Recently I had the chance to ask a friend why she travels. In listening to her answer I also started asking myself that question. The urge to travel underlies all of the lifestyle changes I’m making. I feel almost tangibly drawn to it, the kind of feeling that makes people believe in destiny. But I’m not a big fan of destiny, so…
Why do I want to go?
A Mathematician, a Monk and a Jew Go for a Walk
I’ve always looked up to Pythagoras. He’s the best kind of person to look up to, because we know so little about him that he can be whatever you want him to be. He can be that guy who taught that the universe runs on precise, measurable principles. You know, physics. Or he can be that guy who thought numbers could predict the future. Or that meditation lets us hear the sound of the planets turning. He might not have taught any of those things… but we know just enough about him that you can get away with any of them (or whatever else).
One of the few things we know for sure is that he traveled. At the very least he moved from his home in Samos about 300 miles to southern Italy. Beyond that he may have traveled as widely as Gaul in the north and Egypt in the south.
And this is when it struck me: Pythagoras wasn’t just a traveler + philosopher. He didn’t travel and also found a religion. He traveled and then founded a religion. What he learned on his travels became the basis for founding an entire movement.
I began to run through the other great religious founders of history. They have widely different backgrounds, from the wealthiest nobility (Buddha) to the poorest proletariat (Jesus). But I can’t think of a major religious founder who didn’t travel extensively. Can you?
What Travel Does
People who travel extensively gain a whole range of experiences that just don’t happen when staying put. These experiences shape the human mind and lead to a very unique perspective. Like what? Well, for starters…
- Those who travel must overcome social phobias. It can be daunting to talk to a stranger, but if you don’t know where to find food or the way back to your room, you have to. This can lead to social bravery where striking up conversation is effortless and normal. Obviously, some people will get more mileage than others, but anyone alone in a foreign land has to talk to strangers.
- Spider Senses. Travelers have to be better judges of character than locals. Travelers are natural marks and quickly learn to protect their money and themselves. Those who don’t learn quit and go home. The long-term traveler however not only picks up on local custom, but pays attention to body language. They listen to their hunches. And generally, it pays off.
- Traveling means self-reliance. When you’re in your hometown, you always have something to lean on. Even without family or friends around, decisions are made for you. You already know (or think you know) where to go for the best food, the best day off, the best route to take. When traveling you have to step up and actively seek out the things you want. There’s no other option (except failure, I suppose). You often end up finding more goodies than any given local because you constantly seek them out. This step-up-and-do attitude translates nicely to effective decisions during emergencies or hard times.
- Traveling means relying on others. That may seem to conflict with self-reliance, but really it’s just the end result of everything above. Once you have social bravery and know who not to trust, you can put those skills to work by talking to people who are trustworthy and relying on their advice. When you’re asking everyone you meet for their recommendation on the best bar, suddenly you contain the collective drinking knowledge of 40 or 50 locals. That’s better than most guidebooks!
Any of these benefits on its own is a nice skill to have. But taken together, we have a picture of a person who can talk easily with strangers, has seemingly precognitive knowledge of bad things and bad people, can handle almost any situation quickly and effectively, and seems to have more knowledge than any couple dozen people put together, on any topic that happens to come up.
Sounds a lot like Confucius. Or the Dalai Lama. Or Keewaydinoquay.
So How to Start?
That may seem like a big order to fill, but those traits tend to develop naturally just from an itinerant lifestyle. At the same time it’s possible to cultivate them, which is a good idea as one gears up for traveling—after all, it’s better to hone your “who to trust” instincts before running into trouble, than after.
In my next post I’ll outline some of the methods I’m using to help develop these traits ahead of my Great Adventure, and then go over what is working and what isn’t. In the meantime, tell me a story. How has travel changed your own perspective? How has it honed you, or made you stronger? If you have a tale, tell it!
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