Where Does Travel Fit Into Your Life Narrative?

I’m delighted to share today’s guest blog post by Dale Davidson.  While we all know that travel is enjoyable and transformational, Dale’s piece challenges us to consider the role of travel in our lives in a much more serious light.

The Importance of Narratives

The most intolerable situation for most people is ambiguity. I’m not talking about situational ambiguity. I’m talking about the greater existential ambiguity that most people find themselves at one point or another. Not knowing what you want for dinner is ambiguous, but not that ambiguous. Not knowing what you’re doing with your life is the type of ambiguity that can paralyze you. It can lead to severe bouts of depression and self-pity.

For example, I chose a life narrative out of high school that worked really well for a long time. I was going to college and was planning on becoming a Navy SEAL. I took all the right steps. I received an NROTC scholarship, I was commissioned as an officer in the Navy, and I headed out to San Diego to begin training after I graduated.

Once I realized that path wasn’t for me, I ditched that narrative. But for a long time I was pretty happy pursuing that path. If you’re unhappy, you might want to reconsider your life narrative and see if any of the below situations apply to you:

If you don’t have a life narrative, you are probably unhappy. If you have no idea what you want to do with your life and haven’t adopted a “quest” narrative in which you are actively searching for your purpose, you will be unhappy.

If you have a life narrative that is incomplete, you are probably unhappy.  We’ll go in to the elements of a good narrative below, but sometimes you just need more things in your life.  Perhaps you’re in a career where you can’t advance any further. Maybe adding a spouse or child to the story line will make it more complete.

If you have a life narrative that is inconsistent with your personality, your present circumstances, and your goals, you are probably unhappy. I realized the military was completely incompatible with my personality, so I became unhappy. If you have adopted the narrative of the entrepreneur and you haven’t taken any action, you’ll be unhappy. Make sure you add some level of consistency in your narratives.

The Elements of a Good Narrative

The elements of a great story also apply to life narratives. Here are a few things you need for a fulfilling life narrative:

a)     A protagonist. This is you. You need to be the center of your life narrative. You are the focus of your story.

b)     A plot. Most cultures do an excellent job of giving you at least an adequate plot. If you’re a middle class American, the plot line involves getting into a good college, working hard, raising a family, and accumulating wealth. Along the way, you’ll face challenges and uncertainty, but these are still consistent with the larger narrative of the American Dream. Here are a few other things that are typically found in engaging and exciting plots:

–          Personal growth/character development

–          Obstacles

–          Passion

–          Struggle

–          Sacrifice

–          Success

–          Tragedy

c)     A noble goal – If you’re just starting out, your noble goal may be to just get stable, to get a job and to support yourself. Later, you may devote your life to helping poor kids in Africa. The point is you should have a purpose for existing that is meaningful to you.

Why “Traveler” is a Terrible Identity and an Incomplete Life Narrative

The act of traveling offers almost none of the things that a great narrative needs. There is a protagonist, certainly, but there is no greater plot.

If you think that becoming a permanent vagabond will make you happy, you are wrong. Vagabonding doesn’t have a purpose. There are no major obstacles to overcome (other than things like food poisoning or being stranded or things of that nature). There is no sense of progress other than superficial progress. You may think getting a 100 visa stamps is important and it may give you the feeling of real progress, but it is ultimately unfulfilling.

In fact, I’m quite certain that the nomadic lifestyle on its own is a recipe for unhappiness. At its best, it is a temporary narrative.

The Role Travel Should Play in Your Life Narrative

If you look at the self-declared vagabonds out there, you will notice that they all have a much bigger life narrative. Travel becomes a major, but subservient part to their great purpose.

The most successful travel bloggers and writers have identities outside of travel. They are writers, they are business owners, and they are influencers. They know what progress looks like because they have clear narratives. They can put setbacks in the context of their life narratives. If a travel writer’s book doesn’t sell or is poorly received, it can be clearly categorized as a setback or obstacle to be overcome on their path to becoming the best travel writer of all time.

People tend to view travel as the goal. You save for a round the world trip and you’ll magically be happy when you’re sipping delicious beverages on the beach.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you’re adopting the traveler narrative, the obstacles are relatively trivial and of little consequence. How meaningful is it really that you can live off 5 dollars a day in Germany? Not very.

The only way travel will make you happy is if you make it consistent with a greater life narrative.

Here are some great ways travel can fit your life narrative:

  1. As a tool for self-knowledge. I especially like this one because travel gave me new insights into my personality as well as things I do and do not enjoy doing. For example, travel helped Kristin of {r}evolution apparel that she wouldn’t be happy at a desk job. Instead, she chose to become an entrepreneur, a much more complete narrative in which travel played a crucial but subservient role.
  2. As inspiration. Maybe travel will help you write a novel. Maybe you’ll be inspired to learn more. Maybe you’ll spend more time volunteering. Travel is an excellent inspirational tool. The important thing is to remember it’s a tool. A hammer can’t give you happiness, but a home that you build for yourself and raise your family in can make you happy.
  3. As rest. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using travel to re-energize and re-focus. Travel doesn’t have to be anything more than that.

The “Travel as Mastery” manifesto supports travel as an opportunity for deliberate practice in other areas of your life. It was borne of the firm belief that travel is most meaningful when it’s used in the service of a greater goal, a greater narrative. If you support this idea, feel free to shared the manifesto.

About the Author: Dale is the co-founder of TrekDek, a travel company dedicated to helping people use travel as a way to gain mastery. You can sign up for the Travel as Mastery Newsletter to read more about “Travel As Mastery.” When not working on TrekDek, Dale spends his time writing for his own blog, Dale Thoughts, and coordinating camel rentals for a defense company (yes, camels).



Note: Missy added this book – as Dale’s post reminded me of how travel is so much more than we often think it is:


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