When people picture life-changing travel they often think about extended adventures to far away places — a summer spent backpacking around Europe, a work assignment abroad, an Eat, Pray, Love-style voyage of personal discovery and healing.
The idea that travel can be transformative is certainly right. Studies have linked time abroad to entrepreneurship, and experts insist stints in other cultures can make you a more flexible, empathetic, and self-aware human. Travel not only helps you get to know the world, it also helps you to get to know yourself.
But as self-recommending as adventures to distant shores might be, the truth is they’re also often completely impossible in real-life. Maybe you can’t leave your business, you’re wedded to school vacation schedules, or your budget simply doesn’t stretch that far. Or maybe you just can’t face the chaos and cancellations at the airport this summer.
Does that mean you’re doomed to miss out on all the transformative effects of travel if you opt for a shorter stint somewhere nearby or familiar? Not according to travel writer Pico Iyer. In a recent TED Ideas blog post he contends that any travel — no matter how short or how near– can be life-changing as long as you use it as a launchpad for reflection and learning.
“It’s only when you get back home that you can really begin to understand a trip and implement the changes it may have set into motion inside you,” he insists. The trick to doing that effectively is to ask yourself these three questions.
1. What moved me most over the course of my trip?
“For me, it’s nearly always the differences in other cultures that ultimately toll most deeply inside,” claims Iyer. Maybe for you it’s awe at a spectacle of natural beauty. Maybe it’s a conversation with a stranger. Maybe it’s a historical site that made you rethink the past.
There’s no right answer here — the excellence of the beer at that little microbrewery you visited is just as valid as deep thoughts about the nature of democracy at the Parthenon — the key is just to take an inventory of what ever moved you during your trip.
2. What surprised me most on my trip?
Surprise is often the gateway to learning. It’s a marker that something was outside our expectations of how the world should work. Maybe you need to update your beliefs in some way then. What inspired the feeling on your latest trip?
3. How might my trip move me to think or live my life a little differently?
Now that you’ve got the raw data of your first two answers in hand, it’s time to move on to this all-important final question: “How will we live differently in the light of what we saw?” In response to this question Iyer tells a less-than-super-relatable story about how a visit to Antarctica made him rethink how his globetrotting was impacting the environment, but your answer doesn’t have to involve towering glaciers and global crisis.
Meeting parents who all stress out about different aspects of childcare (and hardly give a thought to the issues that keep me up at night) made me realize that a lot of what I worry about as a mom is probably ultimately not that important. There are a million and one ways to be a successful parent, so I should chill more and enjoy the ride. Witnessing places with extreme poverty has served as a healthy reminder or my privilege and a nudge to greater gratitude. And some trips just gave me design ideas about how to decorate my house or culinary inspiration for tasty meals.
These are just my examples. Your takeaways will be just as quirky and personal. The key, according to Iyer, is that you are intentional about taking something concrete away from your travels, no matter how modest.
“Promise yourself 20 minutes every day to ensure that the journey doesn’t get lost,” he says. “How might you act differently now? Ask yourself how your life is rich in ways you hadn’t imagined before [and] ask yourself how it’s poor.”
So consider that your homework for after whatever trip you take this summer.