What do you want to do when you grow up? The answer may be irrelevant.

Many years ago, I worked at a company that hired a lot of summer interns. But these weren’t your typical upper division college students or recent college graduates: they were all recent high school graduates, working for us over the summer until they started college. They all had plans, and they were spending a few months over the summer with us to get a better idea of what the business world was really like (and to make a few bucks along the way).

At the end of the summer, we held a going away party for the interns in the big conference room. Five interns and about 40 staff stood around and shared small talk and cake. Conspicuously absent was Phil, our company president, who was stuck on a conference call.

As the party was starting to wind down, Phil walked in, apologized for being late, and gave a brief speech thanking the interns for the contributions they had made to the organization over the summer. Then he asked the interns, who were all huddled together on one side of the conference room:

“So what are your plans now?”

One by one the interns shared where they were going to college, what they would be majoring in, and the jobs they were going to get after graduation. It was all very well thought out, and very impressive.

“It’s nice that you all know exactly what you want to do,” Phil said. Then he turned around to his staff and asked:

“How many of you are doing today exactly what you thought you’d be doing when you graduated from high school?”

Of the approximately 40 staff in the room, just one woman raised her hand. And that was Phil’s personal secretary, who was in her mid to late 60s and just a couple months away from retirement.

I’m not sure who was more shocked–the interns, or the long-time staffers–but a lot of jaws dropped in that conference room.

And then Phil trotted off to his next conference call.

—–

For every person who wanted to be a doctor since they were six years old and then went out and actually did it, there are hundreds of people who wanted to be doctors and ended up in other places. Those people are not failures. In fact, most of them are very successful.

It’s good to have a plan. But it’s also good to be flexible, or “agile” in the parlance of our times. Don’t be a slave to your plan. Because you never know what life might throw at you…

Dirt like Blood

This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

There’s something so primal about red dirt. At least it’s always been that way to me.  Whenever I see red dirt, I experience a mysterious attraction.

In the red dirt.  Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

In the red dirt. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

Soil appears red when it contains a high concentration of iron. Perhaps somewhere, deep in our DNA, our instincts tell us to go towards the blood red dirt because of the iron content. Humans need iron to survive. It’s literally in our blood.

Or perhaps it’s something else, something more cerebral. Perhaps it’s more of a calling; to go back, to a place we’ve never been, but to the place we came from.

Like the salmon born and raised in captivity, released to the wild, attracted like a magnet to one stream out of so many, a stream it has never been to before, yet it somehow knows: This is it. This is the one. This is home.

Like a magnet, Africa had pulled me back. It was an attraction that was strong, steady, and irresistible; it tugged a little at my brain, and at my heart, but mostly at my gut, rekindling a deep desire—a desire to return to a place I’d never been before, the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana; but to a place where I had always been, through my ancestors, through all of our ancestors, so long ago: Africa.

To finally see a place I’ve always seen.

To get to know a place I’ve always known.

To finally understand where I came from. Where we all came from.

The real “old country”. The original homeland.

Because we are all African. The rest is just a matter of timing.

—–

I remember once hearing a scientist say that by the time you smell something, microscopic particles of whatever you smell have already entered deep into your body. Although the context was toxic and potentially poisonous chemicals, the same goes for anything else—if you smell it, it has entered your body. By the time you’ve smelled it, it’s already inside of you; it’s become part of you.

“Tuli” is the Setswana word for dust, and the dust is everywhere in the Tuli region. It works its way in to everything. You can smell it in your nostrils. You can taste it on your tongue. You can feel the grittiness in your mouth.

It’s hard to put an experience like my time in the Tuli Wilderness into words, but I have attempted to do so to the best of my abilities here. It was an experience, or more of a magnificent portfolio of experiences, that will stick with me forever. The Tuli is inside of me. It’s become part of me. I can still taste it. It’s pumping through my veins.

—–

Two weeks, alone but not alone, in a place where man was meant to be—always meant to be. I set about this adventure thinking that it was just a deeply personal journey, maybe even a “midlife crisis,” a vacation of sorts meant to reconnect with nature and with the true meaning of humanity. But in the end, it was not about a vacation, but about a life.

It wasn’t an escape from technology, civilization, and people, but a blending of old and new experiences, of the past and the future. And though at times it was deeply personal and illuminating, in the end, it wasn’t at all about “me”; it was about something bigger.

Going back isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. A journey that never ends.

Back to the basics.

Back to the beginning.

Back to the bundu.

—–

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”
—Ernest Hemmingway