It has been a quiet year here at Adm Karpinsk, and for good reason. It seems like a lifetime since my life has been normal. Even as I write this, I’m thousands of miles from home in Northern British Columbia, closer to the Arctic Circle than I am to the sunny, peaceful bike and beertopia of Longmont, Colorado.
Right now, I’m accompanying my brother Wax Mannequin on one of his wild, legendary and loosely organized cross-country tours. We’ve talked about this idea for many years, but it’s the first time my life was relaxed and open enough to allow it. I’m free from work responsibilities now, with no more money worries, and a son who has grown nicely independent enough to stay busy and have fun while I’m away.
Even in these ideal conditions, it is a harsh experience compared to the pampered and organized life I’ve built for myself back home.
We’re traveling in a 2-door Civic which is packed with enough gear to fill out a minivan. We wake up each morning with no idea where the next meal or the next bed will be found. The distances between many of these forlorn-looking mining and forestry towns represent more driving than I usually do in a year. Everything here is more expensive and less fancy. Winter comes early, buries you deep, freezes you solid, and leaves late. Toilets are scary, sinks don’t work, countertops are messy, and there’s usually no way to make yourself a good salad.
But those are just this week’s hardships. For the preceding four months, I’ve been drawn with zombie-like dedication to my back yard, where I’ve been building a studio-like structure which overlooks our property’s back alley and the park beyond. This is a long-awaited project that we sketched out before even buying the house, because the place was really missing a peaceful creative space for writing, the secret Etsy shop, music, working on bikes, and weight training. “The Studio” has been a labor of love, featuring the first time I have dug and poured my own concrete foundation and slab (with embedded radiant heating!), before going on to do the rest of it. All told, it was a couple hundred solid hours of outdoor physical labor in the hot sun that will get its own article. But for now, suffice it to say it was another blast of deliberate difficulty that kept me away from writing to you for longer than I’d like.
However the final and largest piece of hardship is one that began in January and only finished last week. Over eight full months of low-level background stress, interspersed with periods of genuine inspiration, mornings of grinding but productive computer work, and weeks of rehearsal ranging from casual to awkward and arduous. It all culminated in a keynote talk I gave on a Saturday night at the 2016 “World Domination Summit“, a feisty weekend conference of entrepreneurs and creative types in Portland, Oregon.
Public speaking is a weird animal. It reliably pops up as one of our biggest collective fears. But people do it all the time, and it’s still a big part of how we share ideas. Preachers and politicians, CEOs and activists, and more recently the popular TED and TEDx conferences have kept the art alive. For my own part, I’ve always enjoyed casually talking to (or preferably with) a group of people, but have never been badass enough to do the hard work required to produce one of the theatrical, organized productions that real speakers deliver. Reading the “wait but why” post on preparing a TED talk served to reinforce my hesitance.
Yet somehow, despite all this wise restraint I ended up saying “Yes” to exactly such a talk. A flattering invitation came from WDS founder Chris Guillebeau to speak at his cult-like summit. This is an event that generates rave reviews, inspiring videos, creative and bizarre activities, and sells out its thousands of $500+ tickets almost instantly every year. Although unpaid, the speaker gig came recommended by several trusted friends including JD Roth, who helped create the conference in its earlier years and spoke there in 2012. Although I tried my best to exercise the Power of No, some weird force inside overrode the instinct and said to me, “Come on, Mustache! Man Up for once. Are you going to say no to EVERYTHING just because it’s hard and time-consuming?”
Almost immediately, that resulting “Yes” started to haunt me. I’d lie awake with self-doubt at night, or wake up early with a desire to write an article for you, but a self-imposed obligation to work on Powerpoint slides instead. It was the most annoying kind of worry, because it was pointless: I knew I could do a good job, knew I’d enjoy giving the talk, and knew I had plenty of time. But because the deadline was long, the planning period was very long too. What had I done to my retirement?
Towards the end of that eight months, I wrote to a new friend who I learned had given a very powerful, inspiring, serious talk about surviving cancer and made it look pretty easy (the talk, not the survival).
“Let’s see what Amit says about his experience. Maybe I’m overthinking all this and should just relax and consider it a casual affair.”
Some excerpts from his response:
I rented a cheap AirBnB in the middle of nowhere (i was nomadic at the time) and spent a couple weeks by myself, storyboarding different versions of the talk every day with index cards, rearranging things, saying them out loud, timing them
Every day for two weeks, I raised my voice more than felt comfortable, practiced body language and gestures that felt exaggerated to me, and gave this talk 2-3 times in front of the camera, until I was wet with sweat. Each day, I’d review the videos, critique sections minute by minute, time each snippet or segment, and edit. I had particularly connected with one of the instructors in the course I took in NYC, so I met with her twice so she could watch me give it and give me feedback.
So I got a bit more serious because the talk was only a month away. The slides and the script were done, so I read the whole talk into a voice recorder app on my phone, then started listening to that recording at least once every day. At night before bed. On buses and planes. While going for my early morning walks or late night adventure strolls around town. I refined awkward parts and re-recorded it six times, and gradually learned the whole 24-minute stretch like one giant set of Young MC lyrics*. Then I busted out the camera and started recording myself presenting it to the lovely, empty new studio. Refined away a few of my worst habits and kept practicing and kept worrying.
On August 10th, I finally headed out to Portland for the summit, which was as sparkly and fun as everyone says it is. I met hundreds of people, did an awkward technical rehearsal, worried a bit more, practiced a bit more, felt really confident at last, then finally showed up on the stage to do the real thing.
It went incredibly well, and every bit of the hard work paid off. Those 24 minutes were a blazing laser of energy, laughter from the group of one thousand people, happiness and relief that I was really getting this shit done, and it was really going well. As I walked off the stage, I felt a glowing, lobotimized feeling that persists to this day. The part of my brain that was devoted to worrying and planning that talk just burned up like gunpowder and fell away, leaving just a relaxed quiet space.
Update: Chris Guillebeau shared the talk on Vimeo: http://chrisguillebeau.com/mr-money-mustache-wds/
So all the hardships of the summer are just about done. Although I am writing this in the shade of an old camp trailer, sitting on a piece of plywood in the meadow of BC’s Music on the Mountain festival, I’ll be home in a week and back to real life. The anticipation of this return, to my loved ones but also to a peaceful fluffy bed, the clean countertops and hot showers and plentiful salads, is a rich experience.
Yet if I had stayed home all year and tried none of these things, the experience would have been flat and unmemorable. The year would have whizzed by with plenty of comfort and peace, but nothing to broaden my experience of what it means to be alive. I would have missed out on meeting hundreds of neat humans, absorbing half a lifetime’s worth of incredible live music and having my own “big public performance” bucket list item ticked off with a solid black checkmark.
I learned some worthwhile stuff about myself, too. Although it is reassuring to know I can produce a reasonably entertaining talk if I force myself to do it, I also found out that the time sacrifice for me greatly outweighs the reward. And I really, really dislike doing the same thing over and over again. Probably for the same reason I like to hear continuously changing music (even one song repeat in a month is too much), I really dislike repetitive practice exercises. So no more stage talks will be showing up on my calendar for now.
Although the people of Canada’s Western towns are friendly and speak fondly of their lives, I feel happier than ever with my home base in Colorado, and life is richer with that knowledge.
And as for the hard manual labor out in the hot sun – I know that I’ll be keeping that kind of difficulty in my life, forever.
Although I wrote this from the road, I’m home now and it is an amazing experience viewed with new eyes. Our boy is back in full-time school and the days are happy and productive. Life is grand again.
* As a young lad, Young MC’s 1988 classic Stone Cold Rhymin’ was one of the first CDs I ever bought, with money earned from delivering newspapers. I played that thing so many times that every last lyric stuck in my head, and they apparently never left. I wonder if this silly presentation on financial freedom through badassity will get stuck in that same permanent file.
Cold like a blizzard / on the mic I am a wizard with the funky fresh rhymes comin’ out of my gizzard / never sneezin’ never coughin’ I rock the mic often / hard as a rock and no sign I’m gonna soften… Ahh, good clean fun for a middle school white boy.
** All of the talks get recorded, but released only on an unpredictable basis through Chris Guillebeau’s Vimeo feed. If you know him, put in a request to have my talk thrown up there an it might get done faster :-)