Why traveling won't actually help you find yourself
You must know someone who’s done it. Looked up from their desk one day and said, To hell with it. I’m in my thirties, my job is dismal, I haven’t so much as swiped right for months. The miracle fix, invariably: go travelling. If the quarter-life crisis is the new mid-life crisis, then the sabbatical is today’s shiny Porsche.
Yes, yes, blame the Elizabeth Gilberts and Cheryl Strayeds. Backpacking: a proven cure for heroin addiction; a potion capable of conjuring the perfect man. Hike. Eat pasta. And lo, there will be revelations, and you shall know thyself. Now: embrace everything that makes you happy, renounce all that makes you unhappy. You will never have problems again.
Travel and your troubles disappear.
I once very grandly went to the end of the world to forget someone. I stood at the bow of the ship as it carved through Antarctic ice, staring heroically across stark-white cliffs; sighed theatrically in air curdled thick with penguin dung. I’d thought all that quality ‘me’ time, communing with the solitary majesty of nature and all that, could be the cure; envisioned simply tossing all my feelings overboard.
Funny thing about ‘me’ time in a place largely lacking people: you spend a lot of it in your head. Where the bad things are. I’d have probably saved a lot of heartache just inviting mates over for a Netflix binge. Lesson: if it’s your head you’re trying to escape, travel may not necessarily be the answer.
And so, the polar adventurer returned… and carried on obsessing. Turns out a heart can’t be mended in a two-week voyage. Nope - not even one to sodding Antarctica.
Friends, too, have fled dead-end careers and strings of bad dates for sabbaticals. Instagram accounts lit up with glowing tans and crystalline ocean. Then: back to the grind, and back to Grindr.
But the problem isn’t with travelling, really. More the mistaken belief that the answer to everything can be found, say, at the peak of a mountain trek. As if you could see it clearly enough through all that dirt and sweat; more likely you would be too busy feeling mortified that you now resemble an asthmatic tomato, when a porter half your height and weight has been waiting here patiently since last Tuesday, and he carried all your bags.
Certainly, you will gather stories. You may surprise yourself by how coolly you can bribe your way across a South American border, or fling yourself out of a plane. But will travel magically poof away all your personality flaws, your anxieties and bad habits, and make you anew? No, friend, it will not. Proof-positive travel does not automatically make you a better, more-rounded person: how else to explain all those harem-pant-wearing arseholes in Goa’s beach cafés and Sydney’s hostel common rooms?
But the theory that getting out of your bubble might make things clearer is a good one, nonetheless. You just have to remember that the bubble, and all its minutiae (Tesco on a Sunday, vacuuming), will be waiting for you when you get back. And also this: existential crises don’t come but once a lifetime. Fretting about #livingyourbestlife is less a phase, more an enduring theme. Should I get one of those mortgage/marriage/kid things, even when they don’t look much fun? Am I earning enough? Saving enough? Happy enough? There will always be questions; no wonder we hope travel might find an answer.
Travel can change you, though. Go see this big rock you live on. You’ve only the one shot: you really should. Form opinions based on experiences beyond your armchair. Find mind-blowing beauty, meet wonderful people - and ugliness and arseholes, too. This is Earth, not Eden.
But finding yourself? That’s not a sabbatical. That journey lasts a ruddy lifetime.
Source: Condé Nast Traveller.