Why do you travel?
I was recently stalking the archives of Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Workweek when I came across an interesting guest post written by Ryan Holiday in 2013 called ‘How to Travel: 21 Contrarian Rules,’ where he made a statement that travel, in and of itself, is not inherently valuable.
(For the record, this wasn’t the whole point of the article, which did contain some excellent – and some not-so-excellent – travel advice.)
Ignoring the slightly insufferable tone (which is somewhat par for the course from the ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator‘ author), there were a few lines in the post that really got me thinking. He accused travelers of using their explorations as a form of self-indulgent escapism.
“Traveling for the sake of traveling is stupid…the purpose of travel, like all important experiences, is to improve yourself and your life. It’s just as likely–in some cases more likely–that you will do that closer to home and not further…Travel should not be an escape…So ask: Do you deserve this trip? Ask yourself that honestly. Am I actually in a place to get something out of this?”
Now, Ryan is a smart guy, I’ll give him that. To make his point, he uses the writings of esteemed philosophers like Seneca.
“They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.” – Seneca, On Tranquility of the Mind
In other words…wherever you go, there you are.
There’s some sage wisdom in this. You can’t run forever. There are some instances where you need to stay and fight; to face your problems head on in order to emerge victorious.
BUT…as Elizabeth Gilbert says…
“There are other times when, honestly, I think the very best thing you can do for yourself is to run like hell — as far away as you can possibly go. Because there are circumstances in which a change of scenery CAN change your mind. Putting an ocean between you and somebody you really need to stay away from CAN help you to move on healthily. Taking a running leap CAN, at times, give you a better chance of learning to fly.”
I’m all for the idea of creating a life you don’t need to escape from. But there are a few flaws to this over-simplified cliche.
Sometimes even those of us with the best intentions can find ourselves stuck in a situation we never saw coming.
You might start a new job or a new relationship or a new diet for all the right reasons. Your heart and mind are in the right place; you’re practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. But, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
When I first accepted my corporate marketing job, I was working late nights tending bar, and I am not a night owl. (This morning I woke up at 4:12 am, no alarm clock required.)
Although I enjoyed my job and the people I worked with, I couldn’t shake that lingering voice that kept reminding me I wasn’t ‘living up to my potential.’
I was offered a marketing position which promised to provide travel opportunities and gave me the salary boost I needed to finally make a dent in those pesky student loans. Not to mention that marketing strategy is something I have always had a keen interest in. My first – and second – interviews were conducted at a bar, over drinks. It seemed like a great fit.
In the beginning, it was a good fit. I did a fair bit of traveling around the US, which taught me the fine art of zipping through airport security lines and packing 10 different outfits (including shoes) in a carry-on. I had the autonomy to get creative and develop certain skills which benefited both myself and the company. (Add that to the bonus perks of having my own office and finally being awake during the daylight hours and it seemed like a pretty sweet deal.)
And then, gradually, things changed. The company changed. My relationship changed. I changed.
As the business went through the growing pains of a merger not once, not twice, but three times in four years, I saw a grand total of FIVE bosses come and go. People around me were getting laid off left and right. I absorbed three peoples’ job responsibilities with no accompanying salary increase. Bonuses became a thing of the past. The branch I was working out of closed and I was asked to relocate in order to keep my position.
I would have rolled with the punches and been fine with all of this had it not been for my gradual loss of respect for the company and the way they conducted business. Too often I was asked to promote a shoddy product because the supplier wanted it gone as opposed to considering the needs of the customer. (“Push the fish, it’s starting to turn…”)
Underhanded deals became more and more common. The corporate culture evolved from “how can we best serve our customers?” to “how can we squeeze as much money as possible out of them in order to stay afloat?”
I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of things in life, but my integrity isn’t one of them.
However, by this point I was in deep. I had a company credit card, laptop, phone, and car allowance. I had an apartment with real, grown-up furniture. I almost had my car paid off. I knew I should be job hunting, but the thought alone was daunting. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
I grew restless and irritable. My old frenemy, depression, started to sneak in and make himself at home. I knew I wasn’t happy, but I felt trapped; stuck. I couldn’t see the forest through the trees, so to speak.
All of a sudden that life that I’d purposefully and intentionally created for myself to thrive in had become something else entirely.
I don’t know the exact statistics, but I’m pretty sure no one, in the history of the world, has ever set out on a venture saying, “I’m going to build a life for myself that SUCKS.”
Of COURSE we all want to create lives we “don’t need to escape from” but the fact is that life is not stagnant. It evolves. Sometimes things that you were once passionate about grow stale. Sometimes a relationship that started out so good dissolves into empty bickering or worse.
Sometimes you need to reevaluate in order to make some major changes, but you don’t even know where to start.
This is where travel comes in.
Traveling for the sake of traveling is NOT stupid. It can be the catalyst to implement real and lasting change in your life.
“Running away works.” – David Sedaris
We may not initially know why we travel. Some of us have wanderlust in our veins that can’t be explained beyond a deep desire to leave our comfort zones behind and embrace the wild unknown.
Asking yourself if you’re “in a place where you can get something out of a trip” is putting the cart before the horse. It’s like trying to push all of the darkness out of a room before you turn the light on.
I had no idea what I was doing when I got on that plane to Ireland. Part of me was wondering if I was crazy, and part of me was eerily certain I was about to change my life forever. And I did. I’m not the same person that I was when I left.
I didn’t have some big, lofty purpose when I set out to travel – I just wanted to get outside my own little world and see what was out there. The purpose revealed itself while I was traveling.
Just because you need to escape from a life doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad life.
What about the allegation that “[travel] should be part of your life, no better or no worse than the rest of your life?”
Let’s take my best friend, E (we’ll stick with initials because I didn’t exactly ask her permission to write about her life). She’s married to a wonderful guy who treats her like gold. They have a gorgeous home and some adorable (albeit naughty) furbabies.
E is one of those rare people who has always known what she wanted to do with her life. In fact, I’m incredibly jealous of her unwavering love for her chosen career as a veterinary technician. (Contrary to popular belief, all vet techs do not want to be veterinarians any more than all nurses want to be doctors.)
Being a vet tech is an incredibly taxing job. I worked with her at the clinic for 4 1/2 years, and let me tell you, you don’t just get to play with kittens all day. You are a nurse, a babysitter, a pharmacist, a team leader, and counselor. Also, there are a LOT of bodily fluids to deal with.
Despite this, it’s also a damn rewarding job. You get to work with animals, often more closely than the doctors themselves do. You help people through the tough decisions they have to make on behalf of their beloved pets. You get to genuinely make a difference in the lives of both people and animals.
However, a career as a vet tech doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to a life of constant and regular travel. It’s not really something you can do while moving from country to country every few months.
Travel, for E, is something that’s carefully planned and budgeted for. It IS something she looks forward to a few times a year as an ‘escape’ from her daily life. Why shouldn’t it be?
Even if you appreciate and find joy in your everyday routine, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to shake it up every now and then. Spending “weeks or months planning how to get away from your life” does not necessarily indicate a dissatisfaction with it.
Certainly there are plenty of people like the former me out there, who ARE living in a personal hell they’re dying to break free of, but let’s not assume that every location-dependent person is miserable.
So to the pragmatic stoics, the skeptics who consider travel to be a form of self-indulgent escapism, I say, “so what?”
Who are you to pass judgement on someone’s reasons for traveling?
Travel, for whatever reason you choose to do it, does have value in and of itself. For some people, just the act of getting on that plane can be a huge accomplishment.
If checking things off a bucket list gets people to get out and experience the world, then I say let ’em. Their life might be enriched in ways they never expected.
Of all the self-indulgences in the world (alcohol, gluttony, TV, video games, etc…) surely travel is the least likely to damage someone’s character.
On the contrary, Mr. Contrarian. It may even unintentionally do a bit of good.
If you are struggling to get unstuck and create a more meaningful life for yourself, I highly suggest you check out The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life by Chris Guillebeau.
Chris documents his goal of visiting every country on the planet by age 35 as well as sharing dozens of stories of other people’s quests. In my humble opinion as a fellow adventurer, this is a must-read.