Over two years ago, I decided to embark on a quest for better global understanding, seeking to make connections with people and concepts along the way. At a crossroads in life, I had an idea to travel and ask people around the world the same three questions. My questions asked what a good life meant to people, what they thought was the biggest threat to humanity today, and what the world would be like 50 years from now.
My motto was "3 Questions. 30 Countries. 300 People." After 15 months of on and off travel, I had surpassed my goal by asking the 3 questions in 40 countries of over 700 people along the way! Over the course of that global exploration, which I call Big Shared World, the thoughtful answers from so many diverse perspectives deepened my own worldview. As well, the experience challenged and inspired me personally, as I navigated my way around the world, in new situations every day.
As I write the book about my own experience, I’ve come across many other stories of personal journeys searching for something bigger than oneself. While each person who sets out on a path of reflection is remarkably unique, there are overlapping themes that can be found throughout.
These are the five truths I have come to know from embarking on a personal journey:
YOU ARE THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION
When I first shared the Big Shared World idea with my parents and asked for their approval, my mom said, “Colleen, you don’t need permission to do anything.” Wait, what?!? I can quit my jobs, move my stuff home, and just spend down my savings account while traveling the world for an indefinite period of time?! Her response, “It’s your life. Nobody can tell you what to do and not do. Plus, it makes a lot of sense. This is what you do. You travel the world, it’s always been part of who you are.” After this unexpected conversation with my mother, I realized it was entirely up to me to say yes to the journey I had dreamt up. Even if it was an ambiguous dream that left me questioning how exactly it would come together once I truly gave myself permission to go.
And once one has decided to leave life as they know it behind and take on this personal endeavor, the rewarding experience is deeper than anything someone could ever give you permission to do.
YOU MUST HAVE SOME ELEMENT OF PERSONAL FREEDOM
The logistics of leaving behind a job, house, car, student loan debt, and other commitments often hold people back from heading into unknown territory. Many people stop their plans the minute they consult their bank account. Vacation allows one to get away from regular life for a period of time, and a well planned week away to a new destination is perfectly sufficient for many people. A life altering journey, however, requires an element of personal freedom, for better or worse, from the above mentioned commitments.
I recently became part of Girls Love Travel, a Facebook group with over 100,000 members from around the world. The posts range from questions about electrical outlets to suggestions for best travel routes taken on months long journeys to far off lands. At any given time, there is a post in the recent feed asking fellow female travelers who take longer adventures, wondering sincerely how they made it work to leave everything behind and just go. Some people plan and save for years to afford a luxury experience, while others have low-budget expectations and even work along the way to keep funding their travel. Regardless, those who go on big personal journeys have managed to create a freedom from the daily demands of their peers who stay home.
YOU WILL FEEL CRAZY AND QUESTION WHAT YOU’VE SET OUT TO DO
While in São Paulo, my hosts suggested we go see Wild, the movie based on the book which tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who walked over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to halt the downward spiral her life had become following her mother’s death. Cheryl starts the trek repeating with each step, “What the f*** am I doing?” Her friend’s voice is in her head, “It’s okay to quit at any time.” She keeps going, she struggles immensely, and is rewarded immensely. She completed her journey, and ultimately achieved her goal to discover herself in a new way, and move forward in a positive direction when she was finished. And now, that story has become a bestselling book and turned into a hit movie.
Whether the journey ahead is 1,000 miles hiking in solitude, or around the world engaging with new cultures and people throughout, the unique nature of it will challenge one along the way. My own journey definitely had moments where I wondered how on earth I thought of doing this thing. While 95% of the experience was full of the most amazing moments of my life, 5% were some of the most stressful times. I had a friend I called to vent to so that my family didn’t worry about me in those moments of traveler despair when judgment can be clouded by visions of your bed back home, and a concerned mother’s voice is all it takes to make a beeline to the airport and get the next flight home. It may have been a long, confusing travel day where I took the wrong train or bus, or an awkward interaction with someone that left me uneasy, or sometimes it may be the ridiculous case of FOMO (fear of missing out) where I would scroll through my Facebook newsfeed of friends back home and wonder why I was not wired to desire a more “normal” life. In these fortunately few and far between moments, it’s helpful to have a designated friend to call, journal to reflect in, or meditation to sink into - something to bring you back to the reasons you started the endeavor in the fist place.
YOU WILL BECOME FULLY AVAILABLE TO THE MOMENT YOU ARE IN
By the time I finished traveling, I had visited 40 countries across all continents, excluding Antarctica. At first, I would get mad at myself if I didn’t do enough, talk to enough people, see enough of a place… but then, I’d have an amazing interaction with someone that would not have happened if anything leading up to that moment was different. I started to find peace in whatever way things went and realized that there was no such thing as a perfectly planned day or checklist of how to spend my time wherever I was. I accepted that the only way to experience this journey was to become fully available to the moment I was in, whatever that entailed. On the best days, people genuinely thanked me for interrupting their day with a meaningful conversation that made them think. These were the interactions that gave me ongoing confirmation that the Big Shared World journey was worthwhile, and exactly where I needed to be. I had no idea what the next week would look like, where I would be, what I would do, who I would meet.
Another curious traveler, Leon Logothetis, set out on a mission to have people’s kindness fuel his travel around the world. He had his route mapped out, but intentionally went with literally no money in hand to accomplish it. He went on his adventure tank by tank, as he rode in an old yellow motorcycle with a side car, and relied on the generosity of strangers to move him forward. In his book The Kindness Diaries, he shares of the days where planning ahead would have only added more layers to an already challenging feat. Instead, by being in the moment, the experience comes together and the greatest personal growth begins to happen.
YOU WILL INSPIRE PEOPLE
From the start of my whole Big Shared World endeavor, people were not only supportive, but they told me how inspired they were that I was even doing it. Everyone can relate to a journey because we all are on one – life. Some people are drawn to a more “normal life”, while others are naturally compelled to leave it behind in search for something that feels greater. No matter how simple or complex our life may seem, we all have struggles, desires, frustrations, and dreams. Everyone knows the value of experiences in their own life that changed their course forever, and people respect those who make a commitment to a new direction in a very big way.
Whether it be Wild, Eat Pray Love, The Motorcycle Diaries, An Idiot Abroad… we all have those stories that planted the seed for a life less ordinary. What’s exciting to think is that maybe one day your journey of personal growth will serve as the chief inspiration for the next wide eyed adventurer on a quest for something bigger than themselves.
And while a global adventure to new lands can prompt incredible personal growth, I’d be remiss to think it is the only way to embark on a personal journey of epic proportions. Many people have profound personal transformations without leaving their hometown. Whether at home or abroad, when one truly gives themselves permission to change their life forever, the chances are good that the outcome will be beyond one’s wildest dreams.