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When I was sixteen, I learned the value of stepping out of my comfort zone. I had spent the majority of my life in Anderson, SC going to school, hanging with friends, playing soccer. So when a teacher at my high school presented the opportunity to travel to China as a foreign exchange student, I wanted the adventure, and so did my friends. We had seven months to prepare.
But there were obstacles. Money was one – the trip would cost $2300 for two weeks. That would have been a big enough reason not to go, especially when you don’t have parents handing over the cash. If only it were that simple. The greater challenge was mental. The teacher had told us that traveling to China would not be easy. He told us that the food would be unlike anything we had ever tasted, that we would see extreme poverty, and that we would walk most places, so being in top physical shape was crucial. In other words, it was not going to be a vacation. This was going to be a hardcore trip.
I started fundraising for the trip, working at school to pay for the plane ticket. Family and family friends also helped out, which I deeply appreciated. Unfortunately, every one of my friends decided not to go. Sure, there were other kids from my school who committed to the program, but without my closest friends, I knew the experience would be harder.
The idea of leaving America was unsettling. I had never left the country let alone faced an eighteen-hour flight around the globe, which was how long it took to reach Beijing, China. To say I was stepping outside of my comfort zone is a super understatement!
Upon arriving in China, I immediately became the minority surrounded by millions of people who spoke only Mandarin, not English. That was one of the scariest parts of the experience – not speaking or understanding the language. The people stared at me as I walked down the street. They took pictures of me, and with me. Beijing was a nice city in comparison to the majority of cities in China, though it still had smog, litter, disease, and crime.
It wasn’t until I went inside the heart of the country that I truly realized that I had stepped into a whole different world, one of extreme poverty. I went from the grandeur of the Great Wall to the dirty rice fields of inner China. These people had nothing! I felt true compassion for the first time in my life. I had left my comfort zone so far away, and I didn’t even miss it. Sure, I missed a home cooked meal, but my eyes and taste buds were exposed to something completely out of my comfort zone, and I soaked it up.
At one point we traveled by mamu (a taxi cab, which is a motorbike with a cart) to a middle school – grades 7-9. We had printed cards with the address of our destination so that the driver knew where to take us. Some students from our group got lost and ended up arriving at our destination much later than expected, a frightening experience to say the least (some were even in tears). The school we visited was different from anything I have heard of or experience in America. It was a boarding school with thirty-five hundred students. There was no air conditioning, we were told not to even step into the bathrooms because they were revolting, and the English class we attended was crammed with fifty or sixty kids in a room way too small for that number of students. They attended school from eight in the morning until seven at night with a two-hour mid-afternoon break for naptime. Each day, from 7:30 until 8:00 A.M., the students were outside on their school field doing tai chi.
Food was definitely an issue. Some kids hardly ate anything during the trip, but I am one to try new things, including fish heads, scorpion, squid,octopus, and even snake. We stayed in a real nasty hotel – there wasn’t a vacuum cleaner in the entire place, we always walked with our shoes on, and bugs were crawling everywhere, even the beds.
If I had the choice to take that trip again, I would pack my bags and go immediately. Life is all about experiences. We learn through making decisions. From those decisions come experiences, and from experiences we can learn how to step outside our comfort zone. The comfort zone constrains us, while leaving that place of comfort defines us. My trip to China was definitely one of the most defining moments of my life, and I hope it inspires others to step out of their comfort zones.
While at first I was constrained by fears of all these things I had heard about China, ultimately I wanted to experience it for myself to know the truth. The experience changed me, changed my perspective on the world. I had never seen so much poverty in a nation, except for on TV, and experiencing it touched me in a much more personal way than seeing it on TV.
Renowned video game developer Steven Coallier once said, “Attack life, it’s going to kill you anyway.” He couldn’t be more right! Life is about experiencing all that you can, but if you are held back by your fears then you will stay stuck inside of your comfort zone forever. It takes true courage to take that leap, but once you do you’ll never look back and miss it.
Before I left for China, I was perfectly content staying where I was. There was no reason for me to go on that trip other than the desire to leave my comfort zone and experience all the differences that China had to offer. I ate some of the grossest (and best) food I’ve ever tasted. I made friendships that will last forever. And most of all, I kicked my comfort zone to the curb, and now try to live every moment as if it were my last. I am more willing to help others, more up for personal challenges and try new things.
All of life’s experiences, whether good or bad, define who you are. Challenge yourself – completely revolutionize your future. It doesn’t have to be by traveling to China, though I recommend it! You could challenge yourself by taking a harder course in school or not smoking dope when everyone else is doing it. Desire to have more, do more, and see yourself as someone who can be different by stepping out of your comfort zone. If I had passed up this opportunity to go to China, I don’t know if it would ever have come up again. One thing is for sure, my life would not be the same.
“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” – Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist and lyricist
About Jeremy West: Jeremy is a student at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL studying film. He’s a photographer, writer, designer, and Apple computer lover. His blog, NOVEL THOUGHTS, is another way he shares his creative side with the world – reviewing YA novels, interviewing authors, and providing cool opportunities to win awesome giveaways. Find Jeremy through his blog at www.novelthoughtsblog.com
Sometimes Classes Aren't Enough!
*First, thanks to a reader for suggesting this topic! <3
Perhaps you’re a student approaching the possible dreaded decision of what to do after high school. Or, perhaps you’re in college and you haven’t declared a major yet. Okay, so let’s tackle these different scenarios.
You’ve already been asked about a million times what you’re going to do with your life, what college you’re going to attend, and/or what you would like to major in. “Fun” isn’t exactly the answer most people would expect or appreciate, but you might have a little “fun” throwing it out there. Lol. “I don’t know,” is a viable answer, but most people don’t seem to buy into it.
You’ve been in college for two years, and you still don’t know what you want to do. The four-year-plan seems to be looking more like the five or six-year-plan. Now what? Should you declare, even if you’re not sure you’ll be happy with your decision?
I’m not going to tell you not to worry about it, but I am going to tell you don’t spend too much time dwelling on it. Plans can and do change, but having some kind of plan is helpful.
1. Know yourself. What are your interests? Do you like to: Read, write, dance, sing, play a musical instrument, socialize, hibernate, debate, cook, play sports, paint, watch sports, sail, create science experiments… Computers, films, fashion, the beach, photography, politics, your faith, warm weather, cold weather…
The more you know about yourself, the better decisions you can make. If you want, make a list of you likes and dislikes.
2. Be willing to explore. You might think that you’d like to be a writer, but take the opportunity to try out different courses. A cousin took a linguistics class her freshman year and fell in love with it. She ended up getting a dual degree in business and linguistics. Another friend was interested in being an English major, but she found that Art History were one of her most favorite courses. Now she integrates Art History in her writing. A family member uses www.ratemyprofessor.com and saw that an Archeology professor received high ratings. He took the class and loved it.
Don’t be afraid to change majors. When I was touring colleges with my elder son we heard an admissions director say that 90% of all students change their majors.
3. Use Internet and social media sites to learn about yourself, integrate your interests/passions, and connect with people. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, MySpace are all great social media sites, but how are you using them? If they’re just for socializing with friends, then you’re missing a huge component that could help you figure out what you want to do with your life, or at the very least, utilize a talent that you possess. Nicole, who started www.wordforteens.com in 2007 when she was thirteen, uses her passion for reading and has created a highly successful YA book blog. It includes author interviews, giveaways, reviews, and some cool personal interests – she’s a Johnny Depp fan. J Nicole utilizes social media sites like Twitter (555 followers as of today) to share her thoughts and connect with readers/authors! Pretty amazing! Blogging is a great way to share your interests with others. Anyone can utilize social media sites like Nicole has – to connect with other people who have similar interests. Want to know more about scuba diving? Use social media to learn more and it is an effective use of your time to discover what you do and do not like about a topic.
4. Take responsibility for the decisions you make. Want to know how this connects with figuring out what to do with your life? It may seem simple, but it’s not. If you make poor choices, the consequences can be severe. How can you have direction if you are getting into trouble, drifting, vegging, doing drugs, binge drinking? I can’t begin to tell you how many incredible, bright teens/YA end up making poor choices and find themselves in such difficult situations that they can’t dig themselves out – at least not for awhile. The key is to ultimately take responsibility for the choices you make and THINK FIRST! Do something active, positive, even if that means going on a walk through the mall to figure out what kinds of things you like and don’t like. And gasp – do it alone so that you’re not influenced by what a friend thinks.
5. If you’re passionate about something, pursue your passion. Please, please be passionate about something. Apathy is your enemy. Care about something! Dogs? Art? Music? A family member loves film/multi-media. We encouraged him to use his talents to: 1. Start his own business, which he did when he was fifteen. 2. To find a college where he could excel in this area. We knew that if he really loved film, then he would need to integrate it into his academic life too. He’s now at BU in the Business Honors Program and getting a second degree in Communications with a focus on film. If you don’t utilize your passions in some way, you’re going to be awfully unhappy. Whether you find a club, play intramural sports, take art classes, join an a cappella group, find some way to engage your passions.
5. I’ve said it in other articles on this blog, but it’s important to mention here, find mentors/role models! You want to be the best writer? Great, a wonderful ambition – maybe you’re close, maybe you’re interested, but don’t know how to get started, or maybe you’ve already won awards or have been published. If you really want to excel, continue to grow and learn, choose top authors and read their work – study it, digest it, understand it to the best of your ability. This goes for many things in life.
6. Surround yourself with people who have the same interests, but aren’t so competitive that they can’t be supportive. Negative, self-centered, egomaniacs have a tendency to surround themselves with people who reflect their beliefs or whom they can bully/boss around. Choose your friends wisely. Don’t give your personal power up to anyone! (Look for a future blog piece coming soon!)
7. Volunteer. I’ve known many teens/YA who have discovered what they want to do with their lives through volunteer work. Many have used these experiences to get paying summer jobs. There are thousands of non-profit organizations, many through churches and synagogues, that are in desperate need for volunteers. Ask around your high school or college – I am certain you can find a perfect match for you.
And last but not least…
8. Your experiences can shape who you are, but they don’t need to define you. Mistakes happen. Hopefully the consequences of those mistakes won’t be life changing. Learn from them and move on. People don’t make decisions or changes because of fear. Most fears are in a person’s head. Ask yourself what is or isn’t real and then be willing to at least explore different possibilities.
Hope this helps. Liza
Another thing to cherish - photograph beautiful things, capture memories.
Where have the last eighteen years gone? At 5:07 A.M. this morning I sat at our kitchen table going through iphone apps when my son asked me if I had any last minute Words of Wisdom before he left for Boston University. At that moment, I had none.
“Are you going to keep looking at that iphone?” he asked.
“It’s a distraction,” I said. “Plus you’ve taken care of everything with my phone.”
“That’s just one thing you’re going to miss about having me around,” he said. And he’s right. He also wanted to know where my tears were. They were there, I just didn’t want to show them because inside I was a mess and I’m not big on teary good-byes.
So since he asked, I’m going to try and deliver those Words of Wisdom.
1. Dream HUGE. We have always said you can change the world and we meant it and mean it still. But dreams cannot come true without ACTION. You need to make them happen by setting clear goals, staying focused, working hard, and staying determined until you accomplish it. Once you do, find new dreams and make them happen.
2. Success and Failure: Life is full of both, so learn from them – they’re a part of the journey. Be excited for your successes, but keep moving forward. It’s okay to be disappointed by failures, but don’t let them hold you back for a second. Continue to put one foot in front of the other. As long as you do, you’ll be just fine – no, great. Remember the world is big enough for lots of people to be successful. Rejoice with them, admire them, and then do your own thing!
3. Promises: Your word means everything. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, then do it. If you can’t, have the courage to be honest, even if you’ve given your word. Your credibility is at stake. We all know people whose word means nothing. Don’t be like them.
4. Enjoy and Value Life (Family, Friends, and Humankind) NOT Things: There is nothing wrong with enjoying nice things, but ultimately relationships are the most important. Grandpa Jack taught us that. He had very little materially. His greatest treasures were his family and friends. Our successes were his successes, our pains – his pains. So, be tremendously successful and enjoy the rewards – but don’t put the material rewards above people. True friends are those who listen, support you, are honest but kind, and want to see you succeed too. Be a true friend.
5. Give: Give of your time and when you start earning a living give financially too. (Even when you don’t have money, set aside at least a penny a day so that you’re thinking of those who are less fortunate than you and acting on it in a small, simple way.) Do some work for a non-profit organization or volunteer, even if it’s an hour a month.
6. Receive: Let others give to you and be gracious about it.
7. Laugh: Dick Chudnow, our cousin and the founder of ComedySportz, once brought a giant leaf to cheer me up when I was in the hospital. He said something like, “The rest of the plant was too much to carry.” It was the best present I could have received. If life’s getting too serious, find things to laugh about.
8. There is a Mind, Body, Spirit Connection: Your outlook on life has a huge impact. You are what you think… Think negative thoughts and hold on to them, then you will become them. Attitude may not be everything, but it extremely important.
9. Surround Yourself with Mentors: Learn from others who know more than you, respect them, don’t be afraid to challenge them and ask questions – but always – always with the respect they deserve. Then you can make your own decisions. Mentors are not just academic. They can be individuals you admire. I have always admired Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don – and modeled who I wanted to be as a parent after them. Choose great role models.
10. Learning is a Lifetime Quest: You’re off to college, a new beginning in your life journey. Never stop learning and never stop asking questions or seeking answers. Keep your mind fresh and seeking new challenges. Only stop learning when you’re dead.
11. Love: A soul-mate is someone who brings out the very best in the other. Someone to grow with, learn from, trust, share the same values, hope, support, give to and receive from. Someone who has the power to hurt you because she knows where you are most vulnerable, but doesn’t do it. The same goes for you. Be flexible, be respectful. You may not always be IN love, but with respect, love will be there for you.
12. Be Forgiving: Forgive us for not always being the best parents (we’ve done our very best), and ask forgiveness when you need to. Whether you are forgiven isn’t up to you. Those people who have hurt you, forgive them. They may not ask for forgiveness first or ever, but that’s okay. Forgiveness is something that comes from within.
13. Small Things in Life are Important: Holding the door open for someone, smiling at a stranger, changing a diaper, calling a friend to say hello, saying “I love you” or “I’m thinking about you,” are all very important. These things can alter someone else’s life for the better, so value them. Making a blockbuster movie will be absolutely incredible, but no more valuable than some of the small things in life.
14. Remember Who You Are: We have a strong heritage and faith. Be proud of it, maintain it, nurture it, and respect it. Let it be your guide. Celebrate and continue to grow and have a true mentor.
15. Take Care of Your Teeth: I think Grandma Lena once said that!
Recycle, Enjoy Down Time, Meet New People, Be Kind, Be Flexible, Do Things You Love, Have Fun, Have Fun, Have Fun, Have Fun… Study, Study, Study, Study… This is the best that I can do for you right now. I reserve the right to revise this list and add to it!