What “Why You Should Travel Young” Misses

Kiserian, Kenya

In an article titled “Why You Should Travel Young,” Jeff Goins makes the case for seeing the world while you are unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood.  Career, marriage, children – these all stand as barriers to experiencing the wide world.  For the most part, I agree with a lot of the things he says about the merits of travel.  But I think he misses the larger meaning and importance of the experience.

Goins begins by offering advice to some poor soul who is deciding between returning to graduate school and “moving to Africa.”  Without hesitation, he tells the girl to blow off school and hit the road, for the personal growth she will achieve under the tutelage of experience beats the knowledge she will gain in school.  Why?  Because the excuses we make “allow us to be cowards while sounding noble.”  Perhaps this person had substantial student loans or an obligation to provide for her family.  Either way, it’s a bit harsh I think.

But I do think Goins’ final point – that travelling widens our perspective and generates empathy for things we might not have understood had we not sought them out – is valid.  He sums up his thesis in the last few paragraphs:

Traveling will change you like little else can. It will put you in places that will force you to care for issues that are bigger than you. You will begin to understand that the world is both very large and very small. You will have a newfound respect for pain and suffering, having seen that two-thirds of humanity struggle to simply get a meal each day.

While you’re still young, get cultured. Get to know the world and the magnificent people that fill it. The world is a stunning place, full of outstanding works of art. See it.

You won’t always be young. And life won’t always be just about you. So travel, young person. Experience the world for all it’s worth. Become a person of culture, adventure, and compassion. While you still can.

These are all fair points, most of which I agree with.  Like a picture worth a thousand words, seeing the conditions most of the world endures and the daily struggles of the poorest of the poor give you an appreciation for things you didn’t even know you were lucky to have.  I don’t fully agree with the idea that you need to see works of art in person to become cultured.  But I would say that being exposed to different music, clothing, dance, and food also gives you an appreciation for the breadth of tastes in the world, and a better understanding of how tradition and history influence culture and vice versa.   And, lastly, I think the spirit of adventure is inherent to some degree in travelers.  But the number of stamps in your passport is hardly an indication of your adventurousness.  And it is in this last point that I think Goins misses the virtues of travel.

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

A couple of years ago, the American Psychological Association published a study explaining that people who had lived abroad tended to be more creative than people who stayed at home.  Using a cognitive performance test called Duncker’s Candle Problem, researches demonstrated that current and former ex-pats thought about problems differently than their counterparts.  There is the obvious problem of causality – does going abroad make you more creative, or do more creative people go abroad?  Either way, the correlation is real.

But there is a caveat.  To gain the benefits of travel, you have to not only live in a new place, but also immerse yourself in the culture.  The Daily Telegraph explains:

According to the study, creativity levels were unlikely to be high in people who had travelled abroad for a short period of time, or who had not attempted to adapt to the culture they were living in. But creativity was far more prominent in people who had made efforts to learn the language of their new home.

“Interestingly, high levels in creativity only seemed to show in people who had lived abroad, and not in those who had a superficial exposure to foreign countries through travel, “said Professor Maddux.

“In order to widen their creative abilities, it seems that people have to really try and fit into a different environment, and learn how to do things in a totally different way.”

In other words, only by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can you really expand your cognitive abilities.  Goins is right that you can develop a strong sense of empathy and compassion from only a short stint in a place.  But to establish habits that will outlast your time in the wild, you have to fully commit.  Taking a walk in the streets of Paris or seeing the Great Wall of China will not cut it.

Wedding in Kumasi, Ghana

Seeing the world and going to cool places is great.  But, like Lao Tzu said, the journey is the reward.  Living in France or China or Ghana does not inherently make you more creative, or adventurous, or compassionate, or cultured.  The process of adapting to a new environment and opening yourself to new experiences is the real reward of immersing yourself in a new country.  Adaptability and openness are the root of the attributes the author of “Why You Should Travel Young” values.  One follows the other, but not always.

And this, I think, is the larger lesson I gained from my life on the road.   I have a vivid memory of sitting at a chop bar in Tamale, the capital city of Northern Ghana, with a few friends who worked with Engineers Without Borders Canada, an innovative development organization.  They were talking about how much the pigs in the villages they lived liked eating shit.  One guy told a story about getting typhoid and having to get up every 10 minutes in the middle of night to relieve himself outside his hut in the pouring rain.  Each time he returned to the spot, it was freshly cleaned, having been visited by the local pigs.  Clearly, these kids were having a much different experience than mine.  Here we were, living in the same small part of the same small country in the same small region of the world.  And yet our experiences were completely different – the result of their willingness to go all in and immerse themselves in a life altogether unfamiliar and uncomfortable in the hope that, by living it, they would understand the life.

This brings me to my biggest problem with Goins’ article on travel.  If the way to become compassionate, cultured, and adventurous is to become open and adaptable, then you don’t have to fly across the world to reap the rewards of travel.  I would say that you can gain a lot of those same benefits just by moving to a new city, changing your routine, and making a concerted effort to consistently live outside your comfort zone.  In doing so, you will open yourself up to new experiences, your perspective will change, and you will begin to see the world differently.  And this, to me, is the best part of travel.

Summit of Mt. Nyiragongo, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

The Nile River, Jinja, Uganda

Koh Phangan, Thailand

Lome, Togo

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

Boracay, Philippines

Rangoon, Burma

Sydney, Australia

Mt. Nyragongo, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Bantayan Island, The Philippines

Stonetown, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Jerusalem, Israel

Ephesus, Turkey

Barcelona, Spain

Saigon, Vietnam

Kumasi, Ghana

Buenos Aires, Argentina

London, England

Kep, Cambodia


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