My grandfather was a train hopper. Ran away from home when he was young, spent time with the circus, traveled all around the country, lived an absolutely amazing life. I didn’t get a chance to hear many of his stories — I’ve actually read more about them than he or my father ever told me — but there is one story of his that I was told quite often growing up.
As he was working his way West, one of the biggest things he looked forward to was reaching California. He’d heard many things about it, about the weather and the work and how different it was from Flint, Michigan, but what he was most excited for were the olive groves. Olives were one of his favorite foods, and he figured that he’d be able to eat from the groves, relax in the heat, and have a better time than he did back in Flint. An admirable plan, really.
When he finally got to California, though, he was met with a surprise: raw oil olives are disgusting. Uncured olives are exceedingly bitter and totally unpalatable, even when taken from cultivars intended for consumption. The oil olives that my grandfather had found were about as edible as the trees themselves. Where he’d expected to find free food and comfort, he instead found food he couldn’t eat.
My grandfather didn’t stay in California for long, and ended up returning to Michigan as an adult. He got into photography along the way, ended up joining the military and becoming a PR officer, and ran a photography shop for a while. He had kids late, and I was too young to know him during his working days. I was eight when he died, and he was 86.
When you’re making plans, it’s easy to assume you’ll have the resources you need. But even if that resource is there, you can’t always know if you can use it.
Olives For Breakfast
There are many things in life that can go sour, and you can’t out-plan what you don’t see coming. Even when you know the resource is there, you don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to use it or if it will benefit you. You can’t control life, but you can control your reactions to it.
My grandfather didn’t stay in California for long, but he still rode the rails for ages. He didn’t let the setback he faced in one state keep him from exploring the country or keep him from having experiences worthy of publication along the way.
When your resources change, your expectations change. Whether that resource is time, money, skill, or (as it was in my grandfather’s case) food, you can’t do things the same way if you don’t have it. For many teams, the loss of a resource means failure. But it doesn’t have to. With the right kind of preparation and a flexible mindset, you can turn roadblocks into an opportunity to make a lateral move.
Let go of futures you can’t create. An inability to move forward doesn’t mean you can’t progress. Spend your days working with what you do have, and allow yourself to enjoy the journey. Invest in your habits, build a lifestyle that’s flexible, and invest in things you can’t lose. That way, when you’re faced with olives for breakfast, you won’t worry about going hungry.
Good Olives and Bad
I love olives, but I couldn’t live off from them. I need more than olives in my diet to stay healthy and whole. Is there anything in your plans that you’re counting on being bountiful, but you’ve never lived off from before?
As a freelancer, living off from pitches and contracts can be hard. It’s not the kind of steady income that so many are used to and it requires a degree of financial caution that runs against the current social grain. Without a doubt, it takes a certain constitution to make a living without a 9-to-5, and diving into a freelance career can be impossibility for some.
Conversely, grinding out your days in an office can be mind numbing. The hours might be consistent, but that doesn’t mean you come home with more energy or mindfulness than the person pitching or laboring all day. Sitting down in the same chair in the same building doing the same thing every day takes a mental consistency that not everyone has. The office life might be common, but more and more people are finding they can’t build a satisfactory life around it.
You’ll find that you’ll work hard to get yourself somewhere only to realize that it’s not the kind of lifestyle fit you were hoping for. And for all of the detours and learning opportunities you’re faced with, you won’t be able to live off from it. The work won’t fit your You know you need to keep your momentum, but what are you supposed to do when you’re six years and $60k down a path that leads to bad olives?
Preparing Versus Planning
You can’t plan for everything, but you can prepare for anything. When you find yourself faced with resources you can’t rely on or career paths that you can’t stay in, make sure you have something to fall back on. As I’ve mentioned before, I have no idea where I’ll be in five years, but I do know that I can prepare myself for whatever comes my way.
Run the probabilities all you want; something is going to sneak up on you. An injury, a job loss, the sudden onset of lactose intolerance (don’t laugh; it happens and it isn’t pretty); you’ll lose access to a resource you thought you could rely on or be faced with a career change. When your plans fail, the only thing you’ll be able to fall back on is yourself.
The only things my grandfather had was what he carried with him. Some food, some clothes, a couple of personal possessions. Eventually a camera and film. But never the volumes of stuff we surround ourselves with today. He didn’t have bank accounts or investments, and the only resources he had for physical fitness were the other people he ended up traveling with. No cellphones, no laptops, no GPS, no backups.
When he found himself with olives for breakfast, he didn’t have a pantry to fall back on. So he spent more time in towns, worked odd jobs, and made sure to earn his bread. It was a different job market back then, but the lesson’s still the same. He traded time in order to make sure he still had food. He wasn’t able to plan his way past his setback, but he was prepared enough to work his way through it.
Setbacks And Detours
I’m a fan of doing things the slow way. It might not get me there the quickest, but it helps me enjoy the scenery along the way.
When issues crop up and milestones are pushed back, it’s easy to see it as failure. We make our plans, spend days running the numbers, and try to account for every detail, but when we’re faced with change we often miss the opportunity to grow. Detours can hurt the bottom line, but they also give us the chance to grow.
It’s easy to romanticize the idea of being ‘stuck’ in a strange city working hard to make ends meet; it’s been the fodder of so much fiction it’s practically its own trope. The reality is a lot less pleasant, and also a lot more common, than anyone would like to believe.
My grandfather never shared the story of how he first got into photography; not with me, at least. I can’t imagine that he started shooting while the train was rolling, though. Somewhere along his journey west he found himself with a bellows camera and a rigged dark-room, taking time away from traveling and working to mix chemicals and learn an art form. It was a detour, but it led to a life-long career.
Just because something slows you down, doesn’t mean it’s a setback. Detours often give you a chance to see and experience things you never would have had the chance to otherwise. So when you find yourself working in careers that don’t fit your ten-year plan, or stuck at home recovering from an injury, don’t call it a failure and throw in the towel; use that detour to your advantage. Grow in a new dimension, learn something new, and allow that change to help you.
Don’t regret the time you’ve spent getting to where you are now. Learn from it. Pursue new skills, broaden your horizons, enter new careers. Practice good days, and let it lead to a good life. Who knows where it might take you?