Leukart: Ten Years Later

by Hank Leukart | 6/9/11 10:00pm

I spent the month of April this year racing on foot across Morocco with a camera, working as a television producer on ABC's upcoming adventure-race show, "Expedition Impossible." For 20 days straight, I tried to catch my breath, chasing firemen, professional football players, an 18-year-old girl from Kansas and famous, blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer across sand dunes and around ancient Kasbahs.

Surprisingly, it was only the second most bizarre job I've ever had. Last summer, I worked as a TV producer on Discovery/TLC's "Sarah Palin's Alaska," traveling across the state with Sarah Palin and her family, racing stock cars on Kodiak Island and hunting for caribou on Alaskan tundra 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. That summer was, by far, the most surreal of my life.

My adventures have been eccentric, to say the least, but this wasn't exactly my life plan. Ten years ago, I graduated from Dartmouth with an atypical degree a major in computer science modified with film and television studies. I chose this combination mostly so that I could fit in some extra film classes for fun before leaving Hanover. After graduating, I moved to Seattle to work as a program manager for Microsoft. During that time, my then-girlfriend taught me to love the outdoors by insisting that we go on hiking trips, and I spent five years doing a fun and creative job designing features for Outlook, Microsoft's email software. But, one day, after emailing my resume on a whim to a Dartmouth acquaintance in the television industry, a television executive offered me a job working as his executive assistant. I agonized over the idea of leaving Microsoft but decided that I was ready to try something new. I moved to Los Angeles.

In the 10 years since graduating, I've lived two different lives one as a software designer and another as a television producer. And I'm far from the only one in my Dartmouth class who has lived multiple lives during the past decade. My friend Suzanne Wrubel '01 worked in television casting before becoming a public defender, and my friend Laura Tharpe '01 worked as a dishwasher in Alaska before she decided to become a doctor.

This, I suppose, is the part where I might be expected to sum things up by encouraging this year's graduates to follow their dreams. But, even beyond my wanting to avoid banal platitudes, the truth is that most people don't know what they want, and those that think they do often end up being wrong. Life is not as much a stack of dreams to fulfill as it is a dizzying, disorganized box of complicated trade-offs. Leaving Microsoft meant leaving a steady, decent-sized paycheck and a chance to influence products used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. I traded that job for another with little stability television jobs often last only a few months and producers jump from show to show. I'm not confident that I've made the "right" choice. It's just a choice with a different set of trade-offs. I'm just as envious of my Microsoft friends' comparably more predictable lives as they are of my larger-than-life adventures.

My father, who passed away last year, worked as a lawyer for his entire life. He built a great career, family and life for himself. By all accounts, he was very happy. But during a trekking trip to Nepal's Everest base camp with my brother last year, I sometimes found myself wondering whether my father had ever wished he could have lived a few more lives. I wish he could have joined my brother and me on a few final adventures.

So, my best advice for this year's graduates is to live as many lives as you can. I think that following dreams is less important than being flexible enough to take advantage of the unexpected opportunities that make life interesting and challenging because believe me, hunting with Sarah Palin was never a dream of mine. There are lots of moving parts to balance, but all that prevents life from getting boring.

This March, before joining the adventure-race television show crew in Morocco, I convinced an equally-adventurous friend already working in Africa to meet me in Cairo, Egypt, soon after President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak resigned. The trip felt both historically important and romantic as she and I toured the country in front of a backdrop of Tahrir Square protests, the newly tourist-less Pyramids of Giza and a practically abandoned Theban Necropolis in Luxor.

"Is it too late for us to become Egyptologists?" I asked her, as we gazed together at King Tut's mummy.

"Maybe in our next life," she said.

I doubt she had any idea how seriously I was considering starting yet another life at that very moment.

Hank Leukart '01 is a guest columnist and a TV producer, writer and adventure-travel enthusiast. Leukart has previously written columns for The Dartmouth's 2002 and 2006 Commencement & Reunion issues.

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