What I learned from hitchhiking
In the last 8 years of my life, I hitchhiked in almost 30 different countries with a total of around 30,000kms traveled. While I do not hitchhike that much nowadays, I feel that the experiences gained on the road learned me a lot about life and people’s behavior in general, and sharing the lessons I have learned from them with you is what I would like to do below.
Lesson #1: Create your chances
Getting lucky is a matter of you doing something for it to happen.
I learned this one from all the times when I got dropped off in places from which it seemed impossible to get a ride. I was standing on the side of the road watching all the cars passing by so fast they couldn’t probably even see me, and understanding that I needed to get extremely lucky to get out of there. You know what my solution was in these situations? I usually chose whatever direction felt safe, put my backpack on the shoulders, and started advancing in that direction to improve my current position rather than staying immobile and waiting for something to happen. I do not know why and how this works exactly, but cars that some minutes ago were speeding away now were making their best to pull over safely to pick me up. When asked why they stopped, the drivers usually replied “Oh, I just saw you walking.”
My hint about this one is that people tend to have more sympathy when they see that you are trying to find a solution, and not just hoping for it to come as a blessing or a stroke of good luck. Every time you are cornered by the unfavorable circumstances, try to seek this little tiny improvement, this extra 1% increasing your chances to get out of the situation you are in. Somehow, this one extra percent is often exactly what you need to succeed, whether it will be on your own or with the help of somebody else.
Lesson #2: Know what you want
You need to decline offers that will not help you to advance in the long-term.
You may be hitchhiking from a great spot heading somewhere far, and suddenly it starts to rain heavily. You are getting all wet and angry, and then a car stops by and offers to get you to a nearby town. You may be tempted to go with it as being inside a car is great when it rains outside, but you know that this town is not exactly on the way to where you are heading. Should you accept or decline?
From my experience, settling on a more attractive short-term goal will eventually lead to a waste of time in the long-term if the two are not aligned. For instance, consider the following situation. You quit your job as you feel ready to move on and aim for a bigger project. Then, you receive an offer for a slightly better job, with a bigger salary, but still not matching your current ambitions. Accepting it may be tempting in the short-term due to obvious advantages it brings immediately, but if you do so, you may waste your time and energy without advancing towards what was important to you in the first place. Keeping the final goal in mind is something that helps to remain focused and have a broader perspective when making important decisions.
Lesson #3: Do not expect too much
Tame your expectations whether they are too optimistic or too pessimistic.
Hitchhiking is one of those things that attract people with its adventurous allure. When you first put your feet on the side of the road, you think about all the crazy adventures that happened to the heroes of your favorite Jack Kerouac’s novel and hope that the same will happen to you too. The reality, however, is somewhat different and is full of long waits and uneventful encounters, with only one out of a hundred rides ending up in something memorable. In everyday life, the situation is quite similar when we tend to expect too much from any new person we meet, any trip we embark on, and, in general, from anything that happens to us.
There is a very intuitive mathematical explanation for high expectations leading to unhappiness that I give to my students, and it is the Bayes’ theorem. It roughly tells you that the probability of having a certain outcome given fixed circumstances depends on your prior beliefs. If your beliefs are biased (either too pessimistic or too optimistic), then you will often be disappointed as your expectations will rarely match the reality. Hitchhiking taught me that unique experiences just happen out of the blue and that enjoying the ride in-between them, however good, bad or boring it can be, is the best way of having the most of it all.
Lesson #4: Listen to people
Learn to understand what is your role and what is expected from you.
I was a very shy guy back in my student days, and I didn’t talk too much with people that I used to meet. For obvious reasons, hitchhiking changed me quite a lot in this sense, but what I value most about it is not my current capacity of talking to strangers, but the ability to understand what people want from me. Let me explain it with the following example. You get into the car, exchange a couple of introductory phrases with the driver and then the conversation comes to a stall. What should you do now? When I was starting to hitchhike, I thought that my role was to entertain the driver and any such moments of uncomfortable silence made me think that I was not fulfilling my mission. It took me some time to understand that not all people expect the same from me and failing to recognize their expectations and force you way around them can make you miss a lot.
One of the most memorable rides that I got was from a Canadian guy who drove me from Halifax airport to North Sydney’s ferry terminal. From the moment I got in the car, I understood that he needed somebody to talk to and was not interested in who I was or what was there to see in my home-country. So I barely opened my mouth during the ride and I listed about his life as if reading a book: he was a very good story-teller, and his life was worth hearing about. The same can go the other way around as well. Some people only wait for you to take the lead of the conversation, while others are absorbed in their thoughts and do not want to be engaged in any sort of exchange at all.
This is a hard lesson to learn as all people are different and we are no telepaths and cannot read their minds. The only thing that we can do, however, is being patient and willing to understand how to create the best synergy with the person in front of us. It may seem little, but sometimes it can go a long way.