By: Amy Jennings
Some of the greatest lessons I have learned in life came from travelers. When I worked and lived in a hostel for seven months, my “teachers” were gem dealers, scientists, university students, jewelry makers, arborists, salesmen, hippies, cross-country cyclists, war veterans, writers, yogis and actors. There was one person I met, however, who changed the way I viewed limitations, and his story is one of my favorites to tell. His name was Aaron.
Rapid-fire. Strategic. Fluid.
At first, he just looked like a kid trying to stand out. This 20-something Korean-American guest wore simple clothes – jeans and a white T-shirt – but his hair made him different. It was cut asymmetrically with one side longer than the other and spiked forward and sideways. But it was not random – it was designed. When he talked with other guests, he spoke confidently and logically; rarely did he trip or take an unintended pause. Other than that, though, he seemed average…engrossed in his laptop at the dining room table and talking about basketball statistics. However, Aaron’s fascinating life caught me off guard over the next 24 hours as pieces of his story surfaced in conversation.
Aaron was impressively driven and he thrived in high-risk situations. Originally from Seattle, he moved to New York when he was 19 after dropping out of college. He found housing by teaching someone English in exchange for a room. He then applied to “9,000 jobs” and received one phone call from an “insane” hair scissors sharpener. Needing an income, Aaron became the man’s apprentice for a year and a half and found himself unexpectedly in the beauty industry (hence the trendy, spiked hairstyle). Independent now, Aaron travels around the country selling his own self-designed scissors to stylists and salons.
But that is not all – Aaron is also a writer. He showed me a collection of short narratives about people he met while he traveled. Intertwined in these stories were the tough situations that taught him how to sell; instances of meeting half-insane, wealthy people who just gave him things; and ways he found places to sleep for free (one involved the urban roof of a guy who slept with his eyes open). His work brought him into contact with people that most of us do not get to see. He entered the little worlds of countless individuals – of every social class and every walk of life – by shrugging off security, safety and social conventions to meet them (a natural salesman he was). With all his traveling and the fascinating life he lived, it seemed like nothing stood in his way. Aaron’s ultimate goal was to turn these narratives into graphic novels and share them with the world.
Of all his stories, though, the one that profoundly changed my perspective on limitations was about a time when Aaron lived with two young men who had cystic fibrosis. The doctors said they had 10 years left to live. Consequently, they chose to maximize every minute of every day doing things they enjoyed. One of them, for instance, taught himself to hip-hop dance to a “near pro-level” and even competed. Aaron said that being with them was amazing and that watching them push their capabilities to the limit every day inspired him. He reminded me, though, that while their lives were exciting, they were not without hardship. Because of their CF, they lived like hospital patients half the time and had to wear masks at night to help them breathe. Their lives had give and take, and I realized how their drive and abilities came with restrictions – namely in time and health.
When Aaron first told me about these two guys, I took the message to be, “Seize the day!” I thought I should rush out and take bold risks because “life is short!” However, I later understood that there was a more important point: We all have limitations in some capacity, but instead of hindering us, they may actually direct us to do something extraordinary. I thought about the amazing things both the CF guys and Aaron had accomplished, but none of them had everything they could want. Two had a life threatening disease, and Aaron, who had grand adventures, was essentially homeless for months out of the year and lived out of his car. It became clear to me that limitations on one’s life were not the issue. The issue was recognizing where you were restricted and then maximizing where you were not. Instead of staring at their boundaries and standing still, Aaron and the young men turned around and moved in the directions where they were free. Limitations were not there to deprive you, I realized, but to shape and direct your energy toward what you uniquely do best.
Aaron was only in town for a few days, but meeting and talking with him had a profound impact on my life. I learned from him that limitations will come and that you should keep moving when you meet them…let them shape you. His limitations turned his life into a living work of popular art – dynamic, vivid, and colorful…very Andy Warhol-esque. According to him, though, he was just doing what he could to get by. Down the road, I look forward to reading his book – or several books. I have a feeling that when published, I will know them when I see them. They will be bold, asymmetrical and trendy…just like his hair.