“The day that changed my life happened when I was 23. I was sitting in a bar after backpacking through Europe for five weeks following my graduation from college. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had just backpacked for five whole weeks on a different continent, halfway across the world! At that time, an Australian man and I got to talking. I asked him how much longer he was planning to travel. ‘Oh, about six more months’, the man said. I was shocked, but I pressed on. ‘How long have you been traveling?’ I asked him. ‘about a year.’ I was flabbergasted, and it was at that point I knew that there was much more to see, and that I didn’t want to miss it.”
An American man told me this story as we strolled through the enclosed garden of Butterfly Park where I currently reside. He was living in Paris and on holiday in Laos with his family. His twelve year old daughter had already been to 21 countries and they weren’t anywhere near done with South East Asia.
If your travel long enough, spend enough time in hostels and among communities of regular travelers. I think you’re destined to have one of these moments sooner or later. You start to grow impressed with yourself, with all the experiences that you have, all the good stories you can tell. And then someone comes along and they absolutely astonish you with the scope of their experience.
I’ve had a few instances such as this. In Jefferies Bay, South Africa, I met a Japanese man who had biked his way all the way from Cairo to Cape Town. There was the man trying to reach every country in the world without flying; the 23 year old Nepalese mountain guide, with formal culinary training, who had summited Everest twice and used his money in the off seasons to travel to over 20 countries, including recently visiting Kabul for fun. And maybe even more impressively there is the couple who are currently hosting me, who, after traveling the world together, quit their work as the owner of a design company, and an art therapist at a juvenile detention center, sold all of their possessions and moved to Laos to create the beautiful butterfly garden where I’ll be until the end of the month. They work hard seven days a week to ensure the success of their dream, and now have a new baby boy who will grow up here.
If that seems unconscionable to you. You aren’t alone. My hosts, and all of the people in these examples did something that few people would do. They took big risks. Risks that, at the time, seemed incredible. Risks that many of their friends and family didn’t understand. But the thing about putting everything out on the line, whether climbing a cliff, throwing yourself into a country where you can’t even read the language, starting a new business, is that when success is your only viable option, you start to think that way and to perform that way. You adapt to thinking of success as a lifestyle, as the air you breath and the water you drink. A situation where “there’s no turning back” inevitably forces you to move forward, to be more flexible, and to problem solve. You begin to take things day-by-day, and live more in the present.
It is in those situations where my distractible mind has always found serenity: coursing down a hill dodging trees and rocks on a mountain bike, wandering through a city where you don’t speak the language while carrying your whole life on your back, sailing through a storm, climbing up a cliff without a harness, trying to converse with someone who doesn’t share a system of communication with you, or managing your emotions and controlling the chaos on a busy day in an emergency department. Personally, It is these moments of risk that demand my full attention, pull me away from distraction, and ultimately center my mind.
That’s not to say that one should be reckless. If you jump out of an airplane you should have a parachute. You should have put some thought into your leap. Preparation is absolutely in order, not just for the hypothetical skydiver, but in all the situations I have listed. It’s part of the story, the compressed spring before the launch. But the fulfilling part of the story is to watch the preparation all come together to carry you beyond what you ever thought you’d accomplish. That doesn’t happen if you never take the chance.
This is, at least, how I have come to view the world and think about my own decisions. Maybe this resonates with you, maybe it doesn’t. Not everyone needs to be a thrill seeker to feel fulfilled. And that’s okay. But I have to say after the last year of travel, new experiences, I think that you should definitely give it a try.