At the time I set out reluctantly, I now realize, in the sort of way that you first board a canoe or strap into a roller coaster. Life up until that point had seemed too sheltered, too Midwest Minnesota quiet. Yet suddenly, faced with the prospect of a new (foreign) path, gravel roads on the farm felt infinitely safer than bullet trains in Asia. “At least send me to Europe,” I wanted to beg, a place I’d already imagined myself living for years and where, being 6’1″ and exceptionally blond, I felt more confident about blending in. I had less hope of that in Japan. But I wasn’t in control and I had talked too big to backpedal at this point. So I went anyway, young and reluctant and hopeful. “The path never leads where you think it will,” I told my 19-year-old self. And so, unintentionally, I discovered the first (and most difficult) aspect of following the path:
(1) Learn to recognize new beginnings & follow the path that scares you. It’s all about strapping in, setting off & accepting that the boat might rock.
Boarding my plane to Tokyo, I was more uncertain about life than ever before. I didn’t know the language, the culture, where I’d live, where I’d study – I went in so blind to the situation that it proved to be a blessing. I was free from the mind racing that comes with details. I could focus on the Big Picture. It gave me the clarity of mind to invest in the aspects of life most important to me as a young adult. New beginnings are followed by endless new opportunities. When we are given too many details, when we focus on (read as “worry about“) all the intricacies, life can become suffocating. This was my second higher lesson:
(2)Like zooming out on Google Earth, in order to clarify the Big Picture you must temporarily disregard the little details.
Gradually I formed a new life around me. Issues such as language and culture became a constant game of ping-pong. Sometimes I’d hit a stroke of genius and at others I’d get caught in the net, but regardless of temporary highs or lows the ball always bounced back. Eventually I became so comfortable with this give-and-take tempo that I didn’t realize my thoughts were emerging in Japanese or that I was carrying on entire rallies of conversation about such obscure topics as the local fishing industry or my goals to hike Mt. Fuji.
Similar up-and-down-and-up-and-down experiences occurred with host families and at school, yet I constantly made improvement by unashamedly relying upon those who knew more than I. In new situations you sometimes feel like a child again, and as a grown adult that’s frustrating as hell, but usually the fastest way up isn’t by building your own new ladder, it’s by grabbing hold of the firm hand being offered down to you. So I spiraled for a while from child to adult over and over again, relying upon supportive community networks (namely my Rotary Youth Exchange program) and the kindness of strangers. Eventually, without realizing it, the Japanese lifestyle had become my lifestyle. I remember having the “Woah!”-realization of finally feeling comfortable, confident even, in this extremely foreign culture and it was a moment of relief, pride, and boundless gratitude. It taught me a third important lesson:
(3) Overcoming obstacles in your path requires the building up of momentum. And well you alone are limitlessly intelligent & adaptable, you are by nature foremost social. Learn to rely upon & help propel those sharing your path.
In the beginning, I also clearly recall ending each day exhausted and aching as thoughts and vocabulary still tumbling through my mind. Initially I blamed this on the fact that I was now sleeping on a paper-thin futon mattress sprawled across bamboo floors. Soon, however, I realized that what was most tiring was the effort it took each day to sort out the jumble of “newness” surrounding me. There was so much to process that I was forgetting things as soon as I learned them. In such a foreign place, I struggled to remember names or faces or cities. The harder I focused, the more I was isolating each experience, tackling challenges one at a time from the beginning without consideration of similar problems I had already solved before. My path was suddenly so wide that I couldn’t make sense of direction or goal. So I began to write my experiences down in a blog, taking time to reflect upon my journey rather than just push, push, push onward.
Like a mirror that sharpened and framed the world around me, writing became a means of giving structure to my stories. I began to recognize new challenges and accomplishments I was otherwise brushing past. The more I wrote, the more I learned about Japan and about myself. Eventually it became clear that the ambiguous ache & strain I felt each evening was nothing more than the familiar stretching of body and heart we each experience throughout life – growing pains. My pathway was widening out before me, yet I was now expanding to the challenge. Old shoes felt too tight. Gravel roads were undeniably narrow. And so I learned my fourth lesson about following the path:
(4) Growing pains should not be tuned out. In the face of change, commit to self contemplation in whichever form helps clarify your honest story. This reflection will serve as a catalyst for recognizing new pathways & beginnings. (see #1, REPEAT)
By taking time to reflect upon and organize my experiences, these difficult challenges have become interview-winning discussions, the skills unique resume-filling features and the networks a lifelong support system. I am now prepared with thoughtful summaries of defining experiences along my journey, ready to pull out whenever needed. Take, for example, this excerpt written five years ago in my final blog entry from Japan:
My lifestyle has changed, as have my mindset, goals and motivation. It’s an exciting moment when, with billions of people on this planet, you can step back and say, “I can hold my own.”
I don’t see my life as this.
I see it as THIS.
I now comprehend that there is undeniably an overlapping and intricately connected network of life, diversity and ambition on this planet. It is a limitless combination of where I can go, what I can see, whom I can meet, or most importantly, who I can become.
This entry came at the end of my year and represented the start of another new beginning – university. In the time since, I’ve continued to mind these four steps and reflect upon my journey. It has opened doors I would never have imagined, such as research grants across three continents or a recent year-long government fellowship in Germany. By dedicating myself to a lifestyle of reflection I’ve become more confident in following the (at times ominously curvy, windy, unpredictable) path before me. I now recognize new opportunities zooming past like Bullet Trains and yet still sometimes choose dusty country roads to get where I’m headed. This reflective mindfulness is how I’ve been able to capitalize upon my journey. And the same can work for you. Here’s how…
How to reflect upon your path in four steps. Grab a blank piece of paper and consider the following questions:
Search for new beginnings. Which opportunities scare you right now? Inside a square at the center of your vertical page, list your top four current possibilities for a big move, exciting new product, partnership or position.
Zoom out. Really! Close your eyes and take a moment to picture your home as it looks on Google Earth. Pull out once until you can picture your city. Now your region. Now further, further, further until you can imagine yourself hanging in space over half the planet. Enjoy this moment and use it to clarify your perspective. Where do you want to live? To work? To travel? Write these goals in a rectangle spanning the top of your page.
Remind yourself to rely upon others. Which relationships or networks do you need to (re)establish from your past, in your community or company who can give you solid advice regarding these goals? Write their names vertically outside the right & left side margins of your center square.
Learn how to reflect. You are a composite of your experiences & skills – if you don’t know what they are, then no one does. To distill these experiences into tangible takeaways many people write, but others talk or draw or sing. Through whichever form feels best, reflect honestly with yourself for 10 minutes upon at least four major stories along your journey. Begin by drawing a large rectangle spanning the bottom of your page and then, scattered throughout this box, write a short bullet point title in all capital letters for each experience. These may come from your work, school, childhood, faith, family, sports, hobby or travel time (to name a few) and simply ought to be aspects of your life where you say, “Wow, this really shaped me.” Now in an overlapping, carefree order as they come to you, begin jotting down any defining obstacles, lessons or skills you’ve learned from each experience. Allow the words to fall across one another, the goal is not to isolate each experience, but to let them overlap. This is your background and these are the aspects of your journey that make you unique. Learn to talk about some of the most important points and look for patterns you can reference in interviews, conversation or work.
Once you are finished, hold the paper out before you. This is your current path. Recognize your past. Focus on new beginnings. Rely upon others. Constantly seek to maintain the Big Picture.
Build momentum now. Begin by reaching out to the people you’ve listed above through a short and simple message asking for their advice on a new opportunity in your life (one of your New Beginnings). No one says no when asked for advice! Remember that if you show humility and gratitude, they will be there to encourage and support you. Use their feedback to make bold decisions. Build momentum while staying open to curves along the road. Your sheet of paper should not be a one-time rigid blueprint that must be upheld, instead look at it as an initial reflection. Challenge yourself to regularly re-ask such questions, especially when you feel overwhelmed by difficult situations. These steps are meant to help you gain perspective, recognize meaningful takeaways from any experience, and help you capitalize upon new possibilities crossing your path. Use them as inspiration to set off to your own Japan.
Sam Estenson is an independent global travel blogger & photographer with a degree in Intercultural Communications & Foreign Languages from the University of Denver. He has written on such topics as cross-cultural awareness, globalization, scholarship, entertainment and travel. For the complete blog from his time spent in Japan, visit estenson.blogspot.com. Any requests for usage of his work or professional inquiries can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos and the “4 Steps to Capitalizing upon Your Journey” are original content – please contact for permission before reproduction or printing.
(Cover Photo) – Lone Stranger on the Nakagawa Dam
(1) – Mother Statue at Bato Shrine
(2) – Ornamental Umbrella of the Macha Tea Ceremony
(3) – Kyoto Fire Dancers by Night
(4) – Spiral of Pottery & Macha Tea
(5) – Dragonfly on an Ancient Tomb
(6) – Reflection of the Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu)
(7) – Wedding Attire at the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo