I’m a big fan of travel. After living in Barcelona for a year during college and solo backpacking through almost every country in Europe, it’s safe to say I caught the travel bug pretty hard. Hopefully my Matador Network Portfolio conveys my positive stance on travel as the best way to discover where your identity fits in the world, gain perspective about disparate lifestyles, and have a blast while making the most out of the limited time you have on this planet. My time spent vagabonding (taking time off from normal like to travel for the sake of travel) introduced me to new experiences and perspectives that remain a formative part of me today. However, once you have an idea of what you want to do with yourself, traveling ceases being exciting and exploratory and merely becomes a distraction.
We are all preoccupied with finding meaning in our lives, and while travel is arguably the best way to find it, it’s not a good way to develop it. The itinerant backpackers lifestyle is inherently consumptive rather than creative. It is the best possible kind of consumption, such that it is almost incomparable to the consumptive lifestyle of a couch potato, but the fact remains that most travelers take more than they give to the place they visit.
Instead, they soak up the exotic surroundings, novel experiences, and rotating casts of characters like a video game with them as the protagonist. I did it, my hostel mates did it, and the millions of young backpackers currently crisscrossing the world are doing it as you read this. I notice it more when I’m a local – these exciting new characters enter your life for a few days or a week at most, only to drop out again afterwards. The first few are exciting, but after developing a few relationships that get cut off abruptly, you start to get jaded and stick to spending time with people who will still be around next month. Such interactions are fun, but lack depth or meaning.
How you find meaning in your life will vary. I can only speak for what has worked best for me. So far I’ve gotten the most out of the creation of value for others and fulfilling personal relationships. Neither of these are found on the road.
Nobody Cares About Your Trip Except You
Near the end of the 3 months I spent living out of a backpack and jumping on whichever bus went east, I got jaded. I had gotten so used to new things happening to me all the time that it was no longer exciting. I started wanting to make things happen to the world instead.
After all those months, people, and experiences, what do I have to show? I’m certainly more worldly, experienced, and open-minded, but the hard truth is that nobody else cares. Think about the stranger at a party who walks up and says they’ve been traveling for a year. How interested are you to hear about that? It’s merely fodder for the next conversation or two. Unless this stranger mentions somewhere you’re planning to go, your interest is no more involved than it would be when prompted with ‘I work in theatre’, or ‘I visited my uncle in Canada last week’.
Compare this response to the stranger who walks up with something they’ve created, whether it’s art, business, or something else. No matter how relevant the creation is to your interests, you’re going to want to know more. For instance, just the other day I met someone who published an open-source the Bible rewritten so that all male characters were female and vice versa (to provide female Christian role models, since all the women in the original Bible were slaves or whores, sadly). I’m about as far from Christian as you can get, but that guy was damn interesting!
When I introduce myself as the author of a book on group games I’m bombarded with stories of their favorite games or questions about the self-publishing/Kickstarter process. These are constructive experiences I can use to teach others, learn from their experience, and ultimately create better stuff. Compare that to one of my best travel anecdotes – the time I showed up to my Couchhost in Russia only to find that my bed was a pile of coats amidst 40 other commune members. I can’t do much with it other than entertain.
Travel Relationships Are Of Convenience, not Compatibility
I’ve written plenty about travel’s transitory nature of relationships already. While you can and do meet fun ersatz characters on the road, most of the people you spend time with are shallow hostel friends focused on partying, or locals happened upon in the street and bars. There are a few diamonds in the rough there, but most interesting people are busy leading their lives, not waiting around to entertain some ragamuffin.
The best example of this I’ve see was in Mexico City, where the people on the streets downtown almost belong to a foreign culture than those who live in suburban houses. Think about living in an American suburb – how often do you spend time with the people you’d run into on streets downtown? The middle class locals I met through Couchsurfing admitted that they had never ridden the metro – a fact I found astounding at first, until I realized how many times I’ve had my parents drive me to the SFO airport rather than take Caltrain.
You generally don’t meet the mover-shakers or the interesting people while traveling because they’re all too busy living. Instead you meet fellow travelers, locals with nothing better to do, and if you’re lucky, a few kind Couchhosts with the time and energy to spend on strangers they’ll likely never see again. Again, I have been one of those locals giving up my couch to foreigners every week, but I got tired of meeting people I’d never see again whose only reason for being in my life was the need for a place to stay. I’m way more selective about the Americans I choose to spend time with – why should they be any different.
Even the Best Travel Friends Become Long Distance Relationships
Plus, even best friends found abroad all become long distance relationships. We all know how well romantic LDRs work out. Personally I’ve never heard of a success story, barring those on the verge of marriage separated by grad school. If the romantic passion of lovers can’t hold strong across national borders, what makes you think you’ll stay in touch with those charming Canadians you drove across Spain with?
No, at best you’ll Like their stuff on social networks sporadically, but unless you can maintain Skype dates every weekend you’re not going to have much of an ongoing relationship. Some of the favorite people I’ve met in my life live abroad, and I don’t interact with them much beyond sending internet links that remind me of them. We’re both too busy living our own lives with people on our own continents to devote time to those elsewhere. That’s not say we don’t jump at the chance to see each other whenever we’re anywhere near the same time zone, just a simple truth that there’s no substitute for face-to-face.
Creation Trumps Consumption, and It’s Best Done Stationary
So, yes, everyone on Earth is a special snowflake with their own story to tell, and yes, traveling is fun and good for your mental compass. But given the choice, I’d rather use what time I have to connect deeper with the snowflakes who inspire me to be a better person rather than those who simply are new and different. And I’d rather work on creating things of value to others (which is also fun!) than focus on travel experiences that benefit nobody beyond myself. That’s much easier to do when you don’t have to worry about where you’re sleeping tomorrow.
But don’t take it from me – look at the REAL travelers. The people who have lived nomadically for years; who have made livings off of sharing exotic experiences. All of them eventually settle down to create something or develop relationships. From Nomadic Matt‘s seminal post on why he’s quitting travel to Tynan’s leaving behind the Life Nomadic in order to build a blogging platform, to Rolf Potts, who literally wrote the book on Vagabonding, halfway settling in Paris to teach writing workshops.
These men had all built their identities around being a traveler, and later independently decided that that life wasn’t for them anymore. That’s not to say they’ve gone cold turkey. Look at their blogs and you’ll see that they still travel for short stretches, mostly with good friends. That way their life affords ample time for creation, while using sporadic travel as a fresh perspective as well as a chance to spend more time with humans they want to have lifelong relationships with.
If such worldly and renowned travelers as these have come upon the same conclusion, who am I to disagree?
Once You Know What to Do, Live At The Hub
I plan to travel sporadically in a similar manner later on, but for now I’m focused on amassing skills and resources in the hottest startup place in the world. Your self actualization HQ will differ, but for techie me, there’s no contest. It’s all about San Francisco. My life direction discovered on the road has consistently led me to startup marketing,which is just what I’m doing, in the world startup capital.
The smartest people from around the world are coming here to make things happen – every week here I meet people from every corner of the world who have come here to affect serious impact, whether through companies of their own or working with powerful global agencies. It’s intoxicating – everyone at these parties is the stranger who has created something! My conversations with them leave us both thinking, questioning, and growing personally for days afterward, which certainly doesn’t happen with any conversation I’ve had in a hostel.
So for now, I’ll be one of those hapless locals who I used to ridicule for not exploring the wide world. Though I should re-iterate: if you don’t have a life direction, travel as a vagabond. There’s no better way to live to your utmost while finding out your place in the world. As for me, I’m got a decent ideas of what that place is, both figuratively and literally.
I’m confident I’m chosen well. On that same Russia trip where I slept on coats in a commune, I remember introducing myself as hailing from Silicon Valley, and got this wide-eyed response: ‘I know that place – you are taking our best minds!’
You said it, babushka, not me.