Photo: Anh Phan
1. Having a plan vs. having a vision
Before traveling, I used to worry about not having a “five-year plan” as many of my career-driven friends seemed to have. I knew I wanted to write, travel, teach and do work that created social change, but I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t know what job position to aim for, what graduate degree to pursue, what specific city to settle down in and find the resources and connections I may need to accomplish what I wanted.
But on my last month of traveling, I heard this piece of advice from someone I met:
“Decide what is your overarching vision for your life, the big-picture goal. Then, just plan the next three months. Don’t worry too much about the rest.”
During the following years, his advice was spot on. I realized I already had my overarching vision — writing, travel, education, social change — and that ended up being more than enough to guide me. I used that vision to plan my next three months in advance, and usually by the end of that period, something unexpected came along anyway that altered my options and affected my decision-making. Curiously, these opportunities, though unplanned, often aligned with my vision far more than I could have even planned for.
Turns out, there wasn’t a pressing need to lock down the specific details of my dreams. The external details matter far less than my internal values, and I’m learning to allow those to lead the way.
2. Being lonely vs. being alone
I wrote about this distinction in another piece, where I mentioned, “Throughout all my life, it is useful to remind myself that there are times when I’m all by myself, and yet not lonely. And, there are times I’m surrounded by people, and I am. In reality, loneliness has little to do with how much company I have, and so much more to do with what kind of company I have. And, it also has to do with the kind of company I can create by myself.”
Nothing taught me this better than traveling. While traveling, I spent the longest time I had ever spent away from friends and family. Yet throughout that time, I felt the least lonely. I was so often surrounded by nourishing experiences and genuine conversation that even in my moments of solitude, I felt connected to the world around me. That successfully staved off loneliness, far more than simply not “being alone.”
Traveling also taught me that by embracing my aloneness, I become better company when I’m again around the people I love. As one of my favorite writers Bell Hooks wrote: “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”
3. Everyone else’s paradise vs. my paradise
In the world of Instagram and travel porn, it’s way too easy to get caught up in other people’s ideas of paradise. We think someone standing in a breathtaking location around the world must be “living the dream.” But after traveling for so long, I heard enough stories to prove this is definitely not the case. One traveler told me she hated the Galapagos, calling it “a beautiful place with no soul.” One traveler told me she simply could not enjoy Rio de Janeiro because of the stark contrasts between the rich and poor.
No experience is built solely by its objective, outward beauty. On its own, a place of “paradise” is nothing. It needs a person’s unique set of experiences and state of mind to make it what it is.
4. Collecting experiences vs. gaining joy from them
Writer Pam Houston illustrated this distinction when she described travelers she had often met while on the road: “They had a vacant hollow look about them, like they are nothing more than the list of adventures they’ve collected.” The more I traveled, the more I met travelers who fit this description, and the more I wanted to ensure that I didn’t fall into the same trap.
Travel has allowed me to collect amazing feelings, experiences, adventures. But after a while, to find joy in those experiences required me to build something meaningful from them, whether it was a meaningful relationship or a meaningful piece of work. That kind of joy, of course, is much harder and rarer to find, but far more fulfilling when I did.