The truth is, I never planned to travel to a certain number of countries before the age of 25, it just sort of happened (I’m 24 now). I’ve been incredibly blessed and privileged to have had these opportunities to explore our beautiful world. Although I’ve learned the following 10 lessons primarily from my travels, I hope they are enlightening, helpful, and useful to you not only when traveling, but in your daily life as well.
1 . Smiling at someone can literally change your life.
This one is quite simple and anyone can do it, as the smile is one of the universal languages of our world. When you’ve arrived to a new place, especially as a solo traveler, and someone smiles at you in passing, it is a tremendous welcome. But not only does it welcome you, it immediately begins shaping the rest of your experiences in that place. On the flip side, when you smile at locals as a perpetual foreigner in a new place, it illustrates respect and gratitude. You can try this out right now if you like; look up, find the closest person to you, and smile at them. Whether smiling at someone in your hometown, a guest in your community, or the woman at immigration who’s having a bad day, a little bit truly goes further than you can imagine. And as you cultivate this skill and belief, you will begin to uncover its power.
2 . Learn from the kids on the soccer field.
Bask in the joy of the kids running around a dirt field with a worn out ball, learning a lesson in materialism and its relation to happiness. Observe the man cooking street food next to your hostel, setting up his cart and meticulously preparing a local favorite, gaining perspective on hard work and opportunity. Converse with the Dutch woman at your hostel about the adventure she had in Tunisia that changed her opinion of European politics. Everybody can teach you something, but the lesson doesn’t always come in a direct, apparent way. From conversation and linguistic expression to observation and consideration, lessons are everywhere and everyone is always teaching. Open your eyes, your heart, your soul to this, and you will feel illuminated in all that you learn.
3 . Don’t just go there. Be there.
This one is quite straightforward, but it bears saying: to live fully, focus on living in every moment. The mind has a tendency to wander and take circuitous routes to thoughts that are not applicable to the moment you’re in. When I find myself out of the moment, I try to slow down and focus on my breath. While doing so I recognize the moment that I am in and express gratitude. Life is but a collection of moments and every moment is impermanent. Do your best to be present in each one and fully enjoy it.
4 . Everybody has kindness to share.
Our society at large unfortunately tends to cultivate individuals that close themselves off by going about their daily business with blinders on. This causes people who need help to not ask for it out of fear or shame. Connection is an innate human desire and yet we live in a world in which most individuals tend to ‘stay in their own lane.’ This is by no means how it has to be. To break through, you must open yourself to receiving kindness from others. The best way I know to do this is simply to trust people. Now, I am by no means advocating for jumping in the cab of the first driver that hollers when you leave the airport who may be trying to get a higher-than-normal price. Instead, you should be unafraid to reach out, be unafraid to ask for help, and when that help comes, accept it graciously and with gratitude. I’ve had so many adventures that began with a tiny, by-chance meeting and ended in beautiful experiences. Trust in others, and watch your wealth in experiences compound.
5 . Anxiety won’t make the taxi go faster.
I’ve been extremely late to flights before. Telling the taxi driver to hurry as beads of sweat drip down my cheek, feeling swells of regret about what I did before that I could have cut short, fearing what I may have to do if I do miss the flight, etc. But these worries, which feel devastating in the moment, are almost always unfounded. Worrying doesn’t make the driver go faster or make the time change, it only causes unnecessary anxiety. And when things have ‘worked out’ and the anxiety dissipates, this lesson makes itself apparent once again. Really learn it. Have you ever felt anxious about asking for directions or ordering food? Identifying anxiety gaining momentum is the first step towards quelling it. And in those moments, be mindful of the reality of the situation. Refuse to let worry and anxiety disrupt your enjoyment of each moment.
6. The view may be nice, but the people are better.
Whether you stay in one place for 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months, always do your best to connect with locals. It is not always easy, but it is always worth it. When you visit a new place, do your best to not insulate yourself with things that you are used to (ie people, foods, etc) as this will stymie how genuine and impactful your experience is. Instead of putting up or keeping up barriers, be a guest to an unknown place and relentlessly break down those barriers. Your future self will thank you.
7. You can’t blame the actions of a government on its people nor let it fully represent them.
Our governments and leaders represent us to some capacity (this is especially hard for me to acknowledge as a U.S. citizen with Inauguration Day around the corner). However, while an understanding of geopolitics is important, you must be able to distinguish between actions made on behalf of an individual and the actions of the individual themself. Harboring contempt for others based on information consumed from afar (ie watching news about X country from your couch in Y U.S. state) is not only dangerous, but also easy to do. Be mindful of narratives that get elicited, whether from your country to others or from other countries to you. These narratives and perceived understandings confine individuality and hinder the ability to connect. Realize the bigger forces at play in our globalized world and always seek to connect with an individual, not a country, institution, organization, or idea.
8. You will never know what chicken feet tastes like unless you put it in your mouth.
Another relatively straightforward lesson here, but one that is also powerful beyond measure and applicable to so much in this life. You really never know unless you try. You will never know if that car would have picked you up as a hitchhiker and led to a serendipitous adventure with a new friend unless you stick out your thumb. You will never know if you could have joined that table of locals to enjoy a meal unless you introduce yourself. Some of my greatest adventures have begun with the smallest bout of courage being realized in an action. Try, and try, and try again. This lesson also has overlap with lesson #4.
9. The time is always right now.
I may have learned this lesson originally when I focused on travel lifestyle design. Although, like all these lessons, is applicable to life in general. The point is this: You won’t progress in that book you’ve been meaning to read unless you prioritize and open its pages. You won’t get your online business off the ground unless you prioritize and get it done. You won’t start sharing what you’ve learned with others on a blog unless you express it in written prose and hit ‘publish’.
10. The beauty you see in that sunset or World Wonder is shaped in large part by the things surrounding it in your own life.
In other words, when you are happy, thriving, confident etc, the way you perceive that sunset is enhanced, even shaped by that. And it is made that much more beautiful. One of the major takeaways for this lesson is to have a holistic approach to life, well-being, and livelihood. There may be some who are unhappy in their daily life that think flipping the travel switch will be a panacea to what plagues them. Simply traveling isn’t enough to make you happy. It is, however, a time to be malleable and allow yourself to discover and nurture your true passions. This, of course, is beautiful in and of itself.
Bonus — Always keep a roll of toilet paper in your bag!
That $h!t will come in handy.