This article was originally published on Hubud.org
Ever had the uncanny experience of reading a book and thinking, ‘this person read my mind; that’s my story!’ ?
That’s how I felt the first time I came across Greg Madison’s work. It was as if someone had unveiled the sum total of my existence, tapped into what drives me, and relieved me of my neurosis all in one fell swoop.
Turns out, I’m an ‘Existential Migrant’; warts, whimsy, and all. Phew! That explains it. Now, how can I get my family to read this stuff?
The phenomenon Dr. Madison explores is not entirely new—after all, history has a liberal sprinkling of purpose-driven, wayfaring spirits throughout. But thanks to the convergence of high-tech communication, low- cost airlines and a truly global economy, our ranks may soon be exponential.
Madison calls this physically and ethnically rootless population ‘voluntary’ migrants– though he acknowledges that many of us are driven by an impulse that seems largely beyond our control. That impulse is an actual desire to be foreign… an “affinity with otherness” as he describes it.
Sound familiar? Of course… Hubud is full of us! But not just because we are ‘Bules’ – a word Indonesian use to describe “foreigners”. This is not about being tourists, or expats.
It’s not your average globe-trotter or jet setter that interests Madison. He sets his sights on exploring a more psychosocial set; those of us whose travels are not spurred by civil war or economic collapse, or motivated (primarily, anyway) by power, prestige or financial gain. It takes something far more personal and profound to ‘move’ us… It’s a wanderlust fueled by our desire to reach our ever-elusive human potential.
Basically, we are existential junkies. Madison says you will recognize us because we are always chasing the high of self-actualization, using travel, temporary residency and the curiously intoxicating feeling of being perpetually different as a way of exploring who we really are.
Here are some more distinguishing features: We know ourselves only in contrast to the cultures and customs that host us. Having rejected the restrictiveness of patriotism and conventionality in our countries of origin, (it seems we only experience culture shock when we go home) we are drawn to temporary social groups, which form around values like tolerance, respect and experimentation rather than color or creed.
We can’t go on holiday without asking ourselves: “could we live here?”. We are also deeply attracted to a sense of mystery; research reveals that our motivation for movement has a transpersonal dimension—an element of being in the world, but not entirely of it.
Fair question, as I assume there are more than a few people reading this who might be nauseated by navel-gazing, globalized misfits. But here’s the thing. It’s worth paying attention to, because academics think we might be taking over the world before long.
The research of international development specialist and co-founder of Education Futures John Moravec introduces a group of people he calls “Knowmads”. His emphasis is less on the psycho-social aspect of these migrants and more on what makes them unique in the political-economy. Knowmads are novel, he claims, precisely because they are ‘location-independent’ (a buzzword we use often at Hubud), and because they emphasize expression rather than possession. And this is good news, because, in an age over-consumption and suburban sprawl, that might be just what the world needs.
Moravec predicts the rise of a creative class who are “trans-national, trans-cultural and post-organizational” that will lead us into the economy of the future. At Hubud, that economy is already here.
It’s easy to see why this is a practical evolution. In the digital age, one cannot possibly absorb all the ‘information’ there is out there to become an expert in the traditional sense, and even if we could, the sheer volume and contradiction of that information would leave us overwhelmed and confused. In that context, we rely heavily on a deeper expression of knowledge called “hunches”, “emotional intelligence” and our “creative instinct” to guide us. Expertise becomes less about data acquisition and more about intuitive sense.
If you are a knowmad, Moravec says, ‘knowledge’ of this type is your premium, tradable talent ; And you don’t look for a job… your work is designed and directed by you. This is where the convergence with Madison’s ‘existential migrants’ theory gets instructive.
In this new economy, your ability to innovate and “self-create” (both of which, if done authentically, have self-actualization as a pre-requisite) becomes the biggest predictor of your success. So existential migrants cum knowmads—who have honed their connection to self– will have the cutting edge. In the new economy, self-knowledge is currency. Anything less could have you replaced by a machine.
Are You A Knowmad?
But I still sometimes wonder how, and why, I chose this life. Madison’s research gives us a clue. He claims that people who did not see themselves reflected in their environments of origin have a natural desire to widen their frame of reference:
“The required balance between space and relationship was not experienced in the home culture. In this sense, migration can be a ‘self-protective’ choice. Moving to a foreign place fosters flexibility to develop oneself according to an ‘inner call’. The ‘call’ to realize one’s potential overrides most other considerations, including the need to belong. However, finding oneself ‘rootless’ and alone can result in a fragile sense of self that is constantly unsettled and restless, seeking respite.”
That’s the tradeoff: the shifting sense of self. Ask around (I have!) and you will notice that many of the people you run into on the island will speak vaguely of ‘never really belonging’ to the place they were born, even while they constantly question who they really are.
They speak of agitation, the love of change, and ‘itchy feet’ that draws them to change, but also be changed, by the world. Being foreign offers knowmads a convenient space to experiment with all that—a much wider mental, emotional and spiritual canvas to create our work and lives. We are different no matter what, so why not go with it?
Though this used to be a rather solitary exploration, now people are talking… mostly because our numbers are growing. Third culture kids may not be ‘voluntary’ migrants, but having lived the lifestyle from birth, many could be. And as the ranks of multi-national corporations and international aid missions grow, so will the people who are born into voluntary mobility. Add that to those who choose this life the moment they can break free for their parent’s homes or that corporate life they no longer believed in, and you have the makings of a modern movement. A whole new class of people who disregard national, cultural, or spiritual borders.
So if you find yourself living questions more than answers; if you feel you belong everywhere and yet nowhere; if the quest for Truth and it’s creative expression in your work pre-occupies you more than most, and you travel because you’d like to know the world, and yourself, better…. chances are, you are a Knowmad.
What’s the rub?
The lifestyle does not come without challenges, of course. Living a life of perpetual motion is long on variety but short on consistency. If we aren’t careful, the sacrifice we make for constantly moving shows up in the quality, if not the quantity, of our friendships. We may have well over 1000 friends on Facebook, but how many friends know our whole story? Can see the patterns in your love-affairs? Can remember what we have always loved on our birthday? How can we make sure our life is not reduced to a series of snapshots and sound bites on social media?
“I don’t want to change friends like shirts” my ex-pat friend said, finally fed up with transient life. “I want to be around people who know me, who can feel me, without me having to explain.”
She was not a knowmad. For her, living abroad had a shelf-life. Something you did when you were young, unsettled, and frivolous. Not when you had kids, a career and a mortgage a to pay.
Madison confirms some of these trade-offs. His subjects admit to wistful jealousy of those who have chosen a more conventional life. The burden of living with the idea that one could have chosen that too can be heavy, sometimes. Because the option of a ‘normal’ sedentary life always looms, there is a latent longing to go “home” even though, when it comes down to it, Madison says most of us never would. For knowmads, “home is interaction, rather than a place” and “Going Home’, in that sense, has the air of spiritual reckoning.
It’s about connecting to yourself, other people, the to the planet in a way that defies conventional boundaries or physical space. Home is a place you carry with you, in you, rather than a place you return to.
How does the existential migrant/knowmad stay grounded? Madison warns that the risks of unhinging are high. But he claims that the ability to tell your story and give meaning and coherence to your mobility is what will keep you connected.