8 episodes

Yulia Denisyuk quit her corporate job to become a published travel photographer + writer with work in Nat Geo, BBC, & more. In Ad Astra, she offers thoughts on creativity & pursuing your dreams while being human & dealing with doubts, failures, & fears.


Ad Astra Yulia Denisyuk

    • Self Help

Yulia Denisyuk quit her corporate job to become a published travel photographer + writer with work in Nat Geo, BBC, & more. In Ad Astra, she offers thoughts on creativity & pursuing your dreams while being human & dealing with doubts, failures, & fears.


    Issue #14: Self-kindness In Times of Crises

    Issue #14: Self-kindness In Times of Crises

    I am continuing to open up paid subscription issues like this one to everyone through April, just in case they may help someone deal with the challenges of the current crisis a little bit better.

    Dear friends, welcome to Ad Astra. It’s so great to have you here.

    For the past few weeks, I have been dealing with an issue: at random times throughout the day, I’d feel extremely sleepy and tired. So tired that sitting in front of my laptop for more than a minute would be akin to torture.

    I’d try to power through it, but before I knew it I’d find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or skipping through Instagram Stories. No work would get done.

    I’d call myself a lazy bum and return to my laptop, trying to muster my concentration and focus. A few minutes later, I’d be back in the same loop.

    Like many around me, I’ve lost a lot of work in the past few weeks. A photo editor I’ve been discussing a project with (before this thing started) has graciously emailed to let me know that he’s been put on furlough. All of my travel projects to date have been halted, indefinitely.

    In this time of crisis, people who base their identity and sense of worth around the work they do (myself included) can fall into a pit.

    Today I’d like to discuss how we can get out of it.

    (Stay tuned for next week’s issue where I’ll cover ways to find creative work right now.)

    And if you haven’t yet, give a try to the audio version of this issue: I’ve finally figured out new software and the quality has improved quite a bit from previous episodes.

    Where worth comes from

    Across the industrial world, and especially in the United States, we’ve been made to believe that our worthiness comes not from the simple fact that we exist, but from the work we do, the money we earn, the accomplishments we can tout, and the number of hours we place on the altar of productivity.

    I’ve found this a terrible way to live when your sense of worth is based on some external conditions. Perhaps that’s why, through my years of travels, I’ve been inexplicably drawn to Eastern philosophies and regions of the world where ‘wasting the afternoon away’ is a common way to be (note the choice of wording for that particularly Western phrase).

    “I am worthy because I exist” has been a tough lesson for me to learn, but I’m slowly getting better at mastering it. (How? Keep reading.)

    This week, in particular, I found it soothing to listen to Krista Tippett from the On Being project ponder on this issue. You can listen to this wonderful (and short) segment here: At home, frustrated, and stressed — is 'just being' worthy right now?

    Krista posits that being kind to ourselves and settling into ourselves right now is a gift we can offer to the world beyond this crisis.

    What a radical thought, right? (and yes, I am being sarcastic here.)

    You have been forced to enter empty time.The desire that drove you has relinquished.There is nothing else to do now but restAnd patiently learn to receive the selfYou have forsaken in the race of days.

    You have traveled too fast over false ground;Now your soul has come to take you back.

    Take refuge in your senses, open upTo all the small miracles you rushed through.

    Become inclined to watch the way of rainWhen it falls slow and free.

    Draw alongside the silence of stoneUntil its calmness can claim you.Be excessively gentle with yourself.

    Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.Learn to linger around someone of easeWho feels they have all the time in the world.

    Gradually, you will return to yourself,Having learned a new respect for your heartAnd the joy that dwells far within slow time.

    — Jonh O’Donohue

    Exceedingly kind

    This week, inspired by John O’Donohue, I made a pledge to be exceedingly kind to myself.


    Like with many issues of the mind, our transformation starts with awaren

    • 8 min
    Issue #13: The Night Is Young

    Issue #13: The Night Is Young

    Dear friends, welcome to Ad Astra. I’m so glad you’re here.

    For this week’s issue, I decided to get away from it all: the C-word, the news, the anxiety, and the flood of advice on how to work from home, how to be productive during quarantine time, how to quell your worry, or how to wash your hands.

    Instead, I’d like to share with you a story I wrote in 2015 when I was on the verge of quitting corporate (in fact I wrote it exactly nine months before I quit).

    One year later, this story was picked up by Lonely Planet for their annual travel anthology (you can see it here).

    Without further ado, I present to you “The Night Is Young.”

    The Night Is Young

    My guide Mohammed dismounts his camel, takes off his worn leather sandals and steps on the hot desert sand. The onset of dusk is adding a hint of sorcery to the dunes that loom all around us and I can no longer see the homes of Merzouga village behind the rare Saharan palms.

    I cling to my camel, Bob Marley, and follow Mohammed into the desert for an overnight stay.

    Bob Marley’s flesh is hot against my skin. The sun is still strong and I am grateful for the elaborate red-cloth turban Mohammed tied on my head a minute ago. Through the narrow slit in the turban, I track Mohammed’s indigo tunic, lit in the ochre dunes, as he guides us deeper into this land. I lose sight of him when we cross a large dune — a sleeping giant — and realize that a camel thread in Mohammed’s hand is the only tie connecting me to another human.

    I have to believe that the thread is strong enough.

    Bob Marley takes careful steps, sinking to his knees but coming back out each time. After a while, the camel and I get into an ancient rhythm, advancing as one through the desert.

    The quiet dunes surround our small caravan and at times seem to cover us whole. Still, we keep going. Mohammed gazes far beyond the horizon and charges ahead as if an invisible path were etched into the dunes.

    I catch the last glimpse of the sun before the next slanted dune hides it from view. The air cools down and my camel perks up. The night is quickly falling on the Sahara and Mohammed’s slim silhouette is dissolving into the darkness.

    I pull on the camel thread to ensure we are still connected. As if he is sensing my fear, Mohammed turns and sends me a bright wide grin. He must be only a kid, eighteen or twenty at most.

    I realize I don’t know much about him, except that his family lives in a nearby village. By the time I go back to New York, he’ll take ten other people on this nightly trek.

    I too will have business to attend to upon my return, an unfinished conversation.

    It began years ago when I started my corporate career and soon recognized this path was not right for me.

    Unhappy with my status quo but afraid to change it, I continued working and tormenting myself and my loved ones for years.

    At last, one mild spring night in New York a close friend had asked me, “Why are you wasting your years on something you do not care for?”

    The question hung unanswered that night but kept simmering in my mind all the way to the African continent.

    Mohammed suddenly breaks the silence with his first words to me, “Algerian border.” He points somewhere far, smiles, and says it again, “Algerian border, there. We are close.”

    Ten minutes later our caravan stops at a low valley formed by a circle of barely visible dunes. I say good night to Bob Marley as Mohammed helps me dismantle. The camel, unfazed by my good manners, lies down for the night and we step into the dark.

    The sand is now cool to the touch, a welcomed change from the earlier furnace. I drop my bags and run up the nearest dune.

    There, on top of the mound, the first star of the night emerges into view. In vain, I try to decipher its elusive flickering message and finally go back down.

    Below, Mohammed unhurriedly tends

    • 10 min
    Issue #12: This Is What My Fears Warned Me About

    Issue #12: This Is What My Fears Warned Me About

    This issue (part of the paid subscription) is open to everyone, just in case it may help someone deal with the challenges of the upcoming weeks a little bit better.

    Hi friends, welcome to Ad Astra. It’s so wonderful to have you here.

    You’ve likely seen this sentiment going around the internet this week:

    It’s been surreal to see our lives grind to a halt as we all watch this pandemic march through the globe. I hope you’re taking care of yourself and your loved ones and staying safe.

    We don’t know how long this period will last, so let’s try not to waste our strength on feeling anxious, fearful, or angry. This, too, shall pass, one way or another. Love, compassion, and level-headed behavior is what we need right now.

    This week, I had a strange realization: this crisis is exactly what my fears have warned me about when they told me to stay at my stable job, hunker down, and forget about my dreams.

    It’s surreal. Usually, our worst fears don’t come true. But when the travel industry ⁠— and with it, the rest of the world ⁠— has stopped operating in a matter of days, MY worst fears did realize.

    As a travel photographer and writer who also leads other people on trips, this is my worst-case scenario. I’ve had several work trip assignments canceled, the bookings for my travel company are up in the air, and it’s unclear how the industry as a whole will recover.

    A freelance travel journalist’s income is haphazard at best during normal times and right now, it’s nonexistent.

    So why do I feel so calm? How am I able to carry on while my industry is on fire? This is what I’d like to cover today.

    Under pressure

    There’s a part of my life I rarely talk about that, I believe, has prepared me well for this time. It’s the reason I can pursue risks with less fear. It’s why I keep calm in situations of stress and anxiety.

    Back when I was a green 21-year-old, I joined the US military, specifically the Navy. And while there were a lot of challenges and hardships associated with my service (someday I’ll get into that), the Navy taught me how to operate under extreme pressure.

    In the Navy, I was part of an expeditionary aviation unit where every day we launched our pilots up in the air in old flying machines from the 1960s. One wrong part installed, one inspection step missed, and our pilots could die.

    So we followed processes to the proverbial t. We had checklists and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything you could think of, and we trained, trained, trained every single day.

    Why did we train so much? Because after all that training came the time for us to deploy and actually execute what we trained for, in even more stressful conditions.

    In my four years of service, I spent two and a half years training in Washington State and one and a half year deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the global war on terror campaign of the early 2000s.

    You may wonder, “What does this all have to do with me and the uncertainty I face at the beginning of 2020?”

    What I’d like to propose to you is that this pandemic and the disruption it’s likely bringing to your doorstep is akin to deployment for military personnel.

    Both are stressful. Both are scary. And both can be prepared for, physically and mentally.

    In the spirit of my Navy times, I offer you my version of a deployment checklist (yes, that was a real thing we used) below. I hope that this checklist can help you feel a little bit better about the current situation and perhaps prepare for the next time uncertainty hits.

    1. Get your bare minimum

    During our Iraq deployments, we often experienced sand storms. These were weird moments when the daytime sky went dark from all the sand that a strong wind called shamal brought over the land.

    When you’re in the middle of a storm that can last for days, you take everything down to

    • 12 min
    Issue #11: Your Survival Guide to WFH

    Issue #11: Your Survival Guide to WFH

    Dear friends, welcome to Ad Astra. I’m delighted to have you here.

    This issue, Your Survival Guide to Working From Home, was originally going to be for paid subscribers only (if you recall, paid subscribers get three additional issues each month). I’ve decided to open it up to everyone, just in case it may help someone deal with the challenges of the upcoming weeks a little bit better.

    If you’ve ever spoken to an editor or been in one’s shoes, you’ll recognize this dilemma: how do we continue with normal programming in times of crises and major disruptions?

    Especially in travel, the community I am part of, every publication worth its salt is asking this question right now. Do we continue to cheer on far-flung locales while travel bans are disrupting our lives? Or do we switch our coverage to COVID-19, because it’s on everyone’s minds?

    In my view, there is a fine line between staying true to your publication’s purpose — topics that readers come to you for and expect to find on your pages — and covering something that’s urgently weighing on many people’s minds.

    I’m going to try to walk that line today.

    And while I am not delving into the topic of this pandemic directly (I am not an expert in pandemics; all I know right now is to wash my hands, stay home, and protect my loved ones who are especially vulnerable), I’d like to cover the topic of working from home.

    ⬇️ me not working from home last weekend

    Chances are, you will be working from home in the foreseeable future.

    Well, this is a topic I can contribute lots of insights to — I have been part of the WFH movement for the past four years.

    When I first quit my job (read about it here), I was elated to join this movement.

    Yes to a laptop in bed!

    Yes to conference calls in pajamas!

    Yes to the freedom that comes with setting your own hours.

    The reality, as is often the case, is not as glamorous as it sounds.

    Working from home has its advantages (and yes, I’ve simplified my choice of outfits dramatically over the past four years) but it comes with its own challenges — isolation, lack of structure, guilt, blending of work and life, your household not treating your “office time” as such…

    I’ve dealt with all of that and today, I offer you my insights on how to survive when you’re WFH:

    Learn to stop feeling guilty about getting more done in less time

    I found that since I’ve transitioned from office work to working from home, I am able to accomplish much more in less time.

    How is that so?

    I haven’t suddenly turned into a superwoman, so here is my explanation: I waste less time.

    Consider this: when you’re working from home, all the things that used to take up time in your workday — commute, standing at the coffee line, waiting for meetings to start, small talk — are no longer there.

    The only distractions to fight off now are trips to the fridge and browsing your favorite social media platform. Inevitably, you focus more on what needs to get done for the day and you accomplish it faster.

    The trick is to stop feeling guilty about it.

    Somehow, we believe that we should be working at least eight hours a day (thanks Industrial Revolution!).

    That may work well for a job at the conveyer belt, but if you’re engaged in any kind of intellectual work, that won’t do. Our brain simply isn’t set up to work for eight hours straight. (This UK study found that workers, on average, are productive for only about three hours in their eight-hour workday.)

    In this week’s NPR interview, journalist Celeste Headlee gives an interesting explanation for where my guilt may be coming from:

    “Headlee believes some of America's obsession with work can be traced back to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Ideas about working your way to heaven, Headlee explains, "meant that every i

    • 14 min
    Issue #9: Quit Your Job. Travel The World. Never Look Back.

    Issue #9: Quit Your Job. Travel The World. Never Look Back.

    Dear friends, welcome to Ad Astra. It’s so good to have you here and thank you to everyone who’s joined us since last week.

    We’re two months into this newsletter journey! It makes me so happy sharing everything I know on the subjects of creativity, pursuing your dreams, becoming a professional storyteller, and living boldly — thank you for giving me this opportunity, for tuning in, and for providing such kind feedback.

    Today I’d like to dig into a subject that seems to be quite popular with many of you: quitting your job and taking a plunge into living your life a little bit ⁠— or a lot ⁠— differently.

    I’m going to share with you the exact path I took to get where I am today. I hope that it inspires you to make some changes or start making plans to change your life for the better.

    First, a little bit of housekeeping. I got a new, better microphone, so if you prefer hearing stories rather than reading them, check out the audio file. (It should be much better than when we first started!)

    Today’s issue is a bit longer than usual. Alas, quitting a job is a big topic.

    Alright, let’s get started.

    Part I. The Breakdown.

    In the Fall of 2015, I was miserable. By all external marks, I had “made it.” I was a brand manager in a top global corporation. I earned a six-figure salary and rented a beautiful apartment on Upper West Side in Manhattan, a dream come true.

    But every night as I came home from work (usually around 9 or 10 in the evening), I cried in my pillow. I worked all my waking hours, nights and weekends too. Most of the time, I felt like a zombie, tied to my laptop, praying to the holy trinity of the early twenty-first century — Email, Powerpoint, Excel.

    I felt like I had no right to feel bad about my predicament. Yes, many people don’t enjoy what they do, but that’s why it’s called a job, right? And wasn’t I living in the best city in the world? And what if all I saw of it was a rush-hour subway disaster? And what about all that money I was making, the first in my family to ever do so?

    I was an immigrant coming from a poor background and it was especially difficult for me to admit that the summit I’ve reached, with my MBA and a cushy salary and stock options and a nice title, turned out to be full of empty words.

    So I drudged on, dying a little inside every day. I kept telling myself all the things we tell ourselves to get through our work week. I lived in a constant state of slumber, barely waking up on the weekends, only to return to the dead zone come Monday.

    Honestly, I was a wreck.

    I saw no value in the job I was doing (“hey, let’s sell another widget to consumers #becausecapitalism makes the world go round!”) and I didn’t know how to get out. Worse, days turned into weeks, weeks turned into years, and a sinking feeling was filling me up with cold sweat: this could be it. This could be my life.

    The status quo would probably go on forever… but the absurdity of it finally got to me. I started having issues with my back, no longer able to sit at my desk in the office. My body was smarter than I was and it began giving me signs that something had to change.

    Looking back now, it seems as if everything that happened to me that fall was smartly designed by the universe. As my back gave in and I reached burnout, the brand I was responsible for hit rock bottom after years of sales declines. Then one day, just like that, I found myself no longer employed by the company I worked for.

    This was my ticket out. I could chalk it up to ‘bad cultural fit’ and get right back into the game. My new gig was only a recruiter’s call away.

    But I didn’t call a recruiter. Instead, I decided to use this as an opportunity to explore what else in life is out there.

    Insights for you:

    I realize that unless I reached this very low point, I probably would not have made thi

    • 22 min
    Issue #5: The Anatomy of a Story

    Issue #5: The Anatomy of a Story

    Hi friends, welcome to Ad Astra and thank you to everyone who’s joined us since the last issue! It’s so good to have you here.

    First: a quick reminder.

    This issue is open to everyone and so will be the March 1 issue. To get access to the three issues in between, consider subscribing below. If you sign up in the next four weeks, the subscription is going to be $5 a month going forward. Think of it as taking me out to coffee, once a month, and getting four opportunities to read my thoughts on the topics of creativity, living boldly, and chasing your dreams while you’re at it.

    After March 1, the subscription is going to be $6 a month (or $65 a year if you choose an annual subscription).

    Ok, now onto today’s topic. I’d like to dig into the anatomy of a story: what this process looks like for me from beginning to end.

    I’ll use this story I created for AFAR Magazine as an example. It’s one of my favorite stories to date.

    Prelude: inspiration or curiosity?

    Inspiration is everywhere if only we pay attention. The source of our next story (or a project, or a creative endeavor) can often come from the most unusual direction. And it needn’t be something massive, either. It doesn’t even have to qualify as our passion to feel inspiring to us.

    I love the way author Elizabeth Gilbert frames this: she talks about choosing curiosity over passion.


    Passion is intimidating. “Follow your passion,” we often hear. But what the heck does that mean? We have no idea, and so we just freeze up and get discouraged on the road to creative living.

    Elizabeth Gilbert offers us a much more approachable choice. Instead of trying to figure out what our passion is, we can follow the ‘breadcrumbs’ of curiosity.

    Does that book on 18th-century hat fashion pique your interest? Pick it up.

    Does spending an afternoon in a letterpress studio sound like a good idea? Go there (I actually did just that once in Brooklyn).

    Curiosity gives us a stress-free way to explore our interests. And over time, these tiny breadcrumbs (or “hints from the universe” as I like to call them) add up and point us in a direction that we could choose to pursue.

    How does choosing curiosity over passion relate to today’s discussion?

    I got curious about Turkish tiles two years ago and today, the topic of reviving old artisan traditions is becoming one of my specializations. In the process of creating this story (and a few others after), I discovered that I really enjoy working on this subject. My curiosity, not my passion, led me here.

    Inception: always read your friends’ blog posts

    Some time ago, I was scrolling through my good friend Erol’s website.

    Erol is an incredibly talented designer, creative director, and an inspiration to me. (We met on Instagram!)

    About halfway through his journal, I stumbled upon a single image of a lovely blue and white floral dish, accompanied by Erol’s crisp description: “SOURCE — İznik blue and white dish (c. 1480–1500) sold by Christie’s to the Detroit Institute of Arts.”

    The image and the words piqued my curiosity. I followed this blue and white rabbit down its stunning floral hole.

    I learned that Iznik tiles from Turkey have been legendary during the Ottoman Empire times. Today, cheap Iznik replicas fill the streets of Istanbul but real Iznik, as I learned from Erol and Christie’s, can sell for as high as half a million dollars!

    The story idea was born.

    Fermentation: take your time and don’t skip your research

    I now had a kernel of an idea but it wasn’t enough to form a story proposal or approach publications. I needed to do more research.

    For the next few weeks, I’ve read all I could find on the internet regarding Iznik tiles.

    I learned that what makes Iznik tiles so vibrant is a secret sauce of ingredients called sır (translated as ‘secret’ from Turkish).

    • 8 min

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