“Not all those who wander are lost” is a classic quote coined by J.R.R. Tolkien and is the adopted motto of many wanderlusters as they journey across the world. I’ve seen the quote splashed across Facebook cover photos and tweeted out on social media countless times.
A perpetual favorite of travelers, the quote glamorizes those who make the bold decision to drop “regular life” and wander the world long term, often with very few plans beyond a week, making decisions on the whim. For many of these travelers, they are wandering the world not only to experience it, but also to step onto the path of self-discovery. The wandering is supposed to help them understand themselves better and gives them a sense of purpose. They may be spontaneous on their trip and not know what their destination in the next day is, but they’re not lost because the journey is the destination. To wander is the objective.
I left NYC in January of 2014 because I had felt really lost in the City in the 2.5 years since I graduated from college, having no real life goals and frankly, nothing to look forward to besides partying on the weekends. I had set off on the trip really without anything except for a desire to escape. Publicly, I told my parents and friends I had a plan, to travel for 6 months, learn to code on the road, and that I’d go back to grad school in the fall. However the plan was more to alleviate their concerns of me “not having a plan”. There was no plan.
Like many long term solo travelers, though, I did embrace the motto and planned to wander. I thought that taking a long-term trip and thrusting myself in foreign environments was the stimulus I needed that will help me figure out my life’s directions. After all, so many travel bloggers I followed say they found their purpose after traveling (…maybe because they became successful travel bloggers).
In reality, in the first months of my wandering, I made zero progress on “figuring myself out”. I felt just as lost and nervous about my future as ever and just blocked my brain from thinking about it as I set off to my next destination.
The longer I traveled, the more I became skeptical of the quote. Backpacking across South America, I met long-term travelers daily in the hostels. There were people from all walks of life, from 18-year-olds taking gap years, to 20-somethings on career breaks, to 40-year-olds that decided to finally see the world. Everyone had dropped everything in their homes in favor of a life of travel, and most were “figuring out their next step”. The daily activities of my fellow backpackers were generally as follows: wake up in the morning before 10am (because that’s when the free breakfast is, unless you’re hungover), do some tourism around the city/go to the beach, cook food, stare at phone/talk to people in the lounge, go out and drink, then sleep. Rinse and repeat for a couple days, change city.
Our conversations revolved around our travels, three basic questions you ask everyone “where are you from?”, “how long are you traveling for?” and “where are you going next?” On the road, the one who has traveled the longest and has been to the most countries, with the most epic stories, is the coolest person in the hostel. It’s funny that in different environments different bubbles exist and people brag about different things – in NYC, it’s how much money you make; in SF, it’s how well your startup is doing; in DC it’s how powerful you are. In your travels, you brag about how well-traveled you are. Those that elicit envy are those who have traveled the most, creating a travel bubble of thinking that that is what matters in life.
However, switching gears, if I ever dare to ask people what they want to do at the end of the road when they end their travels, the answer usually was “… I don’t know, maybe I’ll just postpone my flight and keep traveling…” When I asked people “what have you learned on your travels?” often I was met with blank stares and stumbled answers.
The more I spoke to travelers and observed their behaviors, the more disillusioned I became about the trend of “traveling as a way to find oneself”. It seemed to me like traveling for many was a way to put off that decision of what make of your life. More than once I felt that most of those backpackers were really lost, probably more lost than I was.
They say that you are the average of people you surround yourself with. In the end backpackers were not the type of people I wanted to be around in order to become enlightened and inspired about my life path. People’s spirit of adventure to continue traveling and plunging into exotic locales was very motivational for me to continue to travel alone, but ultimately being in that kind of environment was not helpful for me. I felt like the only good that came out of talking to them was the strong feeling that I did not want to become like them, on the road for so long without figuring out what direction I’m going in.
The most inspired I felt while staying at a hostel was surprisingly when I neared the end of my trip, visiting Buzios for a couple days during the World Cup. The hostel was full of people who were in Brazil to see the World Cup, taking a couple days off work – a big difference from those who I had previously encountered in hostels. There were many people who had interesting ambitions, varied careers, and passionate lifestyles, and it was a refreshing change from the long-term travelers I met over the months. I met a Catalan professional basketball player, an Argentinean Central Bank Economist, among others.
I’m not discounting traveling or wandering as a way of life or as a way to find your future direction. After all, when I first started traveling, I did not have a direction, and two years later, I’m in Amsterdam living the lifestyle I want and doing what I love. I am working to grow the app Party with a Local, a social networking app that perfectly combines my passion of electronic dance music and travel. I’ve been going to the best dance music parties in the world, meeting like-minded people, relishing the Dutch way of life, and working a job that I love.
However, I did not arrive here by just traveling around, touring places, and drinking my nights away with fellow hostel mates. I started out doing those things and felt as lost as ever; not only did I not have a home, I did not have any goals besides reaching the next destination. However, I stopped being lost when I did the following things, in this order:
- I knew I wanted to go to the best electronic dance music shows in my travel destinations, and pushed myself to make it happen. Even when I did not have companions to attend the shows with me, I worked hard to find some and craft great experiences for myself. Though many probably don’t think of this as a “serious” goal, it’s what I’m passionate about, and great things happen when you follow your passion, no matter what it is.
- I wrote down my experiences in a blog. I kept a diary too, but found that a blog was a lot better in helping me organize my thoughts into topics. At first, my blog was just about whatever I did and whatever came to my head. But, after awhile, my posts started arranging themselves around three topics: dance music around the world, Asian immigration, and foreign quirks that amuse me. Now, I only write posts about these three topics, and try to do it in an informative but fun way. My blog is by no means a high traffic blog (just around 2,500 page views in a month in Nov 2015), but it has already opened doors for me – my current job thought highly of my blog and a TV series producer even reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in helping with a show on Chinatowns around the world. Most importantly, my blog helped me discover what I am genuinely interested in.
- I got out of the hostel and actually “lived” in places. People I met in hostels were extremely homogenous to me. Everyone had a similar story of deciding to leave their “real lives” and a similar traveling lifestyle. I wanted to get out in the real world and interact with a diverse set of people. I rented an apartment in Florianopolis for 2 months, where I focused on writing my blog, learning Python (eventually abandoned this attempt), and going to good dance music events in the area. I found that away from the hustle and bustle of the hostel and from pressure of “doing touristy things” every day I could focus on my goals while living the new challenges day to day of living in a new country. After Florianopolis, I have lived in Barcelona, Berlin, and now Amsterdam. One of the biggest things I realized on my travels is that I am capable of building my life from scratch, starting over again and again – everything from the logistics of finding an apartment to making new friends. And this instilled me a lot of confidence of my ability to solve problems and make things work in any new environment.
- After my 6-month backpacking trip, I moved to Barcelona and started working again while doing a Master’s in tourism. Somewhere along my travels, I decided that I wanted to work in tourism, since I had really enjoyed my new experiences in South America and wanted to help more people to take journeys of their own. I worked at a startup called Foodie&Tours. I didn’t love the work, but it got me feeling challenged again and thinking critically. I also learned to unabashedly cold reach out to people and work in a different language.
- I’ve re-centered my location decisions based on how interesting the city is to me and whether or not I’m attracted to their electronic dance music scene – in short, my happiness factors. This claim probably makes mom faint, but it’s improved my quality of life phenomenally. And it really has worked out for me so far. I’m in Amsterdam working for Party with a Local, making the world a more connected place, one party at a time.
It’s ok to be lost on the road. We’ve all been there. But those that are lost should take active steps to stop being lost. I think that when you embark on your trip, besides wrapping up your old life and planning the logistical parts of your trip, you also need to devote some thoughts on what you wish to get out of the trip. “Finding myself” doesn’t count, because you will not find yourself just by wishing it.
Before the trip, I think it’s important to set some personal goals. Think beyond “go to 20 countries over 6 months”. Rather, plan some concrete projects, even if they sound crazy. Mine were to:
- “Go to the best EDM clubs and festival in each country” (achieved)
- “Investigate what it’s like to be Asian in each country” (investigated)
- “Learn how to develop websites” (did so for two months, learning python and web development, but did not continue beyond that)
- “Get a service job” (did not achieve in South America, but did so in Taipei for a month the same year working at a hostel)
- “Live in a new city for at least 2 months and build my life up” (done in Florianopolis – I made 2 friends that I consider to be close, as well as found my neighbors to be a kind adoptive Brazilian family who still check on me regularly!)
Try your best to push yourself to keep your goals and remind yourself often of them! Having goals make you stretch your personal limits. I highly recommend you to document your progress on these goals, either through a blog or just writing them down. Note your findings and your observations as it really helps you organize your thoughts.
And, finally, for God’s sake, get out of the hostel bubble and surround yourself with a more diverse group of people! Take a class, talk to random people in bars, chat up waiters, say hello to your neighbors. The internet is also full of ways to meet people – Couchsurfing, Airbnb, Meetup, and of course, Party with a Local.
I’m nearing the end of the road of my travels, as I would like to move back to the US next year (Edit: as of May 2016, I’ve moved back to Amsterdam). I won’t claim to be totally “figured out” now, but I sure am exponentially happier and more motivated than I have ever been. My wandering surely helped me. But it was only after I actively brainstormed on the impact that I want travel to have on me did my life begin to slowly improve.