“I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” he said with a startling flippancy. “I think I’m going to sign up for a work-abroad program and hope for the best.”
The late twenties have proven complicated for us Generation Y kiddos. What we were told, what we expected, and what we got all turned out to be completely different things. And — just in time for that quarter-life crisis — a lot of us aren’t sure where to find meaning anymore.
We wanted to find meaning in our careers, but after a string of free internships and a round of layoffs, the majority of us are just making due with whatever will pay the bills. We want to find meaning in deep, powerful relationships, but 21st century technology has made it too easy to keep every type of relationship — from the platonic to the romantic — at a pretty superficial level. We read about those who have given up the nine-to-five to start traveling the world and we can’t help but go, “That’s it. This is how I will get meaning in my life. I will travel the world.”
I hate to break it to you, but you will not gain meaning by traveling the world.
Please keep in mind that this is coming from a woman with a severe case of wanderlust. Since the moment I left my hometown, I seized every opportunity I could to visit the world. My frequent-flyer points are like gold to me. I thrive on travel plans and road trips, new cities and new experiences. I’m that type of person who sees those very articles online and checks her bank account, bemoaning the fact that she can’t just cancel everything and take a sporadic trip to Peru.
Travel is in my blood. But it doesn’t give me meaning.
It breaks my heart when I see someone I care for jet off to South Korea, or England, or Brazil — purely because they are unhappy with their lives and want to find meaning — only to meander around in their new country and return home essentially the same person, albeit with a few souvenirs. They travel to new places, but remain confined in their old way of thinking. They’ll return to their old jobs — or find a position in the exact same field — and count the days until they can “find meaning” again.
We cannot go to any new place expecting it to give us meaning. The same way we cannot go into a church and expect to feel a spiritual awakening from entering alone. The same way we cannot go into the dating world and assume that simply “finding a man/woman” will give us clarity and purpose. It would be nice if everything had this intrinsic quality, but it doesn’t.
Here is the nasty, gnarly, unfortunate truth: at the end of the day, cities are cities. Towns are towns. Countrysides are countrysides. In all places, there are roads, buildings, and a plethora of jobs that need to be done in order to keep the community going. These places will vary greatly in shape, size, and texture, but at the end of the day, it is still just ground beneath your feet. The cars might be on the opposite side of the road, but that doesn’t mean the asphalt will provide you anything on its own accord.
So what does traveling give you, if not meaning? The answer: perspective.
Go onto those roads and into those buildings. Experience the shapes, sizes, and textures. Walk down Times Square — not because there is something inherently special about Times Square, but because it differs so greatly from Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Montreal, Quebec, or Brisbane, Queensland — and take it all in. Don’t gobble up these moments like a manic collector, fervently praying to complete a set or finish a series. Take in these experiences gently, let them swirl around organically; see what resonates and what passes you by. Take in the nuances and the overt contrasts. Take it all in and recognize that perspective is not meaning, but it can help you shape it.
Meaning in our lives will not come from outside sources, even if those sources are from far outside our house. Travel can open your eyes, but it doesn’t make you better able to see. The same way a career for career’s sake, a romance for romance’s sake, a religion for religion’s sake, will not give you meaning. Meaning cannot be given, shared, sold, or traded. It is created from within. It is created from deep intro- and retrospection, understanding what makes you tick and what shuts you off, and learning all the little aspects that make you “you”. It is created when we see how we interact with the world and take a moment to contemplate why.
And, furthermore, it is created with the understanding that anything can be a catalyst for that deeper understanding. You don’t need to backpack through Europe, or do a string of work-abroad jobs, or volunteer for the Peace Corps. You don’t need to do anything that doesn’t resonate with you. You just need to step out into life with an open mind and a fearlessness to accept whatever emotions and experiences come your way. Whether that step is off of an airplane or onto a backyard porch you know by heart is irrelevant.
In short: you will not gain meaning by traveling the world. But you will gain meaning by traveling your mind.