Eight Life Lessons That Travel Taught Me

I always expected that travel would change me, though never could I have correctly anticipated how. The travel “culture” portrayed in movies and books led me to believe that travel would bring me majestic enlightenment. An abundance of “ah ha” moments. Revelation-filled meltdowns. And, the grande finale, inner peace.

Except none of that ever happened to me. None. My travels were not some Eat, Pray, Love montage of self-discovery, nor were they an acid-induced On the Road venture to wisdom. Frankly, that was a huge disappointment. At the end of our first 6-month journey in 2013, I had no distinct feeling that I was any different than I was before.

Only after my feet were firmly planted back in the “real world” did I begin to gain insight into how travel had affected me. Of all the revelations that I've had, here are the eight most valuable lessons I learned from taking the terrifying and life-changing plunge to globe trot indefinitely.

1. Humans can and should be trusted.

Vancouver sunset

It's funny that it's in the familiar interaction with friends, family, and acquaintances where people lose the ability to trust others. The daily scare tactics of the news and other media play a huge role in this, combined with the fact that normal life doesn't put us in positions where we have to trust someone we don't know.

Travel places you in situations every day where trust simply must be exercised. At first, it's uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. You're not used to having to make so many choices that are 100% founded on trust and “seeing what happens”. Following strangers down dark alleys when you ask for directions, taking up offers from people you've just met to eat in their home, leaving your entire belongings amidst people you don't know when you have to step away. But soon you just accept this as your new norm.

Trust is a muscle that has to be built. The scenarios presented to you when you backpack regularly work that “muscle”, gradually strengthening it until you realise that the world isn't such a scary place after all. Far more often than not strangers will prove their trustworthiness, rather than break it. That's pretty cool, and ultimately is vital to appreciating – not spiting – humanity.

2. Happiness is how you shape your circumstances.


Two aspects of travel taught me this. First was discovering that the most genuinely happy people I had ever seen were those living in poverty, and those with money always appeared lost, pissed off, or frustrated – previously, the latter also included me.

Next was realising that changing my own circumstances affects my happiness, and that I am in control of those circumstances. Leaving a job that was burning me out made me more happy than I had ever been, but before I didn't have the guts to do it. Travelling long-term will be your first piece of evidence that you, and only you, can steer the course of your life – and that is hugely empowering.

3. Letting go of possessions is just as satisfying as owning them.

Not for a second will I pretend to be a hipster bum who loves travelling and loathes stuff. You know what? I do love stuff. I love TV. I love funky art for my home. I love maps. I love cozy blankets. And that's okay.

But travel taught me that the art of detaching myself from my belongings – even if I was eventually replacing them – was huge for my own self-development. It made me realise how valueless my stuff was. My day to day life, my home, was immersed in things, but in a flash they could be posted on Craigslist and disappear.

When you regularly have to let go of stuff, you see possessions for what they really are. Temporary. Physical. Replaceable. That act of being able to let go is cleansing, and you develop more respect for your life and you as an individual. Travel will grant you less attachment to materials, and a greater appreciation for creating memories and experiences.

4. Travel will distance you from some and bring you closer to others.

One of the things that surprised me after long-term travel was how travel makes some people float away and brings others unexpectedly closer. The first part of that lesson was hard. It hurts to feel envied or unwanted. You expect people to want to see you once you return home, but not everyone wanted to reconnect on my return. I was not ready for that subtle rejection.

I'm grateful for the “ain't nobody got time for that” attitude that post-travel gave me. It's helped a sensitive person like me learn to better budget my time and emotions on those in my life who are here to stay, a priceless life skill to saving yourself emotional stress.

5. Your life path does not have to be linear.


I'm still amazed by our generation's rigid mentality in how life “must be lived”. School, university, career, marriage, babies. In that order, no interruptions.

Travelling long-term will help you realise that your life does not have to be so premeditated. In fact, deviations to other interests will bring you far more richness and well-roundedness than you could ever gain living the “usual” way.

Where society will tell you to pick one profession and stick to it, travel will help you realise that choosing another option is not only possible, but fulfilling. You will learn, as I did, that you can be a nurse, but also a writer. You don't need to have other fun and interesting jobs, pursuits, or hobbies you “would have” done in another lifetime. You can pursue those passions in this lifetime – your only lifetime. 

Your experience in taking control of your life and making travel a reality will help you to start thinking bigger. It will grant your the courage to explore interests you'd abandoned at the door once you pursued your singular career path. For me, this was perhaps one of the most life-changing lessons I discovered.

6. Adaptability is the spice of life.


While variety offers new opportunities that you have likely welcomed, adaptation forces you to take an uncomfortable situation and make it comfortable. To embrace something you maybe didn't want to try, until it becomes bearable.

Adaptability will open doors you never thought possible. A 30-hour bus ride seems feasible, trying foods you'd never look at before leads to new culinary favourites, and then maybe that leads to you trying out a whole new career, or initiating a relationship you'd previously been too scared to begin. The ability to adapt is a gift that will change your day to day life, permanently.

7. Taking chances will always be worth avoiding regrets.

Refreshing. Invigorating. Intoxicating. These are the elemental feelings of globetrotting, and as you continue to explore the great big world, you will realise how remorseful you'd have been had you never even tried. If tomorrow wasn't coming, the worst feeling would be the regret of not having chased your dreams.

Travel becomes an addiction to making your life jam-packed with memories and the best experiences possible. Fulfilling your wanderlust will make you never want to waste another month, year, or moment of your life again. You'll be increasingly empowered to do the things you want to do, and that list will only continue to grow.

8. Wanderlust should enrich all aspects of your life.

The desire to travel, that spark to see new places, that craving to try new strange foods – travel will and should continue to seep its way into your everyday life, even once you're grounded. Wherever you're living, you'll have a new set of eyes and an eager anticipation to enrich each day. You'll seek out new events, activities, restaurants, anything to pacify the ever-present need to immerse yourself in new experiences.

Travel made me want to live my life more purposefully, guided more by exploration and less by days on the couch in front of the TV or whinging about mundane things. It will embed that desire to make life an adventure permanently, no matter where you are.

It is so hard to articulate precisely just how travel changes you, but it is most certainly life-altering. Squashing my fears and braving on this adventure taught me more than I ever could have learned staying put. How has travel shaped your life? What is the best aspect of globetrotting that impacted the way you live now?