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How Do You Know If Travel Is What You Want To Do With Your Life

How I figured out that perpetual travel was what I wanted to do.

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The following is a question from a reader named Alisha about how I knew that I wanted to be a perpetual traveler.

My question to you is how did you know that perpetual travel is what you wanted to do with your life? I ask because I am 19 and entering my freshmen year of college, studying premed. I now question if I want to take 12 more years to complete schooling to become a doctor, or should I follow, what my parents call a “unrealistic dream” of teaching/traveling throughout Europe. I am now fighting between my dreams of traveling non-stop and a career as a doctor(psychiatrist), which is also a dream job, that would also provide me the means to travel occasionally. Again, how did you know that travel was your life?

How did I know that perpetual travel is what I wanted to do with my life?

I’m not sure if there was a moment when I stood up and professed that I would be a world traveler and had any idea of what I was talking about. Sure, I had a rough notion that I wanted to travel around, live on my own terms, work for myself, but I didn’t really have a very crystalline concept of what this would entail. At that point I had never met a traveler before and had no idea what perpetual travel really was. This was before the days of blogs and Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding book and websites that give step by step tutorials on how to be a world traveler, so becoming a traveler was more of an incremental process, rather than something I chose to do outright.


Ultimately, I became a traveler in the same way that most people become anything: it just sort of happened. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do, I tried it, liked it, and decided to keep doing it. At first, I did not lay out a concrete path and proclaim that THIS is what I’m going to do with my life. No, life paths are things that are developed, not things that are selected like buying a product on Amazon.

Through the years I have tried other ways of life, other professions, and other identity frameworks, but it never really lasted too long — in the end I just kept hitting the road, going abroad . . . leaving. Eventually, I suppose just ran out of other lifestyles to try out as I gradually realized that I was a traveler. “Oh, so I guess this is what I do.”

I suppose I knew that I wanted to make travel my life when I realized that I wasn’t really cut out for much else. I think this is an important point to note here: feeling out your way in life isn’t just about discovering what you like and are good at but also what you really not made for. Both are valuable realizations, and I quickly came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t really cope very well in a single place, working the same job, hanging out with the same people, and there was something about travel that just felt right.

This isn’t a point of character weakness, as I’m sure most people couldn’t cope with the lifestyle that I lead. Actually, I don’t believe that there is a lifestyle that is universally “copeable,” that’s why it’s important to go out and explore and find out what you’re made of.

In fact, it is my impression that I could only discover that travel was the right thing for me to do by trying many different ways of life. You see, it is extremely rare for a person to rigidly state, “I’m going to do this with my life,” and then go and do it. Lives generally don’t progress like that, and it is my impression that most people in the United States now try various lifestyles/ professions and then gradually fall into a pattern and social context they are comfortable with.

One of the most amazing things about US culture (or Canadian/ W.Europe/ Australian culture) is that you CAN walk a winding path and come out alright. You CAN try new things, change career paths, live various different lifestyles, progress and grow as an individual, and find your own way in life. We can jump off the bus half way to our destination and hop right on a different one. It’s truly amazing that this culture generally allows its members to step out of line, fumble around, and then retake their position in the queue if they so chose. This is a luxury that people from most cultures are not afforded, and is one that I think you would be foolish to not take advantage of.

You see, most people really don’t end up doing what they say they want to do when in high school. It’s sort of a trap door system we’ve constructed for ourselves in the USA — or in just about any other post-globalized society — where we pressure kids to plot out their entire life plan when they are far too young and inexperienced to know themselves, their world, and what they are really passionate about and then BAM! the bottom falls out and they so often end up stuck far down at the bottom of a pit they have no interest being in. We lock our youth up in a yoke of fear and trepidation that really shouldn’t exist. The future should be looked upon with hope and excitement rather than something to fear and spend a lifetime preparing for.

When you’re in grade school the entire Leviathan of the system — your parents, teachers, peers — present life as though it’s an equation you must have worked out by the time you’re 18. You’re pressured to set in stone a life plan that you will live out for the rest of your days. But this is just ludicrous:

It just doesn’t happen this way.

Most people drastically change their life path four, five, six, a dozen times throughout the course of their lives. Figuring out what you want to do with your life is a lifelong endeavor. Even people in their 50s are out there starting new professions, still figuring out what they want to do when they grow up. This state of constant change isn’t something to feel insecure about, it’s something to revel in.

The immediate path that you decide to take from here more than likely will not be the one you keep going on for the rest of your life. Whether you chose to take off and travel the world or study to become a doctor, these are just two of many different life paths that you will more than likely try out.

Really, the decisions that are being presented to you as being so damn important aren’t really as dire as they are presented to be. You have time. You have time to learn, to experiment, and to figure out your passions. The worst life that I can imagine is someone working a job 40+ hours per week for years on end that they are not passionate about. One of the worst things I can imagine a high school student doing is rushing in and racing through a course of university study that they are not sure they have passion for just because they fear the consequences of doing otherwise.

I can only think of one or two people that I went to high school with (I graduated in ’99) who are now professionally engaged in what they said they wanted to do upon graduation. Everybody else mistook sugar cubes for stone pillars and etched their life plans into something that quickly dissolved as soon as they jumped in the pool of the “real world” and realized what they are made of and what they truly wanted/ felt they could realistically achieve.

More than likely, the path you’re etching out now is not going to be the path you’re going to want to walk at 25; the path that you’re going to bushwhack at 25 probably isn’t going to be one that you’re going to want to keep going down 35; on and on.

Though I’ve been knocking about the world since I was 18, I’ve done so in many different contexts, I’ve done many different professions, had many different jobs, cultivated expertise in many different areas. Though going to new places regularly was always a constant, just about everything else has been variable. I used to be an archaeologist, currently I’m an independent blogger and web publisher — a decade from now I will more than likely be doing something completely different that I cannot even hope to conceive of right now.

Part of growing and experiencing life is that you learn a little more and a little more as you go. You’re going to figure out things about yourself in the upcoming years that you currently cant even imagine. What you want is going to change, your values are going to shift, you’re going try things that you think you will enjoy only to realize that you hate them, you’re going to find that your life plan is far estranged from how life will pan out.

When I first began university I was a marine biology student, then I moved on to anthropology, then ethnographic journalism. Knowing what I’ve learned about myself along the way, I would probably loathe the life of a biologist (and I probably wouldn’t even be very good at it). I am so glad that I had the fortitude to quit school a half dozen times to try other things, as doing so gave me a glimpse of what I truly enjoy.

I’m pretty happy and content with my lifestyle, I wake up each day and do something that I love, but I couldn’t have gotten here by picking this lifestyle out of a proverbial catalog and placing an order. No, it was the path, the experience, the knowledge which is gained along the way that’s of importance here. What I do professionally will probably continue to change — the job, the profession, the lifestyle isn’t what’s important here — it’s the framework for self-fulfillment that’s of value. I want to go to sleep at night feeling satisfied in how I spent my day; I want to wake up in the morning excited to engage my work.  When weighed against this the particulars of what I do exactly are trifles — it’s this feeling that matters.

Having too well of a defined and unbending career path when young is like traveling across America on an interstate highway. Sure, you’ll get to where you’re heading faster, but you’re going to miss much of what there is to experience and learn along the way, and there is always the chance that you’re heading straight to a place that you really don’t want to be. The slow road takes longer, it’s full of travails and risks, dead ends and detours, mistakes and failures, but where you make it to your destination you’ll know it.

You’re not going to break your life. Seriously, Western culture is extremely flexible and forgiving, as it grants its members a wide range of motion to try new things, to breath life into crazy ideas, to fail, and to start over again. My advice: try all the dreams you can. You may not even like traveling, you may love psychiatry. If these dreams don’t work out it’s just part of the vetting process of life.

This is how I knew I wanted to be a traveler.


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Filed under: Start Traveling, Travel Help, Travel Inspiration

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Alisha July 31, 2013, 1:39 pm

    Thank you so very much for this.

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  • Lachlan July 31, 2013, 9:13 pm

    Thanks for the fantastic question/answer.

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  • mikecrosby August 1, 2013, 12:51 am

    Wade, I love the way you think. And it’s born from experience. You’ve had the courage to choose a path most would never consider. Thanks for the great writing. To me a great writer is someone who writes something that I have to chew on for a few days. This article has done that.

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    • VagabondJourney August 1, 2013, 1:38 am

      Thanks Mike. What I think is truly interesting here is that you have cultivated what seems to me to be a pretty self-fulfilling life without needing to take off to the other side of the planet or live any sort of extreme lifestyle. That’s artful, and I admire it.

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  • Megan August 1, 2013, 11:36 am

    I love this, Wade. Thank you. It’s so inspiring and exactly what I need as I head out to bushwack the next path. I agree with you completely. Youth only comes once and it is fleeting. We will all be old for longer than we are young. Not that age should ever inhibit anyone from reaching their dreams at any point – but there is no reason to RUSH into anything! Especially at 19! I completed a bachelor’s degree in a subject that I have never held a job in. I changed my major about five times in the university because I was overwhelmed by the prospect of choice! How beautiful is that! Well, it is frustrating at times.There are so many “ifs” – If I had been older when I had attended college, I would have known more about myself and would have possibly chosen a major that was suited toward a career that perhaps I wanted. Thing is – I still don’t know what that career is and I am 30! I am not worried about it though. I enjoyed college immensely. I did learn a lot and was able to take advantage of study abroad programs (which I highly recommend any student doing!). I have lived in three different U.S. states of great beauty and excitement and have traveled extensively. So far I have been on the plan of work for a few years in a town or state that I enjoy, love my friends, play music while I’m working at a job that will provide me valuable skills and save money when I will have to quit that job so I can hit the road for a few months or a year at a time. I’m getting ready to bid farewell to another interesting U.S. town and a job that has taught me a great deal. There have been trials and frustrations, but I am ready to make another big change. I require change and I refuse to be anything but excited about the future. Thank you Wade for your response, and thank you to the asker of the question. My advice – you’re young – feel it out. You have plenty of time to hop back on the wagon, as Wade mentioned. Live your life – you only have one.

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    • VagabondJourney August 1, 2013, 8:44 pm

      This is a really excellent take here. You can pretty much always go back to where you’re standing now. Western culture is incredibly forgiving. Taking the time to experience the paths that are before you is one of the most valuable thing a person can do. Honestly, I did not graduate from college until I was 28, and it really would have had no effect if I’d chose the career building route. It really made me appreciate how flexible my culture is. I mean, you could graduate at 35 and still have just about as many opportunities — and perhaps even more — as some fresh faced 22 year old. This is something that people can’t really do everywhere.

      I had a whole section in this post about how the notion of a career is corroding in the West, but cut it out as I was getting beyond the bounds of the question. But it is my impression that expertise in something a person is passionate about is now far better than a degree in something that only has the benefit of making someone money. Generally speaking, as a culture we’re losing our resolve to spend our lives working jobs we really don’t enjoy in the name of security — especially those raised with a strong notion of choice and self-determination. Capitalizing on a passion is more and more proving to be a realistic endeavor.

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