When I was ten I went to a Christian summer camp called Camp Calumet. We stayed in cabins with our counselors and a dozen other kids.
By a stroke of luck my best friend Ryan and I ended up in the cabin with the cool counselors. I don’t remember either of their names, or even what they looked like, but I remember that one of them had a sticker on his guitar case that asked, “Y B Normal?”
It was a cheesy sticker, of course, but as an impressionable kid it made me think. My counselor was probably the coolest guy I knew at the time, so I instantly equated being not normal with being cool.
So I decided to get my hair braided. This wasn’t necessarily the most original thing to do; Kriss Kross was popular at the time and at least one of its members had his hair braided. I was a huge fan. But amongst the kids at the camp, this was a very weird thing to do.
During our free time we all hung out at a set of boat docks sitting in the middle of the woods. They were there for storage, but were arranged in a square which made them a very convenient place to sit around and chat.
“Does anyone have elastics for their braces?”
A few of the girls did, and one of them offered me a few packs of fluorescent ones. I don’t have to tell you how cool fluorescent things were back in those days.
“Does anyone know how to braid?”
Before I knew it, I was sitting like the king of the docks with three girls crouched around me, braiding my hair. It took them four hours.
The braids were an instant hit. Everyone loved them. A friend of a friend pulled me aside and said very solemnly, “You are really cool. Would you mind if I got my hair braided too?”
Two of the three girls who braided my hair asked me out. I happily acquiesced to one, who is the girl I would consider my first girlfriend, although we never did so much as kiss. Now she’s on the Vermont house of representatives.
And so my first experience being weird wasn’t met with the ridicule most people experience. Instead, thanks to blind luck, I became the most popular kid at camp and was launched forward in life with the understanding that doing unusual things would make my life better.
Sixteen and a half years later I’m sitting on a train somewhere in Japan. It’s dead silent other than the clicks from my keyboard – we’re stopped at a station for some reason I might comprehend if my Japanese was better. Maybe we’re ahead of schedule.
The few other passengers on the train are sleeping. I’ve turned the seats in front of us around to use as a footrest so that I can be comfortable while I write a story about my life that random people around the world will later read.
Nine hours and five transfers later my friend Todd and I will be in a small town called Bando in the Japanese prefecture of Shikoku. We’ll arrive at the first of 88 temples in a historic 993 mile pilgrimage around Shikoku. I have no idea how far away the second one is, but we’re going to walk to it. If it’s close we’ll walk to the second one too. When it’s night time we’ll sleep on the ground next to the trail. Few people do that anymore, apparently, but it’s the traditional way to make the pilgrimage.
Once in a while, especially at times like these, I think about how incredibly fortunate I am to have this life. While most people are at work I get to be in the middle of nowhere in Japan, having a great adventure.
Some of it is luck. I’ve had the unmistakable good fortune of having an amazing family and group of friends. I was born and with good health and a high enough IQ.
Besides luck, though, a lot of what has lead me here is my near total lack of faith that most people are doing the best thing. When I see other people doing something I ask why, rather than assume that it’s the best way to do things.
As a result almost everything in my life is abnormal. I dress differently, I eat differently, I do different things for fun and for work, and I don’t even live anywhere anymore. At the risk of sounding like an Apple ad, I think differently.
There are massive benefits to living differently. It makes you think about things rather than going through life like a sheep. You feel proud about your life because it’s something you have built, rather than something that you were shoehorned into. You can’t help but be constantly happy because you are doing what you want to be doing, not what you’re told you want to be doing.
People sometimes tell me that they’d like to break free of the mold a little more, but are scared or have some weird excuse why it wouldn’t work for them.
To me it’s the opposite – the prospect of living a normal life is the most terrifying thing in the world to me. It’s a paradox because I feel like I can do anything, but I honestly don’t think I could live a normal life. I can’t even imagine what I would do if I was faced with the challenge.
At the same time, there are some downsides to being unusual. The main one is that the world isn’t built for you. In Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world, there are no restaurants where I can eat everything on the menu. The huge entertainment districts of every city have nothing that interests me. I’m not complaining, I mention it because I think it’s interesting.
Why be normal? I have no idea. I guess because it’s easy and convenient. The world is an amazing place, though. It’s spectacular. As I see more of it (I’ve covered .01% of it so far), learn about it, and think more about it, I become happier and happier and more and more honored to be a part of it.
But here’s the thing – 99% of the world and the experiences available in it are off the beaten path. To get to them you have to get off the path too.