Photo taken at sunset at a viewing point in Sagres, Portugal.
During senior year of my undergrad, I was faced with a decision: do I go straight to graduate school, or do I travel and experience the world? I’d heard of all those Europeans taking “gap years” and wondered if I could do that too.
My dad wanted me to go to graduate school. His side of the family pursued master’s and medical degrees, and it seemed only natural that his eldest daughter would do the same. My boyfriend felt differently. He wanted us to go explore the world—take jobs in another country, travel, and enjoy being twenty-something and free.
Dad versus boyfriend. That’s always fun, right?
So I did what I usually do when I’m faced with a tough decision and no clear answer: ask a lot of smart people their opinions. I asked my mentor (who is now a dear friend), and we spent a thoughtful walk along the Boise, Idaho, greenbelt contemplating my options. I asked my close friends, business colleagues, and parents. And I even asked renowned author Michael Chabon, who at the time had already won a Pulitzer Prize and would go on to receive many more honors for his work. This was in 2009, and I’m 100 percent sure Chabon does not remember this conversation, but it had a big impact on me.
Chabon was the keynote that year at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was presenting a paper titled, “Pleasure in Looking in Heart of Darkness.” (Yes, I was a literature nerd, even back then.)
After Chabon’s keynote, I stood in line to talk with him. He had a long queue of students and professors clamoring for him to sign their books, but I wanted to ask his opinion, so I hung back until the line had cleared. After the last person left, I said to Chabon, “Can I run something by you? I’m trying to make a decision and could use your help.”
He said yes, so I grabbed a chair and sat across from him. I told him I’d applied to graduate schools and had a couple of full funding offers, but that I also wanted to explore and experience the world. His advice, as best as I can remember it now, was to do the thing that would open me up to new experiences. His guidance boiled down to this: a writer writes from her interaction with the world. The experiences you have will inform your writing more than school.
He wasn’t advocating to not get a master’s degree, but I think he could see the earnestness with which I wanted to get out of my hometown and see the wide world. Here’s what I wrote a few days later about our conversation.
Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, was the keynote speaker. He was engaging and humble and I was able to talk to him at length about MFA programs vs. traveling (he had good advice).
I spent much of the conference talking with other authors—people who, in my young mind, had “made it” as writers. Because, at my core, in the deepest part of myself, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write books. Since second grade, I’ve been in love with writing and reading. My essay concludes:
I left feeling more assured of my decision to wait on graduate school, do some traveling, and really experience the world (aka “real life”).
“Real life”—out of the mouth of babes, you know?
In any case, I followed my gut. I put off graduate school and took a job as a high school language arts teacher in the Dominican Republic with my boyfriend-turned-fiancé who is now my husband. (Sorry, Dad.) We later took jobs teaching English in Vietnam, and I reapplied for graduate school, this time for a better-fit program. Again, I got full funding offers; it turns out universities were more interested in me once I had all that living abroad under my belt.
I had a baby, got my master’s degree, and wrote and ghostwrote a bunch of books and well over 1,000 pieces of other content. One of those books was Growing Influence, coauthored with Ron Price, which hit no. 1, won a couple of awards, and was just picked up by a Vietnamese publisher. And in 2018, we uprooted our family of four and moved to Thailand, then to Portugal, where we live now.
Shortly after we moved to Portugal, I was browsing at a used bookstore. It’s a small shop, run by a young British woman, and looks and smells exactly like one would expect a used bookstore to look and smell. As I searched for books to purchase, I noticed something on one of the shelves: one of Michael Chabon’s books!
Michael Chabon’s book spotted on a bookshelf in Portugal.
Suddenly, I was transported back to that room, sitting across the table from Chabon, and remembered the dreams of a young me. Back then, I wanted so desperately to be a writer and to explore the wide world. I’d thought those dreams were in conflict; in reality, they were in concert. But both dreams had felt far away sitting in that conference room in Salt Lake City. Still, I had trusted myself to make a decision, and look where that choice took my family and me.
As my mentor told me on our walk along the greenbelt, “You make a decision, and then you make another one.”
I made a decision. Every day I make a decision. That’s the beauty of living a life that you’ve created for yourself.
I didn’t buy Chabon’s book that day. I left it for another reader, maybe an aspiring writer, maybe a traveler picking out something to read on the beach or by the pool. But I did give a silent thank you to the many people, Chabon included, who invested in inquisitive me.
What about you? When have you invested in someone, or when have they invested in you? How did it impact you? What big dream are you dreaming right now? Share with me—I love hearing from you!