titles your friends foisted on you. Make room for something you actually want to read, something you’ve chosen for yourself. Maybe even one of the books off the list of abandoned titles!
Here is the list, for those who are curious. Most of them are amazing, at least worth the 40-page test.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
*Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
*Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
*My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
1984 by George Orwell
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
*City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Quiet by Susan Cain
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
*A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Martian by Andy Weir
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
If gross medical stories bother you in any way, I respectfully ask that you click to something else and skip this one. I’m not into this kind of thing, either, but I feel duty-bound to share what happened to me in case that knowledge might help someone else.
I woke up one morning, and I had a really sore spot. It was the first thing I noticed, this mysterious pain. I happened to be wearing a onesie, the kind of full-body pajamas that snap down the front, and I undid the snaps to take a look.
Huh, that’s weird. Everything looks fine. Why am I so sore?
And what the heck do I call this body part?
I later learned that this is the “epigastric area.” It’s right where the ribs come up and connect to the bottom of the sternum (the xiphoid process). Another way to think of it is where the bow would be on a bikini top.
I prodded the sore spot and tried to guess what was going on. It felt hard and swollen and it was about the size of a nickel. My top guess was that I had somehow lain on one of the snaps from my onesie and bruised myself, although my skin looked completely normal. Second guess, I had done something to myself during my workout on the elliptical 18 hours earlier, either a. to my skin or b. some kind of strain.
I shrugged and went about my business.
When my husband came home several hours later, I told him, “I did something to myself in my sleep and it’s still super sore.” He happens to be an emergency medical responder (like a civilian ambulance driver) and he checked it out.
He made a face.
“Any swelling under the skin like that is not good. You should go to urgent care.”
Pfft. Whatever. The closest urgent care on our health plan is in another city, 45 minutes away, a very sketchy neighborhood. I hate going there. I hate doctors and hospitals in general. Plus it’s rush hour. Thanks for your opinion, I’ll take that under advisement.
The next morning, the spot had a red blotch on it, like a bug bite. It still felt very sore, hard, and swollen, only now it was the size of a quarter. Hmm.
I wasn’t in any big hurry to leave, because we were in the midst of a veterinary crisis and our dog walker had a death in the family. Everyone else’s problems were a bigger deal than mine. I puttered around for a couple hours and then took the bus to urgent care.
The bug bite thing had started to burn. I was aware of it continually getting worse, and I started to realize that I was probably in the right place. By the time I saw a doctor, two hours later, I was nervous.
“Well, we got to it in time,” she said.
Um, what does that mean?
She told me if I had waited much longer then I would have had to come in and have it cleaned out and drained.
THIS thing?? This little bug bite thing?
I was prescribed Keflex four times a day for ten days. All righty. I always follow my prescriptions but I don’t really know much about antibiotics. It seemed like a lot. When I got them I actually started laughing at the sheer size of the bottle itself. Wow, horse pills!
My husband the emergency medical responder was also surprised when I texted him at work. Four a day? “We got to it in time”? What’s the diagnosis?
The doctor hadn’t mentioned it by name. I looked at the printout and my heart sank.
I had done a considerable amount of research on cellulitis for a novel in progress. It can quickly turn to necrotizing fasciitis. It’s well known for popping up out of nowhere, and ending with a patient in a coma with multiple amputations. Or... dead.
The next day, this patch of cellulitis was noticeably bigger. There was a rash around it four inches wide.
If I were single, I definitely would not have gone to urgent care before this point. Honestly the thought never would have crossed my mind. I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned it to anyone; I’m just used to complaining to my husband about every little thing. But the sheer size, color, and burning pain of this area had my attention. I would have thought, Dang, whatever spider bit me, I hope I find it so I can drop a phone book on it.
We had an event to go to that day, a Saturday, and I was already taking these antibiotics, so I figured I’d have faith in modern medicine and go to our party with the huge antibiotic bottle crammed into my tiny purse. What’s three hours? Hubby zipped me into a dress that I could wear without a bra. The party was a bad idea - the antibiotics gave me waves of nausea, I had a splitting headache, and the cellulitis pulsed and burned. It felt like someone was stabbing me! I gripped a cloth napkin until my knuckles were white and smiled through the pain.
When we got home, I immediately took the dress off. The cellulitis patch was easily 50% bigger and it had gotten puffy. Oh shit.
I spent two hours on hold to talk to an advice nurse, who said “It will get worse before it gets better.” The signs to watch out for were vomiting, being too weak to stand up, losing consciousness, or streaks radiating off the wound site. Oh. Okay so as long as I don’t have blood poisoning I guess this is normal.
I did some research online in bed that night. It turns out that cellulitis usually happens to severely obese people and diabetics (I am neither), and it’s almost always in the lower leg and foot area. I was pretty sure mine had been triggered by my sports bra, since I have had skin reactions in that specific area before. I skimmed a few more medical journal articles. It seems that there are a LOT of cases of women getting either cellulitis or cysts around their bra straps. I talked to various friends over the next few weeks, and three had the same problem. I guess this is not unheard of? One had surgery and the other had a cyst the size of a lime that went away on its own right before her own scheduled procedure.
I fought this condition for four weeks, three urgent care visits, ten days of Keflex, and two seven-day prescriptions for Doxycycline. At one point I gained seven pounds in five days. Finally I was referred to general surgery to remove a pea-sized cyst, and I now have four stitches on my “epigastric area.” This is terrific, because at one point that thing was the size of a large green grape, and the scar would have been bigger. The incision looks clean and tidy (call me Frankenwife) and the cellulitis appears to be totally gone.
I fully intend to return to wearing bikinis next summer. If the scar is visible I’ll just tell everyone it’s a spear wound.
There is not consensus on whether my bra triggered the cyst and the cellulitis. The two conditions are not necessarily always related; it’s possible to have a cyst with no cellulitis or cellulitis with no cyst. Two doctors and a registered nurse readily agreed that it was likely my tight bra was implicated, while the surgeon said no way. (But then she’s a rail-thin century cyclist in an A cup). I share because if that many of my personal acquaintances had a similar story, then this should be widely known as Something to Watch Out For.
I’d never heard anything like this before, and I’m 44. Personally I have felt extremely embarrassed, ashamed, and disgusted with my own body the last month, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I can imagine that other women keep this sort of thing to themselves for similar reasons. We should share, though, because this information can save lives. I wasted two days through sheer ignorance. If I can spare someone else it will have been worth it.
If you find “a lump” anywhere remotely near your breasts, then don’t waste time, because if it’s bacterial then it will mess you up a lot faster than a tumor would. Don’t write anything off as “just a bug bite” or a pimple or an “oh I’m sure it’s nothing.” Don’t be like me, the serial medical procrastinator. Maybe if I’d gone to the doctor the first day, like I was told by the first person to look at it, my weird little sore spot wouldn’t have ended in sutures.
In forty years of regular library use, I continue to be amazed that I’ve been missing out on stuff. Every time I think I’ve finally hacked it, I stumble across yet another dimension of awesome and free library features. This has been another year of rediscovering how fabulous is Benjamin Franklin’s greatest contribution to civilization, the public library. Now I’m using it to plan a big ultralearning project for the New Year.
Here is a quick rundown of my favorite library hacks, before I show off my new finds:
I have five active library cards! A lot of people can access multiple libraries depending on where they live. For instance, both San Francisco and Los Angeles allow anyone who lives in California State to become a patron, and you don’t even have to show up in person. Other libraries will allow outsiders to buy in with an annual fee. I have a county card and four city cards, two of which give me access to regional library systems. On rare occasions, I request physical books or DVDs, where they show up on the hold shelf around the corner from my apartment. Mostly, I use electronic media.
I use four apps to get ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines. There is an exploit here, because I’ve discovered that all my holds are counted separately, on the four apps and the fifth way, through the physical collection. ALSO, for some mysterious reason, none of the resources in three of these apps show up on the library catalogue, only through the apps themselves, so there is virtually zero competition for those collections. About 80% of the time I can just check out a hot new book immediately, even when there are over 500 people waiting for it via normal means.
That’s the basic level. I can put somewhere around 90 books on hold at a time and I’m pretty sure I could check out over 100 if I really wanted. (This made me curious, and it turns out most of my resources don’t actually have a limit). (!)(!)(!)
Next I figured out that I could use an app to speed-read text. Simply copy and paste ebook text, one chapter at a time, into the Outread app. While you can listen to an audiobook at 2x speed through most apps, Hoopla can play them at 3x!
I was happily reading along, feeling awestruck and blessed by this abundance of books, when I realized that there was still more out there. Between my various libraries, I found out that I had access to The Great Courses AND Rosetta Stone. *thud*
Then I started poking around a bit more, partly because I am thinking about a foreign language for my ultralearning project. There are a bunch of different language learning materials...
And THEN I fell down a black hole. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that I almost never look at the main webpage of any of my libraries, and that I had never done a full overview of all their offerings. What else did they have?
Professional development courses
Practice exams for the GRE (and all the college-prep stuff)
Tons of genealogy material and historical archives
I even found out that there were yet more apps where I could have been checking out ebooks and audiobooks all this time. The reason most of them don’t have a wait list is that they have an unlimited amount of checkouts, so nobody has to wait!
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
There’s a certain paradox with library holds. Classic books that are usually pre-copyright, like anything by Dickens or Jane Austen, will often have a months-long wait list. It never occurred to me to simply search for them elsewhere. The lesser-known apps have complete collections of all this stuff. For completists, your wait is over, and now you can read through your checklist as quickly as you like.
Something else that hadn’t occurred to me is that the library gives us access to entire collections in various languages. If I want to improve my skills in Spanish, for example, I’m not limited to textbooks or workbooks; I can try to read bestsellers or anything else that I would have read in English. This has just blown my mind because I was wondering what I would do if I ever managed to become fluent.
For language study, I have:
The Great Courses even has Latin and Ancient Greek!
At least one of my local branches has language clubs, where people meet to practice their skills on certain evenings of the week.
I’ve also been flirting with the idea of going back to school for a master’s degree (but in what?). I like to joke that it would be funny to have people introduce my husband and me as “Doctor and Mister” - which is only even remotely funny because he is an aerospace engineer with a master’s degree and multiple patents in process. He’s been far too busy for the past quarter century, so if one of us is getting a doctorate at some point it will most likely have to be me. Now that I know I have access to all these free math courses, and GRE practice materials, I can’t use either the academic calendar or money as an excuse.
For anyone thinking of their poky, musty little local library, don’t be sad. If you are reading this, then you are online, and you have free access to basically anything ever. Many universities, libraries, and museums around the world offer free access to their entire online collections. You could be browsing through those offerings right now instead of reading this.
The biggest hindrance that we have in learning new things, once we are no longer formally enrolled in a school, is that we have to choose our own materials and set our own schedules. All of us could find 10 or 15 minutes a day to learn something new, whether that’s a new recipe or a few words in sign language. We just have to decide to do it and move forward with something exciting.
My first step was to look at what materials are available to me. My second step will be to schedule when I’m going to work on my new ultralearning project. Over lunch? During my workout? My third step will be to start the new year with the hope that I’ll end it, in December, knowing something new.
How about you?
We used to worry about money a lot, but we don’t anymore, because we have a simple strategy. It comes in three pieces, and it works. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this:
When I was younger my eyes used to glaze over when I read lists like that. I didn’t want to have to think about anything with an acronym. I didn’t want to learn new technology. I figured I would think about it when I was older.
Now I AM older and I’m feeling pretty smug that Young Me read so many personal finance books and made the effort to learn these concepts.
It takes about 15 minutes to fill out the paperwork to max out your payroll deductions and put them in a 401(k) or equivalent. You literally only have to do it once per job. That’s the first step, and after those 15 minutes then you never have to think about it again.
The third step, living on less money than you earn, can be tricky. It can be hard to believe it can be done. It sometimes means making radical lifestyle changes, and those can be emotional and hard to explain to other people. Following the plan itself, though, becomes automatic.
It’s the second step, setting up an IRA and putting money in it every year, that trips people up. I knew what it was and how to do it, and I never bothered to get around to it until a few years into my second marriage. When I think back to all the tens of thousands of dollars I would have if I hadn’t procrastinated on this, it makes me want to slap myself.
The reason it’s so easy to procrastinate is that there isn’t an HR person to walk you through it. Nobody sends you an email reminder. You have to find a bank and set up a brand-new account. You have to decide which of two types of account work for you. Then you have to get the money together and remember to deposit it before the deadline every year.
In practice you can do it in an hour, set up a reminder on your phone in one minute, and then spend ten minutes a year moving the money.
It’s not the time, it’s the mental bandwidth.
Now that I know how to do this stuff, and I’ve seen it work, it seems simple and easy. In fact most people I know put more thought, focus, and attention into following the plot of complicated prestige television than I do into investing. It’s just that hump of studying up and learning how something works, especially if nobody you know does it or talks about it.
Setting up an investment account is free. You don’t have to keep putting money in it; you can skip a year if you have to. You can also catch up and do the previous year. You don’t have to have the maximum amount, either. Even if you only have a dollar to put in one year, that’s better than nothing.
This is a conversation I had with my husband when we first met, when we were just work buddies. He was complaining about his expensive divorce, child support, and alimony, and he said he couldn’t even afford to invest in his retirement plan.
“What??” I bawled him out. “You make three times as much as me and I’m maxed out. You’re trying to tell me you can’t even save one percent? I don’t believe you.”
(This is actually why we are married today, because he respects my frugality and I always tell it like it is).
He told me later that he went in to HR and filed the papers. He immediately maxed out his retirement contribution and, of course, it was fine. He could afford it after all. Emotionally, he had just been feeling the divorce drama. Mine had come and gone five years earlier, so I recognized it.
The thing is, there’s no such thing as CAN’T AFFORD. You’ll never be as young again as you are today. One day, Older You is going to have some kind of problem that only Younger You can solve, because Older You won’t be able to work or earn more money. The emergency you have in the future is going to be harder to solve than any problem you have today. Almost definitely.
You can never allow yourself to believe that it’s impossible. You can never give in to the idea that you can’t even find a penny on the street once a year. (A guy at the next table in my cafe literally dropped a penny on the floor AS I WROTE THAT and he still hasn’t picked it up. It’s the second penny I’ve seen on a floor today).
The main advantage of being poor (or thinking you are) is that you know how to live with a low overhead. That means you understand austerity, that you can emotionally handle spending as little as possible on things like rent, transportation, healthcare, heat, and food.
The disadvantage of being poor is that scarcity mindset prevents us from having better ideas about how to earn more money.
I did my husband the favor of snapping him out of his divorce blues and convincing him to start investing toward his retirement again. That paid off for me because now his financial future is also mine... He returned the favor to me, many times over, by painstakingly teaching me how to replace my scarcity mindset with abundance mentality.
None of the rules that worked for my life when I was poor, a broke student, an entry-level career person, none of those rules make any sense in my life as a comfortably established married person.
Another way to express that there are three parts to a financial plan is like this:
Feel that your anxiety and dejection about money is an emotional state, not reality. Understand that the only difference between you and a rich person is that they know things you don’t. Figure out what it takes to kick yourself, to make yourself do things. How do you get yourself to make phone calls or log in to websites or drive to a bank? How do you set up reminders for yourself to do things by a certain date? How do you inspire yourself to learn things you don’t already know? What do you do when you realize you need help; do you ask someone?
Everyone has a financial plan. For most people that is, “Don’t think about it right now.” Please reward yourself by using your imagination, your creativity, and your intelligence to come up with a more interesting plan. Maybe part of that could be setting up an account for your IRA, even if you don’t have any money to put in it quite yet.
Ultralearning is the concept of “deep, aggressive self-education,” according to author Scott Young. It is the idea that it is possible to learn far more, more quickly, through a self-designed program than it is in a formal educational program. Young is making his point, over and over again, by creating and documenting his own ultralearning projects. It’s a form of stunt journalism. This book is a comprehensive manual for learning how to ultralearn.
Probably what is most interesting about ultralearning, besides the fact that it is going to turn education and professional credentials permanently upside down, is that it can be applied to any project. One of the steps is to figure out your own curriculum. That could obviously be applied to any subject from automotive repair to applying false eyelashes (which actually sounds more complicated to me).
Young includes examples from other ultralearners, to give a sense of the scope and power of this process. Roger Craig built an ultralearning project and won $77,000 on the game show Jeopardy!. Eric Barone learned to code and created a video game called Stardew Valley that sold over three million copies. Young himself completed his own MIT Challenge, launching a series of ultralearning projects that may never end!
There is a debate surrounding ultralearning, namely whether a self-study project can actually get you anywhere in the “real world.” Ahem. The inside of your own mind is a part of the real world and always will be. Education matters even if nobody but you ever finds out about it. Ultralearning includes examples of individuals who used ultralearning projects to earn university degrees, pass exams, get promotions, earn official language learning certificates, and attain other credentials. It is certainly not limited to the autodidact.
This is why ultralearning is about to change everything.
Employers are constantly complaining that they can’t find qualified employees, partly because they now expect to hire everyone pre-trained, when 50 years ago more than 90% of training was done on the job. At the same time, almost nobody can afford vocational training, much less a full university education or post-graduate work. The system is failing everyone and driving over a trillion dollars in debt. For what?
Ultralearning is a chance for someone like me, from a blue-collar family, to rise up and outcompete a complacent kid from an upper-middle-class background. Almost nothing beats grit. Grit combined with internet access and the strategies and methodology of ultralearning, that’s what will change the world.
Being an ultralearner doesn’t imply that everything one learns has to be done in the most aggressive and dramatic fashion possible.
You know when you’re procrastinating, so just get started.
We always have our reasons for doing what we do, and those reasons can change. While sometimes our situations and perspectives change, that may not always be a reason to change what we’re doing, too! Anything can continue to be a good idea despite whatever else is going on.
Weirdly, we’re more likely to hang onto our negative constants, like a toxic relationship, than we are to keep up our better habits. We believe in dark circumstances in a way that we don’t believe in good fortune.
The talented person who stays in a dead-end job out of total inertia, resisting the effort involved in a resume update
The former smoker who always starts up again under stress, as though an extremely expensive habit like that is going to help somehow
The family living in a run-down rental for years, never quite getting around to calling the landlord for routine maintenance issues
We probably don’t talk enough about the emotional reality behind positive change. Cynical people don’t want to hear it because they want everything to stay down at their frequency. Skeptics don’t believe it. Positivity always sounds like someone is selling something.
One of the most convincing testimonials I ever heard came from a friend who had all his teeth pulled to get dentures. He said he never realized how much chronic pain he was in from the inflammation of his infected teeth until they were gone. Sure, his mouth was sore for a while, but his entire body felt better. He said if he’d known what a relief it would be, he would have dealt with it sooner.
His original reason for finally seeing the dentist was to move past this cosmetic issue that was holding him back. He became a true believer when this massive amount of hidden pain left his body.
I originally went back to school because I kept seeing job listings for which I was qualified in every way except that they required a bachelor’s degree. I sat down with a calculator and estimated the monthly payments on my inevitable student loans, realized I could afford them even if I never got a better-paying job, and enrolled. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I understood how much advanced education had changed me. I felt that college taught me how to think, how to research an idea, and how to write in ways that would not have arisen from my previous life.
It paid for itself in the first year, of course, but that was beside the point. I was no longer the same person I had been.
We make decisions because they seem like a good idea at the time, because they seem like the obvious next step, or because “everyone’s doing it.” We don’t usually make decisions thinking: Yes, it is time to transform completely.
When I took my first pink collar office job, all I could think about was the money. Suddenly I was earning triple what I did at the convenience store where I worked the summer after high school. I had no idea that the years of boredom and drudgery would turn me into an efficiency machine. It never occurred to me that I would develop a solid foundation of skills that would benefit me no matter what else I did.
This summer I met a kid, a teenager. He was being homeschooled, and he was going around asking everyone what was the most useful thing they learned in high school. Calculus, said my husband the aerospace engineer. Typing, said I. My typing teacher was the bitterest, most sarcastic and pointlessly mean woman I have ever met in life. She would stand against the wall with her arms crossed over her chest and rant about how naive and lazy we all were. That class was terrible. I just wanted to get through it so I could type letters to my boyfriend. Now I type 100 words per minute and it’s possibly the only skill I learned in high school that I use every day.
Two adults in that conversation said they had never learned to touch-type, and they wished they had. It’s not too late, I said, you can get typing games where you shoot zombies or whatever. Ah, but how many people in their thirties through fifties are really going to set aside three weeks to do something that mundane?
Come on. When I started marathon training, I had to relearn how to tie my shoes.
If you think that’s bad, I’ve known at least three men who had to relearn how to WALK after one catastrophic accident or another.
We’re so, so poor at testing our limits. Everyone has a limit somewhere, but how many of us ever test them out? Have you ever worked a muscle to failure, where you send the mental command to move and your muscle does not respond? It’s tiring, but you can indeed move again the next day. We could all be pushing ourselves so hard and finding out what we’re really made of, but we don’t want to. We’d rather live in our comfy little incubators, snuggling under the heat lamp.
The first time I got on an elliptical trainer at a gym, I’d never seen one before and I just wanted to know what it did. My friends invited me. The next time, I got in a row with them and we pedaled our way on our gossip machines. I moved, I went back to school, I changed gyms. The elliptical became my homework machine, the place I did my reading for history. Then it was the “avoid my ex” machine. Now it’s the place I read the news, and also the place I reset my mood. I keep finding elliptical machines with different programming and different strides, different views and different background music, because although my reasons change, the habit continues to serve.
Our reasons may change for things we do, like journaling, saving money, or staying married. Often our positive habits get cast aside, just because we changed schedules or relocated. It can take five minutes to discard years of what supported and nurtured us, just like bad habits can seem to pop up out of nowhere. Every now and then, it’s good to take stock of what we’re doing, compare it to what we were doing at different points in our lives, and remind ourselves of what works and what doesn’t. No matter what situations we might find ourselves in today, our reasons can change and so can we.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
After reading his newsletter for years, I got the chance to meet Scott Young this year at World Domination Summit. Hearing him speak got me even more fired up about reading his new book Ultralearning than I had been before. I want to do my own ultralearning project, and I’m taking his advice by planning it first.
Like most people with internet access, I tend to be a dilettante. Dipping in here and there on demand is one of the best things in life. I swear the main reason the internet was invented was to share video proof of cross-species animal interactions. Hardly an evening goes by that my husband and I aren’t leaning our heads together and going “WHOA!!!” I never expected to learn so much about capybaras in my adult life. Probably a lot of us have accidentally found ourselves serious students of... something. Slip-and-fall safety hazard analysis? Lip-syncing techniques? Fashion photography? Real-time descriptive linguistics?
(I used to joke with my parents in middle school that I was “doing my social studies homework” when I was on the phone).
All our internet time has gone to something. Somehow we’ve all adapted along the way. We’re using haptic technology, understanding skeuomorphic icons, picking up new slang, figuring out ways to send each other files that were totally unimaginable twenty years ago, and I know because I can distinctly remember how much I struggled with each of these developments. If I’d set out with a serious plan, thinking “Me learn tek now,” I’m sure I would have wound up on the floor reading graphic novels instead. (Which, if you’re into it, also has a certain onboarding process).
We’re able to do it easily when we think it’s fun, when we don’t think of it as “studying” in the first place. Just like when my husband taught me his method of making a seven-layer dip earlier this year. All I could think about was 1. Why I never knew, through fourteen years of friendship, that he could make this seven-layer dip and 2. How great it would be to have seven-layer dip on demand.
Everything should be like that. It should always feel that obvious just exactly why we would want to learn something new. How great it will be! AHA!
Scott Young himself has picked some really impressive ultralearning projects, which is of course why we care to read his book. First he put himself through a self-taught version of MIT. Then he learned four languages in a year. Then he learned to draw portraits. Then he wrote a book, got it published, and it became a bestseller. Nice! He’s still quite a young guy, so all we can do is to stand back and wonder what he’ll take on next. Building his own house? Becoming a master chef or a chess grandmaster? Black belt in Kung Fu?
This raises the question, if I think all of these projects are cool, would I want to do them myself?
It is a very special moment when it dawns on you that, if something is at all humanly possible, then YOU YOURSELF could learn to do that thing.
For instance, when I started “running” and almost blacked out after one block in my neighborhood, I wasn’t thinking about it. But a couple of years later I was: If millions of people have run a marathon, that’s... 26.2 miles? If millions of people have done it, then I bet I can.” And I did.
I’ve rarely been so happy and excited as the day I first got a hula hoop to spin, except for the day I finally did a headstand a few years later.
Stupid Human Tricks. Those are my forte. I couldn’t do any of this stuff as a little child, but as a middle-aged woman I’m 1. Stubborn enough, 2. Smart enough not to pull this stuff when my mom is watching, and 3. Covered by excellent health insurance. If I want to spend my forties trying to finally do the splits then that is my prerogative.
I’m thinking about an ultralearning project for 2020, and the first place my head goes is toward circus tricks, stunts, and stage magic. Here I thought I would be focusing on academics.
Whatever I choose, once I’ve made a public commitment then I know I will take it extremely seriously. This is, after all, how I generate content for my blog. Otherwise it would be literally nothing but photos of my pets, a list of books I read while lounging around with my pets, and perhaps sandwiches I ate in full view of aforementioned pets.
I like to spend the entire month of December in planning and review. This is because I can’t stand Christmas music and I try not to go out in public until it feels safe. Over the past decades, my New Year’s planning ritual has taken on a life of its own. It helps me to feel like I am living intentionally, finding time to do interesting things, and making sure I have something to show for my time on this planet. It puts a clearly defined timeline with regular reporting dates on my calendar.
Goals that I have chosen in the past tend to expand into three-year projects. I haven’t really gone out of my way in the past to set public three-year goals, mostly because I never feel that I’m making a three-year commitment when I start. It’s just that as I start to delve in, I start to get more and more curious about the subject, and the more curious I am, the more I learn, and the more I learn, the more interesting it gets. Three-year blocks of my life keep passing, one after another. If I’m going to get three years older regardless, I may as well have spent that time learning something that fascinates me.
The question is, how about you? What would you like to learn?
It literally just hit me, with one month to go. We’re not coming up on a new year, we’re coming up on a new decade!
A bit poleaxed by this.
How did this happen? Where did the time go? Am I going to be feeling this same way ten years from now, when I am... *gulp*... 54?
Here I had just been worrying whether I would finish all my resolutions for 2019, and suddenly I’m snapped into a whole next-level perspective.
I spent my twenties being broke, big-time broke, but I somehow managed to finish out that decade of my life with a college degree and a driver’s license. (And a divorce but who’s counting)
Then I spent most of my thirties with my husband. That was an extremely dramatic change from the previous decade of my life. In fact it is helping with this time-shock that I am feeling right now, to think of when he entered my life and the fantastic contrast between His Time and any Time Before. We often say, “I can barely remember what it was like before you came along,” (to our phones) and it feels very true.
Now let’s compare 2009 to 2019.
Um... what else?
2009 was the year I got married again. There probably won’t be as dramatic a change in my life again, unless we get a grandkid (?) or until we retire. That part of things feels solved. For someone who is single, I would say, don’t worry. I hope you always feel that being single is better than being with the wrong person, or being with someone for the wrong reasons. Marriage is either the best thing to ever happen to you, or the worst...
I continue to not own a home. I’ve never bought a house or owned property, and I wonder if I ever will. We’ve moved [counting] eight times since 2009! We’ve also traveled to nine countries together. That part is starting to feel pretty standard. For those who have lived in only one home in the past decade, take a moment to consider that in the context of someone who moves a lot.
Not only do we not own a home, we also don’t own a vehicle. I sold my car shortly after we started dating, and my husband’s pickup died somewhere past 200,000 miles. Then we had a compact car for a while, but it was recalled and we elected not to replace it. That’s something to consider in a ten-year context as well: your main form of transportation.
Ten years ago, I still had a student loan, we were paying for our wedding, and my husband was still paying both alimony and child support. Fast forward to today and we’re debt-free, living in a completely different financial world. (Saving half your income will do that). Ten years is an ideal block of time to consider your finances. Are you on track to be free of any financial burdens that you have today?
Or, realistically, are you going to continue to spend beyond your means, like most people, and find any thoughts of money and debt scary or depressing?
(There’s still time)
Ten years ago, we lived in a suburban house that was roughly 1800 square feet. We had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a yard, and a two-car garage with loft storage. We had two couches and two dining tables. Now we live in a 650-square-foot apartment. We’ve been sub-900-square-feet for the past five years, tiny house territory. We got rid of easily 80% of everything we owned, possibly more like 90%. While it seems weird to imagine having all that stuff again, and I strongly doubt we ever will, we will probably expand into a bit bigger home again within the next decade, more for the yard and a possible guest room than anything else. Also because tiny homes are harder to find!
Ten years ago, my husband was at the same job he’d held for the previous ten years and he thought he would be there at least until his kid finished high school. We had no inkling whatsoever of the direction his career would go only two years later. He’s been sent around the world and he’s working on his fourth patent. He went from a shared cubicle quad to a private office with a door. Me? I went from a basic secretarial role to whatever the heck you call what I do these days. International woman of mystery. Ten years can be a very, very long time on a career trajectory.
Ten years ago, I was unfit, a lifelong non-athlete, homebody, and shy person. Somehow in the past decade I’ve run a marathon, become a Distinguished Toastmaster, self-published a book, visited four continents, climbed a rope, done standup comedy, jumped over open flames, and otherwise completely shocked myself.
I’ve also been bit by a fire ant and gotten into the stinging nettles, sing Hey for a life of adventure...
In 1999, I wore a size 14. In 2009 I wore a size six. In 2019 I wear a size two. Twenty years ago I was a chronically ill, overweight young woman with a brunette pixie cut. Now, weirdly, I am a thin middle-aged lady with long blonde hair, boxing gloves, and a collection of adventure race medals. I look like a completely different person, I have a different name, I live 1000 miles away from where I started, and the only thing I really have in common with myself is my reading habit. Who am I??
Ten years ago, we had our pets, Spike and Noelle, and we were afraid to leave them alone in a room together for even ten seconds. Today, not only is it amazing and a little tearjerking to think they are both still here, but their decade of friendship is something beautiful to behold. He finally let her snuggle him for a couple of minutes the other day, fluffy breast puffed up against his side. We never had anything to be afraid of, other than the day they say goodbye. Whatever else ever happens in our lives together, we’ve had eleven years of the Spike and Noelie Show; we’ve loved them always. Heaven will be the two of them napping side by side forevermore.
Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago, I could not have imagined anything about my life today. Not where I lived how I look or my social life or how I spend my time, certainly not the technical innovations that are an ordinary part of my day. Only the love in my heart for my man, my little animals, and my family, that’s all I seem to carry.
What will happen in the next ten years? Where will we be and what will we be doing? Who will still be here and who will not? Will we have said everything we should have said to them? Will we do everything we’ve intended to do, or will we do more, or will we squander the days and years? We’ll burn through them one way or another, so let us burn through them lovingly and with all our hearts.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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