Following My Childhood Dream Has Made Me Happier Than Ever

Photo credit:  Nathan Kelley Photo

Photo credit: Nathan Kelley Photo

JUNEAU, ALASKA—As a child, my favorite magazine in the whole entire world was Ranger Rick, a kid’s publication that taught me all about animals. When I got a little bit older, I progressed to ZooBooks — mini-National Geographic-type spreads that captivated me with scores of animal facts, stories of faraway lands, and incredible photographs of outlandish creatures that I could only dream about.

If anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a zookeeper: I loved animals, and I wanted to be around them all the time.

Yet as is all too common with our childhood dreams, I watched them slowly fade away. There was no one single death knell that did them in; just the same old routinized desire to fit in that hits us all at some point or another. It’s much easier to do things with your friends than to give it all up and pursue some weird, oddball passion that’s going to take you on a different path — one where you’re not free to get pizza after school. When you’re a teenager, it’s nice to be able to hang out on Friday nights, and do normal teenager things.

Somewhere along the line, you get it in your head that you need to keep going along “this path”, simply because that’s what everyone else is doing. That might entail a 9–5 job, or a stint at a four-year college. A “good job”, that will pay the bills, get you health insurance, and give your parents something to tell their friends when they ask how you’re doing. Yet a “good job” oftentimes fails to provide you with the one thing you need most out of life: fulfillment.

For a while there, I had a good job. I went to a reputable school, and I got a job with a law firm, with the intention of someday going to graduate school, and climbing up the career ladder…yet something always felt wrong about that. I never felt proud of the work I was doing, or motivated to truly move ahead on that path. I’m a competitive person, so I felt the need to keep up — I’m a hard worker, and always will be — but that doesn’t mean that work was making me happy on the inside.

So I left.

Almost four years ago, I handed in my two weeks notice. I can still recall the look on my boss’s face when I told her that I wasn’t going to work for a competitor — I was moving to Australia for a year with nothing more than a backpack, a few books, and a personal mission to take a break from “the grind”.

The past few years have been difficult in many ways. I left behind a stable life: a well-paying job, a close-knit circle of family and friends, and a girlfriend with whom I saw a real future. Yet I knew that none of these things would mean anything in the end if I myself wasn’t happy with what I was doing. Oddly enough, it was a quote from Steve Jobs that motivated me to take control of my own life, and with it, how I sought fulfillment: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

I’ve found many different ways to make money, but they have all had one underlying theme: they have taught me skills about which I’m interested, and which I’m interested in. I’ve worked on a vineyard (I’ve always been interested in how wine was made), and on super yachts (something about sailing has always attracted me). I’ve learned to ski — pretty well, I might add — because I got a job as a ski photographer. I’ve always loved taking pictures, and for the longest time I’ve wanted to learn how cameras work. I’ve found myself a professional photographer, and over the past few years have made the majority of my reported income with a camera in my hand.

I’ve worked at a steakhouse, and learned about fine dining: how a man is supposed to cook a steak, and what it means to cook a meal worth paying $100 for. I’ve written about my experiences, and while it won’t pay the rent every month, at times I’ve been fortunate enough to be compensated for my work.

The past four years have been spent living a life of fulfillment, adventure, and pursuing things that make me happy. I’ve been able to satisfy many of my curiosities about the world around me: how people live, what motivates them, and, with it, what motivates me. I love to learn, and I love to teach.

This summer has found me working as a naturalist photography guide, leading hiking and whale-watching trips with a camera in my hand. I teach people about the eco-systems around Juneau, and how to photograph it all. No job is perfect, and some days are extremely difficult. But in the end, I’m fulfilled by what I do, and I’ve found myself very happy with my decision to spend the summer in Alaska.

Yet more than anything, I’ve enjoyed learning about the world around me. It’s reignited my childlike passion for animals — I can tell you more about humpback whales and bears than you’d ever want to know — as well as a newfound appreciation for the natural world. I’ve learned just how fragile life on this planet really is, and how humans have an incredible amount of power to alter that fragile balance — either for good, or for bad.

I have loved spending every minute of every day outside, observing nature, and teaching others about it. I’ve loved the opportunity to come home and learn the answers to things that I don’t know, so that I can better teach others. I’ve honed public speaking skills that I’ve always had, but never had the chance to practice. In short, I feel alive.

But most of all, I find that I enjoy the gathering and dissemination of knowledge. The ability to move to a place that I’ve never been before and become a pseudo-expert on its natural history and environment has awakened in me a passion that I’ve always had inside me, but have never had the chance to cultivate. I love animals, and I love nature. I love learning about it, and I love teaching it. The choices I’ve made over the past few years have led me to where I am now, and I have confidence that my adventures will only continue to lead me down a path where I can be truly happy with what I accomplish in my life.

I don’t want to be an old man, sitting in an armchair, thinking “what if…”, and that motivates me every day to take chances, and do things that might be a little off the traditional “path”.

With every passing year, and with every new challenge that I face, I discover more about myself. I learn more about what makes me happy, and about what makes me fulfilled. More than anything, I know that I’m moving my life in the right direction, because I’m making my decisions based on things that I’m passionate about. There will always be trade-offs in life — I miss my family and friends dearly, and I think about them every day. Yet I’m lucky enough to have found a group of friends and co-workers here in Juneau who’ve become as close to family as you can get in three months, and that’s because we are all here pursuing lives which we find exciting, and are passionate about.

If you had asked me as a child, I would have said that’s the only way I could imagine living my life.

Twenty-nine year-old me would have to agree.