If you’re ever lost or unsure of who you are, rest assured: There’s a timeless method for discovering your deepest passions and values. Travel, or better yet, live away from home for a time. Because it’s only by casting off from the familiar shores and exploring the unknown that you’ll begin to uncover the inner contours of your own soul — and ironically, find yourself somewhere halfway across the world… or a few hours from home.
Sail Away from the Safe Harbor, and Find Yourself
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
– Mark Twain
When I think of my own life, I tend to divide it up by the different periods I spent traveling or living abroad, or in one case, in a city the next province over. Each of them marked a new chapter in my life, and a new phase of self-discovery, where I was thrown into unfamiliar territory and forced to define who I was based on experiences that were alternately inspiring or challenging. What is it about leaving home that seems to lead you back to yourself?
Break the routines
No matter where your destination is, simply being away from home, especially when you’re traveling alone, pulls the rug of your routines out from under you, and forces you to find your own two feet anew. What are your interests and hobbies? What sort of people do you connect with most? What inspires you, what repels you, and why?
When you don’t have the same old easy answers to fall back on, or the same friends to latch on to, you’re quickly forced to question everything you usually take for granted. If you approach the adventure with an energetic and intrepid sense of discovery, you might be surprised by where the spark of exploration can take you. There’s simply no better way to refresh your interests, thinking and habits than to have the crouches of your comfort zones yanked away.
When you find your people, they stay with you forever
Of all the moments in my life, few are stamped deeper on my heart than the times I arrived in a foreign city, and found an instant affinity with strangers who were raised in a culture a world away. In these rare and precious moments when we find our “tribe” in an unfamiliar land, we discover the values and passions that tie us to other human beings in this world, and that propel our search for connection and community.
If we’re fortunate, we might even find ourselves seduced by an entire culture or people, and hear whispered words of welcome that speak to a deeper instinct within us, far below the level of a language that you might struggle to speak. When something so strange and inexplicable as this happens, as it did for me when living in Mexico for three months, the awakened voice within you holds up a mirror with the image of your new spiritual home, and invites you to trace the reflection back to the root of the connection. For me, discovering my bond with Mexico made me wonder whether on some instinctual or emotional level, I felt more at home in a foreign culture than in the one in which I was born and raised.
When you don’t, it shapes you even more
We often romanticize travel, portraying it as a journey from one extravagant adventure to the next. It’s understandable, after all, that the most inspiring moments are the ones we most like to recall and retell. But as someone who did most of his traveling in his 20s alone, I know too well the pangs of homesickness and alienation that can strike when you’re away from your loved ones and failing to connect with a place’s people or culture. For me as a Quebecer, the strangest revelation was to discover that I felt more isolated in Toronto than in Mexico, despite my rusty Spanish skills that made conversation a clumsy affair.
My year living in Toronto was a trying one for me — and one which I will never regret. Just as adversity teaches us more about ourselves than ease, so too does being immersed in an environment that feels unfriendly to us force us to discover and define ourselves against that opposition, so as to understand the source of our discomfort, affirm ourselves, and seek out the people or subcultures which might help you carve out a corner of home.
No chance for an adventure? Be a traveler at home
And what if you don’t have the luxury of taking a few months off for an adventure of self-discovery?
Getting away from home certainly pushes you out of your comfort zones, and opens up the world of opportunities I’ve described above. But in an era of diversity and immigration, where every globalized city is a mosaic of cultural communities, subcultures and tourists from around the world, it’s become possible to be a permanent traveler within your own city as well. Break out of your routines. Throw away the crouches of your comfort zones. Explore the many scenes and spaces that your home town provides. If you approach it with enough energy and determination, traveling can become your new mental home.
Just sail away from your own safe harbors whatever they may be, and soon enough you’ll find yourself in the open ocean of your self-discovery.