Why Travel Makes You a Better Person
It’s time we talked about travel.
Because it makes us better people.
Not every trip and not all the time, but slowly we start to perceive life differently. When we travel, we stretch and grow and learn. Travel can be self-development, but not for all. It’s only growth if we’re aware and open to grow, only if we do it right and for the right reasons.
I’ve been a serious traveller for 15yrs. By serious I mean beyond the 2 week vacation, I mean quit your job and get on the road for a year-and-a-half serious.
As we speak (or, as I write) I’m on my 4th major trip, this one is the shortest at just 2.5 months. I started writing this article in Argentina, Buenos Aires, continued writing it in Ecuador (country 63 for me) and I’m finishing it in Spain, my new home. No it’s not about the numbers, as nothing ever is. But after so much exploration I’ve got a point of view on travel. Not just travel, but living in cultures outside of your own. I walk my talk. I’ve followed my dreams and made things happen.
I’ve had the good fortune to experience living in 5 other countries. My first move was to London at 21, after that Australia for 9 months, then back to London for a stint, then Brazil for a year, Canada for a year (because of love) and finally Spain. I’ve learned things, things that I feel are important to share.
Before we get into the benefits of travel and how in fact, in my eyes it IS personal development, lets start first with the wrong reasons to travel.
If you think your life is bad, you hate your job, you’re not happy, you’ve had a major breakup or relationship gone sideways and traveling is the answer – you’re wrong. It’s definitely a rest-bite, it will help in some way, but it won’t necessarily bring you the answers you want. If you want to create some space to think, it certainly might hep a little, but you need to put effort in to solving the issue beyond contemplation. It’s not enough to turn up in Kenya/India/Mexico and wait for the answer to come.
If you’re running away from your “bad life” or your “horrible problems” or whatever it might be, IT WON’T WORK.
Why? Because we take our problems with us. PERIOD.
If we have problems with ourselves, our life, our relationships, our work, we need to deal with them.
We’ve all met those people on the road.
We’ve seen how little they enjoy themselves, we’ve seen how out of control they get at parties, how much they talk about the problem they are avoiding, we’ve seen the pain they are ignoring. Escapism has a rude awakening when we realise it doesn’t work long term.
But if we’re traveling to experience, to grow and to learn, we’ve a much better chance of getting what we hope for.
But lets go beyond the clichés, what exactly do I mean?
Well, I’ve honestly got a tonne of stories from the good, the bad and the ugly. From near radioactive poisoning to almost arrest in the Red square of Moscow (over zealous military police who wanted my passport, which I didn’t have) to nearly running out of food in the jungle of Guatemala while on a 5 day trek to hidden Mayan pyramids, to buying cigars under the stairs of an old Cuban woman dressed in her nightgown in Havana.
I could tell you stories about being driven through the mesmerizing salt flats of Bolivia by a coca leaf munching local who hadn’t slept for 2 days. I could tell you about bush camping in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, trying to sleep to the distant sound of lions while ant-eaters shuffle between our tents.
But these stories are about the adventures, not necessarily about the lessons. They’d also fill a book and more importantly you really need a beer in your hand (I’m an IRISH storyteller, beer is a pre-requisite).
Rather than tell the stories themselves I’ll share the things I’ve learned. This is how travel can make you a better person.
It BURSTS the bubble (which is a good thing!)
It makes us more self-aware and often forces us to consider our view of the world.
“If you always do what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ – Henry Ford
This is further exacerbated if you are always surrounded by people who think similarly to you. How will we ever grow if everyone always agrees with the way we think. If no one ever challenges our point of view and we in turn don’t challenge theirs, everyone stays the same, in a bubble of ignorance.
I met someone on the road once who thought it was ok to call someone a “Faggot”. His argument being that he wasn’t homophobic, it’s just what people say where he’s from. He didn’t know what the problem was because in his work ‘everyone’ used that term. He learned the hard way when someone wanted to demonstrate how wrong he was with their fists (not the right way either).
The problem is we are designed to self-defend. He tried and failed. I took him aside and explained to him that just because that’s what he ‘knows’ (and in his world it doesn’t make him homophobic) it doesn’t mean he’ll receive the same lenience elsewhere. I explained that rather than blindly defending the way things are ‘back home’ he had an opportunity to challenge what he ‘knows’ and be open to an alternative. Now, you are probably not going around blindly insulting people, but guaranteed there are things you think, know or believe that could benefit from being challenged. If you travel with the attitude that there are alternatives to what you know which might help you grow, you’ve got a great head start.
It makes us more open-minded.
When we are successful at cultivating the starting point above of “maybe not everything I know is right” we significantly multiply our chances of growing and developing as a person. The trick is to be open-minded in all discussions. It doesn’t have to always be in a Zen like nature, we can totally hammer it out in a heated debate but the trick here is not to do what most of us do and merely wait for our turn to speak or start a sentence with ‘yes, I agree with that BUT…” the skill comes in genuinely listening, actively listening. We need to have the courage to stop disagreeing (rather than fight on because of pride) and say ‘do you know what, you make a really interesting point, I’ve never thought about it that way’. I used to fight to the death in arguments. When I was a teenager being right was the only important thing. It took me years to realise how much learning I was missing out on (and people I was irritating!). When we meet people from all over the world we are ultimately meeting different belief systems, values, ways of thinking and living. The best thing to do is to embrace it and ask questions (rather than go straight to disagreeing), which leads me to the next point.
It makes us more curious
Rather than defending our world we learn to listen and question. Open-ended questions become our best friends – How is it in your part of the world? What do your friends and family think of you doing this trip? Out pop the values and beliefs. Why do they think that way? “Oh, because in my country…”
The more curious we are in life the wiser we grow
Embarrassment is no longer a reason not to try in life
Ever tried to get something done in another language you can’t speak? It’s highly stressful, chaotic and often embarrassing.
Communicating is important; it will be the difference between a great trip and a mediocre one. If there is one sentence we should know in every language (if nothing else) it should be this “I don’t speak (insert relevant language) very well, but I will try…”
We immediately win the listener over. They’ll do their best to help us because we’ve willingly shown them our vulnerability. I’ve had many conversations in Burma using sign language, charades and laughter. Just yesterday my boyfriend tried to ask for honey in a store by buzzing around flapping his imaginary wings. It’s remarkable how much can be understood without words and when you leave you’re embarrassment at home.
Because of this you learn to become…
More patient & empathetic
When we are out of our comfort zone, which we inevitably always are when we are traveling, it’s scary. It takes bravery to do even the simplest of things, like buying a bus ticket. Having an appreciation for this gives us the gift of empathy when we meet other people who are out of their comfort zone. When we know how challenging it is to communicate in another language. When we know how scary it is to be lost at night in a strange city. That’s when you go the extra mile for people.
I’ve had strangers drive a friend and I to the airport when the bus dropped past us on the side of the road, for no reason other than that they knew what it was like to be in our shoes. In turn, I’ve offered stranded travellers a place to stay, called them cabs, booked them trains because I’ve had it all done for me. I remember once getting off the train at Gard de Nord in Paris to meet my boyfriend at the time. I waited for 3 hours until they were sweeping the floors and kicking out the beggars. His phone was off, my cards wouldn’t work and I had 3 euro in my pocket. I called 5 hotels with my pigeon French. Everything was booked. I panicked and searched my mind for anyone I knew living in Paris. I remembered a childhood friend called Scarlett who had moved there 10 years prior.
I had the number of one of his friends saved on my phone and sent him a text out of desperation. He replied with the number of the pub that Scarlett worked at. I called, but he wasn’t working that night, I hung up and panicked (again). The security guard was telling me to leave. I called back, swallowed my pride and said “look, you don’t know me, I’m an old friend of Scarlett’s, I’m stranded in Paris, I have nowhere to go. Can I come there until I’ve work out what to do.”
The girl on the phone was lovely, she give me the address and explained exactly how to get there. I had enough money to buy a one-way metro ticket and hopped on the last train. When I got to the bar the staff were amazing, they’d already pulled me a pint, called a local B&B, booked me a room and called my friend to tell him I was there. 20mins later Scarlett walked in with a big smile on his face. What a relief! We were drinking the night away when I got a panicked call from my then boyfriend. He had thought I was arriving the next day. I gave him the address and he arrived an hour later crawling through the front door on his knees with his hands begging for forgiveness. Everyone laughed and another round was poured.
Travelling makes you braver & challenges your concept of social norms. When you find yourself in a sticky situation like that you also find that, not only are you better equipped to handle the situation in the future, you are far more willing and ready to help others and give back.