We landed at the New Zealand Customs Dock after nearly seven thousand miles of ocean voyaging. That landfall is still a vivid memory twenty years later. The elation of our arrival could be expected. What I wasn’t prepared for was what happened the next day.
Our arrival in New Zealand was the culmination of thirty years of dreaming, ten years of hard preparation, and massive outlays of capital. We took classes, saved money, bought equipment, and outfitted the boat. In the grand plan, we thought we might do a circumnavigation. But the immediate goal was New Zealand.
Our energy, money, and dreams had been focused on this single accomplishment for our entire relationship. The day after our arrival, the brief thrill of achievement wore off as the force we had been pushing against for so long, suddenly disappeared. We could express the feeling in two words: Now what?
The two sailors who arrived in New Zealand were not the same sailors who left San Francisco. We had weathered storms, endured calms, suffered sleeplessness, had equipment breakdowns, and had relationship breakdowns. People who ask how long our Pacific crossing took are missing the point. If the idea was just to get to New Zealand, we could have done it faster, cheaper, and more easily by flying.
We expected the challenges but didn’t anticipate the growth. In hindsight, I can see that New Zealand was just a waypoint on a longer journey. Our most notable challenges forced us to solve survival-level problems with no outside assistance. Getting through these situations gave us the confidence, perspective, and grit to take on bigger things in our next endeavors.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking back. —Steve Jobs
The meme of life being a journey seems trite and overused. This is unfortunate because it has deep truth. Goals and destinations are always hollow, after a short period of initial satisfaction. Today, we can see this scientifically through the measurement of dopamine, the fundamental molecule of our brain’s reward system. We find that dopamine is released in both the pursuit of goals and their attainment, but particularly when progress is being made in the pursuit. It drops off rapidly afterward, leaving us to find the next thing to chase.
The science is great, but it’s not like we haven’t known this for thousands of years. Treating the important markers, like graduating, starting a job, or getting married, as waypoints on a journey, helps to put the arc of our life in context. But where does it all lead? And does it matter? To answer that, we have to look beyond our own lives, to the lives of those around us, and of generations to follow. Only then can we begin to find the true meaning of our existence.