Travel and Personal Growth: Mariah Arianna Wall On Why & How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings
An interview with Maria Angelova
Acknowledge what you learned after every trip. Lifelong learners continue to become better people well into old age, and keep a youthful, gracious spirit. If you don’t sit and intentionally think about how every trip has changed you, it’s not likely to make a lasting impact for the better. Positive change is a great souvenir :)
Thankfully, the world is open for travel once again. Traveling can broaden our horizons and make space for people to become more open-minded. How can travel give us the opportunity for personal growth? What are some ways that travel can help us become better human beings? As a part of our series about “How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mariah Arianna Wall.
Mariah is an Adventure Elopement and Destination Wedding photographer, brand copywriter and outdoor addict living in the Tirol region of Austria. She grew up in Michigan and moved to Europe in 2018 to pursue her adventure photography and writing dreams.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Yeah sure! I loved to draw, write and explore the woods around my neighborhood. Honestly though, I was also a loud and rowdy kid with a lot of energy and not a lot of productive places to channel it. I was really curious and bold, but we moved a lot and I found myself “starting over” every couple years in lots of frustrating ways. My parents fought often and divorced early, and many of my relatives struggled silently with mental illnesses. It was a bit of an unstable situation. My grades were always high, but I spent as much time getting into trouble as I did perfecting my school work. I was a pretty polarizing force and my teachers either loved or hated me haha. A lot of parents didn’t want their kids hanging out with me because I was too wild. One mother called me “Mariah Pariah” which now I actually kind of like, and have thought about adopting as a username haha
It wasn’t easy to keep me in one place, and I ran away a lot (foreshadowing?) Probably the funniest time was when I was about 6 and tried to run away wearing those shiny, light-up velcro sneakers all us 90s kids had. It was dark and I obviously didn’t get too far! But I got better at it over the years ;)
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I knew very early that I wanted to be my own boss, whatever that meant.
I was inspired most by the Discovery Channel, Steve Irwin, sprinkles of my parents and my grandparents. I was probably 6 or 7 when I realized being an adventurer and storyteller was what I wanted to be “when I grow up.” I watched shows on Discovery and Animal Planet, imagining I was the host and how I’d do things differently. I studied my grandma’s Nat Geo magazines even though the vocabulary was way over my head at the time.
I grew up in rural Michigan, so my dreams were bigger than most people around me could relate to. I wanted to see the world, and I vividly remember this poster of Machu Picchu my grandma had in her kitchen. I thought that was the coolest thing — it was like this lost world dangling in front of me over breakfast every Sunday morning. My dad was an Eagle scout and Army guy, so early on he took my brother and I around the neighborhood on scavenger hunts. He drew maps and we’d have to follow them until we found the “treasure” — usually chocolate coins and Little Debbie snack cakes. That sense of adventure was instilled in me pretty early. We hiked and camped a lot in lower Michigan, along the great lakes. I’d go in the woods and pretend I was an explorer. I’d climb trees and cross creeks and build forts out of trees and snow. I was always covered in some constellation of bug bites, dirt and bruises, and by midsummer, it was impossible to tell where the tan lines ended and the dirt lines began.
I started drawing and painting early on so I could get my imagination out on paper. My mother and grandfather were also artists, and they supported me through that phase a lot. My grandpa was a professional sign painter back when that was a thing, and a prolific oil and watercolor impressionist. I spent a lot of my childhood with him. He was a really weird guy haha — he’d emphasize how he preferred the term “eccentric,” but also admitted he wasn’t rich enough to carry that label! He really instilled in me a fierce independence and to have no shame in sticking up for myself and showing the middle finger to the world. As a strong willed girl in a conservative small town, I think that was crucial. When I’d get into trouble at school, everyone else would (understandably) be upset; he’d just laugh. He used to pick me up from school and ask me, “okay kid, so, who’d you piss off today?” and I’d list off all the stuff I got yelled at for.
I think most of the family who inspired me had similar dreams about the world, but got sucked into daily routine and the status quo. My mother told me that I “am who my grandmother dreamed of being,” and that was a powerfully profound statement. It says a lot about the world and the equality gap between our generations. I’m grateful to have been born when I was, and not a second earlier.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Honestly, there was a long time where I believed that wasn’t true. Because I grew up in a dysfunctional family and community, mostly on my own, I equated that with being “self made.” As I’ve gotten older, I have realized the fallacy in that. “Self made” is mostly a myth. There are a lot of ways in which my family inspired me, either as the hero or anti-hero, to stubbornly pursue my dreams. Most importantly, they never doubted me, or shamed me into more “secure” life paths like a lot of families do. Because we were just an average family in a very average American town, I had no legacy to live up to. I was free to define success by my own means.
That said, there wasn’t one particular person really, just a lot of characters showing up and playing their part along the way. No one sticks out more loudly than the others, I suppose. The support I had came to the tune of individual notes strung together over time to form a slow, building melody.
I took cues from the people who inspired me, and tried to emulate the qualities that piqued my curiosity.
It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Alright, so I’d argue that in a lot of ways I have ONLY learned from my mistakes haha. Explain to me the fire is hot, and not to touch it, I’d still need to stick my hand close just to see how hot. I was always pushing boundaries and seeing how far I could go before someone yelled STOP! It got me in a lot of trouble, but also pushed me into levels of growth and exploration that most people around me were simply too comfortable to risk.
At the same time, I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression from a very young age. The dysfunction at home was very destabilizing. I was first placed on medication when I was maybe 7. I think nowadays, that would be considered extremely inappropriate, but it was the 90s. The mental anguish led me to act out in a lot of unhealthy ways through my teenage years, and the depression and chronic insomnia almost had me failing out of college my first semester. I came home for Christmas that year so ashamed. I felt so broken. It was my big chance and I was blowing it. When you’re 18, that feels like the end of the world. I’ll never forget admitting to my oldest sister that I was struggling, and she just shrugged, “Well, you tried! Time to come home!” and left abruptly.
I remember thinking, oh heck no, this is not over!
Looking back, I honestly think she felt a lot of schadenfreude towards me, and was relieved I maybe wouldn’t end up successful in any way that overshadowed her as The First Child. It seems crazy to say, but that’s the kind of family I grew up in. My mistakes were always a reminder that if I didn’t succeed, that’s what greeted me if I failed, so I was very keen to learn from them! The thought of having to come back to my small hometown was so traumatizing, I immediately kicked it into overdrive. Over the next few years, I brought my grades back up, took on part time work at a hospital and an ambassadorship with my study abroad program. I slogged through the insomnia, doing everything I could to get the experience I needed to keep moving forward. The mental health flails would happen every couple years, but I would get back up more resilient every time.
Eventually, I just stopped going “home” and started feeling a lot better.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
This is so hard, but I think my favorite is “fail forward.” Listen, my whole life has been about failing, getting back up, and trying again. It was how I learned to skateboard, snowboard and rock climb. It was how I made it through college. It’s how I finally succeeded in my business. It’s how I finally found a partner who treated me right. You take a risk, you falter, you use the knowledge to improve. Trial and error — not necessarily in that order. Failure is not the end, it’s the cycle; it’s how we endure. If you’re not occasionally failing, you’re not taking enough risks. Don’t fail and then give up — fail forward.
It reminds me of the scientific method, but applied to life: have a dream (a hypothesis), take a risk (experiment) and analyze your progress to move forward. People who make reality shattering scientific discoveries don’t accept failure as discouragement, they treat it as valuable empirical data to learn from — why not apply that to life as well?
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I recently shifted the focus of my writing career toward small business branding and sales copywriting, specifically for women in the creative industries, like me. I’m so stoked about this work because I finally have a very service-oriented way to apply my writing skills. In the modern online world, a woman’s website is her storefront. It’s her sales pitch. We stumble onto websites the same way our parents would stumble into brick and mortar stores; looking for one thing, finding it, and maybe leaving with something more. On average, visitors spend 5 seconds on a website deciding whether or not it’s useful to them — 5 seconds! In the real world, you might spend 5 minutes in a store before deciding there’s nothing for you and walking out. That’s a huge drop in interaction time, and opportunity to be provided value.
Good copy that is clear, builds trust and entices users is the key to a thriving online brand or service. I’ve found that I’m able to help women clarify their brand message and create a virtual “storefront” that speaks directly to their dream clients. Helping other women grow their business and become financially independent is meaningful to me in so many ways, and it’s literally my way of having an impact on the world, one word at a time.
I’ve always been one to need the last word — now I’ve just found a way for that to be a good thing!
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss travel and personal growth. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or personal experience, why do you think travel can lead to personal growth? Can you share a story?
Yes. Travel literally saved my life. It was both a mode of escape, a learning experience and a means of failing forward. I can only speak to my own experience, but it forced me to grow and adapt in ways that transcended my mental health struggles. Most people talk about how travel helps them “understand the world better” and become more empathetic to other ways of life; my journey was more inward. It helped me understand myself better, and become more kind and empathetic to myself. I was in a dark place for most of my life. As a kid, it was “travel” into the natural world around my house and into my imagination. As a young adult, it was trips to national parks, a semester overseas and weekend escapes to the mountains and rivers. Travel and adventure helped me ground myself and become more present; it took me out of my own head and gave me a sense of hope and inspiration. It helped me see the world was so much bigger than my problems. It gave me time and space to reflect and heal the trauma.
All that self healing has helped me understand you can’t pour from an empty cup. Hurt people hurt people, and healed people heal people.
A recent survey from Psychology Today showed that over 80% of participants found that travel helped them with problem solving or decision making. Why do you think this is true for so many people?
This one is pretty straightforward for me: travel is usually the first time people are truly on their own and need to use critical thinking to solve immediate problems without their familiar crutches. You have to become street smart. You’re entirely outside of what’s familiar, and have to start making new connections and using your brain differently. You have to find new ways to communicate and move around. You have to constantly be alert, quick and decisive. Travel contains so many moving parts, you have to always be anticipating and planning for a soft landing when the unpredictable inevitably happens. There is no “safe space” to run to. You have to fortify yourself as your own zone of comfort, and when it becomes lonely, stressful or overwhelming, figure out what’s the source of the problem and fix it — all on your own. People who don’t travel get used to crutches, whether in the community, family or other, to prop them up when they make mistakes or life gets messy. Travel takes those training wheels off and really tests how good you are at life!
Do you think travel can enhance our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? How? Can you please explain with an example or story?
Absolutely. That’s what it did for me. It made me become more mindful of my privilege in the world, and helped me discover a sense of gratitude that is still growing. My US passport alone is a key that unlocks the world for me in a way that most of the global population does not have. The fact I can enter most countries without a visa and travel freely in ways that my friends in Thailand, Morocco, and Oman cannot, puts me in an innately privileged class. I was born into that birth lottery. I’m very lucky.
Aside from that, it’s been a bit funny going from small, rust belt America and its addiction problems to clean cut Germany and Austria. I remember traveling here in 2018 for the first time and thinking everyone here is crazy rich; everything is so clean! People were so quiet and respectful and dressed in very nice clothes. But I’ve been here over 4 years and see how it’s also a culture of criticism — they’re very sheltered from conflict, poverty and instability, so many people have very little to compare their privilege to.
Inversely, I’ve gone to countries where people have much less, and they tend to be very positive, friendly people on the whole. I’m not going to romanticize their situation — many live hard lives that straddle poverty — but their outlook remains grateful and optimistic in ways rich nations continually seem to take for granted. There is a sense of hospitality there that doesn’t exist in western Europe, for example.
Essentially, it showed me how mindset, optimism and gratitude all come from within, and are less controlled by our external environments than I originally thought.
Surely not everyone who travels automatically becomes an exemplar of human decency. What are a few reasons why some people completely miss out on the growth opportunities that travel can offer?
I’m really glad you said this. Recently, I met up with someone who inspired me years ago to travel solo. I was in awe of this person when I first met them. They lived out of a backpack and went with the wind. I was equally inspired and jealous.
I met up with them again after about 10 years, and the rose colored glasses shattered. They were just pretty aimless, not at all reliable and gratingly self-centered. I think that’s what happens when people travel for the wrong reasons…too many people travel as a way to skirt responsibility or growth, rather than seize it. This person spent most their travel in pseudo-self reflection (mostly at the bottom of a bottle) and blaming others for their slip ups. I’m not passing judgment — we all go at our own pace — but it made me see how differently we utilized travel over those 10 years.
That, and two months in Thailand watching all the western beg-packers abuse a kind culture for their own self indulgence was pretty gross. I try to give more than I take when I travel, leave no trace, and show grace to my hosts.
Travel is an absolute modern privilege, so if people aren’t aware of that and using it to amplify positivity in the world, they’re just draining local and global resources and opportunity.
Thank you for that. Now for our main question; What are your “5 Habits You Should Develop In Order Make Travel Into An Opportunity For Personal Growth?”
- Reflect on your intent. Really hone in WHY you’re traveling, and what you want to give, grow or gain from the experience. Some trips I take for myself, others I take for work, and others I take to learn. For example, these were the travel goals I set in 2022: I spent two months on Hawaii in Dec/Jan that was mostly for work and myself. I used the time to grow my portfolio, work on some passion projects and surf. I spent April and May in Thailand; that trip I took for myself and to learn. I didn’t work the entire time I was there. I focused on rest and learning about the people, language and culture. I made friends and had time to disconnect. Finally, I traveled to the Faroe Islands and Italy exclusively for work, and used it to grow my photography techniques and improve the service side of client interaction. All those trips had goals going in, and because of that, I’m still being rewarded with the fruits of that today.
- Acknowledge what you learned after every trip. Lifelong learners continue to become better people well into old age, and keep a youthful, gracious spirit. If you don’t sit and intentionally think about how every trip has changed you, it’s not likely to make a lasting impact for the better. Positive change is a great souvenir :)
- Practice gratitude. If you are traveling, you are by default part of a very lucky but very small privileged group. Everywhere you go displaces people and their economies in some small way. Practicing gratitude toward your hosts, their culture and their country’s resources will help you cultivate a positive force both inside and out.
- Practice humility. If you travel with a sense of entitlement, you’re just spreading negativity around the world and you’re not going to learn a thing. The rise in travel has driven a lot of inequality, unaffordable housing and gentrification in hot spots; if you don’t immediately identify your impact on the places you go and how to offset them, you’re not traveling, you’re on vacation. There’s no responsibility in a vacation. If you want to grow, you have to approach travel with some sense of sacrifice to the places you’re going. Always be a humble guest.
- Engage with the local economy. There’s this vast network of global chains now where we can all go and feel at home. There’s Starbucks in Bangkok, McDonald’s in every European city, and an H&M from Vancouver to Seoul. If you want to actually travel in a way that shows you something new, get out into the local shops and businesses and find something unique. Give your money to the people who live there. Get out of that familiar, global corporate ecosystem. I’ve had some amazing conversations with artists from the Karen longneck tribe, a super cool cafe owner on PhiPhi, and the hosts at small bnbs across Thailand. I got street food from a truck on Maui and hung out with the rad ladies who owned it. They grew up on the black sand beaches there, and told me what it was like before all the hotels and haoles moved in. I camped in the Moroccan desert, chatting in broken Spanish under the stars with some Berber people, laughing in awe that I even ended up there. It taught me to support my local businesses better long after I returned home.
From your experience, does travel have a negative impact on personal growth too? Is there a downside to travel?
Yes, absolutely. Travel can also be a form of escapism and classism. I know a lot of people who travel because it’s trendy and signals their wealth class. You see it on social media and with lots of “travel influencers.” They instill a sense of envy in their followers, and don’t really portray the realities of travel and life around the globe. It’s more for gaining glossy content that can be consumed and tossed out quickly. Just like there’s fast food and fast fashion, there’s also “fast travel” — that is, going to places in rapid succession to check it off a list rather than slow traveling to really be in the moment and learn. Travel can also disconnect people from the sense of communal duty that makes us human; they become more entitled and prone to using the communities they phase through. The escapism factor of travel can also enable people running away from their faults, and provide cover and anonymity for their bad habits.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Oof, this is hard. Uhm, okay so I think it’s a toss up between Yvonne Chouinard (the OG dirtbag climber and founder of Patagonia), Alex Honnold (professional rock climber, Free Solo), Jimmy Chin (adventure photographer and filmmaker), Melanie Perkins (co founder and CEO of Canva), Serena Williams (the tennis player) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RIP). All of these people have truly inspired me by completely shattering the status quo, unapologetically pursuing their dreams, and “failing forward.”
Except Alex — there’s no “failing forward” in free solo climbing haha, so it’s his mental control, pure heart and sense of humor that I love.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Weee! New friends! Haha. I’m on Instagram @mariah.arianna and @mariahariannaphoto and kind of trying to figure out Tiktok (same handles). My website is my baby, www.mariaharianna.com. My copywriting page is www.mariaharianna.com/copywriting-for-photographers
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at email@example.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.