On Thank You Notes

If I am being honest, there are few things I have dreaded more in life than writing thank you notes. I have no idea why such a simple task has caused me so much anxiety and anguish, but writing them has always been like pulling teeth.

When I was little, I didn’t understand their purpose. I thought it was silly to write a note saying thank you for something I could thank them for in person or on the phone. And mass producing thank you notes after an event, like a birthday or Christmas, felt oddly disconnected and insincere for something so personal. In an effort to make the task easier, my mom and I would always start with a fill-in-the-blank outline, insert the recipients name and gift, and move on to the next one. An assembly line of gratitude; Quick, efficient, and completely impersonal.

Today, I was going through some piles of old papers, and as I shuffled through the stack a small, worn envelope fell in my lap. When I pulled the old card out of the previously opened envelope and revealed the card inside, I found a thank you note from 1999, when I was only 4 years old. But this wasn’t a note written to me, it was one I (and by “I”, I mean my mom) had sent to someone else. Inside was a message thanking the recipient for a birthday gift they had sent me, and it was signed KELSEY in large, crooked letters. The person who had originally received this letter had recently found it and given it back to my mom, thinking it would be fun for us to reminisce over the almost antique moment from my childhood.

But as I looked at the card, I found that the note itself isn’t what actually struck me about this tiny, yellowing card. It wasn’t the memory of the gift, or the humor of my 4-year-old handwriting. It was the fact that this person had kept this little note for all of these years. 18 years to be exact. This little message had been worth keeping for almost two decades. It had made it through many spring cleans, a few moves, and innumerable life changes. This small piece of paper had endured beyond the gift it was sent to express gratitude for.

And it made me think.

I keep every single thank you note I have every received. They end up in my piles of memories, just like the one I had been sifting through. I don’t know if I even realized I was saving them, I just did. Not all of them are thank you notes, some are holiday cards, congratulations, well wishes and “get well soons”. Some are love notes, nods of appreciation, “good lucks” and occasionally condolences. Notes from graduations, birthdays, and accomplishments, from close friends, past loves and loved ones can be found in old shoeboxes labeled “Memories”. You can find one from my friend Amy tucked into the pages of a notebook I carry with me wherever I go, and others on the shelf above my bed. These notes always survive when I clear out my stacks of old papers, change homes, or move on to something new. These little momentos from people I care deeply for, mean so much more to me than I even knew.

My childhood self wasn’t wrong, writing thank you notes isn’t always the most personal thing, especially when you are writing a lot of them. You can call someone on the phone and say a lot more than you can on a 4.5″ x 5″ card. But you can’t keep a phone call or a conversation. And what I didn’t understand back then was that the contents of the note aren’t always what matter. It’s the person behind the words that means the most.

So today, I bought a package of thank you notes, and slipped them in my bag. That way, whenever I am feeling thankful for someone in my life, all I have to do is pull one out and start writing. Because who knows, 18 years from now that card might just fall out of a stack of old memories, and make them smile like I did today.

“I need to keep some in my purse, so tell me which toy costs just some monies, not all the monies.” – Wise words from KELSEY, age 4

It’s OK to “Unfollow” Your Dreams

As a generation, we have been fed this idea that we should follow our dreams, which in theory is a truly great desire to instill in young people. It is a wonderful thing to work toward achieving a dream, especially if that dream is something that brings you fulfilment and happiness. But what defines what dream you should be striving to attain? And what happens if you find out that the dream you have been working for is no longer what you want for your future?

There is a lot of pressure to put your mind towards a single goal and work until you achieve it. And for some this is a concept that works. They know what they want and achieving it brings them joy. But for many others, I would even venture to say most people, dreams change a lot over time. When I was growing up, I was 100% certain that I wanted to be a veterinarian. That was my life plan until my sophomore year of college, when I realized that 6 more years of school and even more years worth of student loans was not what I wanted, especially if it meant I had to keep taking chemistry. This was a hard decision to make, because it meant that my entire life plan for myself was now completely gone, right out the window. I went from having a definitive path to my ultimate dream, to not really having a dream at all. So I let myself have a couple semesters to take whatever classes peaked my interest as opposed to classes that lead me to a specific major or degree. I took philosophy, psychology, sociology, and a public speaking class. I took an intro to education class, a music in film class, and a management class, none of which I would have taken had I stuck with my original Biology major.

Taking those classes really changed my perception of what I wanted for myself. I genuinely enjoyed the majority of those classes I chose to take, because I actually wanted to take them. I found that I had a passion for psychology and understanding the way people think. I loved learning about leadership and management, especially cross cultural and international business. If I had never picked up the management and leadership minor, I never would have had the opportunity to join the Isaac and Oxley Center for Business Leadership, or had the chance to go abroad through a program in the Farmer School of Business. If I fixated on my dream of being a vet, I never would have run for the bookkeeper position on the Equestrian Team, especially since it had absolutely nothing to do with biology and everything to do with accounting. There are countless opportunities I would never been exposed to if I hadn’t accepted that what I thought was my dream, wasn’t necessarily what I wanted anymore.

Once I recognized  that my dream wasn’t static, I started saying yes to a lot more opportunities, even if they were outside of what I thought I would be good at. I had no interest in going into accounting, but it turns out when I was able to do it in a way that played to my strengths and helped an organization I had a passion for, I was actually really good at it. I always told myself I would never go into business and work in a cubicle, and now I am studying management and leadership, and loving it. I think that in reality the freedom of not having a dream is what opened me up to discovering a lot about who I am and what I really want.

I now realize that having a dream doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what you want to do. A dream is about starting to understanding yourself and what drives you to do what you do. I may not know what kind of job I want to have, or know what I will be doing in 5, 10, or 20 years, but I do know that I want to do something where I am able to make a difference in some way. I know that when I look at the things I have done and accomplished in my life so far, and I dig down to my motivation for doing them, I find that I am driven by my desire to help people and improve and help grow something I am passionate about. And if I work for a group or cause that I truly believe in, I am able to do anything I put my mind to, even if it is something I never thought I would even try.

I think it is important to realize that a dream doesn’t have to be a thing or an end goal. It can be a drive, a motivation. I don’t have to know exactly how I want to help people, as long as I know that that is what I want to do. If I know that, I will be able to find a way to help people through whatever avenue that may be. In a lot of ways, having a very specific goal can limit you in the same way that it pushes you. It can tie you down to this concept that “I have to do this in order for me to achieve that”. But there are millions of successful people out there who achieved something great without intending to or following “the path”. Being open to the truth that your dreams are dynamic and relative allows you the opportunity to accept and embrace change in a way that helps you grow.

Had I never acknowledged that being a vet may not be for me, I would have missed out on a lot of opportunities that came from the uncertainty I gained. I am now able to accept that I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life, and that is ok. I am still a dreamer, I always have been. But my dreams are no longer a specific outcome, but an overarching philosophy I strive to live by. My dream is that I want to help people, and to someday inspire someone the way so many others have inspired me. I may not know what the end of that dream looks like, but I know that as long as I stay true to what drives me, I will find a way to make that dream come true. But who knows, maybe that will change too.

This is a thought piece in response to the TEDxYouth@Bath speech by Charlie McDonnell:

Oh, The Things You Will Do… And How They Change You.

They say that traveling changes you, and after a summer of exploring Europe I can honestly attest to the truth in that statement. When I think about the things that I have done over this summer, I am awed at how adventurous I have become, even in the little things in life. From the moment I was born, I had always been a picky eater. I would go to a Mexican restaurant and order a cheese quesadilla and wouldn’t be caught dead eating a veggie other than a carrot. And now I can go to local restaurants, and order dishes in foreign languages that I can’t even read. If you had asked me one year ago if I would have voluntarily gone on a 9 hour hike along the Italian coast that involved more stairs that you can count, I would have laughed in your face.

Cinque Terra Hike in Italy

I had never really considered myself an adventurous person. It wasn’t that I didn’t do fun and exciting things, or that I wasn’t going out and trying new things. I just always figured that the real adventurous adventures were meant for someone else. When I took my first trip to Europe in January of this year, a three week study abroad in London, my eyes were opened to a world I had never even imagined existed. One full of amazing experiences, new ideas, and adventure where you would least expect it. And I realised that adventure doesn’t have to be a 9 hour hike along the Cinque Terra. It can be trying a new food, or going to a Hofbrauhaus in Berlin to watch the Bundesliga fubol match, surrounded by crazy yelling Germans. It can be staying in your first hostel, or going on a pub crawl in Prague with you and 15 of your friends and all of you getting way too drunk. It can even be going to a museum and reading about something you never knew. Adventure is about making memories and trying new things, seeing something you had never seen before and learning something new.

Hofbrauhaus in Berlin

Travel doesn’t just change your idea of adventure, it changes how you see the world. I now see history and beauty around every corner, a world that had a story, not just a here and now. And that changed me. I don’t see things the way I did before. When I look at the buildings in a city, I think of the people who have lived there. Each room has story, a narrative of life that can’t be told, but stays within those walls forever. When I look at the beautiful Cathedrals, I think of the people who built it. The long hours in the blistering heat and the freezing cold, and the difficulties they must have faced. I hope they were able to feel proud that they were a part of creating such incredible, lasting beauty, that would, little did they know, go on to be seen by millions of people every year. When I walk the streets, I think of the incredible visionaries that had wandered these cities finding inspiration, and the millions of regular people who have traversed these same roads and the story each could tell.

There is not a picture in the world that can capture the beauty of La Sagrada Familia.

It took that incredible first trip to London to open my eyes to the truth that there is so much more to the world than what you can see with your eyes. And that trip sparked a desire to do more, see more, and make more of my life. Since the beginning of January to the moment I am writing this blog, I have been fortunate enough to travel to 10 new countries, and I hope that that number will continue to grow in the future. I also hope that the desire to explore and that ability to see beyond what initially meets the eye stays around, and i am able to better appreciate whatever a place has to offer, where ever I am.

Kindness Opens Doors

Sometimes I think that I underestimate the power of an act kindness in a situation of uncertainty. During my time traveling this past summer, I have seen the difference a kind “Hello, how are you?” can make on a plane, in a hotel, or riding on a bus. Kindness opens doors you didn’t even know where there, and can lead you to meet people you never would have known if you hadn’t struck up a conversation.

I have always been a little bit shy. I am very social, and like to meet new people, but sometimes I find it hard to talk to a strangers, especially initiating the conversation. But my boyfriend at the time who I was traveling with, Greg, is blessed with the ability to talk to just about anyone. He will start a conversation with anyone that he sits next to, whether that be on a plane from Barcelona to Croatia, or in the dining room of our bed and breakfast in Plictiva National Park. Both of these specific incidences changed our plans and lead us to do something differently than we had originally intended. Thanks to the British couple we met in our BnB, who were traveling for two weeks around Croatia, we were able to catch a taxi to a bus stop that scored us seats on an overbooked bus ride back to Split. As for the guy we sat next to on the plane, he invited us for drinks on the first night of the Ultra Music Festival in Split. His name was Zach, and in his time traveling Europe this summer, he had met Michael Jordan in a small coastal town in Italy, ran with the bulls in Spain, and gotten in a fist fight in Monte Carlo. Every person has a story to tell, stories I never would have heard if it weren’t for Greg’s kindness and openness to meeting new people.

Plictiva National Park

When I was in Barcelona by myself for a day and a half, I became aware of how hard it is for me to talk to strangers in a foreign city. I think there are many factors that contribute to this, from that slight shyness to the debilitating inability to communicate efficiently associated with being alone in a city whose primary language is not English. There is also a fear that goes along with being a young woman in her 20’s wandering by herself. I think that the combination of all of these have taught me to stick to myself and not talk to strangers, especially when there is a air of uncertainty. I hope that I am able to learn from Greg’s ability to be trusting and kind, and become more open to experiences that may be out of my comfort zone.

Split, Croatia

Kindness doesn’t have to be a conversation, or result in any sort of friendship. Sometimes it is just making a strangers day a little easier. At one point on the 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Split to the Plictiva National Park, which I slept almost the entirety of, I was awoken to Greg asking if I would be ok sitting next to a stranger. In my groggy confused state, I said yes, not understanding why he was asking or what was going on. Turns out while I had been asleep, the bus (which was already packed full) had picked up some local people who were only riding a few stops. There was about 5 or so people who were all standing for the entire ride. Greg stood up and offered his seat to a woman who had gotten on at the last stop. She spoke no English at all, but took the seat thankfully, and it didn’t take a common language to understand how that act of kindness had effected her.

That act effected me too. The truth is, offering my seat to a stranger on a long bus ride like that would never have occurred to me. And that doesn’t make me unkind, or selfish. I considered us lucky to have seats at all. In offering his seat to this woman, there was no promising that this stranger would get off the bus any time soon, Greg could have been standing for the 2 and 1/2 hours for all he knew. But he saw a woman that need the seat more than he did, and didn’t hesitate to help. That kindness is just one of the things I admire in him, and something I really hope I learned from him. So if you are reading this, take some time today to talk to someone new, or do something kind for someone else. You never know what doors it will open.