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Living a Life That Matters

Ken Budd, author of “The Voluntourist,” tells how his father’s death started him on a path to find his own legacy

What event propelled you to start reimagining your life?

I was approaching 40, my wife and I didn't have kids, I was really struggling with that: I thought my life lacked purpose. But it was really that my father died. He died very suddenly after being retired for about a year. He was playing golf, and he just collapsed. It was like this midlife-crisis stew had been brewing inside me, and that's the thing that ripped off the lid. When someone dies instantaneously like that, it makes you question everything. After my father died, people started telling me how he changed their lives, and I wondered what would people say when it's my turn.

How did this crisis push you to volunteer around the world?

It was totally an accident. An opportunity came up through my job to volunteer in New Orleans after Katrina, and without even thinking about it, I said, "Yes. I've got to do this." That started it. I never thought, "I'm going to volunteer around the world." When I had some time off of work, my wife and I decided to volunteer in Costa Rica. After that, I realized this was the start of the journey, not the journey itself, and I made a conscious decision based on something a friend in Costa Rica told me: "You only learn about yourself when you're outside your comfort zone." I decided to challenge myself physically, spiritually, and emotionally and go places that intimidated me.

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How did you decide where to volunteer?

After rebuilding homes in New Orleans and teaching English in Costa Rica, I wanted to try different things. In China I volunteered at a special needs school where there was more one-on-one with the kids. The trip to Ecuador, to study climate change, was grueling and challenged me physically. It was a two-hour hike just to get where we were working. The orphanage in Kenya gave me the chance to work with infants. The West Bank was daunting because it's such a volatile area, but I wanted to understand there—and everywhere I went—how people not only endure difficult circumstances, but find ways to thrive. Each one of these place offered something unique.

What were the biggest lessons you learned through these experiences?

A woman in Ecuador told me we only get 650,000 hours of life. That made me realize just how little time we get, and we shouldn't be doing things that make us unhappy. I was able to step back and realize how lucky I am. I need to cherish that and be grateful for it. I also found that feeling stupid can be good: Every time I felt stupid I learned something about myself, about the work I was doing, about the local culture.

What would your dad say about your journey?

My dad was probably the smartest man I've ever known, but he never went to college. He always had to work twice as hard as the guys who had the degrees. He never forgot that, and he really took care of people. That's why when he passed away so many people said to me, "I never worked for a man as good as your father." I think my dad would be proud that I did this, but I think he would also tell me to lighten up. He would say I have it pretty good.

What advice do you have for people who want to reimagine their lives?

Avoid regrets. No one wants their life defined by the things they didn't do. You're better off trying and failing than never trying at all. And you've got to get rid of the fear: the fear of failure, the fear of something new. I think of my father's death and, for all I know, my time could come tomorrow. I want to make sure today is as good as it can possibly be.

Photo: Courtesy of Ken Budd

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