I have a nephew who is graduating from high school this May, and another recently graduated from college. They’ve done just fine and have grown up well in spite of the limited influence of their wandering Auntie. Yet neither of them has traveled much. And I think they should. I think everyone should.
Now, no one has ever asked me to deliver a commencement address. But if they ever did, I’d want to talk about the importance of travel. Here’s what I would say.
Graduates. Today you might feel as if you are done, at last. You’ve followed the road map of your education from start to finish, and you’re ready to refold it and stash it away with your diploma and tassel.
And rightfully so. You’ve done a lot of work to get here. And it feels like an ending, maybe the end of all you’ve known to this point. But in truth, this commencement ceremony is just the beginning. It’s your trampoline. It’s your personal launch pad. And while you’ve studied and worked hard throughout all of your classes to get here, there is one classroom you have yet to enter.
I am here to tell you that the world has much to teach you, if you are a willing student. Your syllabus will be revealed to you as you amass miles. Your tests will likely all be pop quizzes, and you will never see them coming. To study, you’ll need to travel.
And perhaps most terrifying of all, there is no road map.
But then again, there are no right or wrong turns. The only way to fail this class is if you fail to show up.
Sure, you’re probably eager to start making money, to begin your climb up the corporate ladder, to solve problems and navigate complexities and forge solutions that no one else has forged before. All of these aspirations have value.
But many of them are fleeting.
The lessons you glean from immersing yourself in experiences and cultures that are unfamiliar to you…are anything but fleeting. They become a part of you. They transform you on a cellular level. They reframe what you’ve known to be true, and show you a bigger picture.
Think of it this way.
A photographer selects what you see. A writer whittles their thoughts to present a point. A teacher chooses what you read. Even our parents have crafted our world for us. All of this serves to create a limited scope of reality. Because what most of us don’t realize is that to this point in our lives, our opinions have been formed in the shadow of those who have taught, protected and guided us.
Now as you graduate, you have the unique chance to seek learning from the source, to form your own thoughts and opinions based on your own first-hand experiences. You have the chance to draw your own map, away from others who until now have held all the ink. They told you which direction to turn, when to stop, when to hurry, and often, what to think. Now is your first real chance to go it alone.
You may not think you can afford to travel now, financially, professionally, and personally, but this is the one time in your life when you are wealthy with freedom and rich with time. Though you may feel pressure to be employed, you have decades of worklife ahead of you. Yet time and freedom are in scant supply, two of life’s rarest gems that vanish and seem impossible to recapture once you enter the world of the working. Take them, and use them well.
What’s more, after this ceremony, you’re about to get a quick injection of cash. That also doesn’t happen very often. Rather than paying bills, buying video games or upgrading your car, consider making an investment in yourself. It’s one that never goes out of style, can’t be repossessed and will enrich your life forever.
But be forewarned, if you do it right, travel will not be easy. You must mindfully enter into the abyss with full knowledge that it will likely break you. And you must welcome the fact that it will be up to you to piece yourself back together into the whole, world-wise person you want to become. Welcome the transformation. Invite the world to change you for the better.
Travel is a relentless teacher. So when you buy that ticket, and I hope you do, and when you plan your journey, take full advantage of the missteps the world allows you to take now…so that you can carry the lessons you learn throughout the rest of your life.
Some might tell you that seeing the great archeological digs of the world, or visiting the great architecture or art of the masters will enrich your life. Some will advise you to only stay in luxury hotels, in the safe part of town, away from the ugliness. But I think it’s simpler than all of that.
So, as you shed your graduation gown, shed the constructs that have bound you to this point.
And just go into the world and be.
And the lessons will find you.
Of course there are a few things you can do along the way to fast-track your learning.
Wander freely and unencumbered. Pare your belongings down to what you really, truly need. Put away your screens, even leave them behind, so that you are not tempted to sacrifice the beautiful theatre of life in front of you on the altar of technology. When you have the bare minimum, you realize that you don’t need things to be happy; freeing yourself of them is a cobblestone on the path to happiness.
Go to places where you don’t speak the language. There you will learn how actions speak louder than words.
Run out of money so that you might experience the kindness of strangers. And more importantly so that you may see how rich you truly are without it.
Dive down into the discomfort. Let it make you vulnerable. Let it crush you. This means often skipping the westernized tourist experience, in favor of pure cultural immersion. The Four Seasons will be posh and the McDonald’s predictable, but discomfort and the unfamiliar will crack open your mind like nothing else, so the goodness of truth can rush in.
Connect with people who are totally different than you. Only then will you discover how alike we all are, in the ways that matter most.
Get lost. In getting lost, particularly off the tourist trail, we make discoveries we might never have come upon. We see how families really live, rather than the glossy version of the world we’ve been shown to this point. We find that out-of-the-way café with the untranslated menu, and remarkably cheap food. There is value in losing your sense of direction: you realize how your whole life someone has guided you, and how much you’ve missed in being led. And just as importantly, you realize how essential it is to find and keep your truth north, both ethically and geographically, as you journey across the many scuzzy border towns of life.
Marvel at your ability to make poor choices. For when you make poor choices, the hangover-scented light of dawn illuminates the right ones. So, eat unfamiliar foods. Hook up with the wrong people. Drink the bathtub gin. Do something you’re not proud of. Then, own up to it. Only once we’ve walked through the swamp of shame do we see how our choices alone led us to this mess. And that refines our moral compass.
Get ripped off. As you travel the globe, you will find that most people are kind and generous. And you will learn that some are not. Whether you are the victim of pickpocketing, petty theft, or an overcharge from a taxi driver, it’s good to get scammed. Let it make you sad for humanity. Let it teach you that for some, honesty is a luxury, that there are people in the world who feel as if they have to resort to dishonesty to survive. Let it help you see the value of a living wage and the kind of person you want to be. And let it hone your character to such a polished integrity that no one will ever think to question your honesty and intentions, even for a minute of your career.
And lastly, find your way home. You may look much the same. But you will be a new person, someone who has a deeper understanding of the truths of humankind than anyone who has never pushed themselves beyond the borders of their formation.
In the end, as you graduate from your studies of the world, your diploma will be little more than some scars and indignities you’ve endured along the way, and a few precious memories.
Yet in the soulless breath of boardrooms and cubicles, in the dank sameness of 8-to-5 and two weeks of vacation per year, and in the weightlessness of salaries and promotions, the knowledge you’ve gained will sweeten the air in your heart and give substance to the power of your existence.
Best of all, in the wake of your experience, you will find that you have all you need. Because you will have ventured to the mountains that few climb, and crossed the rivers few make the effort to portage. Because of it, the passport of your soul will be filled with stamps that form your character.
For when you stood up to fear, you won your courage.
When you felt weak, you found strength you did not know you had.
When you were broke, you came to understand true wealth.
When you were misled, you forged your integrity.
When you were lost, you found your true north.
And when you returned home, you did so with a better understanding of the vastness of this beautiful planet and all of her people, and the humble yet essential role you can take within it.
Congratulations, graduates. You are about to take the hardest and most rewarding course of your life.
Your first assignment: buy a ticket.
Give travel the next chapter of your life’s story, and in turn, it will reward you with the world.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.