Touching Earth

I used to hate travel for work. I’d be stuck in the pressure cooker of modern air travel with people with whom as often as not the only thing I had in common was a job. Can you imagine, long spans of either awkward silence or endlessly rehashing work? For those jobs of the past, the purpose of any given trip was likely to involve some customer glad handing, a chore under the best of circumstances. The destinations were always uniformly nondescript, beige, corporate, even industrial.

The first weeks of the job I took a little over three and a half years ago gave me reason to reconsider. I went to my first conference in several years specifically for work, the Personal Democracy Forum. Many of the talks were life changing, electrifying, provocative. I got to spend time with colleagues with whom I’d only ever interacted online. I had many conversations with a friend who I still see but rarely, our time together as much a function of our respective travel schedules as anything.

Right after that conference, I got to take my very first trip to Europe. Ever. In my life, then almost forty years long.

I spent a week in a reclaimed, run down space in an urban neighborhood in Budapest. A bunch of local makers had made it their home and were hosting another bunch of makers, who travelled from all around the globe. We formed teams and worked during the day on building something, in my team’s case a smart and social door, to present at the end of the week. When we weren’t working, we ate where the working people of the city did, in open air courtyards. We were very lucky to have an almost native guide who helped us form a very authentic impression of the city. We didn’t see any kind of tourist place until the very end of the week, when we walked to the Open University, by the river, for some plenaries.

Unfortunately, after that first year, I made a choice to accept responsibilities I thought the organization needed me to fill at the time. If I encountered an opportunity to travel or to speak, more often than not, I delegated to one of my staff, to give them opportunities to grow professionally and personally. At the time, it didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice. There were tons of other demands on my time dealing with strategy, staffing, budgeting, and managing. I grew in my own way in response to those demands on my abilities and characteristics.

I made a decision recently, to leave my job. I do not yet have something else lined up though I am working almost full time on doing so. My co-workers know of this decision, I was asked to share it just a couple of days after I spoke to my bosses. I have no idea how much more widely it has been communicated and to be honest, two weeks on from my decision, I am not concerned if this is news to the wider world.

A large part of my thinking was that I need to touch earth. I actually didn’t know the origin of this expression and had to look it up, finding it even more apt than I realized. When the man who was to become Buddha was in the midst of his trials before enlightenment, he was set upon by a demon. He touched his hand to the earth, in response the earth roared, causing the demon to back down. There is a gesture, a mudra, that is apparently common in depictions of the Buddha, that demonstrates this act, a renewal of resolve.

For me, it is how the earth is touched as much as it is that renewal. I realized I had been cutting myself off from those things that best charge my resolve–writing, speaking, making, and even travel. Arguably, my intentions were right but I put myself in a position that was untenable in the long run. The more I needed to touch earth, the more it felt like other responsibilities were dragging me away from doing so. In retrospect, my own trial by demon I suppose. Right or wrong I felt that in order to make the opportunity to renew my own resolve I had to introduce a concrete break.

Since my decision, I have written more, coded more, and as a consequence felt a greater resolve than I have felt in a long while. I am also about travel more, definitely in the short term and hopefully more ongoing, for both personal and professional reasons. I have touched earth and am optimistic at my prospects, that the opportunities I am now pursuing will allow me to maintain these very critical connections, for my own well being.

The most promising opportunity on which I am working will allow me to re-connect with the world, in addition to focusing so much more on making and sharing, to once again wear off a little shoe leather touching earth in some of the greatest cities on the planet. I didn’t realize how important that was to me until this chance came along, unrelated to my decision, unrelated to anything other than the voice I have cultivated here, on this site, and through my podcast. However my next steps play out, I am glad of my decision and the renewed resolve I already feel.

4 Replies to “Touching Earth”

  1. Thomas, I’ve been personally very enriched by your published reflections over the years, especially the podcast. Thanks for all of your past work, and for your current honesty and reflections. It really sounds like you are in a process of renewal. I know you need to create some momentum to ramp up to a new opportunity, but do give yourself the inaction needed to actually reflect.

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