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What People Are Doing When They Travel To “Find Themselves”

You’ve seen it before, right?

Someone you used to know, suddenly transformed after venturing around the world. All their old dreams vanished and they come home all worldly with their stories and new-found carefree attitudes. Kind of annoying, really.

Life is different now, they say.

They’ve changed.

They’ve finally found themselves.

Honestly, I hate that phrase. “Finding yourself” is so cliche and fluffy that it doesn’t even mean anything anymore. Films like Eat Pray Love and Walter Mitty have only glammed it up even more. But the truth is, travel does change things. The person that leaves is rarely the same as the one that returns.

But why? What the hell happens out there?

Here’s my take.

Removing outside influences

For most of us, our life is full of outside influences. We have parents telling us to work hard and find good jobs. We have teachers telling us to study hard and get good grades. We have bosses directing our careers. We have girlfriends (or boyfriends) swaying our decisions. We have social pressure from colleagues and friends to fit in and be normal. We have governments saying we need jobs to be responsible. We have television, billboards and advertising, telling us what is trendy and acceptable. We have society creating a mould and constantly pressuring us to fit into it.

And every time we want something somewhat different to the pack we get ‘concerned’ friends looking at us funny saying, “Really?”

With all these voices in our head, our decisions are so heavily influenced that it’s impossible to figure out what we truly want.

Instead of “going travelling to find yourself”, a more appropriate phrase might be “going travelling to decide what you want from life because it’s the only place where people will shut the fuck up long enough for you to think”.

Seeing the world changed a lot of my opinions and perspectives on life; almost complete U-turns in some cases, but in reality it wasn’t so much the travel that did it.

It was the quiet.

It was the solarity.

One of the biggest fantasies you will hear from people in 9-5 jobs is that they want to just “retire on the beach and drink cocktails all day”. In fact, while sitting in my cubicle I can admit that I fantasised about the exact same thing probably every Monday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday…).

And then, only a few years later, I found myself in South East Asia doing exactly that. Each morning I would wake up, eat breakfast, and then sit on the beach and drink cocktails all day.

Was it fun?

You bet.

I had the best time of my life…for two days. Then I got bored.

It only took 48 hours to realise that wasn’t my dream at all. It was just a fantasy that had been dreamed up out of hate for my old life; early morning commutes, wearing a tie, a shitty job and a 40-hour work week.

During those years, I would wake up every morning and think, “If this is really going to be my life for the next 40 years, you can kill me now.”

But as I sat on the beach with drink in hand, the prospect of that lifestyle didn’t impress me much either. I mean, honestly, ask yourself; do you really want to sit on the beach and drink every day for the rest of your life? Never learning anything new, never challenging yourself, never growing or achieving anything? Is that really what you want from life? Is that really what you want to spend your precious time on this earth doing?

Sure, it still sounds better than a cubicle. But I’d be surprised if anyone would be happy spending 40 years drowning in alcohol on the beach.

That wasn’t my dream. It was an “anywhere but here” fantasy, dreamed up out of my unhappiness and desperation. I soon realised, I need to be challenged. I need to be learning new things. Sitting on the beach drinking cocktails is fun, but sitting on the beach reading books would surely satisfy me more.

But that’s not enough either. I like challenges and building things. I like writing and creating things. So perhaps, sitting on the beach reading books and building a business would be my dream.

But even that’s not enough. I like to have friends. I like companionship. I want to be around my family. So perhaps, sitting on the beach reading books, building a business, near my family with a great girlfriend and great circle of friends would be my dream. Maybe? Who knows.

But that’s a part of finding yourself. If I were still in my cubicle, with only 3 hours of free time a day and my friends, family, colleagues and girlfriend all telling me what I should do, I would still be fantasising about cocktails on the beach.


“The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours – it is an amazing journey – and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.”
Bob Moawad


Realising your paradise does exist

We all think our lives are normal. We all think that the way we live, the things we eat and the society that we have is the right version of life, and everything else is different. But every traveller eventually has that eureka moment; maybe while sitting on a beach or wandering through some small town. They see and experience something so different and so contrasting with their own life that it suddenly hits them: their life isn’t normal. Normal doesn’t exist. You think an alarm clock is normal? No, it’s not. Not everyone wakes up at 7am and does a 40 hour work week. Just the mere thought of doing that is a complete joke to many people. It goes for everything in life – shoes, monogamy, internet, religion, taxes, locking your doors, tampons, divorce – all these things we blindingly accept as normal are considered absolutely ridiculous somewhere else in the world.

And then suddenly, it’s like, poof, you no longer need to live by the rules back home. There are many different places out there, with different rules, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find a place with rules you agree with. That life you hated so much back home, you don’t need to go back to it. Back there, the life you want to live is considered ‘stupid’ and ‘unrealistic’. You’re bombarded by naysayers and cynics, and people who feel threatened by your desire to venture out. But not on the road. Somewhere in the world, you’ll be able to find a place where the life you always dreamed of living; your beliefs and values and lifestyle, isn’t stupid. It’s normal. And by finding this place, you no longer feel like an outsider. You don’t need to feel like what you’re looking for is stupid and unrealistic. You’re finally able to accept who you are and what you want, and that’s a part of finding yourself.


“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”
-Frank Zappa


Finding perspective

You’ve probably heard the saying “it’s a small world.”

Well, whoever came up with that is an idiot.

It’s an enormous world, overflowing with amazing people and places that even with twenty lifetimes you would not come close to seeing it all.

But it’s not until you really start exploring that you realise how big the world is. It’s only when you meet that one interesting person in that one faraway town in that obscure, impossible to find tea house, that you begin to wonder; how many more amazing people are waiting to be met? How many incredible stories are waiting to be told? How many more places are there to be found, all with their own myths and scandals and legends and stories?

But more importantly, you realise that you cannot meet all these people, or see all these places. The world is too big. And in a world so big, you’re insignificant. You yourself are also just another one of these faraway people, waiting to be met. So even though back home you probably consider yourself the most important person in the universe, in reality, you’re nobody.

There are 7 billion people on this planet. If you disappeared tomorrow without a trace, how many people do you think would actually care?

100?

200?

500?

That’s not even 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent.

Perspective.

You’re nothing more than a speck of sand on a shoreline that never ends.

Is that cynical? No. It’s liberating.

Because since you’re so insignificant, you are free. And because you are free, you can do whatever you want.

Nobody cares.

Perspective.

One thing that’s very noticeable among well travelled people is how laid back they are. They don’t get hung up on stupid shit. Girls I used to eat lunch with at work would freak out when their plate had a tiny bit of dirt on the edge. They would berate the waiter with a tone that said “how dare you serve me a plate that isn’t sparkling clean!” However girls I eat lunch with on the road happily sit down in the dirtiest, smelliest street stalls and devour their meals with huge smiles on their faces.

Why?

Because the road humbles you. You learn how insignificant you are. And then you don’t care anymore. If someone is angry at us, we don’t care. If our order is late, we don’t care. No job? We don’t care. If the bus ride is 40 hours and there’s no air conditioning and we’re all sweating and someone vomits and the whole bus starts to smell like mouldy fish…we don’t care. Because after seeing how big the world is and all the crap that goes on it, we realise this stuff doesn’t really matter.

Perspective.

When we stop caring about dumb shit like this, we allow ourselves to properly care about the things that really do matter – friends, family, our loves and our passions. With our new found perspective, we learn how to choose our battles and focus on what matters. We rediscover what really is important to us, and that’s a part of finding yourself.


“It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man.”
-Ralph Ellison


Realising that it’s ok to do what you love

We live in a wonderul world, where from the youngest of ages we are conditioned into being model citizens. Our lives are paved out for us before we even hit puberty.

I didn’t really want to go to university. I didn’t want a 9-5 work day. I didn’t want to apply for a job after graduation. I did it because I thought I had to.

You’ll probably do the same.

But then, you travel. And you do the things you love. And you find new things to love. And you decide you don’t want to be a banking officer anymore – you want to ride horses, or scuba dive, or do yoga, or play the harp.

And more importantly, you actually meet people who are spending their lives riding horses, and diving, and teaching yoga, and playing the harp.

Those moments stick with you. It’s like, “Shit! Look at all these people living the exact life I never thought was possible!”

And you no longer need an alarm clock to get you out of bed. You don’t need any more inspirational quotes on Facebook. You’ve finally realised that if you just take the tiny step outside the lines, it’s possible to spend your life just doing what you love and life is suddenly exciting again. That’s a part of finding yourself.


“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”
 -C. Joybell C.


Do you need to travel to find yourself? Probably not. But amongst all the noise of your daily life, it is hard to really give yourself the space to do so. When we travel, we get lost. We have days where life has no meaning at all – we just lie in bed and stare at the slats in the bunk above us. And then we have days where life has all the meaning in the world, when we meet a special person who teaches us a lesson so powerful that our life changes completely. Time on the road is time to reflect, to think, see what is on the outside. It’s time away from the masses; time to be whoever you want to be. We see all the different flavours of the world, absorb it all, and decide which path draws us in the most. We get lost, and we search, and then we find ourselves.

Whatever the hell that means.


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25 thoughts on “What People Are Doing When They Travel To “Find Themselves”

  1. Wait wait wait… “If the bus ride is 40 hours and there’s no air conditioning and we’re all sweating and someone vomits and the whole bus starts to smell like mouldy fish…we don’t care”. I just barfed a little in my mouth. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m getting older and crabbier, but 40 hours on a bus sounds like hell to me. And the vomit would make me vomit.

    But the rest? Yes to the rest. None of my friends really believed me when I said I was moving to South Korea (about half thought it was under the rule of Kim Jong-Il at the time…), but I did it anyway and it made me a hell of a lot happier than I was when I was doing my call centre job in the UK. I’ve come to realise that I don’t want everything that comes with the typical idea of “success”. I don’t care if I’m not raking in the cash, as long as I can save a bit, afford rent, bills and food, and travel occasionally. I much prefer living in an apartment to a big house with a front lawn. Although working with kids can be draining, every day is different and it keeps me on my toes. Travel has made me more patient too (that’s not to say that I’m a perfect model of patience – I’m certainly not). Delays are delays, and often there’s nothing that can be done – you just have to deal with it.

  2. Nice post! Yeah, I traveled solo in SE Asia and worked in finance as a volunteer accountant in Cambodia and Nepal. I honestly thought working in finance in an NGO or social enterprise was something CAs did pro-bono ‘on the side’. That exposure opened my eyes to where my finance training and designation could take me.

    In the year since I’ve come home from that mammoth trip, I’ve moved from the metropolis of Toronto to the smaller-scale but more (to me) exciting city of Victoria, British Columbia working in what may be my dream job. While I do miss my old friends back home, I have a new circle of equally important friends here. Plus I’m learning how to outrigger canoe this year! Can’t do that back home…

    Great post. Cheers from Canada!

  3. I love this post! I just got back from my latest travel stint, 5 weeks in America. I met some people that taught me some more valuable lessons, experienced immense ups and downs etc etc I am definitely doing what I am doing for the above reasons, and it’s working. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I know I am on the right path 🙂

  4. Hi Bren
    How old were you when you started your 9-5 job? and what about when you quit?
    (I never had a 9-5 jobs yet, and i hope i never will.. i agree on your philosophy)

  5. holy shit, you just liberated me. thanks my man. i worked for the same boss for 6 years now, and i feel like i’m dying, i gotta get out of this place, that feeling is so strong, and i have no idea where it comes from, but its clear for me now. the world is bigger than just the things they show us on tv. you inspired me, i want to thank you for that.
    i kind of think you saved my live.

    greetz, alex.

  6. man , this is awesome as hell. very insightful. I have considered myself a seasoned traveller for the past decade or so. after travelling to peru and doing ayahuasca i realized how much i missed my family and how important meaningful relationships are. so i moved home to ontario to be with my family. even though i hate ontario. ive stayed here for a year and a half, becoming more miserable with every day that goes buy. i got a job that stressed me out to the max, moved to toronto which i hate, and was scared to leave because I know my family wants me here. i also inherited some money and started going nuts trying to set my self up to going back to school for engineering, i started researching and reading books on investing in realestate, and making business plans for building a solar farm. this past week i quit my job and realized evrything ive been putting my life into does not get me pumped. the life ive been trying to build looks bleak.

    anyway. I really needed to read this. thank you

    1. Thanks for sharing, your story isn’t as uncommon as you think, my life was probably similar at one point. Remember that family is important but ultimately you need to live a life you’re happy with. Balance is key, it’s not always about absolutes. Hope this gives you the chance to reflect and find a direction that inspires you. -Bren

  7. I want to go on a trip by myself in order to have some quiet in my life and “decide what you want from life because it’s the only place where people will shut the fuck up long enough for you to think.” which places would you recommend me to go? btw your articles are just plain amazing!

    1. I would recommend going anywhere that looks interesting to you. We’re all different 🙂 If you tell me more about what you’re looking for I could make a few suggestions.

  8. I’m still 16, but I’m counting down the days till I can travel alone! I’m still in high school, but I’m so done with it. I’m ready to move on and travel. There is so much I want to learn about myself and see. I don’t know what I want to do with my life at my age, and yet with college getting closer, it seems like I need a plan for my life. My family is thinking about college, and I’m only thinking about the first place I want to go.

  9. This is a great post. I don’t like the phrase “finding yourself” either, I feel travel gives you the freedom to become more of who you already are or to become who you want to be for the reasons you stated, you are away from those elements that are constantly influencing you to be one way or the other. I just returned from a six month trip and torn. I’m not sure what I want to do stay or continue travelling. I do not want a full time job, it was so freeing to be able to whatever you wanted when you wanted to and I want to continue doing that. But money is always the thing and I actually do not even want to travel from place to place, but stay in one place and do my own thing without needing money.

  10. I surfed this blog with the keyword ‘insignificant’ to read it again. impressed with “you’re so insignificant, you are free. And because you are free, you can do whatever you want.” and “road humbles you” short but a strong punch!!!

  11. That was a tasty nugget of inspiration. I’ve traveled in the past and had forgotten some of these points. Think the time’s coming back around for some exploring. Thanks 🙂

  12. Actually it is a small world. I’ve traveled the world extensively. I’ve met people that were in the same place at the same time I was once we started discussing our travels. If you don’t make a difference in this world then no you will not be missed. However, if you make a difference in someone’s life then you have no idea how far it will spread or what difference it will make in this small world.

  13. I applied to teach abroad in Thailand this year, everyone kept asking me “Why Thailand you could make more in another country?” I never really had an answer to that question until I read this article. Thank you for bringing me back confidence in my decision.

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