Michelle and I were destined to be city besties. But before we had a chance to be, she quit everything, flew to Nepal, and found her life's work.
I crossed paths with Michelle at your typical over-achiever New York summer happy hour at a gluten free pizza joint in the West Village. I recognized her as that redhead I maybe met once? Who, according to multiple friends, I'd jive with and must meet. Even before speaking to her, I agreed with those friends. From across the room, Michelle seemed approachable, unpretentious and filled with joy. I initiated the awkward, "You're that girl, right? And I'm this girl. And we're supposed to be friends" moment. We found a corner in the crowded restaurant, and deep convo'ed for two hours. We had a lot in common, including 1. our J.Crew button up shirts that screamed "not a New York native" (she's from Boulder, Colorado) and 2. we were both single and ready to mingle and saying yes to any experience thrown our way.
We had a lot to talk about, if for no other reason than Michelle is a fascinating lady! She is a former director of Social Media Week, she's worked with best-selling author Seth Godin to produce events, calls NPR's Guy Raz a personal mentor, regularly blogs about inspiration/fear/connection, and founded and facilitates a non-networky networking dinner series called Project Exponential.
Curate is such an over-used buzzword right now (along with ideate and mindfulness). But Michelle really is a curator! According to Merriam Webster, curate means "to take charge of, organize, pull together, sift through, and select." For Project Exponential dinners, Michelle strategically brings together 12-15 guests from a list of over 1,000 individuals, ranging from venture capitalists to sex therapists. She collects information on each potential attendee, then thinks through how each individual's interests, personality traits, and work might meld. The dinners bring together people who don’t otherwise often mix. The groups are encouraged to speak candidly about their life and work experiences, with the expectation of cultivating meaningful connections and helping one another grow.
“The social worker from the South Bronx has something to offer the Wall Street executive. It’s just a matter of giving them that opportunity to do so.”
One YES experience from last year dramatically changed her life. Michelle fundraised for her then-boyfriend's organization via IndieGogo to climb Everest's base camp, in order to raise awareness for at-risk students who don't otherwise have access to outdoor adventure. Then, Michelle and her boyfriend broke up. She left her job. And she was sleeping on friend's couches. Her Nepalese travel plans were one of the only sure things left in her life at the time. Michelle has a background in social work and a natural inclination to help people. So when planning the trip, she found a volunteer opportunity to participate in while vacationing overseas. She would volunteer at a school in a Buddhist monastery for a few weeks on the front-end of the trek.
Once Michelle started working in the monastery, the original trekking focus of the trip became secondary. Michelle said that when she's in New York, she feels a little too Colorado, and when in Colorado, she feels a little too New York. But in Nepal, while she was immediately recognized as 'different,' people plainly accepted her exactly as herself. She extended her original stay from three weeks to five months, and now after a brief stint back in the US to sort her visa, just landed back in Kathmandu this week!
“Only good things come from gratitude, love, and giving of self. ”
Michelle and I only met twice in-person before she first left for Nepal late last summer, but reading her blog posts over the past seven months makes me feel very close to her. She writes from an intimate place about topics ranging from taking chances and building community to the process of healing her own broken heart. In honor of Michelle's return to Nepal, "Find someplace quiet. And sit. When you feel like moving, stay. Give yourself the gift of stillness. Simply, listen." These are Michelle's words from a blog post she wrote in October 2013. Clearly, she's taking her own advice to sit in her personal place of calm. Unsure of when (if) she will return to New York, online besties will have to do, for now.
1. Find your happy place.
I moved to New York three years ago next month. I was looking for a big life shift to re-define myself; a job opportunity came across my plate, and I snagged it -- without over-thinking the details. Within four weeks, I packed up my adorbs Silverlake apartment (with a ton of help from my roommate Sarah and Mom), found a friend to move into the room I was vacating, threw a ta-ta for now party, shipped six gigantic boxes of my stuff across the country, and arrived wide-eyed in the Big Apple. I value space and access to nature, so New York was not the #1 Buzzfeed City I Should Live In. But surprisingly, I felt right at home when I moved to Brooklyn. I felt like I fit in and could be exactly the me I wanted to be. Brooklyn might not be forever (or at least my mom hopes not -- too far away), but for the right now me, Brooklyn is perfect. Where do you feel like you're in a flow? Maybe it's somewhere unexpected, like Nepal.
“Put yourself out there. Be brave. Move forward. That’s where the good experiences are.”
2. Be a part of something.
While we like one another a lot, Michelle and I probably wouldn't have met up on her brief NY layover, if not for fifty coffees. The human brain naturally organizes and perceives new information according to schemas. These mental frameworks cause us to take shortcuts when interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our individual environments. We quick-categorize people in our lives in a similar way. Michelle points out that "Value is derived from the ability to be equated easily in the minds of an audience." We file people in our brain's filing cabinet, to try to understand. When you can't fit nicely into a mental box, you're just floating around in space. But if you're a part of something (an organization, project, movement, etc.), you're filed somewhere. And once filed, you can finger paint on your file and move it around within the cabinet.
3. Your path does not have to be a straight line.
Contrary to the popular saying, I like to think of life as long. The various chapters we live don't have to build perfectly out of the last one, and the next one doesn't have to be an extension of the chapter you're living right now.