Travel Doesn’t Change You. You Change You.
I’ve traveled to 10 countries in the past 12 months.
I’ve learned a lot from the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. I’ve talked with people from all over the world, with conversations ranging from intriguing to frightening to inspiring.
Growth has gripped me from all directions and simply pulled. Hard. I’ve been happy to evolve, though it hasn’t come without growing pains. I’ve been malleable like putty being forged into an improved iteration.
The most common question people ask me now is,
“How has travel changed you?”
It’s a broad question. It’s loaded with the potential to be answered with wisdom or glib one-liners. It’s a question I’ve never seemed to be able to answer succinctly and fully.
Have I become a better packer? A better conversationalist? More open to adventure? Better at sleeping on planes? Better at handling jet lag?
Yes to all of the above.
In reality, I have changed a lot this year. My perspective broadened. I’m more mellow. I have fewer insecurities. I drink Chinese tea more than coffee now.
But it wasn't traveling that changed me.
Traveling can be a life-altering experience. But showing up in a new country, eating the food, seeing the sights — this isn’t the stuff that changes lives. At best, these make for a good selling point. Or a good photo op.
People forget that when we travel somewhere new, we still bring ourselves with us. All our troubles and insecurities usually get thrown into our luggage.
Hoping that a surreal sight will inspire an epiphany is unrealistic. Seeing the Eiffel Tower or eating gelato in Rome won’t magically eliminate the inhibitions we’ve dragged abroad.
Geography isn’t what makes us a better version of us. We have to do that ourselves.
At home, your circle of friends and family know you to act a specific way, to speak with a certain tone, to order a certain meal. They learn to expect this from you. And so, you learn to assume the same things from yourself too. How do you transition from a bevy of expectations into something else? How do you unlock yourself from the binds of assumption?
I learned to keep some distance from expectations. This realization may be catalyzed by travel, but travel doesn’t in itself take action. You take action. Change is acted out by you and only you. Arrive somewhere new with yourself, as yourself. See what you’ve left behind from work, college, and home. What parts of you remain? What parts of others did you leave behind?
Who is it that emerges once expectations are forgotten?
Traveling taught me to ask that question. I can look in the mirror and see myself, bare and vulnerable. I’m no longer burdened to try and be the person someone else wants me to be. I’m just me.
It took conscious effort to get to this point. And it wasn’t frequent flyer miles that got me here.
Traveling isn’t going to imbue you with unimaginable, new wisdom. Eating escargot or pig tongue isn’t what rattles you awake. Petting an elephant won’t open your eyes to all your shortcomings.
There is nothing that traveling itself will do other than exposing you to who you really are. A journey towards authenticity is internal, not geographical.
Travel provides the opportunity to act as if no one is watching, to behave how you would behave if you didn’t have expectations clinging to you like a shadow. We find who we’ve been looking for back home, that elusive self who so often gets buried beneath an outer shell.
We carry ourselves abroad and we carry ourselves back home afterward. That self can ebb in a flux of internal discovery, introspection amidst a new land.
“Wherever you go, there you are”
I think of this old adage when I reflect back on my year. The changes, the sights, the people. Things happened all around me, but far greater things happened inside me. Internal renovations and awakenings that stemmed from my own doing, not a destination.
Traveling is a great way to broaden perspective, accumulate novel experiences, and have some independence. But to use travel like an antibiotic for personal ailments isn’t always fruitful.
Personal growth happens through action and introspection, not with hotels and flights.