Penelope Trunk of Brazen Careerist fame has posted an article about why travelling is a waste of time. Those of you who know me reasonably well just winced, because you know what my reaction is likely to be.
Penelope is one hundred percent wrong. Not necessarily in all of her reasoning, but certainly in the conclusion she drew. If her article was a college paper, it’s the sort of thing that would scrape a B- thanks to its presentation and the fact that she at least presented a somewhat logical train of thought.
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
I’m growing sour on travel. I have always disliked it. When I was a kid my parents took us all over Europe and the Caribbean, and it really exhausted me. Now that I’m a grown up, I am better able to articulate why I think travel is a waste of time. Here are four reasons why I think the benefits of travel are largely delusional:
Well, short of putting it in the title, she couldn’t have been much clearer—this article is about why traveling is a waste of time for Penelope Trunk. She didn’t like it as a kid, she doesn’t like it now, and sucks to anyone who thinks she should. Fair enough. But then she goes on to call people like my friends and I delusional, which I think is deserving of a well-articulated rebuttal.
1. There are more effective ways to try new things.
While it’s true that learning and broadening your experience is important, doing that one time is quite different from consistently integrating something new into your life. It’s low risk to try something for a week. Which will make more impact on your life: going to Africa for a week and seeing wildlife and living in the jungle, or retooling your weekly schedule so that you take a walk through your local forest preserve once a week? You will have a stronger connection to the forest preserve than the jungle, and you will have a deeper sense of how it grows and changes and how you respond. So if you hope that travel will change how you see the world, doing something each week to see the world differently will have more impact than doing it one time, seven days in a row.
::whistles:: I’m not even sure where to begin. Okay, point one: not all travelling is a one-week endeavour, Ms. Trunk. Some of us find ways to go abroad for months at a time, and live or work there. Living or working in any new place for an extended period of time exposes you to new and valuable experiences, and doing it on a different continent even more so. Point two: visiting that jungle may be a one-week endeavour now, but who’s to say that one trip won’t change your life and introduce you to your future career?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hugely important to make time to visit that local forest; travelling is unlikely to do you any good if you don’t already have a strong connection to your home. Or, as Twoflower puts it in The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett, “All this traveling and seeing things is fine but there’s also a lot of fun to be had from having been. …You’ve got to stop. You haven’t really been anywhere until you’ve got back home.” But you don’t get that fun if you don’t go anywhere, either.
In summary, if travelling is all you’re doing to try new things or change the way you see the world, Ms. Trunk is right; it’s a waste of time. On the other hand, travel can be a fantastic way to encounter new things if you already have your eyes open.
2. Cultural differences are superficial. Economic differences matter.
Don’t tell yourself you travel to learn about different cultures. Because you don’t necessarily learn from people in other cultures. And you don’t need to leave the US to find cultures different from your own.
Frans Johansson writes about diversity, and he says that race is not a indicator of diversity any more—background is. And the most diverse backgrounds come from economic disparity. So a rich white person and a poor white person are more different than a rich white person and a rich black person.
I think this is true across cultures as well. I had a South African roommate in college. But she was just like me: rich, white, Jewish. But when I lived on a French farm for a summer, the big difference between me and the farm family wasn’t that they were French. It was that they were living on a farm. I know this because when they figured out I was unhappy, they sent me to live with their cousins in Lyon—a large city in France—and the cousins were just like me.
You don’t have to travel to learn about different cultures; it just helps. Travelling helps to jar you out of your normal routine, and encourages and enables you to explore aspects of a society you would otherwise avoid or miss. When I visited Scotland, I wound up staying with a man who was a baron by blood and land (he didn’t feel the need to pay a fee to become a titular one). While I could certainly attempt to spend time among his economic peers in the United States, they still wouldn’t be landed nobility. As a traveller, you will likely find that your status opens cultural doors to you that are difficult to open through other methods.
Again, the issue here mostly comes down to the fact that if you walk around with your eyes closed, you will find it equally difficult to encounter and learn about new things whether you do it at home or abroad. If your eyes are open, travelling gives you access to a new (and often wider) range of people and cultures.
3. People who love their lives don’t leave.
Imagine if you were excited to get out of bed every day because you had structured your life so that every day was full of what you have always dreamed of doing. And you were in love with your boyfriend, and your job, and your new handstand in yoga. You love it all—imagine that. Would you want to leave all that behind for two weeks? What would be the point? You’d have more fun at home than away from home. So instead of traveling somewhere, how about figuring out what you’d really love to be doing with your time, and do that? In your real, day-to-day life.
I find the assumption that I am travelling to get away from something troubling. I do love my life. And if I want to love it abroad as well as at home, where’s the problem? I can be just as excited about my life whether I’m at home or abroad, and if there are people, places, and things I can reach by travelling, why not add a thrill of discovery to that excitement? I’d rather travel with one of the people I love, it’s true, but I enjoy the experience of travelling (new people, new places, long train rides, and so forth) sufficiently that I am willing to travel by myself if necessary.
In other words, travelling is not my way of leaving my life. It’s my way of adding even more love to it.
4. Travel is not the time to do deep thinking.
People who need an escape so they can think deeply actually need to add that to their daily life. How about setting aside time to think deeply every few days? Sam Anderson suggests in his article in New York magazine that meditation is so important that people are going to start making time for it in the same way we make time for exercise now. So maybe that travel bug you are feeling is actually a give-me-headspace bug, and if you think you need it only for a couple of weeks, you’re wrong. You need time to think each day. Re-craft your days to honor that need, instead of running away for what can only be a temporary respite.
My guess is that the things you are aiming to accomplish while you travel are generally things you could accomplish on a deeper level if you stayed home and made changes to your life instead of running away. Routine and practice are the keys to giving deeper meaning to your life. Sure, disrupting routine is important for gaining new perspective. But you certainly don’t need to travel to the next country. There is plenty that is new right where you are now. Just look closely.
You don’t need to travel. You also don’t need ice cream, or sex, or to lie out in a sunny field on a beautiful summer day. But all of those things can sure help make your life more enjoyable, if they happen to be the sorts of things you enjoy. I think my point here is that travel may not do it for Penelope Trunk. From my point of view, that’s a little bit sad; given my personal experiences, I can’t help but feel like she’s missing out. With that said, she’s perfectly entitled to think I’m crazy for having this wanderlust; the beauty of all of us being different is that, you know, we’re all different.
Once more, though, I feel the need to rebut Ms. Trunk’s assumption that I travel to run away from something. I travel to get to something, to encounter new things, new people, and new ideas. There are definitely side benefits in that I tend to think more clearly for some time after I travel, to desire stuff less, to seek after enlightenment with greater tenacity. Certainly it behooves me to make my home life more conducive to such a state of mind, but if it’s easier to find by travelling, why would you have me deny myself such a pleasurable and educational experience?
For those who consider themselves to be lifelong learners with eyes always open, I cannot recommend travel highly enough.