A Radiantly Imagined Future with Paul von Zielbauer of Roadmonkey
He’s a Pulitzer nominee who found even greater success after he left his writing career. Paul Von Zielbauer went from writing about movers and shakers, to becoming one in a bold move. He’s found the greatest comfort far outside of his comfort zone, and now he’s helping others do the same.
You’ve worked really, really hard to get where you are today. You are among the top in your field – You have been nominated for a prestigious award, you travel to locations the average person would not dream of traveling to, and you meet people in intense situations. Your work gives you a rush, and you know your life is exactly where you dreamed it would be. Ahhhh, perfection.
But then you start to feel differently.
You’re not sure when it happened, precisely, but you can no longer ignore the gnawing pangs of doubt biting in to your bliss. You begin to question whether this career is something you want to do forever; Is this truly how I want to spend the rest of my life? Can I really feel fulfilled following the path this career wants me to follow? Can I deny the growing belief that I am meant to do something more? On an on it goes, building in strength until the only way to make it stop is to make a decision.
What would you do? Would you stay safe, in your bubble of success, following the path others set for you to stay at the top of your field? Or would you break that bubble and take a daring leap into a whole new life?
If you’re like Paul von Zielbauer you don’t just pop that bubble, you shatter it into oblivion by leaping into your own “radiantly imagined” future.
By the time 2008 rolled around, Paul von Zeilbauer had quite an impressive bio. He’d worked for several news outlets from Connecticut, to Chicago, to New York. He’d covered politics, the environment, homicides, fires, prisons, and – it’s exhausting trying to list all his accomplishments. But I can’t stop without mentioning he’d been nominated for a Pulitzer and covered troops in Iraq as well as high profile military judicial cases. The latter is how our paths crossed.
The capital court martial of my husband’s killer took over three brutal years to unfold. Paul was writing for the NY Times when he interviewed myself and Siobhan Esposito, the widow of Captain Phillip Esposito, who’d been murdered alongside my husband. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that interview was the first time he’d been exposed to two angry widows spitting fire and brimstone at a kitchen table. Yet he handled it like a champ, reflecting not just his professionalism but his commitment to the truth as he covered the case. When I learned the shocking existence of important facts concealed by the military, it was Paul I turned to to tell the story. And when I needed help writing my book, I called him again – and he answered.
He is a highly acclaimed writer who took his own free time to help me write and rewrite the first nine pages of my book.
He was tough. He was without apology. I’d spend hours crying and writing the most difficult nine pages I have ever written. I’d send them to him and await his praise, and he would send them back, slashing here and there, admonishing me to “kill my darlings” (get rid of words that are not needed, no matter how cute or fancy I think they are). I was stunned. I was angry. And I was blessed to have him pushing me through the pain I was allowing to cloud my work.
Today Paul von Zielbauer is impacting other lives, pushing others past their own boundaries to awaken their own awareness of what they can do. He turned off the path his writing had him on and blazed a brilliant new trail with his company, Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy. We’ll call it Roadmonkey for short.
Since the first expedition in 2008, Roadmonkey has eschewed the notion that vacation must involve room service. Instead, those selected to participate in an expedition have the opportunity to satiate the same hunger that Paul had felt. “It seemed to me there was a hunger among people in general,” he explained. “People who work in offices and sit at computers all day, especially, to get out and use their vacation time to do something that was a little bit more challenging – gave them a sense of pushing their boundaries.”
Paul realized one of the things that make him feel most alive is traveling outside his own comfort zone, which generally entails international travel. But not the five star hotel kind of travel that isolates the traveler from the people who live there- he loves immersing himself in their culture and in their communities, learning about their lives and struggles, and carrying those images home with him. He calls it “increasing my international I.Q.” I call it awesome. But then, he is a better writer than I- or me- or whichever it is supposed to be.
The union of Paul’s international IQ with the hunger felt by people wanting to do something extraordinarily different, challenging, and meaningful – even for just a week or so – resulted in Roadmonkey’s first expedition to Northern Vietnam. The adventure travelers cycled mountain bikes through the northern highlands, experiencing the off-beaten paths missed by general tourists. They immersed themselves in their surroundings, physically pushing themselves beyond what they’d believed they could do. Five days on bikes left them exhilarated, but tired. So Paul gave them all a day off before the next part of their adventure – building a playground for the children of a local village.
Together with a local non-profit organization, Paul and his Roadmonkeys poured their energy into creating a place for the children to climb, slide, giggle, and just be kids.
They got to see the immediate result of their labor the day the playground was declared open. The sound of those kids’ laughter, coupled with the sight of their smiles and little legs climbing ladders, little hands grasping climbing rungs, and parents watching their children for what may have been the first time at a playground was their reward.
Since that first expedition Paul and his Roadmonkeys have expanded their travels to other remote areas in places like Nicaragua, Patagonia, Tanzania, and Peru.
They have surfed far away waters, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, ridden horses through the backcountry, and adventured their hearts out. They have also built greenhouses, planted gardens, built clean water networks, established small farms, enhanced schoolhouses, and left a lasting mark on the lives of the people they come into contact with.
“It definitely feels good,” says Paul, when talking about the philanthropic achievements of Roadmonkey.
And it should, because thanks to his strict adherence to key tenets of this work, the footprint left behind is that of a sustainable, imperative addition to each community involved. He is careful about which projects he agrees to do, explaining the importance of ensuring not only the demonstrated need for each project, but its sustainability.
“We don’t presume to know their need,” he says. “We may think building a clean water well in a region of Africa is what we want to do – who doesn’t love clean water? But…” He has learned to research all possible outcomes to gauge the sustainability of such projects. For instance, that well in Africa, if not properly maintained, can become contaminated. If not properly researched, it can create hostility from another village. Thus the well-intentioned efforts have problems rather than enhanced lives.
You have to think about what you don’t already know…. So working with a non-profit partner is the first and most vital step in creating a volunteer project that has just the barest chance of success.
He takes that step as seriously as the rest, meticulously vetting each non-profit before agreeing to work with it. This is critical, as once Roadmonkey leaves it is that non-profit who oversees the project’s sustainability.
Good faith requests pour in and must be sifted through. Not every request is granted. Rather than raise money to help fund teachers’ salaries, Roadmonkey will build a schoolroom; one is a temporary contribution, and the other is lasting. Rather than spend a week teaching people a few sentences in English, Roadmonkey will accept the request to build a well or build a fence to protect a farm, or to build a playground. The focus is on revenue generating initiatives like funding the help to build fences, buy seeds, build greenhouses – things that enable those people to provide food or grow products they can sell for revenue, rather than donate a truckload of food that will be consumed and gone. Or, instead of revenue streams, Roadmonkey will create an outlet for energy and a venue for children to have fun, like playgrounds.
Seeing the instant result of hard work is amazing, but sometimes it’s what happens between the Roadmonkeys and the people they meet that results in emotional moments.
Paul shared the story of one such occurrence in Nicaragua. Stephanie, one of his travelers, noticed a young girl whose hair was falling out. Breaking through the language barrier, she managed to discern the cause of the young girls’ embarrassing hair loss. She realized the cure lay in a twelve-dollar bottle of shampoo, a small fortune in that community. Stephanie knew the little girl’s family couldn’t afford it, and happily bought it for her. Thus one small act of kindness transformed a little girl’s life from one of embarrassment and shame to happiness.
It’s easy to smile and congratulate Paul on his bold leap. It’s clear to see he made the right decision, and that his decision not only changed his own life, but left others’ lives undoubtedly impacted. From the lucky people selected as Roadmonkeys to the equally lucky people who are the recipient of Roadmonkey’s efforts and relationships, it is safe to say life changes in small ways for some and large ways for others once they are a part of a Roadmonkey experience.
But looking back, one has to remember it all started because Paul von Zielbauer took that big, scary, incredible leap.
Think for a moment about what your life would be like if you quit your job today. What would happen if you traded your steady paycheck for meetings with investors in an attempt to convince them to invest in your business? Could you convert your passion for your idea into a viable plan? One that would sway people to part with their own money with faith that you will use it to make more money? Would your friends and family support you or tell you that you’re crazy- and would you let the naysayers cause you to doubt yourself? Once upon a time Paul faced all of these questions and answered each with success. Did he know the risks? Of course. But for people like Paul, an even greater risk is to let life pass by without ever living it to your personal fullness. “I have a radiantly imagined future for myself – and everyone should have a radiantly imagined future. (But) oftentimes that conflicts with the future your employer may see,” he told me. In his case, he became aware that his own vision for life had begun to diverge from the vision his bosses had for him. A conflict was born and it grew daily until he finally accepted that in order to fulfill his own vision for his future, he would have to leave the New York Times. Ultimately the choice was almost made for him, so powerful was his need to make his own vision a reality.
Becoming a business owner is an adventure in itself, and Paul navigated this as he has all else – with a single minded determination to succeed.
He met investors, rolled with their feedback, and kept at it until he’d accomplished what he needed to do. He learned plenty of lessons along the way. He learned that investors are as honest as he is, and that, “… they will tell you where you’re not really attractive to them,” he recalled. He also learned the importance of vetting potential Roadmonkeys.
After a few negative experiences with people who realized- too late- that Roadmonkey is not a day at the spa, Paul took a proactive approach to ensuring his travelers are all Roadmonkey material before they join an expedition. His website contains hilarious yet entirely serious admonitions that Roadmonkey is not for everyone. “Our groups are small, ambitious, and bozo free,” the site proclaims. “We don’t follow the crowd. You wouldn’t like us if we did.” Applicants are advised they will need not just a sense of adventure but, “a healthy sense of humor.” Paul’s style comes through in the writing throughout his site, describing the expeditions, their impact on communities and on the Roadmonkeys. One cannot simply register for an expedition. One must be interviewed, assessed, and deemed Roadmonkey material. “It’s not for everyone,” he notes, “and we like it that way.” Traveling the site is in itself an experience, and I highly recommend it.
Paul doesn’t personally guide the expeditions these days, as he is leading another adventure; fatherhood.
He and his wife Esther are the parents of an 18 month old daughter, and Paul isn’t missing a moment. “I hope to lead by example for my daughter,” he told me. Seems as though his daughter has an excellent example to follow with not just Paul but her mother Esther, (Check out our interview with Paul von Zielbauer to hear how he met and proposed to his wife) . He is not only undaunted by climbing literal or metaphorical mountains, but has the ability to inspire others to do the same. He has not only created a life rich with family, adventure, and fulfillment, he has created an avenue for others to lend and receive a helping hand. But don’t expect him to line up for a pat on the back.
“Not everyone who does something great is a hero,”he maintains,“Not every organization that does something that helps changes the world.” He’s right, of course. Hero may be too strong a word – one that should be reserved for those who put their lives on the line or even sacrifice their lives for others. He’d probably also deny being an outstanding asset to humanity or a role model for people dying slow deaths at the hands of time clocks, punching in and out of each day with a resigned air. And yet, we think he is.
Want to learn more about this extraordinary opportunity? Think you may have what it takes to be a Roadmonkey? Lest you missed the craftily placed links above, here’s the link to start your own adventure travel expedition: www.roadmonkey.net
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