The Case for Traveling More

Some not-career-advice for you 20-somethings.

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A couple of weeks ago, while reflecting on the ~8 months that I spent out of the country over the last year, I decided to reread Rolf Potts's Vagabonding.

And man oh man, the opening to Chapter Two is one sobering passage.

“There’s a story that comes from the tradition of the Desert Fathers, an order of Christian monks who lived in the wastelands of Egypt about seventeen hundred years ago. In the tale, a couple of monks named Theodore and Lucius shared the acute desire to go out and see the world.

Since they’d made vows of contemplation, however, this was not something they were allowed to do. So, to satiate their wanderlust, Theodore and Lucius learned to “mock their temptations” by relegating their travels to the future. When the summertime came, they said to each other, “We will leave in the winter.” When the winter came, they said, “We will leave in the summer.”

They went on like this for over fifty years, never once leaving the monastery or breaking their vows. Most of us, of course, have never taken such vows—but we choose to live like monks anyway, rooting ourselves to a home or a career and using the future as a kind of phony ritual that justifies the present. In this way, we end up spending (as Thoreau put it) “the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”

We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, we tell ourselves, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none. Settling into our lives, we get so obsessed with holding on to our domestic certainties that we forget why we desired them in the first place.

Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

We're all born with this intrinsic desire to travel and explore. As children, we learn to crawl, then walk, then run toward the world around us, but our freedom is limited to our homes and neighborhoods. Anything more, and we are at the mercy of our parents.

Then we turn 16, and a driver's license grants us our first taste of true freedom. Suddenly, we can drive anywhere that has a road. We might still ask our parents for permission, but we finally have the ability to explore.

Then we hit college, the first time that we live away from home. New places, new friends, new relationships. Besides a few classes per day, we can do whatever we want. And let's be honest, who hasn't skipped a few 9 AM lectures on Fridays? Our only limitation is our wallets.

But we don't achieve true, unadulterated freedom until we graduate from college. Armed with a sheet of paper that shows that we are employable, we emerge from our alma maters with a world of opportunity before us.

No longer living at home. No longer constrained by class schedules. We can, for the first time, literally do anything that we want.

And then this peculiar thing happens. We don't do whatever we want.

After spending 22 years preparing for this moment of unbounded freedom, we spend the next 40 years squandering this freedom making money that we don't need to buy stuff that we don't want to impress people that we don't care about to maybe, if we are lucky, spend our excess cash in retirement when it is least valuable to us because of our limited energy.

Of course, we don't plan to spend our lives in this fashion. Like the Desert Fathers in Vagabonding, we are victims of our own deception. We spend a lifetime lying to ourselves.

When we graduate from college, that explorer within us is ecstatic. After 22 years, he can finally break free from his cage to go see the world. He doesn't care where he goes, so long as he goes. He doesn't care what he sees, so long as he sees. The explorer has no goal other than exploration itself.

"But wait!" We tell him. "We can't explore just yet, it's too risky. If we don't lay the foundation for our career right now, when will we? If we fall behind early, we will never catch up."

"But I've waited 22 years?" replies that voice in our head.

So we rationalize. We negotiate.

"Soon," we tell him. "Let's make some money and build some momentum first."

And then we all apply for the same jobs in the same industries with the same companies, where we do the same tasks, even if they have different names. We have the same conversations with friends and strangers alike. "How's your week going?" "What do you do for a living?" "Long day in the office?"

One year goes by, then another. We get better at these tasks, and we make more money. Now we're 24, and we're applying for new jobs. More money, more responsibilities. And that explorer inside us speaks up again.

"We have saved up some money, and we're looking for new jobs! Why not take some time off to explore?"

"Not yet!" we reply. "We can't risk missing this opportunity. This new potential job pays too well. It will look too good on our resume to pass up. Once we get this under our belt, then we'll have time."

And another year goes by. And another. And another.

Now we're 27, and we're looking for another job. Or we want to move to another city. Or really any number of things. And that explorer inside us is begging to be let out. To go explore. And once again, for some reason or another, it's too risky. The timing isn't right.

This cycle continues for the rest of our lives.

We continue to do what we're supposed to do. We follow the well-worn paths. The stable paths. The safe paths. Always avoiding unnecessary risks, always taking the next logical step.

Why do we do this? Because it's too risky to do anything else, obviously. Of course, we never stop to think about what that "risk" is, because we don't know what that risk is. Deviating from well-trodden ground feels uncomfortable. It feels wrong. Therefore it must be risky.

I'm going to let you in on a secret: that "risk" that you are avoiding? It isn't actually risk. It's simply the unknown.

The real risk is starving your life of experiences to pursue some arbitrary path that you might not even care about in the first place.

I do find it funny that we believe travel will somehow ruin our resumes or hinder our professional development. Do you seriously think a few months abroad will derail your career?

In his 20s, Steve Jobs spent months seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. After college, Jim Simons tried to ride a moped from Boston to Buenos Aires (though he only made it to Bogotá). At age 25, Phil Knight embarked on a year-long trip around the world.

How unfortunate that Jobs, Simons, and Knight decided to spend time traveling in their youth. That must be why none of them achieved meaningful success.

Taking a few months to see the world won't hinder your career, but never taking time to explore will starve your soul.

In an era where travel is both cheap and convenient, a refusal to venture beyond your geographic boundaries is a declaration that you believe what you are currently doing is more valuable and enriching than engaging with the experiences and perspectives of ~8 billion other people.

And unless you are curing cancer, I doubt your current activities are more valuable than, say, building Apple.

I grew up in Tifton, Georgia, I went to school in Macon, Georgia, and I later moved to Atlanta, Georgia, meaning that I have spent the first 25 years of my life living in Georgia.

The state of Georgia has a population of 10.52 million people, and there are ~8 billion people on our planet. This means that I have spent the vast majority of my time in a place that holds just 0.13% of the world's population.

Could you imagine having access to a library with thousands of books, and only rereading the same one over and over again? And yet, we do this every day.

Spending a few months in Peru and Bolivia won't make you a corporate pariah, but spending your entire life in one place will certainly make you culturally illiterate.

12,000 years ago, we roamed the plains of North America, Africa, and Mesopotamia with no knowledge of other lands. 2,000 years ago, "travel" was reserved for diplomats, military officials, and emissaries. 500 years ago, we had just discovered the western hemisphere. 200 years ago, it took months of travel, in which we risked death and disease, to reach the more remote parts of our world. As recently as 100 years ago, it took 40 days to travel from London to Sydney.

Considering that for the first time in human history, we can fly anywhere on the planet in under 24 hours for $1,000, we are doing ourselves a disservice by not taking advantage of our fortuitous circumstances.

And yes, for $1,000 you can fly pretty much anywhere on the planet right now. Here are the prices of a few flights leaving from Atlanta on September 19th.

  • $680 to Cape Town

  • $931 to Sydney

  • $553 (nonstop) to Buenos Aires (I might actually book this, Argentina is awesome)

  • $490 to Athens (Greece, not Georgia)

  • $301 to Reykjavik

  • $748 to Bangkok

  • $623 to Nairobi

  • $980 to Tokyo

  • $495 to Mumbai

  • $855 to Baghdad

  • $640 to Mount Kilimanjaro

  • $561 to Casablanca

  • $878 to Svalbard, an island that is literally 650 miles from the North Pole and has more polar bears than humans

The real risk, the actual illogical decision, the truly ignorant take, is looking at a globe, realizing that for the first in human history this entire sphere is within your grasp, and despite this realization, leaning back in your chair and thinking, "Nah, I'm good," before spending the next five hours months years ensuring that every slide in your deck is Calibri, not Arial.

Pardon my French, but that sounds incredibly "mid."

So yes, I do think everyone needs to travel.

However, you shouldn't travel simply because you can, just like you shouldn't buy seven televisions on Prime Day just because they are 50% off.

You should travel because of how much it will enrich your life.

Most Eureka! moments occur when you least expect them, and they come from surprising sources. My best ideas rarely hit me when I sit down to write. They strike when I'm driving around, when I'm at the gym, or when I'm watching a movie. Suddenly, a few different experiences, recent articles, or random observations combine to form a novel idea in my brain.

Quality ideas are generated by a breadth and depth of quality inputs, and few inputs are better than experiences. The simple acts of visiting places that you wouldn't normally visit, meeting people you wouldn't normally meet, doing things you wouldn't normally do, and seeing things that you wouldn't normally see serve as great source material.

Where you go, who you meet, what you do, and what you see are less important than simply going, meeting, doing, and seeing.

So why the emphasis on traveling early? The first, most obvious reason is inertia. The longer you put something off, whether that "something" is getting in shape, learning an instrument, practicing a foreign language, or taking a trip abroad, the less likely you will ever do it at all.

Early action stops inertia before it can take root.

But the second reason is the inequality of time.

Travel isn't a luxury reserved for the young, but a certain type of travel is only available while you are young. Objectively, three months is the same length of time at 25 as it is at 65. But what you can do in with those three months at 25 is far different from what you can do with the same time at 65.

The cheap, adventurous, adrenaline rush travel that you experience when you are hopping from country to country by bus and train, where strangers become friends in a matter of hours, where luxury is frowned upon because it detracts from the travel experience? The opportunity for that experience isn't around for long.

Meeting some other backpackers on a Thursday, becoming best friends by Saturday, and dropping your plans to roll with them for a few weeks? The window for these adventures is shorter than you think.

5 dudes that met in random towns in Europe, decided to rent a car together and cruise around for two weeks.

As you get older, the travel experience shifts. Those youthful adventures aren't an option when you are 45 with a couple of kids. And while you technically "can" hop around different hostels as a 45-year-old dude, it's just plain weird. It's like being 20 years older than everyone else at the club. Those fresh-out-of-college 22-year-olds don't want to run with someone their dad's age. Just stop it.

Travel becomes more domesticated, planned, and family-friendly. And there's nothing wrong with this! Assuming I have kids, I plan on taking them all over the place. But it won't be the same trips that I took in my 20s. And if you forego those experiences in your 20s, you can't get them back. Father Time doesn't provide any exchanges.

When you reach retirement age, you may have the time to travel freely, but you won't have the energy to get out there and vagabond around. Check out the retirement cruises in Barcelona, Lisbon, Athens, or any other coastal city in the summer, and you'll see what I mean. Days spent on a luxury cruise, a few hours hitting the tourist hubs in the port towns, then back to the boat for the next stop.

Plus, most foreign countries aren't exactly mobility-friendly. Steep hills and cobblestone streets only grow harder to navigate with age.

That "adventure" that you are delaying to some undefined time in the future? It's not going to be there. Either seize it now or watch it disappear forever.

That job you are shackled to, believe it or not, will always be there. And if not, another one will appear. That's how jobs work.

Of course, the primary justification for not traveling when you're young is, "Well yeah I'd travel, but I'm poor." Obviously, you won't have as much money at 23 as you will at 53. But travel isn't expensive.

I met a couple of guys fresh out of college at a hostel in Sevilla, Spain a few months ago.

These guys were on a first-team all-poverty Europe trip, and they were loving every second of it. Only staying in hostels that were $20 per night or less. Sleeping on overnight trains instead of booking lodging on travel days. Strict diets of self-cooked meals, kebabs, and gyros.

They traveled for two months on no more than $2,000 each, hitting Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and they had a blast.

I lived in an Airbnb in Buenos Aires for two months on a $3,000 budget, which included a roundtrip flight back to the States.

You can fly roundtrip to Bangkok for $900 next month and spend $6 per night on lodging for seven weeks.

Considering that you can easily blow $200 on a weekend out in any mid-sized US city, saving a couple of grand over a few months isn't a huge ask.

When you're traveling young, everything is an adventure. You don't need a plan. You can mess up. You'll do a lot of stupid stuff, meet a lot of fascinating people, and gain a lot of cool stories that lead to better conversation topics than "How's your week going?" "What do you do for a living?" "Long day in the office?"

I've never met anyone who regretted traveling in their youth, but man, I've met plenty of people who regretted not getting out there.

I agree with Thoreau: It is insane that we have normalized spending the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.

The decision to travel won't make or break or break your career. Therefore, the deciding factor should be "which path creates the best experiences?" not "which path is the least risky?"

Besides, the avoidance of risk doesn't guarantee success. It just guarantees that you'll never take any risks.

Sounds a bit boring, doesn't it?

- Jack

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Jack's Picks

  • Considering this was a travel-centered post, I wanted to link the travel blog that I've been writing for the last year. I've spent most of the last year out of the country, so it might give you an idea or three.

  • Kyla Scanlon has been writing a fantastic Recession series, check out one of her recent pieces here. Her other articles are linked at the top of this one. 

  • Loved Nick Maggiulli's recent article on the prevalence of "market forecasters". Check it out here.

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