2017 in Review

In 2015 I posted a picture to Instagram taken at my old apartment on West 3rd Street in the village, affectionately known as the Blackhole for its ability to suck people into late night conversations or impromptu dance parties. My caption was “Farewell, Blackhole. Perhaps the most transformative place in my life.” The picture is of the four of us who were living there as we moved onto new phases of our lives.

I lived in that apartment for over five years. Sometimes with best friends, other times new friends, and a girlfriend. It was the apartment I lived in when I first moved to New York City and because of that, the apartment embodies all the experiences and challenges one goes through when moving to a new city: making a new life, working on a new career, and constantly meeting new people. I changed, I made mistakes, I grew, and with that, my goals in life evolved as well.

Those five years, the most transformative years in my life, are something I attach to that apartment. Some who lived there with me feel similarly about their experience and time there. This is not to say the Blackhole was a magical place, but more likely a function of our age and New York City itself. Sometimes it was rough, but in whole and in retrospect, incredibly positive.

Reflecting on 2017, but not yet removed enough from it, I am asking myself: Has this year been transformative?

Transformation only comes through challenge.

In the latter half of 2014, I started work at a new firm in a more senior position. Around this time I received a GMAT score I was finally pleased with, and I felt like new challenges were on the horizon. Something like a nice deep breath to me, I needed new challenges. The GMAT may have been challenging, but it was not rewarding unto itself. I left the Blackhole in 2015 to move into an apartment with my, then, girlfriend. I had recently submitted an application to Columbia Business School but did not yet know if I was to be invited for an interview.

A new apartment and living arrangements, a new job, and news on the line from a dream school (I hoped). So, where do 2015 and 2016 fit into this post about 2017?

They were total blurs, but more importantly, were years that compounded upon all the others.

Transformation didn’t stop with the Blackhole. Some days it felt as though it slowed, but in retrospect, there was no stopping the train. One sweltering morning in 2015 we were still unpacking the new apartment as I took the A Train to Morningside Heights to interview. I arrived in a sweat-soaked suit and left knowing I had my invitation. That is when the afterburners kicked on, late 2015. In 2016 I was quite unhelpful in planning a wedding, but that was going on too. It was a rewarding year, but a fast one. I am still in shock of my classmates who have children, gave birth, or had major structural changes to their employment during our time at Columbia, that is an entire dimension I did not have to grapple.

A long-held goal of furthering my education was finally realized as I graduated in May. One step along a path that I thought I had fairly well sorted out. It turned out to have taught me too much, and I have been flooded with ideas of what I wanted my next step to be. I was, however, quite certain I wanted a new step and totally new kind of challenge. With that, I resigned from a very good position with a very nice firm in New York. Shell and I had only one plan: to not renew our lease in order to go wander the world for a while. After graduation, we both knew some life upheaval was ahead of us as we contemplated a geographical change, and if we didn’t make time for an adventure now, it wouldn’t happen. We had the luxury of making a choice.

If the brain needs rest (diffuse mode vs focused mode) for information to be written to and analyzed by, the subconscious, then this might be my rest period. Perhaps through letting the mind escape from the routine I had been living it would work on the experiences of the past, and I might find some clarity for what I wanted in my future. I’m lucky, and quite grateful, for the opportunity to allow for such diffuse mode thinking, and having an amazing experience along the way. I wrestled with a deep fear that taking time off from the workforce would wither away at me personally, and trouble my future chances of employment and traditionally defined success. I continue to work on my irrational fears, and take solace in the many examples of successful people taking time off to regroup and reassess. Once you start looking, they are plentiful. Whether the time off was voluntary or involuntary, many will cite that time off as something of a game changer.

But with all my focus on the past and future, would we miss out on the most thrilling part of this year: the present? This is a tough discipline, and I also find it hard to explain. The vocabulary quickly moves towards the abstract, and it is not my mission to sell the present to you more than I already have in these two previous reflections. Suffice to say, I believe it is well worth your exploration. To solidify our own practice in the present we challenged ourselves with a ten-day course in Vipassana. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now: it’s a minute by minute, lifelong practice.

I think we all know that 2017 will be looked back at as yet another transformational year for both myself and Shell. But, I cannot yet put in concrete terms how 2017 has been transformative. Perhaps one cannot see until one has moved outside of the transformation process itself.

For myself, I wanted to review what has taken place.

Major pillars of my life have shifted and changed, mostly under my own direction. Some painful, some freeing, some very much to-be-determined.

At the turn or opening of the year, I married Shell. A huge step in anyone’s life, I gave myself to her, as she gave herself to me. To put it in those kinds of terms. We are one now.

Since we started traveling we’ve spent nearly every minute together, so the whole we are one thing is unusually true in our circumstance. It’s been married life on steroids. No job, office, car, or other room in the house to escape to or to blame. You might think the traveling life is stress-free and everything the Instagram Influencers make it out to be. But, the planning, budgeting, and being in some unknown or difficult places present plenty of stress and challenge. We are outside the comforting routine of life in the states, with a different set of challenges and therefore a different set of life and learning experiences. We may be in those sweet years of being newlyweds, but we are both also unabashedly creatures of routine. This experience has, no doubt, strengthened us. It’s precisely what we asked for.

The challenges have been plenty, but also give life to the adventure: The crowded and unforgiving onslaught of India. The bone-piercing cold of night at Annapurna Base Camp. The poorly represented AirBnB that reeked of stale cigarettes that seeped into everything we own in Croatia. Sleeping with beetles in the Sahara. Driving into a pedestrian square in Germany. A brush with authorities in Serbia. Driving in Bosnia, generally. And that somewhat too frequent challenge of staying and sleeping in a place that makes you just itch all over. A constant reminder of the control one’s mind has over one’s body.

It is not as if we are unremunerated for these challenges, quite the contrary.

We’ve enjoyed the ancient and charming cities of Europe. Cheap and plentiful Barolos. Dove deep into the expansive history of the continent, and drove across parts of the Balkans that only a few people I know have been to. Rafted in Montenegro and Bosnia through some of the most pristine fresh waters in the world, and bathed on some of the most gorgeous Adriatic seas and coastlines.

We rode dromedaries into the Sahara and were presented unforgettable scenery and got to know some exuberant Berbers. We’ve explored the tight and discombobulating medinas of Marrakech and Fes, and the large open squares filled with snake charmers and other exotic peoples.

In Portugal, we ate many more Pastel de Natas than would be normally advisable, and by evening washed it all down with exquisite full-bodied red wines that presented no challenge to our budget. We got trapped in Spain thanks to the French, only to have benefitted with an unforgettable light show and new friends in Bilbao, and an amazing wine tour through Rioja with old friends and new.

We felt at home in London for more than a week as some friends generously opened their home to us and we took joy in cooking, and some semblance of a routine. We loved spending a good amount of time with people other than just the two of us and had evening conversations to look forward to. We also found ourselves exploring a major global city, something I had missed.

In the Himalaya, we trekked through scenery that remains in my memory to be utterly shocking in beauty and expanse, and we made some new friends along the way. I took it in while consuming The Snow Leopard and Seven Years in Tibet.

We challenged ourselves through India, seeing as much as we could through Rajasthan. Taking in ancient cities, touring palaces still housing princes today, humbly exploring the Taj Mahal, meanwhile eating everything we could throughout the country.

Up to the dazzling Golden Temple and explored the Sikh city of Amritsar, and experienced the nearby Wagah Border ceremony. Explored the village of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, watched the monks debate in the open halls of the temple. And, helped Tibetan refugees and monks learn English through conversation.

We’ve felt the afterglow of ten days of silence and intense meditation training with S. N. Goenka. Many people pay thousands of dollars for a similar experience. Whereas, Goenka has designed a no-frills and strict experience based on donations available the world over, removed from dogma and religious doctrine. Essentially, leaving nothing more than science and ancient technique. Lifelong wisdom, for the price you’d like to pay.

We spent the holidays in Malaysia, where they do a spectacular job of celebrating a consumerist Christmas. If it weren’t for the tropical climate, I think I would have been spectacularly homesick at this season. Somehow, I did not feel in the holiday mood. My knee-jerk reaction is to blame the climate, but I do wonder if it is simply lack of family and friends. Lack of the familiar and traditional that I’ve been able to count on for 30+ years. Last year’s Christmas was a tropical Hawaiian Christmas, and it was every bit of holiday feel and celebration for which I could ask.

We shot quickly through Singapore where we celebrated my birthday and our anniversary by way of the Sundown Soiree at The Fullerton Bay, and we got some quality FaceTime in with both families in Hilo and Portland. We celebrated New Years with friends from school who topped off their epic trip through Australia and New Zealand with us in Bali. Where we enjoyed our own private pool, scootered around the area, and explored all the eating Canggu could throw at us. We also shot off very illegal fireworks right there on the beach.

As one looked down the beach as it wrapped up at the southern tip of the island, all one could see were fireworks for miles. At the stroke of midnight, the fireworks at the seaside resort we were at were so intense it rained packing gravel on us. Easily one of the best New Years we’ve ever had. That’s a tall order considering our wedding was last year. This was topped off with a hiking tour that took us into the crater of Kawah Ijen to see where the sulfur miners still work today on Java, a panoramic is pictured above. The pre-dawn hike allows one to see the burning blue flames produced by the volcano and burning sulfur. All in, an epic end to 2017.

This year leaves me with more questions than answers. I think I’d be naive in saying there have been no answers, I simply think my field of vision is continuing to grow so quickly that I am not certain where to place my focus. This is a good to have problem, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m looking forward to compiling a post of materials I’ve enjoyed most over these past few months, in the hopes it will provide growth and fulfillment to someone else and serve as a reminder to myself where to dig for the clarity and motivation that I feel right now.

I’m terribly excited for our future.

The immediate: Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The not so immediate: spending time with family and friends in Hawaii, Oregon, Indiana, and hopefully New York – Along with finding out just what we’ll do and where we’ll call home when we return stateside.

By the time we make it to Oregon, I’ll be an uncle x2. That’s pretty damn exciting.

Thanks for reading.

By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.