The Founding Fathers Were Wrong - Part One

A personal tale of adventure, discovery, hardship and hope.

I’m going to write a multi-part series about finding happiness, in work and in life, and how that shapes the way I think about architecture and the built world.

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THE FOUNDING FATHERS WERE WRONG: PART 1

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

America is amazing.  I have great regard for our Founding Fathers, and the extraordinary courage, sacrifice, and hard work it took to build our country.  I am deeply grateful to live here.

But at 35, I’m now wondering whether they made a serious mistake in the Declaration to include “the pursuit of happiness” into our vision statement as a country.

No One Deserves Happiness

Most of my life I've spent believing that it's true: life is about happiness. That I have a right to it. That I deserve happiness.  

I live in America, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world, after all.  Our founding documents say as much.  I'm entitled to it as a citizen of this country.

What a disappointment to find out it's not true.

How do I know it’s not true?  Because there have been many times in my life that I have not been happy.  In fact, most of my life has not been happy.  

Austin, You’re Like the Happiest Guy I Know?!

Most people would describe me as a happy-go-lucky guy.  It’s not a show.  My smiles and laughs are genuine.  But those are moments, they’re not life.  

When I worked at KPMG, back in 2012, I was so depressed I couldn’t get off the couch most Sundays. I don’t just mean emotionally, I mean physically.  My whole body felt like it was in a perpetual panic attack.    

I had friends, went on dates, didn’t have debt, went to church, had hobbies, ate relatively healthy for a twenty-year-old, and had enough money to go out and have fun.  And I did have fun, sometimes.  But I was not happy.  Fun is a moment, an activity.  There is a difference.

Misery Was My Best Friend

Everything about my life looked great on paper – except the 80 hour weeks I suppose.  But no one could understand why I was so profoundly unhappy.  No amount of counseling or meditation or dates or church could fix it.

But the good thing about being so utterly miserable is that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought.  Hell, it didn’t matter what I thought!  It was my lived experience. 

I became convinced I had to make a change, or I wasn’t going to make it.  

This is why I’m so grateful I wasn’t just unhappy, I was miserable.  It lowered my defenses.  It reduced the stakes.  The fear of the unknown became less scary than the reality of my miserable, but known existence.

The problem? I had NO idea what I wanted to do!

Know Thyself

Who knows themselves at 23 years old??!  I certainly didn’t.

I had no freaking idea what I wanted to do!  What was I even good at?  Who was I?! Ahhh!!  Those are existential questions.

At first that was terrifying.  But when I began to allow myself to really explore it?  To start asking my heart, and not just my head, what I wanted?  It was also exhilarating.

The problem is I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  All I knew is that I wanted an adventure.  Something…exciting, that stirred my soul, awakened me, made me feel alive.  Something meaningful.

But I had no idea what that was!  So I had to go exploring.  Not because I knew myself, or even knew what I wanted, but because I needed to find myself.  

Find Thyself

This is the part where I quit, sold my car, and with $20k to my name, moved to Panama for an unpaid internship with a company trying to build a sustainable town in the jungle

Kalu Yala: It wasn’t much to see at the time!

I’m going to skip the details here except to say in those three months I 1) met Clay Chapman, the man who would teach me brick masonry years later and 2) was introduced to New Urbanism and traditional design.  

These are two pillars of Building Culture today, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I hadn’t even conceived in the loosest forms the concept of Building Culture yet.  That would come years later.

From there I went to Uganda with the Peace Corps for two years. 

A group from a business workshop I hosted. My friend William is on the right who I worked with throughout my time there.

Among being a transformational experience in many ways, the first fellow volunteer I met in the airport?  A very pretty girl who, years later, would become my amazing wife.  

That’s a lot of serendipity.  My first two adventures and all that happened??!

Yes. I’m finding that’s what happens when you take the risk to explore.  I hear things like this from other people, too, who have stepped off the well-trodden path to find their own.  

Things….happen.

Back at KPMG, I often dreamed of some random thing happening that would change my life.  A phone call, a random person, a girl, an idea, that would irrevocably change the trajectory of my life and infuse it with meaning.  Like in the movies, you know?  

Normal life is happening, sitting bored at the office desk, and then aliens invade and bam!  My life would be turned upside down and I’d have something to fight for, to care about, to live for.  

The problem with waiting for meaning and adventure to fall on your doorstep is that in all likelihood, as I experienced, it never will.  Life doesn’t happen to you.  You are the agent that sets things in motion.  Meaning is found in movement.  

Lose Thyself

I don’t mean it was easy.  I didn’t quit KPMG and ride off into the sunset, heart full and happily ever after.  Not even freaking close.  That’s the scary part about adventures: you can get lost.

Panama was tough in its own way.  While certain things were better, most of that misery and unhappiness followed me.  I still felt that constant stress and lack of peace.  What the hell?

And while I was discovering new things about myself and the world, and there were exhilarating moments, I was also just as confused about what I wanted to do with my life as I was at KPMG.  Though at least I had crossed some things off the list. Namely, accounting.

Uganda was really tough for two years.  That’s a long time in difficult living conditions.  It’s physically demanding, lonely and isolating, mentally exhausting.  There’s no real structure either – you have to…create the experience you want.  One third of our cohort dropped out within the first year, and I don’t blame a single one of them.

Not to mention my illusions about things like the UN, international aid and the Foreign Service crumbling before my eyes while I was over there.

At the time, I was fairly convinced that’s what I wanted to do.  And when that started going up in smoke, realizing I didn’t want that life or vocation?  I felt totally lost. Again.

My now-wife and I even went our separate ways after Uganda for a time.  I went back to Panama, and she went to Kenya to work with refugees.  I was worried we were only dating because of the difficult conditions we found ourselves in, and the convenience of being near each other.

None of it was easy, or clear.  It’s like wading through a fog – you can’t see the path ten feet ahead, let alone where it’s heading, the destination.

Find a Partner & Commit

Distance quickly made me realize I was wrong about Sarah, and I asked if she’d move back to the States with me.    

We rented a car and went on a road trip across the country to meet parents and family.  While staying in Pennsylvania with her parents, in another moment of terror and lack of clarity, I came so close to leaving in the middle of the night and driving away. I mean so close.  How can I know if she’s the one?!

Thank God I didn’t.  And the truth, I’ve found, is that you can’t know.  Feelings can’t tell you what life will be like in 10 years with someone, let alone next month.  That’s why it’s a commitment.    

I proposed in the Grand Canyon on the way back to my parents in Houston, looking like a Pixar character.  I’d taken eye drops from the dryness that morning, and turns out I’m highly allergic.  I looked like an idiot, eyes as puffy as marshmallows.  I had no house, no car, no money and no plan.  But she said yes.  She said yes!

We ordered a ring off Etsy (that she still wears), and after a five week engagement, we were married.  

How do you plan a wedding in five weeks, you might ask?  Necessity is the mother of invention – and uncomplicated plans.  We hired a food truck for $1200 to show up and cater, ordered pies from a local shop instead of cake, used a Spotify playlist for music, and sent a simple email for invites, along with a few phone calls.  Seventy amazing people still showed up, and it was genuinely a beautiful wedding.  I wouldn’t trade it for a $100,000 wedding and the stress and complications that go with that.

One of the biggest fights we’ve ever been in was me being very upset that I had to wait five stupid weeks to marry her after proposing.  I still remember the arguments.  The courthouse was right there!!! How could she not see this??

But in my magnanimity I agreed to wait five weeks.  At the time I thought I was being exceedingly generous.  I now realize I had that completely backwards.  As I said, I have an amazing wife.

And to be fair, we were both right.  We both think very fondly of our short engagement.  I’m glad we had a wedding, and she’s glad the engagement was short.  It’s a great way to save money, take the stress off, be a little unconventional, and have fun.  The stakes are way lower for those few hours, too, when you don’t take a year to plan and spend tens of thousands.      

October 2015 - Pittsburgh. We got married outside an old house recently converted to a venue. Temps dropped the night before and it was 30 degrees, but the house was way too small to move even 70 people inside. Everyone was freezing. We read our story out loud during the ceremony since people had no idea what was going on with us just returning from being gone for 3 years and a 5-week engagement. We had fun with it, and it was all a blast! Here’s a secret I’ve learned: you can make your own rules.

Adventure Together

During those few months of the road trip and engagement, we were trying to figure out what to do after the wedding. You know…with our lives.

We had no money, except a generous $20k donation from parents for the wedding, which we only spent half, and another $10k as a wedding gift.  We had no ties to a place, and were up for anywhere. Sarah was really uncertain about her future and what she wanted to do.  I was starting to hone in on something to do with urban design or development. 

While we still felt lost, we had each other, and that makes a huge difference.  But it doesn’t fix everything, or make it not stressful.  I hate in the movies when people proclaim “all I need is your love and I’ll be forever happy.”  Really?  For how long?  A month? Three?

You need way more than “each other” to have a successful and fulfilling marriage.  A partner doesn’t make for a meaningful and happy life – it’s living a meaningful life together where the magic happens.  Having a partner to adventure with.

I highly recommend it.

Honing In 

It’s crazy to think about now, but we almost moved to San Francisco so that I could go to work for Facebook.  Facebook!

Right??!  

I was debating going to apprentice as a mason with Clay, but an opportunity at Facebook came up from some connections I’d made in Panama. The role was some urban neighborhood development position that I was profoundly unqualified for, and the glamor of moving to San Francisco back then, before Facebook became an evil empire in the eyes of the public, was tempting.

I made it through the interview process.  I think I was the only one they were considering, that I know of.  And then…the job disappeared.  

Poof.  It was frankly bizarre how it happened, and I’m still not totally sure what happened.

I’m just so, so thankful it did!  Though it felt really disappointing at the time as I’d boasted to some of my friends I was probably going to go work for them.

Time for plan B.  Or more like…plan Q if I were counting since KPMG.

That master mason I’d met in Panama years earlier, Clay Chapman?  

I called him.

To be continued…

EXPLORATIONS

Midday Fatigue?: Anyone else get tired around lunch time? I often have trouble sleeping, and when I do, I usually experience the most fog after lunch. Coffee doesn’t help that much. My new trick I picked up from brother-in-law and Andrew Huberman? NSDR, or non-sleep deep rest (yoga nidra is similar). It’s way simpler than it sounds. I lay down, use a guided meditation, 10 or 20 minutes depending on my fatigue level, it walks you through a type of body scan and resets your nervous system, and then you’re done. I’m shocked at how well it works. I’d say about 75% of the time I feel around 75% more awake afterwards, ready for the second half of my day. About 25% of the time it doesn’t have as much effect, usually because I was distracted during the meditation or just couldn’t calm down. But I never feel worse. I’m genuinely amazed at how effective it is. There are many different ones out there. Here is my favorite 20 minute version I use (can also search on YouTube).

Filtered Water: While I’ve been aware of how bad drinking unfiltered water is, Justin Mares, founder of Kettle and Fire (bone broth) wrote a recent blog about it, and in addition to learning more, it reminded me about just how important it is. It’s something we want to start incorporating into every one of our builds. He also provides actionable information about what kinds of systems to get. Also: I love his writing, and the whole team reads his monthly newsletter. Highly recommend. Here is the post. And if you drink tap water, or just use a Brita filter? You need to read this. While he doesn’t mention this one, this is what we use at our house, just on the counter. There are under counter options too. Right now we just have a filter on our shower head, but ultimately want to get a whole home system.

CONTENT

This was such a good podcast with Micah. There is a lot of exciting stuff ahead in the construction and architecture world, and technology is making traditional practices more possible. Before you judge, listen to it! We are talking about using AI and robotics in service of humans. We will be working with Micah on our infill neighborhood, Townsend. The possibilities are ridiculously exciting. Check it out.

CONCLUSION

That’s it folks. Thanks for reading! Feel free to drop a line (just hit reply), and if you appreciate this newsletter, share it with your friends 🙂 Appreciate it!

SPONSORS

It’s not just the window manufacturer that matters, but who you get the windows from.  The local distributor is who works with you to customize the package, orders, installs and warranties the product.  I’ve worked with One Source, a local Oklahoma company for over seven years.  My favorite product I get from them?  Sierra Pacific’s H3 casement window.  I personally love casements over double hung in most circumstances.  They are…a cleaner look.  And the whole window opens, which is cool.  It’s an aluminum clad product at a competitive price, and offers a ton of options that most companies do not at the lower tiers.  Kind of like a car: most window companies require the most expensive product line to get certain colors, muntin profiles, etc.  Not Sierra!  Which is just one of the reasons I love them.  You can find Sierra Pacific windows all over the country (ask your local window suppliers), and if you are in Oklahoma, reach out to One Source, who has a showroom in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.  I vouch for them both myself!

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