“You’re living in a dream world, sweetheart.” Was that supposed to be an insult? A male Karen hurled that at me over a bag of trail mix, as I shared that I was on a search for fulfillment.

The precise sentiment that sparked this retort, oddly enough, was me saying that I wanted a pet goat and a couple of chickens. Given that both goats and chickens do in fact exist, I’m not sure which part I was dreaming up.

The real offense was sharing my mission to be fulfilled in life. That mission rubs some people the wrong way.

This very blog post may rub some people the wrong way, but telling someone this story has been on my heart for a while.

Thousands of people read this blog every week, but most people don’t know anything about me, the human behind it. A lot of people won’t be interested, and just came here to learn how to remove armpit stains from their favorite top.

No hard feelings. Long live your high school band t-shirt.

But for those of you who are interested, hello. I’m Kayla. I’d give you a hug and buy you a drink if I could. Thank you for wanting to say hello.

A woman (the owner of this blog) smiles at the camera, sitting at a terrace with a huge German beer and a deck of cards
Cheers to you, my friend. Berlin, 2018

The First Question Everyone Asks

A sunset paddle in Pennsylvania, 2018

Pennsylvania, USA. That is the answer to the inevitable question “where are you from?” For years now, I’ve felt distant giving that answer because I haven’t lived there in five years.

Five years isn’t that long when you zoom out, but five years in real-time is something more profound than it looks on paper. And five years in your 20s is a saga fit for Middle Earth.

Those five years have taken me from being a fresh college grad in Pennsylvania, to moving across the country to Seattle, to then moving again to Chicago. Next up was backpacking full-time through Latin America, and then moving to the Netherlands.

Change of address forms. Visas. Packing, and packing again.

Ready to move from Seattle to Chicago, after only living in Seattle for 11 months. Some chapters in life are short. 2016

And, the second question people always ask

I’ve always been jealous of people who have a simple answer to the question “what do you do?”

It’s very straightforward for some people. But, the hats I’ve worn are numerous:

  • Journalist
  • Nanny
  • Event security (think: metal detector wand)
  • Non-armed US service member
  • Freelance writer
  • Camp councelor
  • Nanny, again (being a 27-year-old nanny was a surprise)
  • Flower delivery driver
  • Plasma “donor” (you’ve got money pumping through your veins!)
  • Freelance graphic designer
  • Work exchange (“let me paint for your fence in exchange for room and board”)
  • Corporate marketer
  • House painter
  • Pet sitter
  • Pinterest manager (still in progress)
  • And finally, my favorite: blogger

Some of these hats were worn at the same time. “Do you want to know what I do for money during the days or in the evenings?”

Truthfully, I’ve come to believe that part of the success of your 20s lies in how many things you try. And perhaps, how many things you try with disregard for your career or LinkedIn profile.

This lesson was very difficult for me to learn. I spent years disinterested in anything that couldn’t enhance my resume. It took a brutal detox (in the form of moving to a foreign country where no one would hire me) to change.

If you need a permission slip to do the same, this is it. Life will try to lull you to sleep and convince you that fun, joy, and passion are optional. Wait – is it a lullaby that puts us to sleep, or are we simply bludgeoned unconscious?

Whatever it is, it’s strong.

The post-graduation brick wall

My biggest piece of advice to anyone in their 20s is to search like your life depends on it.

Because, it does. Every job, relocation, and relationship will alter the trajectory of your life unrecognizably.

You don’t get to pick from a menu, where you’re provided with all of the information you need to decide. Boss that gives me anxiety attacks? I’ll get the curry instead.

No, you pick a door. You are not allowed to look behind it before you choose. Sometimes, the door remains open and you’re able to walk back out. Some doors close permanently.

It’s a structureless badlands.

After I graduated from college, I was completely devastated by the lack of structure. I had been a student for the entirety of my memory. If I wasn’t a student, what was I?

The answer WASN’T going to be: an unhappy cubical-dwelling shell of a person.

So I joined AmeriCorps. A year of community service? Sign me up. A Year Of Purpose And Adventure was how it sounded. You know what? I ended up alone in a fluorescent-lit cubicle. Sweet irony.

But I did feel like an empty shell of a person, so at least I wasn’t wrong about everything.

My cubical. Even the dog couldn’t cheer it up. After I took this photo, he peed under my desk. Lil bastard has just been out on a walk, too. Seattle, Washington 2015

And thus the wonderful habit of asking *very specific questions* in interviews was born. I still recommend spending a year in AmeriCorps or volunteering, but read this advice first to spare you my mistakes.

The AmeriCorps advice blog was one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, but I still get a lot of emails from fresh graduates, looking at the rushing multi-lane highway of the workforce and trying to decide where to merge on.

A woman (the owner of this blog) stands in a cubicle that is filled with balloons. She is laughing and dancing in the balloons wearing business clothes and a backpack
It won’t all be bleak; I made some amazing, lasting friendships from that first job out of college. Pictured here, my coworkers surprised me on my birthday. Seattle, 2016

Defining your 20s

There is something indescribably difficult about the chapter following school. How you handle that freefall will determine much about your adulthood.

Personally, I handled that chapter very dramatically. I was *haunted* by a quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere

Now, I won’t drone on and on about the drain working in a cubicle had on me. Not because I’m above it, but because I already do that here.

Truth to be told, I owe my feverish pursuit of passion to that unhappy chapter. I journeyed many miles within myself while sitting lifelessly inside that cubical. Unhappiness has a way of holding up a mirror until you’re ready to look.

All I can say about my time being unfulfilled and bored is, thank God I was stubborn enough to not accept it and pursue something else.

The real corporate F word: fun

If you want to fluster a florescent-lit board room full of suits, ask them about how much they prioritize fun in their lives.

This isn’t hypothetical. I encourage you, no matter where you work, to ask this question. The answers will be fascinating.

That’s what I did. I was genuinely searching for an answer to the question I had been chewing on since graduating: does fun matter in life?

So I asked my colleagues, and everyone I knew, if they thought life was supposed to be fun.

The answer was clear: life ought to be fun in theoryyyyy, but in practice, it’s not.

What I gathered through my hungry questioning was that most people weren’t even pursuing fun. How can you score if you’re not even taking shots? Fun was never in the cards for many people.

Yet, something mysterious happens when you decide to pursue fun in your life. People come out of the woodwork to tell you why they’re not doing the same.

At my corporate job, when it was announced that I was leaving my position to work online and travel full-time, I was swarmed. People who had never struck up a conversation with me in my entire year of employment materialized at my side while I refilled my coffee cup.

“That was my dream, too….”
“I’d leave my life in a heartbeat…”
“I have big plans for retirement…”

Perhaps every person (and, there were many) had 100% valid reasons for postponing what they wanted to do. But that doesn’t stop it from being sad.

Not everyone can pursue the life they really want. And of among those that can, few people will.

A woman and man (the ones who run this website) have their backs to the camera and are looking out at Machu Picchu. It's foggy and the clouds sit on top of the green mountains above the Incan ruins
Everything you see in pictures is real, and you could be there tomorrow with a one-way ticket. With that realization, there’s very little reason to wait. Meru, 2018

While we’re still here

Between the ages of 21 and 22, seven people in my life died. In this order, there was: cancer, a different cancer, stopped breathing with an inconclusive autopsy, hit by a car, plane crash (two relatives together), and a heart attack.

My last year of college was peppered with processions and discussions about what really matters in life over bad funeral home coffee. Maybe this is where my bombastic sense of importance over my life choices came from.

In particular, I owe the greatest life lesson to my Aunt Jane. She worked incredibly hard as a cleaner, and was counting down the days to her retirement for years. On any given day when you’d asked her how she was, she would reply by telling you how many days she had left until retirement.

One night leaving work, she was hit by a car in the parking lot.

She had less than a year left until retirement. It still gives me chills to type.

And then there was my friend and coworker Athen, who was 22, and undoubtedly one of the best people I’ll ever meet. He was in a hit-and-run accident as well. I was on the other side of the country when it happened and couldn’t even attend his funeral. But it still begged, or rather screamed, the question: if it happened to him yesterday, who am I to believe that it couldn’t happen to me tomorrow?

I know that it is a privilege to pursue the exact life that you want. It reeks of privilege to leave a salaried job to go backpacking. It’s so privileged that I am even embarrassed to say it, and for it to be heard by someone who might not be able to provide for themselves or their families.

It’s not a blueprint I’m selling for you, or for anyone else. I don’t even truly know what decisions are right for me, so I could never know what’s right for someone else. That arrogance would be reckless.

For whatever reason you’re here listening, I guess I’d just like to say that your reckoning with life, time, purpose, and joy are valid. And if you decide to see where that road of reckoning takes you, you have a friend along the path.

Four American Red Cross volunteers smile for the camera, wearing American Red Cross vests and lanyards
Athen’s the one in the black hat. He was incredibly fun to be around and always wore printed socks, with his pants short enough that you could see (and couldn’t help but talk about). Washington State, 2016

So life, you say

The most difficult existential question that we will tackle with our lives is coincidentally used to pester 6-year-olds.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

There are only a handful of grown-ups I know with an answer to that question. An answer that they’re actually living is an even more endangered breed.

You know what I think? Maybe adults started pressing children for answers because they were looking for ideas themselves.

Wrapped into those 10 words are difficult implied questions….

  • How do you want to spend your days?
  • What do you feel your gifts are?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?

Ten-year-old me had a much more confident answer than 20-year-old me did. I didn’t start making noteworthy progress on this answer until 24-year-old me started this blog.

I felt that the thing I was meant to do was to communicate, both in writing and visual form. That isn’t meant to sound artificially obscure; that is truly the only way to describe how I liked to spend my time.

But, communicate what?

I’d written a lot, but I’d cared about most of the topics very little.

  • Local man has off-the-charts love of space
  • Some people protest any and all forms of tax increases outside of the courthouse
  • Small-budget Christian film streams at local church and one of the actors was supposed to attend but then they got sick

Those were all actual articles I wrote for the newspaper that I worked at in my last year of college. No disrespect to any of the subjects; the NASA enthusiast, in particular, was a very kind and smart man.

It’s the randomness that makes it noteworthy, and the randomness didn’t stop there.

My corporate marketing job was at an architecture firm. One day, a colleague asked me what I loved most about architecture.

Perhaps a little too nonchalantly given I was brand new to the firm, I told him I didn’t even like architecture, let alone love it.

Ten-year-old me would’ve judged this bored adult so hard.

That was in 2016. Nothing is “done” yet, but I think she’d be cheering me on, now.

A woman (the owner of this blog) smiles at the camera in front of a Dutch canal covered in houseboats
My home in the Netherlands: Groningen, 2018

I’m *Trying* To Live in a dream world, sweetheart

I don’t do anything in life because I’m brave. I do it all because I’m terrified of missing my shot (cue the Hamilton soundtrack).

Strangely enough, some people will never face this struggle. Some people will live happy, content lives without ever having to claw their way to find it.

If you’re here, I reckon that, like me, you’ve been clawing. I hope that you don’t grow too tired to stop.

I wish that for all of us.