Travelling used to be about the world and not about you.
Here’s a topic that has been bugging me for a very, very long time and although this may be a controversial post for some, it needs to be said, and this just might be the most important travel tip I can ever give you: don’t travel to find yourself.
I’ve seen so much of this Eat, pray, love trend going around in the past decade, where people seem to think that packing your bags and leaving to some other place will magically make you grow as a person and somehow mould you into a well-rounded, fulfilled individual who’s got it all figured out. Well, that’s not how it works (that’s not how any of this works!). Even before that, taking a gap year or at least the summer holiday after graduation off to see the world with nothing but a backpack was highly encouraged and still is. It was almost considered a rite of passage of sorts in most Western nations, but it normally had an expiration date. It has also always been a privilege to do so if you could, something you worked and saved for and then cherished every moment of it, even more so, because you knew it had to end at some point.
Travelling was meant to expand your horizons and show you the variety of the world; to give you a taste of freedom, force you to become independent and learn how to rely on yourself; to expose you to other cultures and ways of thinking and show you that’s there is always a different way of looking at things, but also make you appreciate the culture you came from, not take it for granted. In short, travelling used to be about the world and not about you.
Nowadays wandering off with no plan, a designer backpack and an Instagram account is suddenly the trifecta of self-discovery #blessed. And yes, coming from a person who has a travel blog to tell you all about her positive experiences with our incredible wide world and inspire you to get on the road, an Instagram account and a (regular) backpack, this might come across as hypocritical, but let’s get some things straight: did I learn important things about myself through travelling? Yes. Am I a better person because of my travels? Also yes. Did I set out to become one and “find” myself? Absolutely not.
I set out to see the world, to have fun and to experience something new, which remains my primary reason for travelling. Self-discovery and revelations happened along the way, and they should, but travelling isn’t a magical fix for all your personal problems and it won’t suddenly make you develop the personality of your dreams. Since distance can give you a certain amount of objectivity through detachment, it can sometimes feel like your problems have magically disappeared or were insignificant to begin with. However, you should always remember that your travelling bubble isn’t real, which is where the expiration date I mentioned earlier comes in.
Travelling opens so many doors that it’s impossible not to be tempted to follow a random road, stay longer or change your course entirely and that’s why it won’t help you find yourself. Instead, you’ll find so many versions of yourself that you’ll get lost among them, always chasing after a new one in the flow. If you already know yourself, your passions, ambitions and general life goals well enough, you’ll be able to go with the flow for as long as you want and then exit when you want to. Sure, it will be bittersweet and sometimes it will hurt like a bitch, but your travels will feel all the more special because of it. The trick is to know what you want and finding something which makes you happy in life, whether it’s your family, your career or your hobbies, and that’s what finding yourself really means, identifying your priorities and living accordingly.
It’s rather hard to process your thoughts and experiences within the whirlwind of travel, where every day brings something new and amazing, which is great, but also mentally exhausting. To grow as a person you need to do the work and actually learn from your past, acknowledge the changes you’re going through and own up to your mistakes, which takes time, focus and is sometimes quite painful. So finding yourself is not even the right term – finding indicates that there’s a location, a mythical finish line you need to find and cross to become your modern best self, but you’re already right there. I guess it should be called learning yourself instead, because finding yourself is a lifetime process and just when you think you’ve learned all there is to know about yourself, you change. Then you need to relearn everything again, because your priorities change with you.
Not knowing yourself and trying to find yourself through travel leads to option no. 2: letting the flow take you and aimlessly drifting along from adventure to adventure under the guise of finding yourself, living the road life and not caring where you end up or what opportunities you missed on the way. Sounds like the modern travel forever dream right? Wrong. Unless you actually understand yourself enough to know that wandering the globe for life is your destiny and are willing to embrace the consequences it comes with, you’re either in it short term only or will become one of today’s empty-eyed lost travel generation. But if you do know yourself enough to understand that you want to travel forever, then your travels are no longer about finding yourself, because there’s your priority.
Therefore you could say that what I’m advocating for is conscious travelling. Travelling to explore, to learn, to get a bit lost, unwind from your daily life and reevaluate it when you get back, not to collect trendy photos, count visited countries and try to discern some kind of mythical personal truth that isn’t really there. Travelling will only enhance what is already there, it can’t fix what isn’t; you can fill an empty space with new experiences, but it won’t feel any less empty. Once you’re back home and those experiences become memories, you’ll be left with your same old unrealized self and a whole lot of fernweh, the longing for distant places, where you could pretend you were someone else, a little less confused and empty someone. You might get away with pretending to be world savvy and reinvented for a while, but eventually even your most distant acquaintances will see through you.
So, don’t travel to find yourself, stop and pick up a philosophy book instead, it’s cheaper and less harmful to the environment. Hell, pick up any book instead, or just brew yourself a cup of tea or pour a glass of strong whiskey, put on some music and explore away: on the inside.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”L. A. Seneca (even the Romans knew it!)