One of the things that has truly allowed me to succeed in life is my ability to listen to other people’s advice (and their mistakes) and then plan my own actions accordingly. For most people, that is a great trait, and most days I am grateful that I am able to do so. However, I also found that my need to plan everything in order to get the most desirable outcome can possibly have the opposite effect. I could actually end up limiting myself. Travel made me realize that.
Growing up I always had high expectations for myself, but no matter how well I did, I never felt like it was good enough. When I heard people make comments like, “Oh, well, my daughter graduated with a 4.0 GPA” and “I landed this super fantastic and competitive internship,” I became determined to do the same things, if only because I wanted people to be able to say those things about me too. I always wanted to be at the top, because I thought that was what it meant to be successful.
The Plan to Reach the Top…
One of the reasons I went to a private high school was because I knew it would look better on a college application than my local public school. I took AP (Advanced Placement) classes so that I could earn college credit for my high school classes and maybe even be one of the few people who graduated college in less than four years. I also took lots of practice tests for the ACT and SAT tests (college readiness assessment tests) so that I could get the best score possible and be offered good scholarships or maybe even a free ride.
When it came time for college, I began planning out the classes I would take. Knowing that other students sometimes didn’t graduate on time because they missed required classes, I planned out what classes I was going to take for all eight semesters of my college career. Before classes for my freshman year had even begun, I had started looking for jobs and internships in my field because I knew that experience in my field would look way better on a resume than working as a waitress through college. I landed a job working in my school’s computer security department during the school year and every summer I got an internship at a reputable company.
As far as I was concerned I was on track for a perfect life. Sure, life is never perfect, but at the very least I was prepared. I had done everything people said would ensure that I would be successful: I got good grades in high school and college, I scored high on my ACT and AP tests to ensure I was able to go to a good college with lots of scholarships, I got awards for outside activities, I had practically years of experience in my field before graduating. I was certainly ahead of most other people my age.
At one of my many internships, my “mentor” (my boss) sat down with me and asked me where I wanted to be in 5 or 10 years. He even had a little worksheet that I could fill out that would help me logically think through it. I never actually filled out the worksheet, but I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing.
The Precursor: Realizing Life is Short
The precursor to my wake up call came when I was 17. A week into my senior year of high school, my dad passed away from colon cancer. He was 56 years old. This was a man who had been extremely healthy all his life, never gotten sick, loved sports, and even used to run marathons, but I lost him anyway. He had always talked about taking me canoeing or teaching me how to ski, but we ran out of time. I very quickly learned that life is often a lot shorter than we think.
I started putting more effort into my relationships (friends, family, etc.) and adopted a “why do tomorrow what you can do today philosophy,” but it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the close-minded box I had put myself in. For certain reasons, I had every intention of staying in my hometown. Because of that, I considered settling for a small-time, eight to five desk job. I ignored any opportunities that didn’t line up with those goals, and that is something I severely regret.
Travel Opened My Eyes
Studying abroad in Japan for four months allowed me to experience another culture, and it took me out of my element. I was not only on my own for the first time, but I was disconnected from the society and people that seemed to have dictated my life. It was different from going on vacation for a week or two, because the point of vacation is often to simply relax and take a break. In Japan, I lived with the mentality of, “Why not?” because who knew if I was ever going to go back to Japan. I took every opportunity that arose, even if it was something that was a little out of my comfort zone, because I knew that my time in Japan was short and I may not ever get that opportunity again. It gave me a freedom that I’ve never felt before, and let me tell you, that feeling can be addicting.
I slowly began to realize just how much I had been limiting myself. Most of all, I began to realize just how much I had let other people limit me. Why had I cared so much about getting the highest possible score on standardized tests or getting the most awards? Because I wanted bragging rights? Because I wanted other people to be jealous of the way I seemed to have my life figured out?
When I got back from Japan, I found that I was incredibly unhappy with my current lifestyle. For a while, I felt incredibly lost, because I knew that I wasn’t content with the way things were, but had absolutely no idea how to make it any better, so I started letting go of the things that had gotten me there. I gave up on some of my goals, even some of the ones that I felt like I had been working towards my whole life. I got a new job. I even ended a four and a half year relationship. I’ll admit, it was rough for a while. For the first time, I finally understood what it meant to have to “find yourself.”
Almost a year later, I’m still not entirely sure where I want to be in five years, but that’s the way I like it. It lets me live with the same “Why not?” mentality that I had in Japan. Stage Makeup and Design sounds like a fun elective class to take, so why not? Nashville sounds cool, so why not go? If I don’t end up in Nashville, that’s okay, because chances are, I ended up at someplace way cooler.
Now, you will never hear me say, “it would be nice to…” because my response would always be, “why not?” I won’t sit and think about all the places that would be cool to see. I’ll do it, and I won’t wait till tomorrow. Watch out world. I’ve let loose, and I’m coming!
Have you had any eye opening experiences while traveling? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear about them!
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19 thoughts on “Travel Was My Wake Up Call”
It’s amazing how a trip can have such a life changing experience for us. I didn’t realise how unhappy I was with my life until I travelled and saw I didn’t have to be unhappy. I’m glad travel was able to open my eyes to something better. Hope there are many wonderful travels in your future.
Thank you for sharing your story! Going to a foreign country to live for four months and then applying that knowledge you learned when coming home is so inspiring. My eye-opening experience was my first visit to Thailand. I was there on a two week vacation from work and realized right away that travel need to play a bigger role in my life. BTW- I love your “Why Not” outlook, I’m going to adapt that philosophy as well.
Personally, I really like the “life is short” mentality, but I think that phrase has just become so popular and overused that nobody takes it seriously any more. My “why not?” philosophy isn’t much different, but I think it’s great that you want to take that approach!
Great post – a lot of this really resonates with me. I moved out to Switzerland from the UK for a “great job” seven years ago… beautiful country, high salary, all the lifestyle perks but after 4-5 years, I was totally burnt out with working 60-70 hour weeks, back to back projects and constantly feeling like whatever I did, it was never good enough. I’m lucky enough that my dad is still here but he was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease not long after he retired and it made me realise I don’t really have any good reasons for continuing this relentless pursuit to the top, and moreover, I don’t want to risk that the best years of my life continue to be spent at a desk for a faceless company that doesn’t care about me. So after saving hard the last two years, three months ago, I quit. Next month my partner and I leave Switzerland to for an initial 8 month tour around Asia. So I can totally relate to your journey and what it means to shift your goals. Thanks for sharing such personal insights, and keep walking the path that is right for you.
Thanks for sharing your personal experience too! I’m sorry to hear about your father. It’s unfortunate that serious events like these are what it takes for us to finally open our eyes. I hope you enjoy your trip around Asia. I’d be interested in hearing of some of the places you plan on going.
This is very personal post that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to (myself included). I especially like the part about not letting other people limit you. There are 1000 people who will tell you how to live your life, it takes courage to find your own way.
It took me a long time to even realize that people were limiting me. Hindsight is 20/20. It’s not like they were dictators telling me exactly what to do. They were and are great people, but I found that my desire to do what would make them happy was sometimes not what would make me happy. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do a better job of seeing that in the future.
Wow, you known how to plan ahead. So sorry to hear about your dad. What a great philosophy to embrace. I haven’t had any eye opening experiences while traveling. But have a similar philosophy towards travel. I’d rather have experiences than things.
Thanks for your condolences. I totally agree that experiences are better than things. I never knew what high value experiences could have.
I love your why not motto. I have a similar one – if not now, when? I had a similar wake up call in Japan. I was teaching English there and realized I probably would never have such proximity to Asia, so I took advantage of the location as best I could. Though tragedy struck your family early, it seems like you’re living life to its fullest.
Japan seems to be a common place for wake up calls, haha. I know a few other travelers who decided to change their lives after spending time in Japan. Unfortunately, I never made it to any of the surrounding Asian countries during my four months living in Japan, but I have a great love for Japan and visited practically every square inch of that country. I hope that I have the opportunity to visit more of Asia in the future.
This is beautiful and I’m so sorry for your loss. I love your story and I can relate as I lived in Japan for 3 months and it was truly eye-opening. I wasn’t there to study and I was 10 years older than you when I went but it was an experience I’ll never forget. I think more people should travel because it really does open your eyes to more than just your surroundings. Well done.
I appreciate the condolences. May I ask what took you to Japan for 3 months? Most people I hear of who spent a decent amount of time in Japan are either study abroad or there teaching English.
I love how traveling changes us and helps us become better individuals. I had a similar experience before. I moved to another state and didnt really had any job opportunities for a long time. I wasnt really depressed but I was aloof for a couple of months until I started traveling. Now, I cant seem to stop! I love traveling!
Travel just seems to make life so much better!
Thanks for your story, there are only a handful of us that feel that exact way and get this travel life. Personally travelling has been my biggest, best and most valuable teacher. Keep it up
With travel blogging on the rise, I hope one day it will no longer be just “a handful of us,” because you’re right, travel is a wonderful teacher.
Thank you for sharing this very personal and moving article. I lost my father in law unexpectedly and that really was a wake up call to seize life now and not in some distant future. I always believed in carpe diem, but that moment was the realization that life is fleeting. As a result, I gave up a high powered job that was causing me stress to truly live life. The last two years have been filled with much travel and experiences that have enriched my life incredibly. Stepping outside the day to day, helps clarify and put things in perspective. Happy travels!
Sorry to hear about your father, but I’m glad to hear that you’re living life to the fullest!