The Hardest Year of My Life

This has been one of the hardest years of my life, something of an identity crisis.

In many ways, this was inevitable. When you've had the best year of your life, or several best years in a row, it makes sense that it would come to an end at some point.

I don't mean that to be depressing. It's not.

Having an incredible year feels like reaching a peak. You are on the top of a mountain, standing in a place you have always wanted to stand or dreamed of standing.

Peace Corps was like that for me. Every year seemed like a new peak, I felt clarity and purpose as I stood on top of a great mountain of projects and work I loved, beside friends I loved being around. Being in Mongolia I had some of the best years of my life and I knew that when I was experiencing it, which is an amazing thing. I will always be grateful for that.

Coming Down

Maybe one of the hardest things about climbing a mountain is coming back down. Trying to live your old life and step into an old way of being.

From what I hear coming back to America is always tough for Peace Corps Volunteers, but I bet it's tough for anyone who has traveled and lived abroad for a significant amount of time. You wrestle with who you were there and who you are here. Who are you becomes less of a certainty and more of an evolving story.

When I began Advance Humanity in fall of 2011, the month I finished Peace Corps, it was a one year project. I had goals I wanted to reach and over the course of the year I exceeded each of them. It was a wonderful year.

In fall of 2012 I began graduate school and again had goals I wanted to reach, but I wasn't as clear about them and didn't write them down. They included things like doing well in classes, being a good husband and supporting Tunga as she lived in America for her first year, having fun outside of class, spending more time with my family, traveling, helping with clubs and events on campus, being an RA and a few other things. Truth be told, if I had made a list, it would have been too long. That's never a good thing.

As I finished classes Advance Humanity resurfaced not as the project it once was but as an organization. During graduate school I had met wonderful people I enjoyed working with including professionals and classmates and began to put what we were learning in class into practice. Together with a few of these classmates I incorporated Advance Humanity as a benefit corporation. The idea was move beyond simply inspiring our community and begin empowering everyday humanitarians  as they went out and made a difference in the world.

As you might imagine, starting a company is no small task, especially in America. There are taxes, contracts, incorporation documents and a host of other things that you have to consider. In some ways I was in over my head. Luckily I was surrounded by people I enjoyed working with and they were willing to be patient with me as we figured things out together.

Going Back Up

Now we reach fall of 2013, today, and it's been two years since my mini-retirement in Mongolia. I sit in the beautiful mountains of Vermont as the leaves change to brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red and I write this to say I'm still figuring things out.

Part of me wishes that everything was simple and perfect, all planned out like it might have been had I gone to medical school. First you get accepted, then you do two years of coursework, then two years of clinicals, then three years of residency or more, then step into a clinic or hospital and begin working as a doctor. There are precise dates and requirements at every step and, like them or not, they provide perfect predictability.

However another part of me doesn't wish that at all. The fact that life isn't simple, perfect or planned out means we all have a chance to make our own lives. We get to live how we want, change things up, make a difference, improve the system, fight the man or whatever else you might be into. Even if you are in a residency with set hours and multi-year commitments, you still have a choice. You can be a cog or you can be a person. You can wake up every morning like an automaton or you can wake up excited for the day, ready to take it and slap it around a little bit to wake it up. There are things that need to get done, a world that needs you and people who need your help.

Making a Difference

Being an everyday humanitarian means making a difference and being awesome everyday, like it's your job. You don't need millions of dollars to do it and you don't have to sacrifice your breakfast to do it either. Small choices we make every day matter more than big write-offs at tax season or sizable anonymous donations.

I believe that two people can hold the same job and be worlds apart in the way that they serve others through it. A good doctor and a bad doctor, just like a good teacher and a bad teacher, can have the same education, tools, and salary. The difference is deeper than that.

What drives them? How do they treat people? How many people would describe them as being awesome?

Truth be told, sometimes I wonder if I should have gone to medical school. I could have and I still could.

Being a doctor was something I thought I had to be, something I was perfect for. I was good at it, I had volunteered, trained and shadowed for hundreds and thousands of hours and people all around me told me I would be a great doctor (including friends of mine who are doctors now). I have a feeling you, reading right now, have been told you would be a great ______ at some time in your life. Insert lawyer, teacher, accountant, chef, mother, father, artist, or anything of your choice.

It can be confusing to be told that. Does that mean you are supposed to be that?

Maybe, but probably not.

Being Who You Are

Who you are is deeper than what you do.

I'm sure you would be and could be a great many things.

Also, an interesting idea to consider, had you lived in another time in history (500, 100 or 50 years ago) I bet you would have been a great many other things as well.

Think about it for a second, had you lived at the dawn of the American republic, in the age of Benjamin Franklin the candlemaker / editor / writer / organizer / statesman / diplomat / scientist / discoverer of the gulf stream and much more, what would have been a dream job for you?

Chances are it would have been something completely different than what you might choose today, but you still could have been very happy and successful at it.

All this is to say, there is probably no one perfect thing that each of us should do but rather a combination of wonderful things.

I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer and it was perfect for me. The challenge now is to find the next wonderful thing and the awesome thing after that.

I look forward to sharing that journey with you here at the dawn of Advance Humanity in the story of Travis Hellstrom the student / writer / volunteer / husband / entrepreneur / humanitarian / discoverer of much, much more.