The Shift: Coming Home Again
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On Thursdays in April, In the Moment has focused its conversation about shifting populations as people leave their hometowns, seek education, employment, adventure and then somehow in one way or another find their way home. Ted is a non-profit platform devoted to spreading ideas usually in the form of short power talks of 18 minutes or less. In the fall of 2012, Ted Talks Online celebrated their 1 billionth video view and currently more than 6.8 million people subscribe to their web videos. Somewhere behind the scenes in Wessington Springs, South Dakota is Alex Dean. He's a web engineer tasked with building Ted.com. A native of Wessington Springs, Alex traveled the world before returning to the town eight years ago. Potluck Society host Hugh Weber caught up with Alex for a conversation about designing a life he loves in his hometown.
On whether he intended to come back to his hometown of Wessington Springs, SD:
No. In fact, probably the opposite. 18-year-old Alex was bound and determined never to return. I was fed up with small towns, and I wanted out. I think at the time I thought everybody here is closed minded and doesn't care about the world outside of this little town. And I was fed up, and I wanted something else. I don't exactly think I was wrong, I just think my perspective was, well it was a perspective of an 18 year old who needs to get out and see the world. You know what I mean? And the thing that is different now for me is, I mean, well one, I have been able to get out and see the world, and I feel like I've been able to do a lot of things on my own terms and discover the places that I really want to discover, and I got a chance to not just look at the horizon, but think, "Well, what's over there?" And I'm gonna go over and find out.
A lot of the story that I was telling you is a lot of travel, like being able to see the world has always been really important to me. So I think that was high on my mind when I was getting out of high school. After doing those things, after kind of realizing, "Yeah, actually I can go all kinds of places if I put my mind to it or save my money or do whatever I need to do," that all those things can be possible. I've lived in Scotland. I've lived in Bolivia. I've lived in Arizona. You know? All these places, and I kind of stacked them up against each other and I think about what day-to-day really mattered to me. We're not talking about when I want to go off and have an adventure. That could be anywhere. But when I think about most of life is not jumping out of airplanes or crazy stuff.
It's just waking up in the morning and doing your daily thing and where do I want that to be? I got to thinking more about, well, a lot about my family and wanting to be able to see them more often. But then also just kind of being free of kind of the nuisance of living in a city to be honest. Just wanting to run to the grocery store and get a couple of things and not have to stand in a line that's 15 people deep. Or, I mean, even simple things like getting your driver's license renewed. I remember in Denver that taking hours. Now when that happens here I go to the courthouse over lunch time and I talk to a lady who goes to our church, and she takes my picture, and then I'm done and it took five minutes. I mean, that kind of stuff, that's really nice.
Now that I have kids I tell them when they're bored in the house. I throw them outdoors ... I don't literally throw them outdoors, but I open the door and say, "Go out there. There's giant field in our backyard. Go find something to do. Make some time for yourself." And I don't think about, I don't really worry about what they're gonna get up to, and if they disappear for a couple of hours, that's cool with me. If we were still in Tempe or wherever, I don't know that I would feel that way. Those kind of things are on my mind more. I guess that's just to contrast 40-year-old Alex with 18-year-old alex. I don't think that that kid was wrong, but I think my priorities are a little different now.
On some of the challenges, personally and professionally, in moving back to South Dakota:
Let's see. I mean, so my wife and I were never really that into going out. We're pretty boring people I have to say. We were never really that into going out on Saturday nights. But one thing that we did do fairly often was try a different restaurant every week for instance. When you're in a city of 3 million people you kind of never run out of places to try. I think that was one thing that was an adjustment for us. I mean, it sounds like a minor thing, but honestly that was one of our things we did. So we had to come up with different ways to have a night out. Whether that was cooking for ourselves or whether it was making time to go to a restaurant in Mitchell or Huron or Sui Falls. So that was just a little different. That's a fairly minor thing.
Professionally, I will say that if having a career as being a big shot in software was gonna be a top priority for me, this was not a good choice. Basically, if I would move to New York, I could, I don't know, I could go a lot of places. A guy I went to grad school with in Denver is some kind of vice president at Etsy and will probably be the CTO or CEO of the place some day because he's brilliant. I got all kinds of respect in the world for him. I think if that was a path that I really wanted to be on, this is not the place for me. But to be honest, those day-to-day little things about just having kind of a slower pace of life, that was a bigger deal to me and being close to where my family is was a bigger deal to me. I tell you, New York's a cool place. It's a great place to visit. It would make me insane to live there. My quality of life just would not be what it is for me. I have nothing bad to say about any of the people who live there, especially since working for Ted I've made a lot of really good friends in New York City.
On what has surprised him over the last eight years about raising children back his old hometown:
It's surprising to me how at the same time that everything changes and so many things are new in the world, how many things can seem so familiar. I mean, I think that's honestly one of things that's so appealing about living here to me. My daughter's teacher was one of my teachers, and this is not the first time that that's happened. My son had a teacher who was my teacher. That's a real simple way to say it, but there are lots of rhythms to life here that remind me a lot of being a kid whether it's my son going to baseball practice early in the summer mornings or my daughter taking piano lessons next door in the house that my aunt used to live in.
The patterns of my life that are kind of laid all over this town are still really present in my kid's lives. Honestly, that's a bigger deal than the short lines at the grocery store or the DMV. Those are easy things to tell people about why it's nice to live in a small town, but just feeling connected to stuff that goes really deep for me and for my family and for people that I've known my whole life. Those are the things that are really significant.