If you’ve been wondering how to be a World Traveler, look no further–this is your guide! Not just anyone who travels can be a World Traveler, there are some key skills and competencies that you’ll find they have in common. The great news is, you, too, can be a World Traveler! You can be a World Traveler even if you haven’t been to every continent, or every country, or even if you’ve only left the US once.
Being a World Traveler is all about your mindset, one that you cultivate both at home and abroad. When you travel, you get to know the world. You get to see how people move through different cities, how people go on with their lives despite obstacles, and how different countries interact with each other.
The more you travel, the more you will start to see your own country differently. My travels will contextualized the US, so it starts to feel like a huge place with people who spend most of their lives inside its borders. There are many people who barely leave the state where they’re born, even though there’s a whole wide world waiting to welcome them!
So, here are the steps that you can take to become a World Traveler:
Take the notion that you already know everything, or even that you should know everything, and ceremoniously burn it. You don’t. You can’t! It’s not the point and it’s not possible if it were the point. Your mission on this giant floating rock is to learn and to grow and investigate the planet like you’re writing a thesis on it.
Don’t smother the curiosity you were born with, kindle it. Stoke the flames. Feed it with all of the things that hold your attention and pique your interest. Don’t judge your interests, just follow them. For me, one of the joys of traveling is seeing giant old door latches and hinges and imagining what it must have been like to open and close those doors over decades and decades.
I’ll never forget standing at the enormous door to the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul in 2012 and wondering how many people have walked through this very door, in this very spot? What were they thinking, or feeling, or wanting, or hoping for? Were their clothes itchy? Did they have a crush on someone they met in a foreign land but know they may never see again? Did they have a blister on their heel from the journey to the mosque that day? What were their dreams for the future?
The sense of wonder at the unknown is one of the greatest gifts of being alive, don’t squander it by judging your own curiosity. When you’ve finished your travels and are ready to head home, bring the curiosity with you. Cultivate a sense of wonder that never leaves you, that drives you to ask questions about the world and read books and listen to the voices of people in far away lands. You don’t even have to say the thoughts out loud, although doing so might help you attract similar-minded investigators, ponderers of the universe.
Be a Student of the World
Travel is a form of education. Think of it like an extended class in the history of everywhere. The more you read about a place and the history of the place and the economy and people of the place, the more context you’ll have for the world. Don’t worry if it doesn’t click right away, just keep reading and watching and asking. If you took history classes, savor the moments they come alive while visiting landmark places.
Since moving to Europe, I’ve often found myself thinking back to the lessons I learned in a college class titled “Nun, Saints, and Mystics” all about women in late medieval and early modern Europe. At one point in the class, we were discussing artwork, and specifically the way that saints were depicted in paintings in that era.
On a recent trip through the Louvre in Paris, I savored my walk through the early modern exhibits, piecing together small bits of information I learned in that class with the paintings in front of me. For instance, the shade of blue used to paint the veil of Mary was extremely expensive, so depictions using that shade of blue were considered very special. I noticed that shade of blue on many paintings in the Louvre, and it felt a little more special to know how precious they would have been to the artists who painted them.
The more you learn, the richer life becomes. Be a student of the world, one who learns because they know that life is both punishingly short and infinitely interesting, if you just know how to listen. Every place you visit has a context. Every person you meet has a story. Every story has a context. Piece the world together for yourself like each individual story and person and history and context in the world throughout history is a precious puzzle piece presented just to you. Everything has a reason, you just need to go out and learn it. There’s no exam; as long as you’re learning, you’re doing it right.
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There’s a common misconception that fear is something that can be conquered, like it doesn’t impact people when they reach a certain level of proficiency in something. While the fear of travel itself may wear off with a few trips, I still experience fear on trips. Sometimes, I feel unsafe and have to quickly adjust to my surroundings. Sometimes, my fear comes from simply being somewhere new or trying a new activity.
My first trip abroad was to Guatemala, and I was so afraid on the plane that I had broken out in hives by the time I landed. I was scared of so many things, but mostly of being unsafe. I didn’t run from this fear, I sat with it. I let the fear change me into someone who feels fear, but travels anyway. I spent time learning the difference between healthy fear and an intuition that something was “off” or “wrong.” As a general rule, if the idea of something fills you with 50% fear and 50% excitement, it’s probably the good type of fear.
If you doubt that even the strongest, most capable people experience fear, think of Simone Biles. During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she was the greatest athlete in the world. She is the greatest gymnast of all time. And still, her downfall was fear. She experienced fear after her vault, sat with it, and determined that it was dangerous to her wellbeing. She then decided that it was in her best interest not to continue the competition. Fear has a real impact on our minds and our wellbeing, so it’s important that we sit with it, learn from it, and make reasoned decisions.
The more you travel, the more experience you’ll have with fear. You’ll start to learn the difference between situations that are just unfamiliar and those that are unusual, dangerous, or life-threatening. If you feel fear, try to reframe the experience from something that is scaring you to something that is new, then evaluate it from there. For me, on my first trip abroad, traveling was new, and that was the source of most of my fear. I still took all of the relevant safety precautions, but I let myself sit with the newness until it wore off and was replaced by adventure.
Be Willing to Change
All World Travelers learn to adapt. Adaptation when you’re traveling often looks like changing your behavior to better fit with the cultural context you’re in. Remember that you, as a traveler, are entering someone else’s culture, and it is likely to be different than the culture you’re from. Things that are perfectly acceptable at home might be considered extremely rude when abroad, and it’s your job to do as few of those things as you can while on your trip.
In the places I’ve traveled, I’ve adapted by wearing clothes that cover most of my body (Jordan), or eating late at night (Spain), or greeting people in another language (most places), or tipping the people who bagged my groceries (Mexico). I’m always looking for ways to better adapt to my surroundings, but in the meantime I always try my best. My goal is to try my hand at living like a person in the place I’m visiting, at least as much as I can. I’ll never be Parisian, but it’s my job to try my best to live as a Parisian would live and act as a Parisian would act when I’m in Paris.
If you get culture shock, know that it passes. If you’ve never experienced culture shock, it’s a feeling of anger or frustration at the place you’re in, where the different customs and manners and foods and sounds can start to sound irritating and unreasonable. Curiosity helps. Being interested in the world around us can be a sort of salve for the frustration of not fitting in a new place, or finding it difficult to function within the new parameters.
If you find that you’re upset or angry when traveling and you don’t know why, Google the symptoms of culture shock to see if it might be the culprit for your bad time. Sometimes, simply knowing what is ailing us can be a big step on the way towards feeling more centered and more whole.
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Always Focus on Growing
Travel is a beautiful way to spend your time because it helps your brain to stretch and grow and learn and adapt in ways that just aren’t necessary at home. Travel asks us to chart our path, make decisions with unknown variables, depend on complete strangers, and collaborate with all of the moving mechanisms of a new place. A novice traveler might try to bend the place to his or her will, instead of practicing acceptance and adaptation.
As you travel more, and travel better, allow yourself to change. Be changed by the places you visit, the people you meet, the food you eat, and the times that you find little sparks of beauty in the world.
It’s scary to travel sometimes, especially if you’ve never done it. It can be scary and intimidating and expensive and challenging, but hard things lead us to joy. There’s a joy in exploration, in seeing something anew, to seeing yourself as a different person than the one that you once recognized. Travel has a way of holding a mirror up to us and showing us that we can, in fact, be better, and more compassionate, and less stuck in our ways, and more loving.
Travel can also teach us boundaries, and to look out for ourselves, and to know that not everyone means well. For all of the good and joy and light in the world, there are also people who want to take advantage or cause hurt or take from, and travel helps you to better attune yourself to that energy. From traveling, I’ve learned to be a quicker judge of character, a skill that comes from meeting lots of types of people from different places. We are never perfect at this, but it helps us to stay safe while taking risks.
World Travelers are always growing, often in ways they never expected. They’re improving their navigation skills, their communication, managing their fears, and learning about the world. If you want to be a World Traveler, start by asking yourself, “What can I learn from this?” or “How can I be better at this?” whenever you have the opportunity. Know that “I’ve always done it this way” is not a good reason, on its face, to continue to do that thing. If a better way comes along, take it!
If you’re willing to change, to adapt, and to accept that there’s almost always a better way to do something (if only you get lucky enough to find out what that is!), you’ll be well on your way to cultivating a growth mindset.
Connect, Connect, Connect
Travel helps you understand that the world is so wonderfully, unapologetically large, filled with people who are similar to you in some ways, but very, very different in others. The world has people everywhere who want to make it a better place, filling their days with little plans to bring lightness and joy and smiles to the people around them. In Ireland, for instance, there are little fairy houses all around, bringing touches of love and whimsy and joy into people’s lives.
Become a World Traveler by connecting. Connect with places, with people, with cultures, with landscapes; let travel teach you that you’re a part of the world and there’s always a place for you. Connection and belonging are intrinsically intertwined–to connect with others is to know that you belong.
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If your goal is to become a World Traveler, please know that I believe you can do it. When you go out for your travels, be kind to yourself. Look around. Take in the scenery. Be present because presence is what it means to be alive. Be forever looking for context and love and intrigue and delicious food. Try things that you don’t normally try at home. Be open to different experiences. Take some healthy risks. Meet people, and ask them about themselves. You’ll only be able to learn by experiencing new things.
Travel takes courage. It takes the courage to be uncomfortable. It takes courage to be in a new place, around new people. It takes courage to try new things and to continue to try new things, even when you’re not sure if you’re doing it right. I know that you have this courage, and that you can continue to cultivate it on every trip you take, near and far.
Do you have any other traits that define World Travelers? Any advice for others who are looking to become better people or travelers or citizens of the world? Let me know in the comments!