A couple of years ago, I sat on an airplane in my home province in Canada. I was awaiting take off for my biggest adventure to date.
I was 23 and I had just graduated University. The previous year had been the hardest of my life. It had been filled with what felt like insurmountable mountains of sadness and grief.
Somehow, I had gotten through it by admitting defeat and bowing out of the situations I found myself in – not very gracefully I might add.
But here I was, on an airplane about to begin a journey that would absolutely change my life. I didn’t know that at the time though. All I knew was fear and anxiety.
I was flying to South Korea, where I was supposed to live and work for the next year. I had signed a contract, giving a year of my life to a school I didn’t know, and a teaching position I was sure I was going to fail at.
I was scared. I cried about six times the day I left. In the back of my head, I continuously told myself that I could always come home. I could always pack my bags up and turn around. I could call it quits whenever I wanted.
I didn’t. Instead, I unearthed these parts of myself that had been hidden. I gave them light and they grew into my limbs and heart. I became a better version of myself.
Travelling constantly presented me with opportunities for growth and personal development. It challenged me and pushed me into new scenarios. And I always seemed to come out on the end with a new understanding of who I am.
When I first landed in Korea, I was responsible for getting myself from the airport to my city, three hours away. I was given instructions from my boss on how to get the bus ticket I needed but I was still petrified. I didn’t know if I was going to be capable of doing it on my own.
I managed of course. And over the next few months, these small seeds of independence started to sprout inside of me.
I had always been independent. I mean, I moved to South Korea by myself. But when I got there, I was intimidated by everything. Going to the train station to get a train alone? Not going to happen. Forget it. I thought I’d never figure it out.
For months, I waited for my friends to make plans that I could tag along with, always too scared to do anything on my own.
Slowly, that changed. About six months later, I took a trip to a city I had wanted to visit for a while, all alone. I got the bus and the train and stayed in a hostel. I met some guy who took me out for karaoke. I sat underneath a bridge in this new city and had a beer all alone, feeling immensely proud of myself and all of the growth I had found, of the person I had become.
Travelling took me so far out of my comfort zone that it gave me an independence I had never known. At the end of my year, I strapped on my backpack and spent four months travelling Southeast Asia all alone. The person I was before South Korea would never have been able to do that.
When I came back to Canada after a year and a half in Asia, I kept receiving comments from my family that I was quieter. That was a little shocking to me because I had always been known for being loud. But after a while, I realized it was true.
I practices a lot of non-reactive behaviours while traversing the Korean countryside. I learned how to sit quietly with things. I had lived in a country where my language wasn’t widely spoken and I learned that I didn’t need to talk just for the sake of talking.
I learned how to be quiet. And I learned how to listen.
It took me a while of spending enough time with people from different parts of the world to learn how to not immediately react to the things people say. I was eventually able to understand that we all come from such different places and have incredibly different stories and each one of them is worth hearing.
I was able to sit and listen, to give space to people who needed it instead of filling it with my own thoughts.
While I was in Laos, a man I had met while travelling told me I was a good listener. That is still the best compliment I have ever received.
Travelling gave me that.
How to Sit with the Hard Stuff
I have always been protective of my alone time. But before I moved to Korea, I had lost a loved one and it had affected me in a profound way. I was unable to be alone. I was unable to sit by myself for longer than a few minutes without wanting to crawl out of my skin.
When I got to Korea, I was living alone for the first time in my life. From Monday to Friday for the first few months, I saw mainly only my students and I spent nearly every evening by myself. And I still had this immense hurt inside of me that I was unable to sit with.
I would pace my apartment. I’d walk home from dinner with a couple friends and I would cry. The idea of going back to my apartment and being alone with my thoughts and feelings was absolutely petrifying.
But I got there. Slowly, I was able to sit with the hard stuff. I got to the bottom of my hurt and it was no longer controlling me or scaring me. Instead, I welcomed it.
I grew this place inside of myself that welcomed pain and didn’t run from it or fear it.
This was one of the most important lessons of all.
The Ultimate Teacher
Travelling isn’t a magic fix for all the problems in our lives, even though it’s often sold that way. Instead, it challenges us to find new layers of ourselves we didn’t know were there. It pushes us into scenarios and teaches us that we’ve had more inside of us than we ever knew.
It is an endless lesson that gives us more than it takes. It’s the ultimate teacher.
But like most things in life, we have to be open to it.
We have to be willing to see all of the opportunities. We have to be willing to be wrong, to fail. We have to admit to ourselves that we need growth and be willing to accept it.
You’re going to have more development than you thought possible. You’re going to acquire personal development skills you never had. You’re going to learn. And you’re going to grow.
So book the ticket.
It’s never too late to start.