The Human, Earth Project was not born from a single source of inspiration, but from a number of coinciding factors in my life.
The first, and by far the most important, was my teenaged friend M who was abducted from Vietnam, and believed trafficked into China.
Another was a magazine article by the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof.
A third was a weird and wonderful week spent in the wastelands of the Black Rock desert.
There were others, too.
The most immediate source of inspiration, though, was a line from a Kimya Dawson song.
I still remember the first time I heard it. It was the summer of 2012, and I was going through one of the most difficult times of my life.
I’d found myself quite suddenly without money, without a job, and without friends in a city where I couldn’t even speak the language.
One thing I did have was a copy of Kimya Dawson’s most recent album, Thunder Thighs.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with her work, Kimya Dawson is a real gem – an “anti-folk” singer whose lo-fi, lyrically-driven work makes politics personal.
Somewhere in the middle of a six-minute song about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Kimya let slip an innocuous little line that hit me like a bullet.
It’s time to define what success means to you.
I was raised between two brothers in a competitive, academic atmosphere. We were raised to succeed.
As a teenager, however, it didn’t take me long to realise that the standard definition of success held no interest for me.
I wasn’t a career man. I didn’t want a wife and kids and a home of my own. I wanted to succeed on my own terms – I just hadn’t worked out what they were.
I began to travel, absorbing a lot of new ideas and influences. I developed very clear ideas about what I didn’t want – but what did I want?
What did success mean to me?
Travelling was one of my great loves – but travel is not an end in itself. After a time, travel demands a purpose, a higher meaning.
And I wasn’t travelling anywhere that summer, with my pockets empty and Kimya Dawson on the stereo.
It’s time to define what success means to you.
That line just knocked me flat. Kimya was right: it was time.
For years, I’d been acutely aware of the effect that each of us has on this planet just by being here, and I was very conscious of trying to minimise my negative impact.
But was that all I was capable of – of not doing something bad?
What if I did something good?
What could I do?
The best way to test a light is in darkness, and the best way to measure goodness is against something terrible.
There were plenty of terrible things in the world to choose from – but the thing that troubled me most was M’s disappearance, and the fact that I’d done nothing about it.
There are few things darker than human trafficking. What if I could do something about it?
What if I could do something for M – or, if not for M, for the countless others at risk?
That would be my definition of success – to do something good for someone else, to bring a little light into the darkest place I knew.
And so I went back to Asia, to try and find M, and to use her story to raise awareness of the human trafficking crisis.
It was a phenomenal challenge, and I found myself entangled more deeply than I’d ever imagined.
And I came through it – and succeeded, on my own terms.
It hadn’t been easy, not in any sense of the word. For two years I’d struggled, and worked like a machine.
I’d been through dangers and difficulties I was yet to fully digest, and had deprived myself of anything I might have wanted for myself.
I’d suffered – and had the sense that I had to suffer, that the suffering was somehow an integral part of the work.
I’d been living in a world of horror stories, death threats and impossibly difficult decisions. What right did I have to be happy, to enjoy life – even after it was over?
I had succeeded, yes, but success was a very dark place. Success was insomnia, exhaustion, and frustration. Success was not knowing where I belonged, and wondering what more I could have done.
What do you do next, after something like that?
Where do you go, when you’d already gone further than you ever thought possible, and found yourself in a place you never knew existed?
I had Sisters For Sale to finish, of course – the feature-length documentary that would share with others my glimpse into the world of human trafficking.
That was more than enough to keep me busy – but already things were falling apart.
I found myself under attack from the same communities that I’d worked to help.
I had no more money to continue my work, and was appalled at the idea of begging for handouts.
There was a stubborn streak in me that refused to give up. That believed, if only I pushed on, that things would be alright. That the truth would prevail. That the money would come.
It never did.
Even if I’d had the money to finish the documentary, it wouldn’t have solved my problems.
I’d lost the very friends I’d given up so much of my life to help, and had lost my motivation. I was drifting, rudderless, and didn’t know what I wanted anymore.
I needed a new definition of success.
The simplest solution was to connect success with the one thing that dominated my life: Sisters For Sale.
I wanted the documentary to succeed. I wanted it to be seen, and to make a difference.
But what did I want for myself?
I’d been living with my work for so long, I couldn’t see a way to separate myself from it.
It was as though Ben Randall and The Human, Earth Project had become synonymous, interchangeable terms.
We were Siamese twins sharing the same beating heart, neither one of us capable of living without the other.
What did I want for myself?
I wanted to finish the documentary. When it was finished, I wanted to screen it somewhere, and then I wanted to sit down and have a drink with my brother.
My elder brother had been there when the Project was born, and had seen it through its growing pains. I wanted him to be there when at last it came to fruition.
That was all I asked for myself.
Sisters For Sale was such a mountainous obstacle in my path that I couldn’t see anything beyond its completion, and couldn’t imagine having a life of my own until that day arrived.
But what if I didn’t have a documentary to finish? What would I do for my own sake?
I’d take some time for myself, to clear my head, and get my balance back. I’d go travelling somewhere.
In trying to help others, I’d ruined myself.
For years, I’d spent every last cent I had on my work against human trafficking, and now there was nothing left. Every day found me a little more desperate than the one before.
At last, I reached a point where I was desperate enough to take my inheritance in advance. For months, it had been offered to me, and for months, I told myself I wouldn’t take it – but I did.
I was going to dedicate my inheritance towards Sisters For Sale – but not all of it. This time, I decided, I was going to save a little something for myself.
I didn’t need to connect my own personal success to the success of the Project: I needed to separate myself from it.
I didn’t need to make my own personal happiness dependent on finishing the documentary: I needed to claim back my life, and enjoy my time in more immediate, more achievable measures.
From the beginning of The Human, Earth Project, I’d promoted my own story as a means of raising awareness of human trafficking.
I decided to claim back my privacy – starting right here, on my blog. I no longer wrote about where I was, or what I was doing.
With the filming of Sisters For Sale ended, I was no longer required on location in Asia. All I needed to do my work was a laptop and a hard drive of footage, which I could take anywhere.
I realised I could do my work from almost anywhere in the world – in fact, most places would cost me far less than living in my home country, Australia.
I didn’t even have to choose one single location: I could move around, if I wanted to. If I was going to burn through my inheritance, at least I was going to enjoy it.
I’ve been living and working on the road since the beginning of the year. In the past four months, I’ve travelled through three countries, seen fantastic places, met fascinating people, and learned a new language.
At first, I found this new lifestyle difficult – not only because it was a challenge to find the balance between work and travel, but for a deeper reason.
Because, after all I’d been through, I felt guilty about how much I was enjoying my new life.
Not only am I enjoying life, but I’m enjoying it on my own terms.
I’m working with passion and purpose on a project I truly believe in. I’m meeting new people, and experiencing new places and cultures. My carbon footprint is small. My living costs are laughably low by Western standards.
Right now, for example, I have a comfortable little place by a beautiful lake in the jungle. I have a couch, a rocking chair and a hammock out on the verandah. It only costs me six and a half dollars a night, and there’s an excellent vegetarian restaurant right next door.
At the end of the day, the local women come down to wash their clothes in the lake. Their kids jump off the pier while the sun disappears behind a long hill shaped like the head of a crocodile.
Maybe I’ll stay here a few days, maybe a few weeks, then I’ll move on. Maybe I’ll go to the mountains next. Maybe I’ll go to the coast, or I’ll find a little island somewhere.
I travel overland. The time I spend travelling is comparable to the time anyone else might spend commuting to work – only I go further, and less often.
I meet a lot more people than I would if I was living at home, and bring in a lot more new supporters for the Project.
If the hard drive is damaged in transit, there is a backup in a safe place not too far away.
I’m working an average of 32 hours a week – that is, 80% of a standard 40-hour week.
80% of my expenses, such as they are, come out of funds earmarked for the Project. The rest comes out of my own pocket. If my work hours drop, I pay the difference.
With my work hours more clearly defined, I work more efficiently and effectively.
The Project still needs money, yes – but I don’t. Even if I had ten times as much money as I do now, there’s very little I’d change.
It’s not a perfect system, mind you. Both my personal funds and most of the Project funds are currently coming out of my inheritance, which won’t last forever, and is not nearly enough to pay the professionals needed to help finish Sisters For Sale.
But that’s fine.
I don’t need Sisters For Sale – it needs me. When the funds are available, it will be finished.
In the meantime, I won’t allow my happiness or sense of success to be dependent on other people.
For over three years, I’ve given all I can to The Human, Earth Project, and it has given me very little in return.
It has given me one very valuable thing, though – the realisation that I need only a little to be happy.
And I am.
Now it’s time to define what success means to you.