Travel and Personal Growth: Ricardo Wilkins Of Inspired Purpose On Why & How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings
An interview with Maria Angelova
Learn a New Skill: Another way to amplify your experience traveling is to take a course or a class. Anything new to you or perhaps something you did as a child and want to relearn.
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 Ricardo Wilkins.
Ricardo was a 20-year government contractor. Stuck and uninspired he yearned for more out of life and himself. Through his travels, Ricardo discovered the inspiration to empower himself and others to create the purpose-driven life they desire, rich with experiences, growth, service, and relationships.
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?
Like many of us — family, friends, and sports defined my childhood. I had amazing parents, and an annoying, but loving younger sister. I’m from Maryland, the Washington, DC metropolitan area. My Dad is the oldest of nine children and my mom is the second oldest of six. My mother’s parents were born in the DC area and my grandparents had 20 siblings between them. I had a lot of family in the area and there were always gatherings to attend including birthdays, cookouts at my grandmother’s, and sleepovers at my cousins. My grandmother, Dorothy, who was big on family, ensured we stayed close. I have a plethora of memories from my childhood at her home; many dinners, and spending time there with my cousins, where we all got into trouble together. Christmas was the biggest day of the year, and every December 25, the entire family would gather at my grandmother’s to exchange gifts. It was my favorite day of the year. That just took me back and brought a smile to my face.
Growing up in the 80s and playing outside with my friends is also a lasting memory. Tackle football, basketball, hide and seek. You name it. All day every day we played outside. I ran track, along with playing football and basketball with my local boys and girls club. I was pretty good. I wasn’t the best but good enough that I stood out. I was recruited by a nationally renowned high school in my area to play football. I ended up going to a public school where I aspired to play on the basketball team, but that didn’t happen either.
There are a few very practical reasons I did not play football or basketball, but a major component was that I held myself back. While my childhood was great and I wouldn’t change anything, looking back I always felt this weight on my shoulders that made it difficult to stretch myself. To be seen. To put me in a position to fail. Essentially, I let fear affect my decisions. And honestly, that theme followed me throughout much of my life and the decisions I made or didn’t make.
I was not aware of this growing up. Nor in college or early adulthood. Even into adulthood. Reflecting, it’s so clear now. Thank goodness for personal development and the ability to change our stories of who we believe we are. Thank goodness for traveling. Travel has had a significant impact on my growth and shifted me into a new person. It’s enabled me to be the person I am today. Taking the best parts of my childhood, while learning from and changing the other dimensions.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
For 20+ years I was a government contractor. It paid okay and was comfortable. I left that job in November of 2021 or should I say I was told to leave. That gave me the push to pursue my passions. Presently I am going through a Travel Coach Certification Program (I did not know that was a thing either) or my goal is to create a valuable service with a focus on Immersive Voluntourism. I had a moving experience volunteering in Cartagena, Colombia where I truly engrossed myself in the environment, the culture, and the opportunities to do different things. I want to support individuals looking for a similar experience.
That’s down the line. Hopefully sooner rather than later. But my primary focus right now is being an author. Earlier this year I released a new book called Life’s Biohack. While it’s not about travel, I did complete it during a 7-week visit to Ecuador at the end of 2022 and I credit my growth through travel with the inspiration to start it.
It’s a short, easily digestible introduction to how the body communicates healing and protection at the most foundational level in the body. I was inspired to write this after watching a documentary about harmful toxins in household products.
I had not planned on writing any more books, but, after completing this book and with my love for travel, I plan to write a short book on my two-month experience volunteering in Cartagena, Colombia. That experience was one of those life-changing moments and I want to capture it for anyone who might be looking for inspiration or guidance volunteering abroad.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person whom you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Without question, my dad, James Wilkins. In some ways, it is one of those experiences where you appreciate the things a person did, but years later. My Dad was not exceptionally hard on me, but he was hard enough. In some ways, I think he could have eased up a little bit but the good far outweighs any criticism I might have.
While I was not a bad or troubled child by any stretch of the imagination nor did I grow up in an incredibly bad environment, there were ample opportunities for me to get into trouble that could have altered my life. My Dad simply did not allow me to do certain things like hangout out after a certain hour or go to certain places. In retrospect that probably kept me from being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My parents also instilled a certain level of fear in me. The kind of fear where you respect your parents so much, you are more afraid of disappointing them than anything else.
My father also ensured I focused on academics. I am 100% certain that without my father’s persistence to study and prepare for the SAT that I would not have gone to the college I did or maybe not gone to college at all. I remember in my junior and senior years of high school; my father made me sit down to take the SAT prep course on our computer in the kitchen. I hated it. I did not want to be there. Because he did, I was able to get an adequate SAT score to attend the University of Maryland. I am forever grateful for that.
My father also exposed me to activities and information I would otherwise not have come across. He opened me up to learning about the world. Whether it was pictures, a piece of history from different countries, or how much he wanted to visit Japan or Europe. I had no interest in any of it at the time. What it did do was plant seeds. So when I got older and had the opportunity to do different things, the idea was not so foreign to me.
I would not be where I am nor who I am, without my father.
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 takeaway did you learn from that?
I mentioned I am the author of a book released in early January. If the process of self-publishing this book has taught me anything, it’s that often time setbacks might be the universe’s way of blessing you. I had an original release date of mid-November. Through a few hiccups outside of my control, that didn’t happen. Honestly, I was very frustrated, but I had to accept it and move on. During that time, I was able to make adjustments to my book that improved it making it more valuable to the reader.
I moved the launch date to December, but again because of a few hiccups, I did not make that date. Again, I was a bit frustrated, though, like the previous setback it gave me the opportunity to continue to make more adjustments.
In retrospect, I am grateful for the delays. It is a much better book because of it. I believe that was divine guidance knowing I needed more time to create the best book I could. Those mistakes taught me a lot about creating positives from negatives, surrendering to things I can’t control, and reevaluating what I am attached to. It reminds me of the proverb, “what is good, what is bad”.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
There’s a great quote by Winston Churchill that I learned from my mentor and goes something like this: “People stumble across golden opportunities from time to time. Most people pick themselves up, dust themselves down and walk away from it.”
There’s another quote, from the book, Mach 2 with Your Hair on Fire that expands on this concept. “We are all presented with opportunities nonstop in our lives. People, places, and things flow by us in an endless parade of possibilities. We see some, and we do not see others. In fact, most pass us by, like Casper the Ghost. Completely invisible.”
Both quotes are reminders of the story I tell myself in my head. How do I view each experience? What thoughts are going on in my head? What do I believe is possible? What we believe and where our focus is, will determine how we see the world. It will dictate the story in our heads when we come across potential opportunities. It will determine what we see and what we don’t see.
The chance to meet in an elevator? Do we engage or don’t we? The opportunity to meet a new person or attend a networking event, do we, or don’t we? When we’re walking down the street is our mind open to all the possibilities for success, fulfillment, or service?
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
There’s the book I released earlier this year that I mentioned, Life’s Biohack. That’s a strong focus for me right now. I also plan to start working on my second book about my experience volunteering abroad.
This first book will help people who have an interest in learning about significant areas of health currently being studied around the world. My book educates readers on a novel, yet vastly studied field of health, Redox Biology, and Redox Signaling that’s not readily known to most of the public. One day, the subject of Redox Signaling and how intricate it is to the body will be as recognizable as hormones, DNA, and stem cells. So my book serves as an introduction and will save people a lot of time in learning about it.
My book about my experience volunteering in Cartagena can serve as perhaps inspiration or a road map for people contemplating such an endeavor. My vision is to paint a picture of what my entire experience involved. How and why I decided to immerse myself in the experience and the benefits of doing so. Getting such an in-depth look into my experience may inspire someone to make a similar decision or ease their nerves if they are apprehensive. I was very nervous leading into my experience. I did not know what to expect, so sharing my story could be encouraging.
In conjunction with travel and volunteering, I plan to finish the Travel Coach Certification Program. I want a way to share my travel experiences with others and help motivate and educate others on how to do so, especially if they come from a place of not knowing how to make it happen.
Going through the Travel Coach program, I realized I want to focus on what I mentioned earlier, Immersive Volunteering to support and guide individuals who might be in a similar situation as me. Burned out or uninspired by their current job who are either looking for a break or want to get out. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be abroad and of service while connecting with others. The vision is to create an offer centered around that idea.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about 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?
This is one of my favorite topics to talk about. As I touched on earlier, travel has played an integral part in my personal growth journey. I once saw a quote that said, “I travel to awaken my consciousness more and more.” That quote spoke to me deeply. Every trip, whether in the U.S. or abroad, has positively shaped who I am today. I mentioned my time volunteering in Cartagena, Colombia. That was one of those transformative experiences that shaped my life. I recently sent a message to Christina Kuntz, the founder of the organization that facilitated the experience, Domino Volunteers. I’ll share what I sent:
“Hi Christina. Happy New Year to you all from Ruthie and I.
I can’t believe my first stint in Colombia was four years ago. Over the last week or so I’ve been reflecting on my time in Colombia more than normal. Perhaps it’s because of my book coming out. Whatever the case, those two months were so life-changing for me. In a lot of ways, I don’t think I realized how transformative it was at the time.
All that to say, I really appreciate the uniqueness of what you all put together. I remember when I came across your site for the first time, it felt too good to be true. Anyways I just felt inspired to share that. Thank you my friend”.
I think that sums up the growth that can come from travel.
You asked about research. There has been a lot of research done in the last few years that demonstrates how travel affects the brain in a positive way. Being in a new environment creates new gray brain matter and neurotransmitters that activate more of your brain. One such study was published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, which studied 10 people who had never visited London before and lived there for 6 weeks. They all went through MRI scans before and after their experience. The second MRI scan showed an increase in gray matter which indicates neurological growth and development. It’s almost like a piece of you is being awakened when you travel.
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?
I was recently staying in Loja, Ecuador for four weeks with Ruthie. We both know a little Spanish, her more than me. It is not a heavily touristed city, and English is hardly spoken. The commercial establishments and homes do not have addresses. We mostly got around via taxi, and every time we ventured out and it was time to take a taxi home there was this moment of thinking, “What the heck do we do?” Not having a clear address to point them to and not knowing Spanish well enough to explain where we needed to go was a bit nerve-racking. We combined our broken Spanish with pointing on Google maps, and we were able to figure it out. As our stay in Loja went on, it got easier and easier.
This problem-solving happens when you walk into a restaurant in a country where you don’t speak the language and need to place your order. It happens while navigating new city streets.
When we’re at home living our everyday life, it can be predictable. There’s not as much new information the brain has to figure out. It can almost run-on autopilot. It knows what it’s going to see, it knows how to handle daily circumstances. When you travel and are exposed to new environments and new circumstances that the brain hasn’t seen before, it can’t rely on those dominant neurological pathways to run on automatically. More brain power and new pathways are necessary for new scenarios. We get out of that unconscious automatic reaction and figure it out in a more deliberate way.
Figuring out and adapting to new situations, we develop improved mental processes for future scenarios that require us to think a bit more.
We can also develop more self-confidence when traveling. Traveling can put you in uncomfortable situations. Not dangerous, just different from what we’re used to. It stretches you. When you have to rely on your own ingenuity to navigate new streets or figure out how to communicate with a local, it builds on your confidence to get through challenging situations. You can also be more intentional with pushing your capabilities and embarking on activities that you’ve never done before and feel you can’t do. For example, learning to scuba dive or volunteering.
For me, it was volunteering. My first volunteering experience in Cartagena, teaching English to young adults, took me way outside of my comfort zone and challenged my limiting beliefs. Doing that every week played a large role in what I was able to accomplish after that experience.
Do you think travel enhances our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? How? Can you please explain with an example or story?
I had three experiences over the course of four months while traveling abroad that really moved me. All three embodied at least one of those three emotions; mindfulness, optimism, and gratitude.
The first was in Namibia while observing the wild animals every night at the watering hole at our hotel. At one point I turned to my partner, Ruthie, and said, “I could sit here for the rest of my life and watch this”.
The second was a few months later in the desert of Abu Dhabi. Ruthie and I were camping overnight with a guide. At night it was just Ruthie, the guide, and myself under countless stars surrounded by sand dunes. I turned to Ruthie and said, “this is life, I wish I could bottle this up.”
The third was in Cartagena, Colombia outside under the hot Colombian sun in a high school courtyard with about five students. We were playing games to help them learn English. There was this one moment when I felt a strong sense of connection and bonding.
In all three instances, I felt a strong sense of joy, peace, gratitude, and at the same time, fulfillment, and abundance. It helped me to reaffirm what was important and not important in my life.
It was after those experiences that I knew I wanted to share what travel can offer in growth and inspiration.
Oftentimes when you travel, you spend time in nature or a park in a big city. Nature is an excellent environment to get into a mindfulness state. It’s hard not to. Looking out over a mountain vista, sitting on the beach gazing out into the ocean or staring at an animal you’ve never seen before. It slows everything down for you. A sense of appreciation comes over you, a connectedness and hope about the planet and your path in life. Like you’re right where you’re supposed to be at that moment.
I have traveled to a few third-world countries over the last few years. The humbleness, openness, and kindness I have found in individuals I perceive as having less than me, are some of the most optimistic and gracious moments of my life. Every time I return from one of these trips, I find even more appreciation and gratitude for all that I have in my life.
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 do believe traveling isn’t for everyone and the idea of being outside of your comfort zone while traveling is not appealing to some. While that newness of getting off a plane in a different place excites me, it can be unsettling to someone else. It’s possible someone could allow that unsettled feeling to prevent them from having the best possible experience. I still feel a little unsettled when I’m doing something new in a new place. I think the trick is to just lean into that discomfort. That’s where the magic lies.
It’s also easy to judge things we don’t understand and that are different from our norm. How people dress, their customs, and what they eat. I sometimes find myself thinking, “wow that’s different” after I observe something unique to me. I’ve learned to find freeness in those differences. The more time I spend in a new place the more I understand my way of doing things — the way I think, the way I dress, and the things I want are all results of the environment I was raised in. That is easy for us to understand conceptually, but when you travel you understand that concept differently. You feel it.
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?”
1. Drive — If the opportunity presents itself and it makes sense to drive during your time in a new country — drive. Developing new brain pathways and the requirement to adapt are amplified tenfold when you are driving in a new environment. How many times have you been driving and minutes later you realize mentally you were somewhere else? There is none of that while driving in a new place. Nothing is predictable so the mind won’t allow that daydream driving to happen.
Two experiences stand out for me. The first was spending a week in Nice, France. There was a group of us for my birthday and we decided to rent a caravan to get around. Nice has narrow streets, the traffic lights are different, the buildings are different, the cars are different, and the emergency vehicles make a different sound. It was nerve-wracking, but I would not change one thing. The level of attention I had to apply while driving helped me adapt to new circumstances and by that was healthy for my brain. I get it, who wants to be anxious about driving while on vacation — but it can lead the way for a bit of personal growth while you’re having fun.
The second was driving across Namibia for a two-week adventure. At times, it felt like a spiritual experience. In Namibia, you drive on what is for me the other side of the street. I have never done that before. I probably could not have done it in a more heavily populated area. Luckily, Namibia is not. The landscape and geography of Namibia are beautiful and unique. Just driving with a guide would have sparked new brain activity. Driving on the other side of the road in that environment, literally felt like a spiritual experience. That is how life-altering it was.
2. Talk to Locals: First — Interact with the locals. Interact with them every chance you get. Learn about them. Ask them about their family, and where else they have traveled. How did they get to where they are in life? They might provide some insight based on their unique place in the world that impacts your life. Their kindness might move you in a way that helps you act with more kindness.
Second — Engage with locals despite a language barrier. If you don’t know the language, try to practice on an app before your trip to learn a few common words and phrases for getting around. Whatever the case, engage and try to communicate despite the language gap. It can be frustrating at times. Especially if you think you know some of the languages, but fall short most of the time. Like me with Spanish. That interaction teaches you about people, problem-solving, and patience.
Learning from other people is a huge part of growth through travel.
3. Travel Solo: I am not advocating traveling with another person or group. Some of my fondest memories are from group trips, however, if you are up for it and it’s safe to do so, a solo trip might be one of the most enlightening experiences of your life. My first trip volunteering in Cartagena was solo. My partner Ruthie was originally supposed to come on the second half of the trip, but it turned out she couldn’t. Honestly, I believe I got more out of the experience of being solo. While I missed her and it would have been great if she came, I do not believe I would have stretched myself as much. I probably would not have put myself out there to explore and engage with others as much as I did. Certain activities would not have felt as challenging if she was there. I would have been more in my comfort zone if she lived with me and explored the city with me.
When you travel alone, it helps you to engage with other travelers and locals. And that is what it is all about.
4. Travel as Long as You Can: The longer, the better. The more time you can spend traveling away from home, the less time you are in a predictable environment. The study I mentioned earlier, where the participants lived in London, was six weeks long. The research indicates that 6 weeks is a good number. My experience in Cartagena was eight weeks.
The longer you’re away, the more opportunities there are for growth. When I travel abroad, it’s no less than 10 days and ideally 2 weeks or more. I’m currently living as a Nomad, so my life is pretty much a new environment most of the time. Even if you cannot spend that much time abroad, an extended trip to your home country is still a new environment and can facilitate the change you are seeking.
5. Learn a New Skill: Another way to amplify your experience traveling is to take a course or a class. Anything new to you or perhaps something you did as a child and want to relearn.
When I was in Cartagena, I learned to play the violin. I love the sound of the violin and always wanted to learn how to play. It was hard, fun, impossible, and exhilarating. Remember, travel is already stretching our minds and working to positively affect our brains. And learning to play an instrument does that as well. Put the two together and that’s a recipe for serious mind expansion! I did not realize it at the time, but that is one of the reasons my experience in Cartagena was so moving. Two activities that help you grow as a person, combined.
It does not have to be an instrument. It can be learning a new language, maybe you learn how to dive, or maybe something technical that’s new to you. Depending on your time in this new place, this might not be possible but even a single-day class can be beneficial. Or maybe where you’re visiting doesn’t offer an opportunity to do this. You can always do something online and you’ll still get the same combined benefit. Whatever the case, ideally it is something new and challenging, but also something you’ll enjoy.
From your experience, does travel hurt personal growth too? Is there a downside to travel?
One downside I can see is being away from family and friends. Like many of us, I am close to my family and enjoy my time with them. That said, traveling has caused me to miss a few family gatherings and events. Not seeing my parents as frequently as I would like is something I think about often when traveling, though, at this point in my life, I still make travel my priority.
My grandmother passed away last year while I was halfway around the world. She passed two days before my experience in Abu Dhabi in the desert I mentioned. I thought about her a lot while I was under the stars. I still wonder if this downside should have kept me home. Deep down I know I was where I was supposed to be, where my grandmother would want me. So, I can grow and share my experience with others. But it was still hard.
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 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 :-)
There are a lot of people of that caliber I would love to have breakfast/lunch with but for the article and that question, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow. I selected her for a few reasons.
I’m a big movie fan and some of the films she’s starred in are a few favorites of mine. Films such as Seven, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and all the Marvel films. In 2008 she was in this cool documentary series that aired on PBS called Spain… On the Road Again. She and a few others, including chef Mario Batali, went around Spain eating the best dishes they could find. I traveled a little bit at that point but watching that show I felt like I was discovering Spain with them. It helped broaden my mind when it came to travel and made me want to travel with them. Spain… On the Road Again is about food and she’s released a few cookbooks. I imagine she’d have great advice on breakfast or lunch. Lastly, this may surprise the readers, but I subscribed to her GOOP newsletter when it first started in 2008 and found a lot of value in the content. My partner Ruthie still teases me about that to this day.
So based on the spirit of the article and the above, we’ll go with Gwyneth. Oh, yea, I’m also a huge Coldplay fan and maybe she could help with some tickets. :-)
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am grateful for this opportunity. If readers would like to follow my work efforts in Immersive Volunteering, they can go to www.ricardowilkins.com and they can also find my current book at www.ricardosbook.com.
I’m also a social media at:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To schedule a free consultation, click here.