The first stop was Paris, where, still reeling from breaking up with my girlfriend, selling all of my possessions, and maintaining an online business that was hardly making any money, I proceeded to sulk and gripe my way through the streets of La Ville-Lumiére totally not appreciating what was around me.
Eventually, things got better though. And I moved on. Both from Paris and my own personal pity parade. I moved on to Belgium, then Holland, then Germany, then Prague. I moved back home again only to move on to South America a few months later. Then Southeast Asia after that, then Australia, then Central America, then Eastern Europe, and then South America again.
Over the span of five years, I moved on to 55 separate countries, dozens of new friendships, hundreds of fascinating people and experiences, and even picked up a couple languages along the way.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all misty-eyed and tell you how I discovered my true calling or how happy starving children in Africa really are if you could have just seen them playing with trash and shitting in buckets — they were soooooooo happy. I’m not going to get up my own ass with false self-importance. And I’m certainly not going to claim I “found myself” or something.
No. Traveling the world, like any life path you choose, has its ups and downs, its highs and lows, its pros and cons.
But I will say: picking up and leaving my life behind in 2009 and spending the past five years vagabonding about the planet was both one of the most challenging and rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. And I wouldn’t take it back.
Because you do learn a lot. About people, about the world, about life. You just don’t always learn what you expect to learn. Sometimes the lessons come at unwanted times and give you unwanted truths. Sometimes you learn things you can’t unlearn and see things you can’t unsee.
But regardless, you grow. Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned and some of the ways I have grown.
- HAPPINESS IS COMMON — HUMAN DIGNITY IS NOT
The stereotype of world travelers is the upper-middle-class college kid who goes to some random, third-world country, sees a bunch of poor, half-naked kids joyfully playing in sewage puddles with toys made out of string and broken sticks, and suddenly has the life-changing epiphany that, no, you do not in fact need an XBox 360 and 24-hour delivery from Dominos to be happy in this world.
Who would have thunk it?
It turns out, the human capacity for happiness is surprisingly flexible. Psychological research shows that people quickly adjust to their surroundings and are able to find joy in most situations, regardless of their culture, material wealth or political situation.
For this reason, traveling the world has lowered my estimation of happiness. When I left Boston back in 2009, my aims were somewhat hedonic: party a lot, meet interesting people, have crazy adventures. But over the years I’ve grown to see that “feeling good” in and of itself is often overrated.
I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud. Happiness is important, sure. But it’s also common and can be found in most situations once your mind adjusts to your surroundings. You can find happiness in any slum or in any mansion, on the beach, in the mountains, or in the middle of the desert.
But what is rare in many parts of the world is human dignity. You know, people who aren’t treated like animals — used, ignored, cheated, beaten, mutilated, silenced, or suppressed. Again, not to be a stick in the mud, but those happy kids playing in sewage pipes and shitting in buckets will be lucky to make it to middle age without serious violence, addiction or health problems in their lives.
Traveling the world
In American culture, we are so fixated on feeling good all of the time, it seems we sometimes forget that there are more important things in the world than being happy or entertained. Traveling has shown me that there are things that are more important than pleasure or happiness. And it’s made me far more conscious of a lot of the injustices and cruelties that go on not just around the world, but here in our own backyard, without us necessarily taking much notice.
Again, not getting on my soapbox or anything. These realizations have actually made me happier overall. Ironically, it’s by making these other values — community, connection, self-expression, honesty — more important than my own gratification that my happiness and fulfillment happen naturally as a side effect.
That and 24-hour Dominos delivery.
- WORLD TRAVEL GIVES YOU GREATER PERSPECTIVE ON LIFE, BUT IT LIMITS YOUR ABILITY TO COMMIT TO THINGS
The beauty of traveling around the world is that it allows you to get altitude.
No, I don’t mean airplane altitude.
I mean it allows you to get a big-picture perspective on things, to see the various ways cultures mesh and collide with one another and how the different streams of history have eroded and hardened each country’s social structures into their respective places.
You realize that much of what you believed to be unique in your home country is often universal, and that much of what you thought was universal is often specific to your home country.
You realize that humans are by and large the same, with the same needs, the same desires and the same awful biases that pit them haplessly against each other.
You realize that no matter how much you see or how much you learn about the world, there’s always more — that with every new destination discovered, you become aware of a dozen others, and with every new piece of knowledge obtained, you only become more aware of how much you really don’t know.
You realize that you will never be able to explore or encounter all of these destinations. Because you realize that the more you spread the breadth of your experience across the globe, the thinner and more meaningless it becomes.
You realize that there’s something to be said to limiting oneself, not just geographically, but also emotionally. That there’s a certain depth of experience and meaning that can only be achieved when one picks a single piece of creation and says, “This is it. This is where I belong.”
Perpetual world travel literally gives you a whole world of experience. But it also takes another away.
- THE BEST PART OF A COUNTRY OR CULTURE IS ALSO USUALLY THE WORST
Life lessons from traveling the world
In 1965, Singapore, a small island at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, was granted independence. Impoverished, uneducated, sparsely populated and with no natural resources, Singapore’s new leaders understood that in order to survive they would have to act fast and find a way to make the tiny island indispensable to the global community.
From the start, the new government put an almost maniacal emphasis on education, commerce, and financial success, generating a culture built around rapid economic growth. A metropolis was soon built specifically to cater to foreign investors, bankers, and international trade. It was a Disneyland for rich foreigners, an island paradise where they’d want to bring their money and never leave.