49,599 miles later,
This trip around the world was amazing in many ways – the food, the sights, the people …
but all of that was to be expected from a trip like this.
What I didn’t expect was to learn a few life lessons that have changed the way I look at both the world and life.
Here are the realizations that I’ve brought home with me from this trip:
The World Doesn’t Stop Turning
Before going on the trip, I was nervous. Being away for 2 months, many times without internet, scared me. I thought to myself,
…my blog is going to lose readers, my business is going to lose momentum, what is my family going to do if something goes wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t go…
Now that I’m back from my trip, I realized that the world didn’t end. I actually had more readers on my blog while I was away than when I was actively writing articles. That’s when I realized that the world kept on spinning and will continue to do so with or without me.
This was both a relief and a bit unnerving.
Do I really matter? (This question also came up after reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything)
If my absence didn’t make a difference, does my presence?
I thought about this for a while and concluded that …
… it does.
It does to those who are around me. My family, my friends, my readers and all the people I have and will come into contact with in my life.
We often want to see ourselves as the linchpin holding everything together. It makes us feel important when other people depend on us. This is why it is so common for us to use the excuse – “I can’t step away or (fill in the blank) is going to end up in catastrophe”. Perhaps it’s ego or maybe it’s a deep sense of responsibility but more likely than not, we’re just making excuses for something we are scared to do.
So what was my takeaway from all of this?
First, know your priorities and what is really important to you.
Next, do what is most important to you no matter what.
Last, periodically check to make sure you are still doing what matters the most to you.
If you think your company is going to go bankrupt because you decided not to work overtime and spend that time with your family, you’re probably wrong. They’ll be fine with or without you. If you love working and you’ll rather do that than spend time with your family, then by all means, do so.
There is no right or wrong. There is only your choice (and of course, your consequences). Life is what you make it so make it your own.
There is Only the Present
(Walking around Sultanahmet in Istanbul thinking to myself)
… I should’ve gone to the Blue Mosque this morning. Where should I go tomorrow? What should I do when I get to Budapest …
When you take a long trip like this, it’s easy to constantly think about what is next and forget to enjoy the present moment. I was guilty of this several times during my trip.
What’s crazy is that if I didn’t catch myself, I would have spent the full two-months worried about where to go next instead of actually enjoying the incredible experience right in front of me. Since I was also the photographer, I was especially susceptible to this.
Having returned from my trip, I realized that I spend a lot of time in the present thinking about what I’m planning to do tomorrow or what I did in the past. I rarely get to enjoy what’s happening in the present. Knowing that, I’ve tried to focus more on the present through meditation. I now meditate 10 minutes every day and I notice the difference. I am more self-aware and attuned to my thoughts.
Living in the present doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan or reflect on your past. Both of these activities are very important. Just make sure that you’re consciously carving out time to do it so it becomes an activity in the present. What you don’t want is to drift into the past or future when you really should be living your life in the present.
So how do you know when you are wasting your present thinking about the past or future? Just pay attention to what you say to yourself and others. Here are some words that usually signal past or future thinking:
Past: Would’ve, Should’ve, Could’ve, Next time, Why didn’t I …
Future: Next week, Next year, Tomorrow, I plan to, When I …
If you hear these words or phrases, stop and focus on what is happening around you. Ask yourself:
Where am I?
Who is around me now?
Am I breathing in or out?
What should I be doing?
Did I intend to reflect about the past or plan for the future?
Asking yourself these questions may seem strange and a bit extreme but if you don’t become sensitive to where you are focusing, you’ll probably spend most of your life thinking about the past and the future and not living any part of it.
Here are three quotes that sum it up beautifully:
“One problem with gazing too frequently into the past is that we may turn around to find the future has run out on us.”
“Forever is composed of nows.”
“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s Normal for Things to Go Wrong
Despite this subheading, our trip went rather smoothly despite all the logistical issues that could have gone wrong. We even had great weather. So what did I learn from this experience?
Things tend to go wrong when you don’t want them to go wrong
This is Murphy’s law.
I believe our trip was smooth because we expected something to go wrong. When you expect things to be rocky and they are, you become more resourceful because your mind is not clouded by disappointment. You knew something was coming.
Don’t confuse this type of thinking for pessimism. You’re not expecting only negative outcomes. You’re just being flexible enough to allow room for things to go wrong.
The passenger that gets sick on the train.
The computer that crashes right before you saved your work.
The rain that crashes your wedding.
We can’t control the world around us but we can control our reaction.
Although contingency plans are helpful, you can never fully prepare for the unexpected. The best way to get ready is to practice being flexible.
How do you react when things don’t go as expected? Do you just get mad or are you thinking about what to do next?
Follow Bruce Lee’s great advice to “be water, my friend“. Water doesn’t stop when there is an obstacle. It will go around, over, under, or any other way until it gets through. It persists until it reaches where it needs to go.
So here are my lessons learned in a nutshell:
- Do what makes you happy and stop using the “I’m a linchpin” excuse to boost your own importance and to hide your fear of failure.
- Always be in the present moment even when thinking about the past and future.
- Allow room for things to go wrong so when they do, you’ll be thinking about next steps and not how unlucky you are.
What are some lessons you’ve learned while traveling?
For those interested, here are some pictures from my trip:
You can see more pictures at robertchen.com.
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.