The Power of a Forcing Function: How A Plane Ticket Transformed My Life

Forcing Function

Booking the flight was my forcing function.

There was no time to regret what I had just done. There was no time to reason myself out of it. There was no time to give fair warning to family and friends. I just had to do it. So I took what I had: time constraints, money saved, geographical knowledge, organizational skills, and sculpted the biggest turning point of my life.

A forcing function is any task, activity, or event that forces you to take action and produce a result.

A deadline.

A presentation.

A meeting.

Your four year old son.

Your rent.

Health insurance.

Your student loan debt.

These are just a handful of many things that have the power to keep you wedged into a less-than-enjoyable position. But these are priorities after all, and you just need to keep grinding so you can stay ahead. You think you have no choice. You know it doesn’t have to be this way, yet each forcing function in your life begs to differ.

“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” –Tyler Durden in Fight Club

If you are having doubts about the direction of your life, or are unsure what the future holds as we forge ahead into a post-pandemic future, you may think you have no options. In reality, you always have options. Most are just less appealing. And the least appealing? The risk of taking the leap into the unknown.

If you really boil things down to what they are, you’ll find that staying on your current unfulfilling trajectory is the biggest risk of all.

Don’t believe me?

What if you’re fired? What if you have a medical emergency forcing you out of work? What if the company you work for goes out of business? What if there is a world-wide pandemic that forces you to stay home with no pay? What if? What if? What if? That is no way to live.

So we’re presented with the dilemma of a lifetime. Play it safe, live in nervous anticipation, and squander time, wealth, energy, and opportunity? Or take risks—calculated risk—and pursue a life you don’t have to run from: wealth, time, a calm mind, and good vibes. You have options. You just haven’t been trained to see them.

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    The Best Option is the One That Creates More Options

    My mission in this post is to help you see your options. They’re not as scary as they seem. You can name at least one forcing function in your life. You know how these things operate. They can be tyrannical. They squeeze the life out of your options. Why not turn them around and use them to create more options and improve your quality of life?

    Sure, we all come from different circumstances and mindsets, but the fact is that we humans are resilient creatures. Back to the wall? Pushed against the ropes? Feeling cornered? Figurative gun to your head? You always have the power to turn it around.

    Using the power of a forcing function, I have personally taken the leap into the unknown.

    I didn’t survive.

    I flourished.

    I’m going to give you my story of how I chose to take control of my life. I’m going to show you how to break the chains of quiet desperation.

    Entering the Void

    The following is a story of the spark that set off my powerful personal transformation only three short years ago. You can replicate my process if you have the means, but convincing you to do that is not my objective. The point is to show what is possible. To show what can be done in your own life, using the simple concept of a forcing function.

    Included are excerpts from my personal journal I wrote during the Winter/Spring of 2017. Over the course of 54 days, I went from being confined to a cubicle to finishing a grueling 500-mile trek across the Spanish countryside on what is called the Camino de Santiago. It is one of the world’s most famous pilgrimages, traveled by millions of people over hundreds of years. It is a deeply personal and spiritual journey, one which pushes you to (what you think are) your limits, one which highlights the parallels between the external and internal. Simply, it was one of the defining experiences of my life. I hope this post can serve as a spark for you to take a chance, expand your mind, and open your life to opportunities that could propel you towards more meaning and happiness.

    Birth, Death, and Rebirth

    (From journal—Day 6 in Logrono, Spain)

    The Camino is divided into three distinct parts. From Pamplona to Burgos, characterized by rolling green hills, vibrant towns, and the nervous energy of pilgrims beginning their journey, this is known simply as “Birth.” From Burgos to Leon, the endless expanses of wheat fields, shadeless land dotted with abandoned towns, and home to some of the longest walking stages on the Camino, this is known as “Death.” And finally, from Leon to Santiago de Compostela, where people leave their sorrows and worries at Cruz de Ferro, weary feet stomp across rainsoaked pastures, and countless souls complete a once in a lifetime chapter at the doorstep of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, this is what they call “Rebirth.”

    Two weeks prior to embarking on this adventure, I had never even heard of the Camino de Santiago. At the time, I was days away from quitting my dead-end office job—effectively breaking out of the shackles of 9-5 sedentary lifestyle that dulls millions of people to the bone in the name of data-entry and fulfilling the dreams of others. Many months earlier, I had decided that entering payroll numbers and paying other companies’ taxes was not the life I was destined for, so I gave the standard six-month notice to my boss. He relied on me heavily, and giving myself a lot of runway would ensure that I set the process in motion without burning any bridges. This process effectively began my personal transformation that would take me from the bull-stomped streets of Pamplona to the upper echelon of a multimillion dollar restaurant empire and ultimately to a life of wealth and true freedom.

    My grandma Rosina passed away less than three weeks before I left for Madrid. It was my first experience with the death of a close family member. You can probably imagine the emotional toll it took on me personally. Being on the cusp of an already momentous transition in my life, I retreated inward for a week, coping, reading, thinking.

    I bought a book on Amazon called “Rebirth: A Fable of Love, Forgiveness, and Following Your Heart” by Kamal Ravikant, a day after my grandmother’s funeral. I read the whole thing in less than 24 hours. It was a story about Kamal’s character Amit’s experience walking the Camino. The book’s message resonated with me deeper than any book I can remember, and it came into my life at the perfect time. He spoke of the heaviness of loss and the necessity for space in a time of grieving and self-exploration. I felt that the book was speaking directly to me. I have always found it hard to talk to others about pain and uncertainty, so this book served as my sanctuary and counsel.

    Set the Forcing Function

    I closed the book after finishing it and booked my ticket to Madrid, solo. I had literally no other plan. “Just book the flight and figure it out. I need to do this” is what I told myself. It was the first time in my life I did something without overthinking it, without the pro and con lists, without anyone’s approval. Not only did I lack a plan, I also lacked time. The flight was booked for two weeks out, with a return set for five weeks later (based on the time it took Kamal’s character to do the pilgrimage in the book). This decision was one of the most educational and momentous lessons of my entire life. And I did it without a hint of hesitation.

    Booking the flight was my forcing function.

    There was no time to regret what I had just done. There was no time to reason myself out of it. There was no time to give fair warning to family and friends. I just had to do it. So I took what I had: time constraints, money saved, geographical knowledge, organizational skills, and sculpted the turning biggest turning point of my life.

    I planned each stage of my Camino—each town, each route, each distance I would walk between towns, where I would stay, how much I would spend (convert it to Euros), and everything else down to the weather forecast for the journey. I booked train tickets on both ends of the trip, one from Madrid to Pamplona and one from Santiago de Compostela back to Madrid. These built-in constraints not only ensured I would not—could not give up, but served as a creative advantage.

    Constraints beget creativity.

    Creativity begets freedom.

    I gathered the clothing and equipment I would need, ensured it would fit into a single backpack that I would carry around with me for five weeks. Passport, wallet, cash, rain jacket, hoodie, three hiking pants, three pairs of hiking socks, three pairs of anti-chaffing boxer briefs (choice of  underwear is one of the most crucial decisions you will make in packing for a long hike), three moisture-resistant t-shirts, two long-sleeved athletic shirts, comfortable hiking shoes (also crucial), deodorant, a journal, two books (The Alchemist, and Walden), phone charger, a utility knife, heavy duty Ziploc bags (to protect from rain).

    Yeah, I had all my bases covered in 20 lbs on my back.

    Just so you know, there are levels of forcing functions. It just depends on your level of risk aversion. For some, booking the flight would not suffice. You always have an exit option i.e., don’t get on the plane. For me, working a desk job was not enough to earn the financial freedom to blow off this kind of commitment. In the two week run-up to travel day, I felt really excited and a giddy nervousness. Then I scanned my ticket, walked down the boarding ramp, and only then did I feel the pit in my stomach,

    What have I done??

    Obliterate Your Comfort Zone

    After a seven hour flight, I stepped off the plane into a different world. This was not Philly. The people spoke and acted differently, the architecture in the airport was different, currency exchange at the bank was a challenge, finding my way out to the shuttle to take to the train station in downtown Madrid was literally a process.  The first day of my solo trip across an entire foreign country was the definition of culture shock. It did not expand my comfort zone, it obliterated it.

    Armed with my backpack and patchy knowledge of the Spanish language, I proceeded off the shuttle to the only thing I recognized: a local coffee shop for a “café con leche y un cruasan de chocolate” (you need only know the essential words!) It finally set in, there was no turning back. The beauty of forcing yourself into really uncomfortable situations is that you feel unstoppable when faced with any lesser challenge.

    An All-Out Assault on Familiarity

    (Day 9 in Belorado, Spain) “Don’t fight the feeling, invite the feeling.” Sage words from Bruno Mars, indeed. In this case, that “feeling” is one that we humans do everything to avoid altogether, unfamiliarity. Throughout the course of an average human life, how many times does one come up against truly unfamiliar circumstances? Maybe twice a year? New job, new school, new vacation destination, an economic downturn, just to name a few. How many of these are by choice? A small fraction. Not only does this apply to humans, but all animals, insects, sea creatures, etc. We’re all creatures of habit, naturally. My trip to Spain is an all-out assault on familiarity. On comfortability. On mindless routine. I was comfortable once I found a place to stay on the first night in Pamplona. But the beauty of the Camino is that once you get comfortable with your surroundings, you’re instantly forced out of that comfort when you are looking for a place to stay, new people to meet, and where to eat your meals in a brand new town the next day. I stayed two nights in Logrono. I began to really enjoy that town, and before I knew it, I was on my way to the next town, Najera. And right when I got used to Najera, I was on my way to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Then to Belorado. Day after day on this trip, I am training myself to invite the feeling rather than fight it. I’m training myself to handle uncertainty and unfamiliar surroundings with command. And I know that tomorrow, as soon as I finish having coffee with my new friends here, I’ll be on a long and daunting walk to Burgos to do the whole thing over again. So, I guess there is a sort of routine on this journey. It’s the routine of unfamiliarity. It’s the only routine that I’ll allow on this trip.

    The Journey Is the Inn

    Fast Forward

    Over 500 miles walked and 35 days later, I was headed home from a truly life changing experience that I will never forget. All thanks to a perfectly timed book, a sudden desire to book a flight, and openness to new experiences. In one of my darkest moments, I took matters into my own hands and created an adventure that would heal my wounds and bring me alive. It would set me on the course to take on massive challenges with not only confidence, but the comfortability to do so.

    If booking the plane ticket was the forcing function to get me to go on such a trip, then it was also a forcing function that totally changed the trajectory of my life for the better. I could have stayed put in my office job, living a life of quiet desperation, squandering my gifts, talents, and thirst for adventure. I would still be there today because I “have to pay the bills” and “need a steady flow of income”. But I’ve seen the light on the other side. Life doesn’t have to be like that. There is a world of options that most are just not seeing.

    If you have never read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I highly suggest you take a look. I believe it perfectly illustrates the point I am trying to get across to you.

    At the end of the day, you always have the ability to play it safe, live in nervous anticipation, and squander time, wealth, energy, and opportunity. Or, you can take risks—calculated risks—and pursue a life you don’t have to run from: wealth, time, a calm mind, and good vibes.

    You have options.

    You have now been trained to see them.

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