“What does it mean to be a man, and am I doing all that I should be?”
Experiencing a quarter-life-crisis (like a mid-life crisis but at age 25 instead) is normal, right?
Asking for a friend, of course.
While in California for the IBJJF World Championships, I decided to take a short vacation after the event. This year, I had won my first match of the tournament but lost a tough second match in the quarter-finals—nothing embarrassing, but nothing to call home about either. The lackluster results, still fresh in my mind, made enjoying my post-competition vacation a little more difficult.
Post-competition blues were to be expected, at least they were for me. I had a tendency to build up competitions to be these events of immense personal importance, physically and psychologically draining myself in the process of preparing.
And after competing on such a large stage with so much at stake, I couldn’t help but be somewhat lost in a haze of exhausted reflection and self-assessment. Competing at a high level and not getting the desired results can take a hefty toll on an athlete’s pride and identity.
My regular post-competition blues, combined with some existential angst about my age passing the quarter of a century mark, resulted in me chewing on a few questions as I trudged through Joshua Tree National park:
“What does it mean to be a man?”
“Who am I?”
“Is this the identity I want?”
“Is this the identity that is best for the people around me and me?”
I walked, I climbed, I ate, I fasted, I woke, I slept, I thought, I wrote, I spoke. Every action carried with it the same reflective, heavy thoughts.
There are many life lessons to be learned from being in nature, and I feel incredibly grateful that I was hiking around Joshua Tree Desert during this strange identity crisis.
I learned a lot by observing, absorbing, and doing my best to apply what I saw in the desert to my life as a young man. I was able to use some of these small realizations to more broad aspects of my life.
Through deep reflection, questioning, and self-assessment, I was able to make it through to the other side of this haze I had been reluctantly walking through.
And through the desert heat, I heard a whisper: Joshua Tree Desert was going to teach me what it means to be a man.
Life is Like a Vast Desert Landscape
I looked far out into the desert landscape and was overwhelmed by how far I could see. I had the same feeling as the few times I had the chance to look into space through a telescope when I could see forever in any direction. I was in complete and utter awe.
I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn’t have any words to describe my feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations at that exact moment—just silence.
The desert seemed endless, and it filled me with a strange mixture of comfort and terror that I still cannot fully understand.
And as I overlooked this vast landscape, I realized that these were the same feelings I had about life, growing up, and being a man.
For most people living in developed countries, the ability to follow your dreams and live a life that you find satisfying is realistic. Pursuing higher education, choosing a field of employment that is interesting, seeking change when work becomes stale – these are luxuries that should make entering the workforce and being a grown adult a much more digestible task.
But what was I going to do? Who was I going to be? These are enormous questions that some people have already figured out at a much younger age… where does that leave me?
I was halfway through an education undergrad degree and had no idea what I was going to do as the terrifying date of graduation loomed closer. At that, what did my performance at the world championships mean for my competitive career? Was this an indication I should buckle down and find a way to get more, better training, or was it time to focus on teaching and rethink my life as a competitor?
The near-endless possibilities for hobbies, interests, passions, careers, jobs, side-hustles, and part-time gigs should be empowering. But for some (me included), the overwhelming freedom that comes with so much life choice can be, well, vast.
I can go anywhere in this desert (mostly), I thought to myself.
I can go anywhere in this life (mostly), I added.
It’s true. Within reason, I had the entire world laid out before me. I had access to most of the world through a combination of hard work, patience, and help from others.
It was up to me, whether I wanted to continue to regard the vast life landscape in front of me as daunting, or if I wanted to change my outlook and see the freedom as an opportunity.
The desert can be a scary place if you don’t have a plan, if you’re not prepared, and if you’re alone. Life is the same.
The tough parts of the road become much more manageable when you know where you’re going, you’re ready for the journey, and you have a good group of people prepared to help if needed.
The Desert Doesn’t Apologize (And Neither Does Life)
Stakes are a bit higher when you’re hiking in the desert. A few small mistakes, or one big one, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature.
I remember something another hiker told me about enjoying and appreciating the outdoors, and it’s stuck with me for a long time.
It’s ok to look up and enjoy the views, he said, but just remember where you are. Always remember where you are.
Being on a mountain is dangerous, plain, and simple. Of course, the sites are beautiful, the smells and sounds of nature are relaxing, and being with friends in such a unique environment can fill you with fantastic feelings of curiosity and excitement.
But one wrong step when you’re close to the edge, and that’s it. The consequences are when you misstep on the trail of a mountain, or when you don’t plan your route correctly, or when you try to take a shortcut off the trail.
I am accountable for my safety and well-being while on this trip. I am responsible for my preparation, execution, and decision-making while in this national park.
A lack of planning and poorly-thought-out decisions could potentially lead to catastrophic outcomes, and those would be my fault. Again, this may seem terrifying to some, but it can also be viewed as empowering, depending on how you want to look at it.
Knowing that your health, safety, and well-being are all in your own hands can be stressful.
But knowing that you have control over important aspects of your life can also be a good thing, just as understanding the vastness of possible life choices can also be either scary or inspiring.
Acknowledging and accepting a life of accountability and responsibility is an enormous part of being a man. Just as poor planning in the desert can lead to disaster, so can poor planning in life in regards to career, finances, and personal growth.
Accountability is a staple of manhood, especially as an adult living independently. For most, a metaphoric safety net does not exist. The pressure of providing for yourself (and potentially for others) is an opportunity to be accountable, responsible, and to show who you are as a man.
The desert can be a dangerous place that will hold you accountable and responsible – so is life.
Stingrays and Stoicism
This technically wasn’t in Joshua Tree – it was a few hours away in Huntington Beach, and it happened the year before my trip to the desert. But the event was so meaningful, and I learned so much from the experience that I couldn’t not include it here.
My girlfriend and I rented some boards and wetsuits from a local surf shop in Huntington Beach on a beautiful day in June. Our Air B n B hosts, recreational surfers in their spare time, wished us good luck but failed to advise us about the stingray shuffle (a technique used to avoid taking significant steps in shallow water, reducing the likelihood of startling and stepping on a stingray) as we headed down to the beach, equipped and enthusiastic.
A few minutes into the second session of the day, I nearly got up on the board for the first time. Maybe we should have looked into getting lessons instead of learning from YouTube videos.
I let myself float into shallow water, got off of the board, and began to walk in knee-deep water towards my girlfriend, who was now on the shore drinking water. I began to say something to her, and I felt the sharp sensation on the bottom of my right foot.
I thought I had stepped on glass, or a piece of a shell, or a rock. Whatever it was, it was sharp, and now I was bleeding.
And now, I was starting to feel a lot of pain for such a small cut on the bottom of my foot. Was my entire leg supposed to hurt?
I made my way onto the beach, and my girlfriend immediately noticed the distressed look on my face. It was time for some crisis management, and this served as an essential lesson in being a man and finding my identity in times of stress.
This was the situation I was in, and there was nothing I could do to escape that fact.
Keeping a stoic mindset was incredibly crucial in dealing with this crisis. Stressing, complaining, and wishing I was elsewhere wouldn’t do anything to help the situation, and I’m happy I realized that early on.
Breathe. Worry about what is in your control, and deal with things as they come.
This is how stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, thought and lived, and it allowed them to enjoy very fulfilled lives.
Being a man means knowing how to deal with a crisis when it happens. Being stoic in your approach to managing stress is critical in developing your identity.
Balancing Nature and City
A perfectly blue sky can do a lot for one’s mood – especially when it appears to go on forever and is complemented by a beautiful Joshua Tree desert landscape.
Being in nature was a huge reminder about how strange it is to be accustomed to living in the city, in a – and I hate using this phrase – concrete jungle. With a few parks stuffed in between apartment buildings and shoved onto the end of some copy-paste neighborhoods, the city tricks you into thinking there are little pockets of nature every couple of streets.
Once I stood and looked out into the vastness of the desert, and I hiked and considered my place in nature and the consequences of my actions in life. I swam and got sunburned and almost surfed and stepped on a stingray (not at Joshua Tree but again still relevant), did I realize the true importance of balancing being in nature with city life.
This thought expanded, and I reflected on balance in life, and how that contributed to my identity as a man.
Being in nature made me reconsider the importance of taking a holistic approach to my health, where I put balance ahead of outright performance.
How much time should I be spending working vs. relaxing?
How much time should I be spending exercising vs. recovering?
How much time should I be spending on technology vs. in the real world?
These are all parts of adulthood and being a man, and how you choose to spend your time is a significant contributor to your overall identity.
How do I want to be known, as a person, as a man, as a family member, as a friend?
Being a balanced individual is part of that identity, and being in nature made me realize the importance of finding that balance.
Coming of age, developing an identity and being comfortable with who you are as a person is a task many people struggle with. It’s ok, a lot of us are going through this.
Being in Joshua Tree happened to be a compelling experience for me. Luckily, I was able to use my experiences in nature to consider larger, more broad principles.
Observing, reflecting, thinking critically – these are all crucial steps on the way to being a man, and to finding your identity as an adult.
It doesn’t have to be in Joshua Tree – find your desert (wherever or whatever that is), get lost in thought, and discover who you are.
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If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer:
Traveling During a Pandemic
3 Lessons I Learned From My 30-Day Meditation Challenge
Everything You Need to Know About Positive Masculinity