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On Finding The Next Big Project

I know it when I know it.

Train tracks at Khorgos Gateway
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ASTORIA, NYC- I know of few things more exhilarating than starting a new project. The feeling is a mix of excitement — you think of all the places that you will go, the people that you will meet, and things that you will do …
And the fear.

You have fear not because you’re scared of something happening to you — any traveler knows that can happen anywhere at anytime — but because you know the investment of life that each project requires.

The lifeline of each project isn’t something that’s measured in days or months, but years. Each project represents a relatively large chunk of your existence, and you only get to do a finite number in any one lifetime.

To date, I’ve only ever done two big projects: ghost cities and New Silk Road. Each required years of travel, writing, editing, promoting, presenting … Years and years of life that are manifested in books, articles, blog posts, films, and lectures.

Your life is what you put your time into.

So wisely selecting your projects is paramount in this profession. If you choose well you get book deals and film funding, invitations to write for big media and speaking engagements. If you choose poorly you end up with nothing …

… but a series of blog posts.

But this is actually a decision that I often don’t put much thought into. I let the projects come to me.

Ghost cities happened when I saw a really poorly researched Al Jazeera report about Ordos Kangbashi. I knew of China’s ghost cities first hand when I accidentally ended up in them on two occasions while traveling as a university student years before. I knew there was more to the story, and when I read that article I was consumed by that nagging little impulse that said go.

The New Silk Road project began when I was at a trade fair in Xiamen in 2012. I saw an exhibit from the province of Jiangsu about a proposed new rail corridor that would stretch from Lianyungang to Rotterdam called the Second Eurasian Land Bridge. This was before Xi announced the Belt and Road and nobody was talking about New Silk Roads or anything like that, but somehow I just knew that I was going to follow it.

If you get too analytical about selecting a project you will be prone to select them for their success or profit potential rather than if you have the required amount of passion to actually carry it out … which inevitably ends in a quick burn out.

I know this because I’ve done it. The “Books” folder on my laptop is chock full of the ruins of DOA book projects — books that I thought would be good ideas that just didn’t have the intrigue needed to see through to the end.

A project is a masochistic proposition. You have to love the one holding the whip.

And you just have to wait for the projects to call to you. It could be a news report or a video or a conversation and I will just be like, “Oh yeah. That’s it.”

You just know it when you know it.

For the past five years I’ve been around NYC, Mexico, the Caribbean … just waiting for it … just waiting for the next big project to come to me.

For a moment I thought it was going to be the Covid nonsense, but that just made me want to vomit. You can’t spend years on a topic that makes you sick [figuratively]…

You also can’t spend years on a project just because you think it’s important …

It has to be something fascinating, something that’s relevant, something that grabs you by the cojones and doesn’t let go. It has to be all consuming.

Otherwise the Project will destroy you.

It will leave you ragged by the roadside begging for mercy as life passes you by.

But it happened the other day. I randomly had an article about something related to the Panama Canal pop up in front of me …

… and I got that feeling.

And I knew what it was.


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Filed under: Journalism, Travel Diary, Vagabond Journey Updates

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Rob April 12, 2024, 10:51 pm

    The Panama Canal eh? We’ll be here when you get more to say about it!

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    • VBJ April 14, 2024, 1:57 pm

      Thank you!

      More coming soon.

      Link Reply
  • Jack April 17, 2024, 1:19 am

    I can think of many stories about the Panama Canal or how it figures in stories. Looking forward.

    Link Reply
    • VBJ April 17, 2024, 12:00 pm

      I know! It’s a pretty interesting place. But my interest is mainly from the “global warming” clusterfuck and how that’s being utilized by various powerful entities. I’ll probably end up saying something that both sides don’t like again and continue being an unplaceable pariah … but that’s the way it goes 🤣

      But I kind of just want to go there again.

      Link Reply