I have a confession. This was going to be a simple travel article on my last vacation while still teaching overseas. Now, I have been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to visit some really awesome places as I have written about several times. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, but I ran across an article several months ago that has been niggling at the back of my mind for about that long. It’s one of those self-reflective pieces titled, “Why You Should Travel Young,” where a guy in maybe his late twenties or early thirties espouses the benefits of globe-trotting while the sheen of college life is still fresh. In the beginning of the article, the author, Jeff Goins, is having a conversation with a young woman while on a mission trip and she’s debating whether to go to Africa or to grad school. Goins urged her to travel before “settling down” into her graduate studies and expounds on the “fatal” excuses people give for not just dropping everything and galavanting off:
Yeah, but “¦
“¦ what about debt?
“¦ what about my job?
“¦ what about my boyfriend?
This phrase is lethal. It makes it sound like we have the best of intentions, when really we are just too scared to do what we should. It allows us to be cowards while sounding noble.
Actually, looking at this list, those seem like damn good excuses to not buy a one-way plane ticket to whatever locale appeals to you in said moment. So let’s break this down…
Right now, the generation of young people leaving college are facing crushing amounts of debt due to student loans. Combine that with unemployment, stagnant wages and a higher cost of living and many of us can only dream of a semi-comfortable lifestyle where we don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck most of the time. Sure, one could say, “Screw you” to the financial gods and backpack around Europe or Asia for awhile, but what happens if you eventually want to settle down for a bit in the U.S.? Good luck explaining yourself to Sallie Mae and I hope you weren’t counting on a car loan, qualifying for a mortgage or even getting a decent apartment. To call someone cowardly for wanting to take care of their business and achieve a life of solid financial grounding is a bit heartless and reeks of privilege.* To aim that accusation against those who are simply trying to keep their head above water in whatever way they can is extreme arrogance. Moreover, simply the example above is indicative of circumstances only afforded those who come from a middle to upper middle class background. The fact that this young woman has the CHOICE between grad school or traveling is stunning given that obtaining an undergraduate degree is increasingly out of reach for many.
I swear, finding a decent paying job that also includes benefits is like getting Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. I have friends who’ve landed these coveted spots, but it’s usually because of some combination of working unpaid internships, pavement pounding and/or family connections. In other words, it don’t come easy to most people. Maybe if one came out of school during better economic times, it would be easier to travel extensively knowing that there would be a similar job waiting on the return home. But alas, those times are long gone. As I said before, it is not cowardly or ignoble to set oneself up for future comfort and financial gain. For some, that is all they want out of life and to them I say a hearty, “Good on ya.” Will you someday regret you chose the stable job instead of “adventures?” Maybe, but not everyone gets what they want, when they want it. If you do, I would like to know at which crossroad you sold your soul to the devil.
Actually, with this one, I am in agreement. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but I’m inclined to advise someone to travel if given the opportunity despite a significant other (marriage is very different). If that person is “The One,” they’ll likely be there when you get back.
I will not dispute the main thesis of the piece that travel is a great educator and there are things that can be learned by traveling that are hard to learn elsewhere and that some habits made while young will carry over for the rest of your life. However, there are problems with both these ideas. First off:
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.
This sounds good, great even, but one form of education is neither better or worse than another. You can get a newfound respect for pain and suffering by realizing that between 13 and 16.5 million children live at or below poverty in the U.S. Poverty tourism is a destructive thing and does far more harm than good.
Secondly, Goins recounts a brief conversation in a German men’s locker room where a professor offered the sage observation that, “The habits you form here will be with you for the rest of your life.” Goins goes on to connect that to the “failures” of his peers:
I have seen this fact proven repeatedly. My friends who drank a lot in college drink in larger quantities today. Back then, we called it “partying.” Now, it has a less glamorous name: alcoholism. There are other examples. The guys and girls who slept around back then now have babies and unfaithful marriages. Those with no ambition then are still working the same dead end jobs.
Reading this I tend to think, 1) While alcoholism is a serious thing, some people really just enjoy a good night out, 2) Uhhh, slut shaming much? and 3) Some of us don’t realize what we want to do till later in life. For example, me!
Yes, people develop habits and ruts of their own making and it’s hard to break free, but for many, the habits are born out issues that go much deeper than say, a lack of ambition. Many struggle with past or present abuse, mental illness or physical disabilities and it’s a noble thing to simply function on an everyday basis. Depression was a big part of why I did not travel and worked “dead-end” jobs for much of my twenties. Frankly, I felt like shit when I first read this article because I missed the golden years of my early adulthood to backpack or move to New York City or whatever. Then, I realize I came into all of these things when I was meant to because 24-year-old me would never have survived moving overseas, but 33-year-old me could and did. As was stated brilliantly by Bryn Donovan in a piece about late in life success and following your dreams, the young(ish) do not have a monopoly on living fully and being badasses.
And sometimes making the best with what you have is awesome too.
*I realize I’m writing this from a place of privilege. The opportunity to go overseas to work is not afforded to many and I’ve been extremely fortunate that my life fell in place to allow this to happen. I am very, very lucky and also welcome opportunities to correct any wrong or privileged views.