Written by Davis Nguyen
Two months ago, I found myself watching a 5:30 sunrise from a white sand beach in Vietnam.
It was the type of sunrise that I dreamt about waking up to when I started planning for my post-graduation trip two years ago.
But when it finally happened, I wasn’t happy. I felt empty.
I was three weeks into my post-graduation/pre-work backpacking trip; I had worked the previous two summers saving up every quarter I could for it. Since I was 12 all of my summers were dedicated to either getting into college or working a job. But not this summer. This summer, I would wake up each morning with no agenda—just an entire day to myself to do what I want when I wanted.
The first two weeks was what I imagined: beginning my day with a sunrise, continuing with either a slow boat ride on a nearby river, a trek up a mountain, or a simple day of sightseeing. With each day came more $1 smoothies and a gigabyte of Facebook worthy pictures.
Somehow by the third week I was no longer happy. I woke up, but didn’t want to get up. I wasn’t tired—I just didn’t feel a reason to move from my bed even for this sunrise, but I did anyways and spent the rest of the day seeing the Cham Towers and having more $1 fruit smoothies.
In the evening, as with every night I was in Nha Trang, I returned to my hostel at 9 to have dinner with one member of the hostel staff, a group of six college students and recent graduates who give the hostel its friendly culture. I made it a routine to get to know the staff of all the hostels I stayed at, if anything to hear the stories of travelers who have passed by.
Tonight I was having dinner with Tiffany, the afternoon receptionist. During the week I was in Nha Trang, Tiffany and I had dinner on two other occasions so I knew she was a student at a local university studying hospitality and working two jobs—one at my hostel and another at a five star hotel about 10 minutes away. At our last dinner, I learned that Tiffany’s dream was to own her own tour boat company, a cafe where local Vietnamese can go to practice English, and a hostel just like the one we met at.
To make progress on her goals, she begins her day at 5:15 am and goes home around 1 am. She can’t remember the last time she took a day off.
At dinner I asked Tiffany a question I often ask many of my friends back home: “If you had a billion U.S. dollars, what would you do?” I imagined she would say retire and travel instead of balancing school and two jobs. Instead she said, “I would get a bigger boat for the tour, a bigger space for the cafe, and a better location for the hostel."
I asked her why she doesn’t just use the money to stop working and start doing more leisurely activities like traveling.
She responded, “Because I love what I am doing. Creating memorable experiences for travelers who come to Vietnam is pleasurable. I have a reason to want to get out of bed.”
Tiffany’s dream of creating world-class experiences for travelers to Vietnam gives her a reason to wake up every morning—something I hadn’t had on my trip.
I thought that the ultimate freedom in life was getting to travel endlessly with no obligations and no responsibilities. But this isn't true.
After starting my day with an empty sunset and ending it by hearing about how passionate a hostel receptionist was about her dreams, I started to see why many people are dissatisfied with where they are in life and want to leave their current lives and jobs behind. For many of us, it is because we don’t have a reason to wake up in the morning. There is no force that is pulling us towards wanting to live the life we currently have so we look for opportunities to escape. But even in our escapes, we are never truly free of the problem: lacking a reason to want to wake up.
Many people call this not knowing your passion, but you don’t have to know your passion to have a reason to want to wake up. I don’t think my immigrant family is passionate about doing manual labor every day for 12 to 14 hours at a time, but they know the reason they do it is to allow their children to have opportunities they themselves did not have growing up. They have a reason to want to wake up in the morning, a reason that allows their children to have a life better than they know.
For the remainder of my trip, every city I traveled to, I started finding opportunities to do more than just sightsee and drink $1 smoothies. I volunteered at one of my favorite NGOs in Laos, translated a hostel owner’s signs into English in Thailand, and helped a local woman market her business in Sapa, Vietnam. These small things eventually added up, and each morning I felt a reason to want to get up every morning. I felt happy again.
I learned that, instead of trying to escape my life, I needed to find a reason to want to live my life. Just watching sunrises and eating cheap street food eventually gets boring.
I'd love to hear from you in the comments: What is your reason to want to wake up each morning?
Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015. He currently lives in San Francisco and works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he is helping recent graduates figure out the type of life they want for themselves and helping them get there.