Photo Essay: 12 Lessons From 12 Months in San Francisco

It was nearly one year ago today that I had just returned from one adventure, traveling around North America for 8 months, and was re-packing for another, moving 2,500 miles across America to San Francisco. While my surroundings have changed, my sense of adventure certainly hasn’t, because as you’re reading this, I will have packed my bags and left yet again. However, this time, I’m not on a one-way ticket. I’ll find myself back home in San Francisco in just three months. That’s right, home in San Francisco. As transient as I’ve been over the years, there’s never been a place that I’ve felt more at home than San Francisco. I gave San Francisco a shot – not much of a shot, but a shot nonetheless. What San Francisco gave back to me, I’ll never quite be able to put into words without grinning from ear-to-ear and getting a little teary-eyed, but this will just have to do.

1. I don't have to win for the story to be great. The guy doesn't always get the girl, the underdog doesn't always win, and not everyone is always saved from calamity. This is just the facts about stories. Growing up, I played sports every season of the year and at the end of each sports season, anything less than first place just wasn't acceptable. I've come to learn that life is NOT a game. I don't have to win for my story to be considered great. I can sleep well every night even if I didn't "win" to the world's standards, but resting on the fact that I've laid it all out there this year.

2. Embrace the unknown. I arrived in San Francisco with a backpack and a messenger bag. There wasn't a lot of certainty that awaited me when I arrived. I had a couple bags, a one-month apartment, a part-time job as a freelance writer, and a handful of people who I knew, but only through Twitter. One year later and I'm reflecting on what's been my most significant year to date. At times it was lonely, challenging, and frustrating, yet I stand on the other end of one year feeling deeply satisfied at how this year has refined and shaped me. I walked up to the edge and immediately shrieked back as I looked down, but without hesitation, took a few steps back, got a running start, and jumped.

3. I can't change the cards I'm dealt, just how I play the hand. This has probably been the most important lesson of the last couple years. Figuratively speaking, I think our default is to immediately fold if we get a hand that we're not pleased with. We settle without even considering if we have a play. Life rarely goes according to plan. It's funny like that. Yet I've come to accept the things that I cannot change, while always looking to make something out of nothing and turn it into an opportunity.

4. San Francisco is magical. These were some of the first words I heard upon arriving in San Francisco one year ago. I brushed it off, having never been to a place that I would even begin to refer to as magical. Yet here I am, 12 months later claiming those same words I was so quickly dismissed. There's more than meets the eye here. I can't quite put my finger on it. There's nothing glitzy or glamourous about it and nothing on the surface that seems to differ from that of any other metro of its size. Yet spend a little time here talking with the people, experiencing the culture, and seeing it from a local's perspective, and I think you too might see that there's more going on here.

5. Travel is as much a state of mind as it is a physical action. I truly believe that traveling abroad is one of the most enriching experiences in the world. There's just something about taking yourself out of your own comforts and culture and immersing yourself into another culture. Yet there is no other place that I've lived where I've felt like I could do that than San Francisco. It's such a melting pot of different experiences and cultures. In a single day I can experience multiple cultures without even having to get into a car. Not to mention the plethora of things to do, not just here in the city, but the surrounding area.

6. It's alright to be naked. One of the strongest images I have in San Francisco comes from the first week I was here. I was taking a walk through the city when I saw a man riding his bicycle down one of the busiest streets of the city, with a police officer on a motorcycle riding right beside him. Nothing unusual, right? Well except that the man was completely naked. People don't mind just letting it all hang out here, both literally and figuratively. I'm not that person. While I'm by no means adopting a policy of public nudity for myself, I am however, finding myself to be more transparent and vulnerable. It's not me. For so long I've only kept my feelings to myself or written them down, yet opening up and sharing my feelings, both past and present, good and bad, has brought healing to wounds in my life and helped me make sense of my past.

7. Life is less a problem to be solved and more a story to be lived. I sometimes look at life as a string of broken pieces that need to be fixed and I want to be that person who fixes them. Almost like I have to continually be working on the brokenness of life and then once I've fixed one piece, I move on to the next. Yet this is not how we make sense of our lives and the world. It's not a series of problems to work at fixing. It's a story to be lived, one in which we're the authors and we have more control over how that story is written than we think. If I sit there focusing on the problems of life that relate to me, I miss the grander story going on around me, one involving other characters and subplots. It's not just about me.

8. Some questions just aren't meant to be answered. I'm a philosopher and I like to ask a lot of questions, but some questions just aren't meant to be answered. Will people like me? Will I meet a special someone? How will I fit in? Sometimes I get so caught up in asking and trying to find an answer to these and many other questions, that I don't take time to just be. I feel like I live in an overstimulated world in which it's all about the "now". I don't always understand the ins and outs of life and my own situation and as badly as I may want to understand, it's alright if I don't. Sometimes I see things in San Francisco that just make me scratch my head, but just because it makes me stop and wonder, doesn't mean there should be a logical answer to explain it.

9. A friend can be the dividing line between goodness and greatness. I'm going to MISS San Francisco this summer. It's not the food or the sunsets or its quirks, but it's the people I'm going to miss. I really believe you only need one person who really believes in you and offers the support and encouragement to push you out of your comfort zone and to bigger things. Everyone should have at least one. I've been fortunate to have many in San Francisco. People full of life who are rising above their own situations to live a greater story for themselves. It's these types of people who make me want to be better. They've been an ear when I needed it, a voice of reason when I was unreasonable, and a spark to push me to be greater.

10. Home is less of a place and more of a string of memories and experiences. At one time I considered home as little more than brick walls - my childhood home, where I worked, where I went to school, and so on. While I'm not exactly sure what "home" is anymore, I've found it in San Francisco and it's not as much in things and places as it's in people and experiences. When I say that I'm glad to be home, yes it'll be nice to go the corner grocer and sleep on my own bed, but what I'm really coming back for our the people and experiences that have made the last 12 months so memorable.

11. The greater risk is not risking at all. I could have lived a comfortable life in the south. I could've had a good job, been close to my family, and generally had a decent life. However, I just don't think I would be writing a post about what I've learned from a year in living in the same place. Maybe decades later I would have, but there's just something about going all-in, making yourself vulnerable, and doing something that is outside of your comfort zone. Life, careers, and experiences move at a different pace. I've taken some big risks in the last year. Not all of them have panned out, but the risk of moving 2,500 miles to San Francisco has been one of my greatest and paid off tenfold. However, a greater risk would have been not doing any of it.

12. The lessons continue as we speak. The fact is that I can't put a number or words to the last 12 months. I'm a work in progress and I'm continuing to learn. I've become a sponge. I haven't arrived and I never will and I don't want to. I don't ever want to get to a place in life where I feel like I've made it and there's nothing left for me to learn. The last 12 months have been altogether challenging, yet rewarding, difficult, but satisfying, fearful, yet hopeful. It's a year I won't soon forget. Thank you San Francisco and the people I've met for making it so.


23 Comments on “Photo Essay: 12 Lessons From 12 Months in San Francisco

  1. Stellar post, Spencer!! You just dropped some great one liners and then backed them up with substance!! Well done and glad i had a little sliver in the action this year!! Enjoy the travels and see you on the flipside bro!!

    • Thanks Lee. It’s been quite the year and glad you were a part of it. Look forward to even more adventures starting next fall!

    • Wahoo! Hard to believe it was a year ago and we were having a flurry of meals/drinks before you guys left me in SF!

  2. The photo of fireworks honestly took my breath away – it’s amazing! I love that you love San Francisco. It’s such a special city to me, and I nodded along with so much of this post. Congrats on a great year and finding your home!

    • Thanks Emily! The fireworks from last week’s 75th anniversary of the GG Bridge were one of the best shows I’ve seen. So cool seeing how much people really love this city and own something like the Golden Gate Bridge.

  3. Sounds like San Francisco was very good to you, seems like you are settling into a sense of peacefulness.

    • It’s been damn good to me. I think what it’s really been about is finding balance. I’ve realized that you don’t have to either travel all the time for life to be a grand adventure. I’m learning as I go. Thanks Ayngelina!

  4. Hear hear, Lee O’B! :) Seriously, Spence. Bravo. Here’s to the next 12 months of travel and coming home. (Save some vino for me!)

    • Thank ya my friend. Happy you were the first person I met upon arriving in San Francisco! It’s flown by, but many more adventures (And vino) are ahead!

  5. You write of your lessons in such a reflective, yet grounded way, and that’s what I really love about this. The fact that you can accept that we don’t have to understand ‘why’ all the time, or have everything go our way in order to live a fulfilled life. In fact, what I get from this, is that it’s the painful/uncomfortable times when we really get the lessons we need. I hope your summer is just as magical!

    • Thank you Sarah. You really hit the nail on the head and that’s what I want people to really get from this and my writing. Most people who follow my blogs and follow me on Twitter and elsewhere see my travels. They don’t see the things that don’t quite go to plan and those are really the things that make me who I am.

  6. Beautiful, beautiful sentiments here! Funny, much of what you express reflects what I have felt and learned over the last 6 years living in Paris, particularly that element of magic. I recall that feeling from San Fran from a childhood trip but in only a few days, I’ll be back there to experience it again- this time, accompanied by my impressionable Frenchman :)

    Thank you for sharing these lessons and congrats on reaching that point where you willingly expose yourself to the power an amazing city can have on your life!

    • Thank you Lindsey. I wrote it thinking and hoping that others would find some things to relate to and not just people in San Francisco. I think anyone can learn these and many many other lessons, but I think it’s a lot based on our experiences and the people in our lives. Paris is certainly one of those cities that has been so impressionable for me. There are just some cities that seem to have this magic quality about them that rise above others. Enjoy San Francisco!

  7. Love your philosophy and the lessons you’ve learned from travel. Absolutely agree with you that travel is a state of mind rather than a destination. As for home, I see it as a place of comfort and security. It doesn’t have to be brick walls as that can also be a state of mind. However, we all need a place where we can settle into who we are and be comfortable in our own skin.

    Lots of great lessons over the last year and great photos as well.

    • That’s been an important lesson for me Jeremy and that’s the idea of finding some semblance of home, but yet keeping with the adventurous spirit. It’s a tough balance and I’m fortunate enough to mix it with work. Thanks man.

  8. Very inspiring! I absolutely agree, travel teaches you so many things that one should come up with the idea of introduce it as a discipline in schools, in the future:)

    • Thanks Miruna! I’ve always said that travel is the greatest education.

  9. Pingback: Saturday Six #102

  10. I loved this post! I am coming up on 9 months living in Paris and so much of what you said really resonated with me. I think everyone should travel at some point – it’s so great for really finding yourself.

  11. Beautiful. I would really love to spend more time in San Francisco. It’s an incredible feeling to have a place where you feel at home and inspired every day. You’re lucky!

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