Around four years ago today, I was sitting in an office, staring out the window, dreaming of travel. I’d finished university a few years earlier and instead of continuing to chase my passions, I had stayed put. I was trapped like a deer in the headlights of life. Paralysed and unable to do anything.
My friends all seemed to have gone on to better things. But me? I still lived with my parents, moving between menial jobs, doing not a lot of anything. Just sitting in an office day-by-day. Staring out that window. Dreaming.
Always my dreams turned to travel. Adventure, excitement. I would get depressed at work wondering about why I wasn’t on a beach instead. Or standing at the top of a mountain.
I was fooling myself. I didn’t want adventure. I wanted to escape. To get out of the dull hole that had become my life. So I booked a one-way ticket to Canada and soon found myself on a working holiday.
In the weeks before leaving, a lot of co-workers, friends, and family started to fill my head with doubts. You’re going away to another country by yourself? How are you going to survive!? How will you manage? I didn’t know the answers. But I felt like I was barely surviving in England, so leaving didn’t faze me. My life was about to change for the better. It had happened to so many others. Travel had changed their lives. It would change mine too. This was the start of my own inspiring story. Maybe in a few years I’d turn it into a book, then a movie would follow.
One Year Later
Exactly one year later I was in Canada. Sitting in an office much like the one I’d left behind. Staring out of another window. Wondering what had happened with my inspiring travel story. I still had a job I didn’t enjoy, most of my time was spent doing things I didn’t care about. Still, now I had a counter-argument to these woes. They didn’t matter because I was travelling. I was having an adventure. That was enough.
I reasoned that working a job I didn’t love was worth the sacrifice. I was living in a new place, had good friends, eating in amazing restaurants, enjoying myself. I was gaining confidence and self-belief. Something I’d never managed back home. For once I was free to do whatever I wanted, free from the expectations of others.
Two and a Half Years Later
Skip forward to now. I’ve done a few more menial jobs I’ve disliked. Lived in a couple more countries. Recently arriving in Australia.
When I arrived here, I was plunged into crisis mode. I could see my year and life before me. I’d find another menial job, which I’d work for 40 hours a week, maybe explore some of Australia. Do that for a year. Go home, then probably fall back into the same dull routine. I came to the realisation that despite travelling, I’m no happier than when I had left England. In four years, I’ve learnt a lot, but nothing that’s directly had an impact on my problems or life.
Many seem to think that travel is the cure-all answer to every problem. That by travelling, we will be starting our own inspirational story. That’s how I felt before leaving. I thought I would find myself. That I would be so completely changed by travel that every problem I had would be erased. But most problems I had at home remain with me still. I still have little self-belief, still experience anxiety and depression and I’m still at a loss as to what I’m doing a lot of the time. Still stuck in those headlights of life.
After almost four years of travel, I finally realise that when I left to travel, it wasn’t to solve my problems but to run away from them.
Will Travel Solve Your Problems?
A lot of us fall into the trap of thinking travel will solve our problems. But some problems can only be solved by tackling them head on. Travel won’t make you any happier if it doesn’t change anything that relates to your problems.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine that your goal in life is to become an alpaca farmer. You’re stuck in a dead end job at home, not an alpaca in sight. You’re depressed and think you’ll never own that farm. You don’t think you’re even good enough to do it, you don’t have it in you. You know it’ll be a lot of hard work.
You’ve seen all these articles online about travel and how it lead to so much happiness and wish fulfilment for others. Plus it’s so easy. All you need to do is leave. Pretty soon you’re also thinking that travel will make you happy and fulfil your dreams. So you go away and travel and you have a great time.
But if your travels take you no closer to that goal of being the world’s best alpaca farmer then your problems won’t be solved. Travel long enough and the excitement will leave you. You’ll start to dream of alpacas and you’ll be unsatisfied again. Sure you’re travelling, but that’s not really your passion.
Travel is so intense that it can dazzle you for months or even years. You’re experiencing so many new things that you’re constantly in the now. The future doesn’t matter when you’re bungee jumping off an elephant. But soon things settle down and when you get time to think, your mind will soon drift back to that farm.
Travel becomes that menial job, the world becomes your office. You find yourself staring longingly outwards. Dreaming of alpacas.
That’s not to say your travel has been wasted. Maybe it will just show you what you’ve always known anyway. That you really need to focus on the alpaca problem. (Really starting to regret using alpacas as the example now as I have to keep typing it so much. Alpaca, alpaca, alpaca.) Maybe it will give you enough confidence to follow that alpaca dream.
But if you already know what your problems are, you don’t need to travel to solve them. Travel may not even help!
The Positive Benefits of Travel
This isn’t to say that travel isn’t completely therapeutic. Travelling around alone can be great.
Many of us spend our whole lives on set paths that are more or less planned. We go to school, university, have the family and kids. We never leave this path or our bubble. We’re constantly surrounded by others, their opinions and expectations.
By travelling, you can get off that path for a bit. For the first time in your life, there is no real plan and nobody else around us to influence our decisions. It’s just us and nobody else. We have to rely on ourselves. Become completely independent. For once you will be truly alone and this can help you to learn more about your limits and needs. But will it make you an alpaca farmer? I’m not so sure.
Travel can solve some problems. Maybe your only problem is that you lack confidence or you’re socially anxious. Travel can help you to overcome these things. Maybe there’s a skill or something about yourself that you want to improve and maybe travel can help with that. Being in new places can push you to your limits and really test you. But I’m not sure it can help too much when it comes to those deep existential problems.
A lot of travel bloggers would say otherwise of course. I don’t doubt that many of them did leave their 9 to 5 jobs and are happy with their travelling lives. But maybe they had no problems to begin with. The only problem they ever had was that they weren’t travelling. So travel did solve their problems. That isn’t the same as it solving all problems.
We shouldn’t expect that everybody will feel the same due to a small set of people. There’s plenty of fashion bloggers out there, who love clothing, but I don’t think many of us are racing to join them. Although nobody claims fashion as a cure-all solution to life’s problems.
Quitting Your Job to Scoop Ice Cream
One story that has been making the rounds recently is about a woman who quit her $95,000 a year job to scoop ice cream on a tropical island. Many have been inspired by her story, but I scoff in their direction. Okay, it is inspiring, I’ll admit it. The woman took a big risk and made a huge change. Something most of us would be too scared to do.
At the same time though, I think people are romanticising her story. We see this woman’s now perfect, simple life. Scooping ice cream on a tropical island. Watching beautiful sunsets every night. Sleeping in a hammock and sipping cocktails from a coconut. We can see ourselves wanting the same, especially when we compare it to our own lives. Sitting in an office all day, staring out the window hoping for more. She’s escaped that life. That’s inspiring to us. We think her life sounds perfect.
But it’s not perfect. We’re not looking at the reality. After six months of ice cream scooping, I would be ready to kill myself – as would most of us. I’d be thinking, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” It sounds cool, but how many of us would actually be satisfied with scooping ice cream for a living, regardless of where we were? If we’re not happy at home working menial jobs what makes us think that would change because we’re in a sunny locale with a beach?
I’m sure it worked for her because for once in her life she was alone without expectations. If she’d have become an ice cream scooper in New York, she would have been miserable. All her friends would be thinking she was crazy. She had a good job now she’s scooping ice cream? She’d probably get depressed just from the shame of it.
But moving to a tropical island to do it is easier. Nobody around to judge you. The only person you know is you, so you set your own expectations. Ice cream scooping is nothing to embarrass you as nobody is embarrassed for you. Everybody you know is so far away that they see your life through a lens. Woah, she’s on a tropical island selling ice cream. Her life is a dream.
This tropical dream could be a nightmare though. Stuck on an island thousands of miles from our friends and family. Still working in a low-waged job where we can barely afford to live. Our creature comforts gone. We’d all be satisfied for a year or two, but eventually we’d start to question our existence. Because again our surroundings have changed but we haven’t. Our problems aren’t solved just put to the background for a bit. Travel for many is a short term solution to a long term problem.
The narrative of travelling to solve our woes sells newspapers though, so we’ll keep on hearing it and keep on believing it. Just remember, that doesn’t make it true. If you already know your problems, you don’t need travel to solve them. You can tackle them head on at home. Maybe you do need to get away from your surroundings, family and friends to help. But if you travel they’ll still be there when you get back, along with all your problems.
Wouldn’t it be smarter in this case to just move to another city? Start fresh. Become the person you want to be. Free yourself of expectation. Gain confidence, do the things you want to do. And perhaps finally buy that alpaca farm?