In my old consulting days, at the end of every project my team would summarize our “lessons learned.” Nobody ever enjoyed the exercise, but it was always an invaluable resource for the next team. I did this for work numerous times, but never once took inventory of my own “lessons learned” in life. Now that I’m traveling, I realize the value of writing them down and I feel this is one of the few ways I can give back to readers of this blog.
Which feels weird to say, I never thought anybody would read this thing.
This was easily the most difficult post I’ve ever written, but take what you will from my own experiences in life and use them to reflect on your own. This is not intended to be a lecture where I pontificate from my soapbox, but instead a list of the most valuable lessons I’ve garnered while on the road. So without further ado, here are the top 10 lessons in order of increasing importance that I’ve learned from backpacking across the world this last year.
#10 It is Impossible to Travel “Wrong"
This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom for any new or inexperienced travelers out there who are nervous about “messing up” at traveling. The truth is that if you genuinely want to travel, you cannot do it incorrectly. When you arrive in a brand-new city for the first time, it is impossible not learn something new because you know absolutely nothing to begin with. Every step you take from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave is a learning opportunity - it’s unavoidable. There is a quote by Bill Bryson that summarizes this point wonderfully:
“But that's the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned... I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, and you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
While painful to admit, this even applies to people who opt for prepackaged tours that I detest. Personally, I think it is a waste of money, but the fact that a person is even mildly curious about the world around them and voluntarily puts themselves in a slightly uncomfortable situation means everything. Even these people are not traveling "wrong.”
#9 Celebrate Uncertainty
Growing up my father taught me the old adage known as Murphy’s Law that states: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While amusing, I’ve come to realize that people genuinely look out on the world using this paradigm! People fear the unknown because we assume uncertainty directly equates to something negative. The idea is both depressing and blatantly incorrect; uncertainty is just that - uncertain! We are no surer of a negative outcome than a positive one, yet we only focus on the negative possibility.
While things may not go the way we want from time to time, uncertainty is what makes life exciting. Imagine if you knew the outcome of every event down to the exact moment of your own death. Really think about this. Would you play a board game if you already knew who the victor was? Of course not! As in life, what makes the game enjoyable is the fact that you don’t know the outcome. Uncertainty is not something to be feared because life, by its nature, is uncertain; to fear uncertainty is to fear life. Instead of trying to run away, embrace the fact that you do not know and wake up each morning curious about what life will throw at you.
#8 Let Go of Expectations
Holding expectations in life suggests that we somehow know what’s best, know what’s right, or can predict the future. We become so sure of ourselves that we take on a narrow-minded view of the world and assume we know what should happen – we expect it. While we use the past to predict the future, do not forget that your projections are not in fact reality. As much as you might like to think you are in total control of your life, it’s merely an illusion and is why holding expectations invariably leads to disappointment.
Back in college I learned how to use Monte Carlo simulations to analyze stocks. Before your eyes glaze over, the only thing you need to know is the output looks like the adjacent picture - thousands of possible future paths all overlaid on a single graph. To the best of my knowledge, this is the most accurate representation of life - a chaotic bundle of infinite possibilities. Holding expectations is akin to selecting one of these lines and personally investing in the idea that it is the only outcome that will occur in the future - somehow you know. Looking at the graph you see how stupid the assumption is, yet we do this every single day of our lives without even knowing it. Instead of grasping at expectations, see possibilities.
#7 Being Alone is a Wonderful Experience
It may seem counterintuitive, but I actually find spending time alone tremendously rewarding. While I doubt spending months in isolated confinement is a pleasant experience, being alone is not something to be feared. I initially thought society’s fear of seclusion was due to an innate dislike of boredom, but in reality people are scared of themselves. Isolation leads to self-reflection on one's beliefs, problems, weaknesses, insecurities, etc. and that’s what terrifies people. We are so scared that we go out of our way to distract ourselves every second of the day to avoid it. Isn’t it disappointing that the last person in the world you want to spend time with is yourself? Accept your imperfections and understand that everyone is in the same boat as you.
“All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.” - Blaise Pascal
Being alone helps to quiet the mind and allows you to be aware of the world you exist in (both external and internal). I’ve spent entire days of my life where all I do is sit on a beach by myself; I don’t read, play games, or check Facebook, I just sit still for hours at a time endlessly mesmerized by the world around me. It is only by removing the distractions of life that you can fully appreciate the sound of the crashing waves, the smell of the salty air, the touch of the cool breeze, and the sight of a vast ocean. For a moment really, truly be aware of life all around you and I promise you too will find being alone wildly fascinating.
#6 There is no Universal “Right” or “Wrong"
It may sound like I’m experiencing a crisis of ethics, but it’s far from the truth. As a consultant, we frequently used the phrase “it is what it is” at the office and I hated it with a passion. Ironically, there is no truer statement in life. After experiencing cultures where people hold drastically different values than my own, I realized it’s impossible to determine if someone or something is objectively “right" or “wrong" (or “good" or “bad" for that matter). We usually determine what's "right" from a moral/ethical perspective, but in all cases a human mind is required to pass judgment; without it there is no right and no wrong – simply put, "it is what it is.”
Wherever in the world my old roommate, Andrei Coso, is I’m sure he’s getting a good laugh at this.
Fundamentally there is no objective perspective with which to judge “right” or “wrong” in this world. Look all around you: we believe killing is wrong, yet groups kill in the name of God (look at the Crusades); we believe stealing is wrong, yet celebrate the idea of Robin Hood; and we believe lying is wrong, yet do it to protect people we care about. Now apply this logic to inter-cultural differences like arranged marriages in India vs. marriages out of love in the US. Which one is “right?” The correct answer is: “it is what it is.” This applies to everything in life and the reality is that nothing is inherently “right" or “wrong” (or “good" or “bad"), it’s a matter of opinion, not fact. Simply because someone does things or sees the world differently than you doesn’t make them “wrong” - it makes them different.
#5 Life is Change, Embrace it
After a year of continuous travel, I’ve learned that trying to stop change in one’s life is both irrational and entirely futile. You fundamentally exist because of change. There are a number of ways to look at this, but from a biological perspective, your body is constantly in motion recycling fluids, building tissue, breaking down food, etc. all of which is change. Your five senses (sound, sight, touch, smell and taste) are all designed specifically to detect movement in your environment in the form of vibrations in the air, chemical triggers, or variations in light. Whether you like it or not, your existence (and consciousness) is the product of change! To stop change is to stop life itself.
Knowing this, society’s quest to stop change by clinging to children, relationships, tangible possessions, etc. becomes one giant tragic comedy. We are conditioned to fear change when in fact it is our greatest source of joy. My favorite example is the changing of the seasons. At the end of summer, we hate the heat and look forward to the cold, only to hate the cold in winter and look forward to the heat again. The joy in the seasons is not so much the seasons themselves, but the change between them. From a travel perspective, I appreciate stunning moments like my 25th birthday and horrendous moments like my camping trip in Croatia because I am alternating between them. It is the act of change that brings joy in life - embrace it fully.
#4 There are No External Conditions for Happiness
Looking back at my sixth-month anniversary post from Istanbul, I realize I made a mistake. In the entry, I write
I dare anyone to happily deal with an explosive (and spicy) stomachache in a piss-soaked squat bathroom on a moving train in India without toilet paper! It can’t be done!
I’ve met people who live in abject poverty with barely enough to survive from day to day, yet somehow they manage to be happy. By all
#3 “Feeling” is More Important than “Thinking”
The title here is a bit simplistic, but there is a difference between intellectual knowledge (“thinking”) and experiential understanding (“feeling”). Society today places a tremendous amount of value on logic and conceptual thinking, while simultaneously shunning away emotions and feelings. As a child, I read every Sherlock Holmes adventure and venerated the fictional character for his single-minded dedication to logic above all. Like Sherlock (and most of society), I believed that feelings/emotions only clouded one’s mind and obscured the truth, but this ignores a large part of the human experience. While logic is important, to truly understand something you must feel it. Often these insights are difficult to explain using words, but you know it.
Take for example falling in love. Every song on the radio describes the joy of falling in love and pain of heartbreak, but as a child you do not understand what the artist is talking about. It isn't until you fall in love yourself for the first time that you truly understand what the song is about. The lyrics didn't change, but now you have an experiential understanding of love as opposed to just intellectual knowledge. This is only one example, but the concept applies to all facets of life. I very much value education through schooling, but true learning begins after you graduate because first-hand experience is what garners true understanding. The best way to develop a new skill is through practice just as the best way to learn about the world is through travel. In all cases, the rule still applies: “feeling” is more important that “thinking.”
#2 Question Everything
This last year I’ve thought long and hard about why I put such a tremendous value on travel and why I feel everyone should do it. I gave up my comfortable life and high-paying consulting job in NYC to travel, but what specifically about it is so beneficial? After much deliberation, I realized the simple truth: travel makes you question yourself. If you never physically leave your hometown/city/country, you never understand how diverse the world is (See Lesson #3). Instead, you assume the world operates like the little bubble you live in and think your way is the “right” way (See Lesson #6). Travel, no matter how small (See Lesson #10), exposes a person to different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of thinking. The moment a person experiences this difference for themselves and sees that other people can happily live a life very different from their own, the process of questioning begins.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of earth all one’s lifetime.” - Mark Twain
The vilest evil in the world is acceptance without questioning; it stifles innovation, prevents progress, perpetuates narrow-minded views, and is a root cause of many conflicts in society. Ignorance by itself is a fact of life, we all enter this world completely ignorant of what’s going on around us, but what makes it dangerous is when we stop questioning (and thereby stop learning). Travel forces you question your long-held beliefs in a very drastic way and more times than not, you’re usually wrong! Nobody likes to be wrong, but once you learn to accept the possibility that you could be wrong everything changes. You become curious, open-minded, tolerant, and accepting of others because at the end of the day you are never 100% certain about anything (See Lesson #9).
While Western Europe is different from the US in many ways, the culture, food, and history are all relatively similar as compared to the rest of the world. The further east I travel, the more I understand just how advanced and comfortable life in the West is. I’ve experienced gratitude numerous times on my trip, but nothing was more impactful than the first time I witnessed poverty in India. It isn’t hard to imagine that rampant poverty exists in an underdeveloped country boasting 1.25 billion people, but seeing a family of four huddled around a garbage fire under an overpass with their tattered clothing and meager possessions left an indelible mark in my mind. I can’t even begin to describe how unbelievably lucky I am to have been born in the US to a family who not only pushed me to achieve but had the resources to support both my brother and me.
If you’re reading this right now, this probably applies to you too.
During the 2012 election in the US, there was a huge fiasco when Obama stated, “You didn’t build that” during one of his speeches. I had numerous political augments over his comment and was frustrated when people proclaimed with unwavering vindication that they alone were responsible for their success in life. I’ve never heard a more blatantly incorrect statement. I have no doubt they work hard, but I imagine that family huddled around the garbage fire in India works hard too and look where they are. The reason for your success in life is the result of what others before you did. In fact I’ll take it one step further, everything you are is the result of other people. Putting money and resources aside, think about all those great qualities you possess: your determination, your work ethic, your education, your health, and even your personality (just to name a few), they were all inherited or learned from someone else. Never forget that you are nothing without the people, society, culture, and experiences in your life.