That’s a big question. That may be THE question. It’s a question with an answer of the essential meaning and purpose of your life. Each life is unique and we are here on Earth with a purpose as individual as our DNA. Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived four concentration camps and wrote one of the greatest tomes on human existence, wrote, “Everyone has his own vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can he is life be repeated.” I believe in this concept. If you do too and have the question of what you should do with your life, I can recommend a way to help you answer it.
Travel the world.
You can look at this recommendation two ways. It can be the meaning in your life or a way to find the meaning. So when you ask, “What should I do with my life?” and one of the first words that erupts from your heart is TRAVEL, then you have to honor that. Exploration of the planet is a meaningful goal. If the answer is, “I don’t know; I want to travel to find out.” Then, that’s excellent as well, as pilgrimages are tried and true ways to set out and find your answer.
Such a journey may feel daunting. You may have so many if/then scenarios in your head. “Well if I travel the world, then I won’t have a career/house/life partner/family/new car.” Or, “If I go on a big trip, then I won’t have a career at this company.” Nonsense. Things don’t really work in such an all or nothing manner. We make big choices all the time that negate one choice over another and our lives get better. So let’s shift our thinking a bit with this statement from Dr. Frankl.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for the individual.”
It’s really about asking not what life can do for you, but what you can do for life.
It’s also about realizing that your meaning is the sum of your life – your impact and legacy on the world. And your purpose is the parts of that whole, the tasks that get you to that meaning. Traveling on a big trip is your purpose, and ultimately can be or reveal your meaning.
This post is about traveling in a meaningful way. It’s about traveling as a way to give back to the life you’ve been given, to honor moving towards meaning, and to act on your unique gift all in the name of answering your big question. I’ve put together this post based on my own experiences, but it’s really framed around applying travel to a framework described by Dr. Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
“We can discover the meaning of life in three different ways:
1) By creating a work or doing a deed
2) By experiencing something or encountering someone; and
3) By the attitude we take toward in unavoidable suffering.”
He elaborates that the first one is accomplishment; the second one is by “experiencing something – such as goodness, truth, and beauty – by expressing nature and culture, or by expressing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.” The third is finding meaning when “confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” I would even add that travel is a perfect way to discover the meaning of life because there are ample opportunities for all three methods.
1. Travel to Accomplish Something
There’s this exercise I’ve heard about in visioning workshops where you write your own obituary to help you determine what you want your legacy to be. The reasoning is that by seeing it actualized on paper, you will fuel your current choices and actions towards the accomplishments for which you want to be remembered. If you read the obituaries in newspaper or online, they are filled with people whose main accomplishment and their great meaning was being a parent and grandparent or a member of a community or military service. That was their legacy. Your trip just may be your legacy. If you travel to accomplish your dream of traveling, your obituary can read: “She was a world traveler; she was courageous enough to take the steps necessary to live her dream.”
Lest you fear (or someone has told you) that the goal of travel is meaningless, remember it takes courage to travel on a big trip because American society doesn’t support this accomplishment. It easier (though sadly not always possible) in America to find a support system for other accepted accomplishments that are conducive to a higher purpose – marriage, family, career and work, home ownership and decoration, military service, and higher education. Traveling long-term is a quest that takes courage precisely because you may be the only one you know doing it.
I came home from my first trip with no money and no job during the depth of the 2009 recession. My family just wanted to hear me say that I had gotten travel out of my system and was ready to “get serious.” Instead, all I wanted to do was travel again. Where they asked? The Pyramids and Petra. The idea of visiting the Pyramids and Petra gave me the drive necessary to be creative in how I earned money. I found I had a knack for consulting, which I still do to this day. It gave me the courage to be frugal and focus all my energy to save money for this next trip. It allowed me to receive the generosity of my family by living with my aunt and uncle. I lived for this trip. Picturing my arrival at the Pyramids gave me meaning each day of this particular Midwest winter. When my consulting gig ended early because the client ended the project, I didn’t feel too depressed or discouraged. The job was just the means to my end. I looked at my savings and bought a plane ticket to Cairo without hesitation.
To get started, I believe it’s important to bring that goal into the light of day and make the choice every day to accomplish it. It can be something as simple as just saying out loud, “I want to travel for a year around the world.” In this act of stating your intention aloud and deciding to move forward, you are already pointed in the direction of finding your meaning. In this choice, you are on the path towards meaning through achievement. Consider this web site your support system to accomplish your goal to travel the world for a year —> Here’s a way to get started on that trip.
2. Travel To Experience and Encounter, with Love
There are specific experiences we may have already thought out about that we want to “do” on our big trip and that’s our mission. It may be volunteering in Costa Rica, riding elephants in Thailand, dancing in Argentina, eating the best pizza in Italy, or joining a safari in Kenya. It may be tasting all the beers Belgium, riding the waves in Australia, or trekking in Patagonia. Do one, do some, or do them all.
All these activities can be the meaning to your life because they get you out into the world and show you what you are made of. Most importantly, they provide meaning because they allow you to witness truth, beauty, and goodness. A big trip can provide a garden of novel opportunities because they fulfill your unique desires and passions; teach you lessons that you would otherwise not learn at home; and provide answers to your deepest questions.
The beautiful thing in traveling to encounter is that you really never know what’s going to happen. My friend Jesse went to Istanbul and while visiting the Blue Mosque went in and joined the mosque’s Imam for tea. She recounts that learning about Islam from this religious leader was one of the best moments of her trip and added to her religious tolerance and empathy. My friend Robin purposefully strayed from her tour group in Venice and was invited to a rooftop birthday party where communication was mostly hand gestures, but she found the beauty of serendipity and new Italian friends.
However, it’s not just the going and doing that can provide meaning. You can also find it knowing why you want to travel and doing so with love.
What is it about these dream places and activities that speaks to you? If you’re asking about the meaning of your life, then I’m guessing you’re a little bit stuck. So travel with the quest to become unstuck, travel as a way to find experiences and people who reveal to you your purpose. If you’re an artist, go visit art and artists who inspire you. If you’re a writer, go visit places and people (living or dead) who you want to write about. If you’re an engineer, visit the world’s great canals and bridges to marvel at how they work. If you want to be a better person, find opportunities to make a positive difference. Ask the question, seek the answers, and illumination follows. To get started, from the first day of your trip to the last, make this request (note: this is also called a prayer): “Please show me some aspect of the purpose of my life today, in this place, with all these people.”
Go with that request, but also take great care. Unless you’re going to be sitting in your hotel room the whole trip, the place, the culture, and its people are not there to serve you and your mission. One of my pet peeves in talking about trips is the use of the word “do” a country as in “We’re going to do Thailand,” or “I’ve always wanted to do Mexico City.” This word “do” is saying that the country is there just for you to use for your own fulfillment. It’s saying that a city or a beach is just a canvas for you to paint on; on and the residents better provide the right paint and make sure you’re comfortable while doing so, otherwise, the whole place just sucks and dammit they should be glad you are there spending your money. A place is not just there for you to “do stuff.” (If you have any doubt, ask residents of any city that’s a populous tourist destination). To “do” a country just for the sake of the experience is a very selfish way to travel. Selfish travel is not conducive to finding your meaning because very little will be revealed to you other than what you already know.
To find your meaning by experience and encounter, you have to travel with love. It a give and give scenario. Traveling with love means traveling to a place that you desire – that’s unique to you – and then finding what makes it unique so that it reveals itself to you. Just like you, a place is unique and only exists as this one place in the world. If you are drawn to it and go with love, then your path will be revealed at an intersection of the place’s uniqueness and your uniqueness.
To travel with love, follow these simple guidelines:
- Arrive as a guest and as a gracious witness
- Be polite and open to other ways of doing things
- Do not impose your own views upon the culture and its people
- Get to know a place first and seek to understand instead of passing judgment or having expectations
- Be socially and environmentally responsible in how you travel to treat the culture and place with respect
- Learn a few simple phrases of the language; walk around or take public transport, and always ask before taking pictures of people
By traveling with love, the place will reveal more experiences and more encounters than you could have ever desired because you are looking outside yourself and your desires. The place will respond with answers to your request for meaning and mission.
3. Travel to Suffer
Dr. Frankl’s own suffering and witnessing of immense suffering at four concentration camps during World War II was the foundation for his book and life’s work. One could argue that his incredible contribution to humanity, his purpose in life, could not have been realized without his intense and unbelievable suffering.
It seems incongruous to recommend traveling to suffer since traveling is a dreamful escape for so many – it would obviously be so much better than what you are experiencing right now, that it could only be good. However, I recommend traveling because it requires you to leave the status quo and be more open to suffering, and in some ways, even seek it out. In that suffering, your meaning and fortitude will become clear. But what is suffering? Certainly we’re not going throw ourselves towards a snake while on a jungle hike in Costa Rica or get out of the Land Rover on safari or land in Syria right now. That would be pretty stupid because those are dangerous actions without any purpose.
It took me a long time to truly understand what the concept of “suffering” was because I have such a good life. In traveling, there didn’t seem many opportunities to “suffer” as a Western tourist. On the road, there was whole systems set up for my comfort and safety. I could choose at any time to get off the street, hire a driver, stay in a comfortable hotel, eat McDonalds, and avoid any “shady” looking street or people. I always had enough money – and when I didn’t – I could call my Mom to wire me some. I could always enter the tourism bubble, how could I really “suffer?”
I recently watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Father Richard Rohr and all became clear. He said, “Suffering is any time we are not in control.” In his words, the definition finally rang true for me. I had my own little aha moment with Oprah there. There are many, many of those out of control moments on a trip. With this definition, I have suffered a lot when I traveled. When I reflect on those moments where I felt out of control, I realize it is in these suffering moments that my fortitude and path were revealed.
Why suffer in travel? Because, according to Dr. Frankl, that’s where we get to our essence. No matter how bad any of our circumstance we find our freedom in the choice of how to respond and that’s the gift that propels us forward. In each choice, we strengthen a muscle of attitude and action. Are we going to think and act well or are we going to think and act poorly? Suffering is just like those lovely experiences mentioned in point 2. It is the garden of opportunity to become the person we want to be. If we want to be more patient, then traveling to a country where our patience can be challenged – like anywhere with a different sense of time – may be what we need to find meaning. There we have will opportunities to think and act like a patient person while waiting for a train or while the front desk clerk tries to find your reservation. Dr. Frankl posits that we should celebrate achievements in suffering as much as the others. I agree! To change your behavior for the positive is a meaningful accomplishment.
However, if you want to be a complete ass, there will be plenty of circumstances while traveling to be that person too. I will always remember a European woman yelling and yelling at an Egyptian train attendant because she had a seat in a different section than her friends. Her reaction was so obnoxious and toxic – harming not only the poor attendant, but also Egyptian’s view of tourists – that I will never forget it. In that moment, she suffered the fear of not sitting with her friends. Instead of seeing the situation as an opportunity to be an independent traveler for 15 hours on a train with plenty of Western tourists, she chose to humiliate a train employee in front of his passengers.
Here are a few ways you can “suffer” while traveling – really they are ways you can be out of control; get out of your comfort zone; learn a lot about yourself; and hopefully better a person on your path.
- Only buy the plane ticket one way. Plan the rest of your trip when you are in country.
- Find days in your trip to “get lost” in a city and just wander.
- Think about when you may feel out of control – like traveling solo, being without your phone, and showing up at a town without a hotel reservation – and do exactly that.
- Travel as a witness. If you see suffering, reflect on how it makes you feel and seek to understand how the suffering is caused.
Travel is Just the Beginning
“Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings greatly suffered.”
Your purpose in life may not be one thing or one trip. It may be many trips that culminate into a big ball of meaning. It’s your duty to take off when it feels right, without fear. Travel is why you’re here on Earth, that’s part of the meaning of your life. I reflect on my own life and I actually have six concrete purposes that I believe will give my life meaning. “To Travel The World” is one of them. I was living a life of denial and certainly not “right action” until I got the courage and fulfilled my purpose of travel. I traveled the world and now I teach others how to do so.
You may feel a friction between your desire to travel the world and stay at home with a job or loved ones or a great apartment. Traveling now does not negate the other things you want. Your trip will not last forever. Your purpose in life may change over time to one more stationary. It’s not all or nothing, it’s just that right now you feel like traveling. You may take one big trip and it may lead to another and another, like mine did. Or, you may go on your big trip and come home to a whole other path (like these Kiva Fellows did) and with a clear purpose. Regardless of what happens, you asking the question of your life’s purpose demands that you take the first step.
For Dr. Frankl, his meaning in life was to teach others how to find theirs. He got to his meaning in deliberate action that happened over time, not in one big happening that lasted forever. For him, it was choosing to be with his parents in Austria instead of immigrating to America, it was survival in the camps, it was writing the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and it was inventing the Logotherapy discipline. None of the subsequent goals could have been played out if the previous one had not been fulfilled. Therefore, your decision to travel is not bringing you to an end; it’s starting you on a path. Dr. Frankl’s life had such significant meaning to millions of people because he kept looking up and making the choice move forward on his unique path. Make the choice to travel on your big trip and you are just beginning.
I hope this post was helpful, I leave you with a few things to get started on your path to travel.
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl
- Here are some posts to tell you how to take a big trip: make a plan to travel the world, FAQs on long-term travel, and how to get the most out of your travels.
- Traveling on a pilgrimage to find your meaning is very worthwhile. Here’s a wonderful book on how to take your own pilgrimage. The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred
- Journaling is an excellent way to reflect on the experiences and encounters while you travel. I recommend this book Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler (Travelers’ Tales)
- If you need some ideas, check out this book on spiritual journeys 100 Journeys for the Spirit: Sacred*Inspiring*Mysterious*Enlightening
One is a suggestion by Dr. Frankl’s colleague Dr. Charlotte Buhler, “All we can do is study the lives of people who have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.” Here are a few examples:
- Three of my favorite bloggers where traveling the world fulfilled a purpose in their lives: BreatheDreamGo, So Many Places and Legal Nomads
- A great list of women who built businesses while traveling
- Read these travel memoirs
- Modern-day explorers
Posts by bloggers on how travel changed their lives and filled it with purpose and meaning:
- A Little Perspective … How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me by A Little Adrift
- How Travel Has Changed My Life by Never Ending Footsteps
- 10 Ways Travel Changed My Life Forever by Grease & Glamour
- How Solo Travel as a Female Changed My Life By Jessie on a Journey
- How Travel Has Changed My Life – a guest post by One Nomad Woman
If you are going to be at SXSW ’15 – check out my workshop session on How to Take a Big Trip: Make a Plan to Travel the World.
Photo credit: Photo by Shaylor on Flickr