How far must one travel to be a traveler?

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

A few weeks ago I found myself in Savannah, Georgia, chowing down on warm biscuits and fried chicken smothered in honey. It was late at night at the beautiful Marshall House, a historic inn I stayed at while preparing for my keynote address to none other than the Girl Scouts.

To say I was honored to be selected to address a room of adult Girl Scouts about global citizenship was an understatement.

To be honest, I felt like a million bucks.

The organization has over two million Girl Scouts around the world. 800,000 of them are adults. And at a special retreat at the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Low, I talked with women who had dedicated their lives to empowering girls around the world.

The theme of this retreat was “wander woman” — about using the lessons from travel to make ourselves better global citizens and to inspire the next generation of travelers.

Sounds like a home run, right?

Photo courtesy of Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

In many ways it was. It was one of my most favorite topics to talk about. I could talk about global citizenship for days.

But the more I planned my keynote, the more I thought about the way it would be received — and, more importantly, who would be receiving it.

You see, though I spend my days talking about traveling to far-off places and taking risky adventures, I also know that for many people, the topic of travel is intimidating.

I have on occasion had women approach me and announce that they are not “wanderful”. That they are not “that kind” of traveler, because they don’t like to hop planes on a whim or sleep on beaches or live spontaneously. Sure, they love to travel. They want to see the world. But they have an expectation of what it means to be a traveler, and they don’t put themselves into that category.

How far do we need to travel in order to be travelers?

Photo by Lucija Ros on Unsplash

The expectation that travel — and the lessons we learn from it — only happens thousands of miles away from home leads not only to a misunderstanding of what travel gives us, but also to something I have seen happen more and more between people: the concept of travel shaming.

Travel shaming comes from the belief that because you have traveled more than someone or seen more of the world, that you are inherently better. That “travelers” — those who seek to live hyper-locally, those who master the local transit system and speak sixteen languages and dine each night in a different family’s home — that they are inherently better than “tourists”, who prefer the comforts of hotel rooms and over-frequented “tourist traps”.

I know that feeling well, because I used to think that way too.

I used to believe that my jaunts to distant countries made me more worldly than the next person. That people who didn’t travel like I did would never understand the depth of who I was.

And while I do believe that there is no such thing as too much global education and that every experience outside the comforts of your home contributes to a life of learning and is valuable beyond measure, I have also adjusted exactly what I mean when I talk about travel.

Because you don’t need to be camping in Nicaragua to be living globally. In fact, travel is not a binary experience at all. It’s not ‘either you’re traveling or you’re not.’ Travel actually operates on a sliding scale.

The recipe for travel is simple. It really just consists of three things:

· Opening yourself up to new opportunities — trying something new

· Challenging your preconceptions — questioning yourself and being open to being wrong

· Being comfortable with being uncomfortable — leaning into another person’s normal that is different from your own

At the end of the day, whether you are in rural Uzbekistan or just in a different part of your own hometown that you’ve never been to before, you can experience the lessons that travel teaches you by exercising your travel muscle.

That’s right, your muscle. If you think about travel as a muscle that needs stretching, the concept of travel on a sliding scale makes a little more sense. Everyone’s travel muscle is different. Just as you wouldn’t jump into a marathon after having never run a mile before, you may be similarly unlikely to plan a round-the-world backpacking trip after having never left your city. But if you’ve never left your city before, going on a day trip to the countryside could very well be as eye-opening as a trip to one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In fact, one could argue that it would be even better, because I have found that sometimes the more distant places are richer experiences when you have some travels under your belt to compare them to.

At the end of the day, travel is about stretching the muscle that you have. And that muscle is different for everyone.

The art of becoming a traveler happens with time and the exercise of your travel muscle.

It happens when you continue to question your assumptions with farther or increasingly different places. When you keep your mind nimble and open. When you learn to always let yourself be surprised, and to never get too comfortable.

As you stretch that muscle, it may become easier to find more unique experiences by reaching for a place that’s farther away. It’s pretty fair to suspect that when you go to a place where people think, dress and speak differently, you’ll be more likely to find yourself in moments of discomfort, or where your preconceptions are put into question.

But here’s the challenge I have for you today:

How close can you stay to home and still travel?

Do you need to fly across your country to do it? Drive across town? How about step outside your front door? Can you walk for five minutes and find something that is new to you, something that makes you think differently? Can you put yourself into a position of openness that allows you to learn from others, even when you are surrounded by a world you think you already know?

Sometimes, travel is not about how far we go, but how closely we can examine the world around us and pull valuable lessons from the things that we never noticed before, but are under our noses.

That’s called having a travel mindset.

Staying close to home and experiencing a travel mindset is, in my opinion, about a thousand times more valuable than getting on a plane and going anywhere without it.

When I wrapped up my keynote in Savannah, a room of women — many who had written off traveling with their Girl Scout troops due to reasons like cost or complexity, had their minds opened. You could see it. They talked about taking their scouts to new neighborhoods in their home cities; of exploring valuable life lessons by giving them safe opportunities to make mistakes and get uncomfortable.

It was a really special moment, watching the cogs in their brains churn like that.

Every time someone tells me that I have inspired them to travel the world, I am filled with profound gratitude. I am honored and grateful to have played a role in their decision to make the most of their lives.

But seeing someone’s eyes open who had previously written off travel before — that’s really magical. Suddenly, a world that they thought had never existed, or at least for them, unlocked. It feels like a real gift.

You see, travel can happen anywhere — to anyone. Where we go — and what we do when we’re there — are entirely up to us.

Travel (much like going to the gym, as it were) should be judgment-free. When we travel we improve ourselves by opening ourselves to others’ ways of living.

It’s not about how many miles move underneath your feet. It’s about how much you let yourself be moved.

How close can you stay and still travel? Try it. I can’t wait to hear what you do.