Robby Porter: Thoughts From A Vermonter
Robby Porter
Robby Porter
Posted 7.28.18
Near Adamant, Vermont


A Project-based Lifestyle

Robby Porter writes and does a lot of creative stuff near Adamant, Vermont. He is the author of Doodlebug, A Road Trip Journal.

In my late 20s I figured out that happiness was responding to my grasp the same way a caught fish shoots through your tightening fingers. I decided to give up on the pursuit and reconciled myself with being a malcontent -- an oxymoronic decision which immediately resulted in more energy for doing the things that interested me.

It took longer to abandon the idea that I might someday have a career. Perhaps I would have accepted my lack of a career more readily if it had been a private failure, like obtaining happiness. But there it was in every introduction: "I'm a carpenter -- I'm a furniture maker -- I run the snow groomer -- We started a little business doing solar installations."

I just couldn't seem to believe in any occupation enough to make it an identifiable career, but I still wanted to have an identity for myself and also to present to the world.

When she was old enough to need definitions and still too young to grasp their complexity, I heard my daughter explain to someone, "My dad is a maker." She'd seen me make things, ergo I was a maker. In the brutal innocence of childhood it wouldn't have mattered to her whether I was a cleaner, teacher, soldier or preacher. I was charmed and crushed. Someday she would know the truth; Dad doesn't have a career, he's a ... maker. I could recognise the honesty of her statement but I was still too young to understand what it meant.

The solar installations led to an abandoned hydroelectric facility. It's been seven years. It's not a career, but I'm proud to say that the plant is running and pouring its renewable electrons into the grid.

At first we didn't know what the hell we were doing because none of us had had a career in hydroelectric work. We know more now, but no one would call us experts. The plant is an hour and 20 minutes away from home. We don't work on the project every day, but when we do, my two partners and I usually carpool, a long drive followed by a day of dirty, sometimes confusing, occasionally dangerous work and concluding with another long drive.

On these drives we've talked about a variety of subjects, the plant, politics, and endless versions of the same stale stories. But a couple of years into the project, as we were passing through Irasburg, a fresh idea fell into our conversation.

I wish now that I could recreate the moment and see the lead up to the epiphany, like the slow motion video of a bee landing on a flower. I don't even remember which one of us first uttered "project-based lifestyle." It took a couple of miles before the phrase circled back into the conversation and, on its return, like a comet, dazzled us.

None of us had had a career. We'd each been going project to project our whole lives. Sometimes our jobs had been projects and sometimes the jobs were necessities to support other projects.

The solar installation business had been a series of projects which we eventually abandoned in favor of the hydroelectric project. And, of course, we each had a variety of smaller personal projects in various states of completion or despair. Our lives were defined by our projects, not an uncommon condition in Vermont, but still a bit of an outlier and way out of the mainstream for the rest of the country.

A hundred and fifty years ago most Americans lived agricultural lifestyles. The patterns and rhythms of their lives were determined by seasons, crops, and livestock. These days a career-based lifestyle is the dominant model and this means not only that people follow a career wherever it takes them personally and physically, but also that their work is their most salient feature for social identification. I had been missing this locator flag, but now I had a substitute -- "I don't have a career. I'm living a Project-Based Lifestyle."

Identity is not elusive like happiness, but it is complicated. The riptide between public and private makes it hard to say what you are, as does the injustice of defining a person by an occupation or a place or a name. And yet definitions are as useful as they are limiting.

The dominance of the career-based lifestyle makes it hard to see the other possibilities, even when they are right in front of you, but there are many -- traveler, student, artist, seeker, to name a few. Thinking of myself as living a project-based lifestyle frees up a lot of mental energy that used to be deployed wondering when or if I should try to have a career. This definition produces a sense of place in the world which I would not be so impudent as to call happiness, but which is nonetheless pleasant and satisfying.