Two years ago, when I lived abroad, I made note of everything I experienced. Especially when those experiences contradicted the clichés I had heard about travel.
Most of the time, my experience wasn’t exactly original. I made great friends, partied a lot and now I miss the people and places. Honest, but pretty much what I had been told before setting out.
One difference between cliché and experience, was the idea of “finding yourself”. Repeatedly, I’d heard that a major reason for travel was self-discovery, to better understand who you are and what your life should be.
Instead, I found the opposite. More than anything, I felt living abroad weakened my identity. Things about myself I had complete certainty in became fuzzier.
Now I’m realizing that “losing yourself” might not be such a bad thing.
Our Bias Towards Self-Discovery
Society encourages self-discovery. We like people who have strong identities, opinions and convictions. That’s why we like stories of people who quit their jobs to go travel and discovered their life’s calling along the way.
I feel this discovery bias is present in everything we do. We tell young people to find the job that makes them passionate, find the partner who makes them fall in love and find the lifestyle that makes them happy. We don’t generally tell people to doubt themselves or who they are.
But, in my travel abroad, I saw how the opposite, losing oneself, could be equally valuable.
Finding and Losing
Finding is the process of accumulating more answers, or less frequently, overwriting old answers.
Finding the answers to a test means adding more correct answers to the questions you didn’t know, and occasionally changing your answers to questions you got wrong. It’s an additive process.
The cliché of “finding yourself” in travel is the same process, but with your identity instead of a test. You find answers to questions you had about yourself, “How should I live?”, “Who do I connect with?” or, “What should I pursue?”.
Occasionally, you also overwrite old questions. The workaholic consultant flips to a perpetual nomad, changing a previous answer about how to live with something else.
Losing yourself is a different process entirely. Instead of adding or overwriting your identity, you’re asking questions you hadn’t previously considered. You’re adding unsolved questions to the test, not just updating ones you’ve previously been asked.
Culturally we have less respect for this shift in identity. The workaholic consultant who travels abroad and leaves uncertain about what to do in life doesn’t have the same narrative appeal.
The Value of Letting Go
One of the cultural differences between France and Canada, I observed, was the view on eating. The French viewed eating more from experiential terms, while Canadians viewed eating more from nutritional terms.
I frequently hear people in Canada discuss the nutritional content of foods, emphasizing “healthy” eating. I almost never heard the same said in France.
Following the self-discovery cliché, I would expect after seeing these two differences to realize a fact about myself—that I preferred viewing food nutritionally or experientially. Instead, I left completely unsure of my own habits. Neither a new answer, nor an overwrite to an old answer, but a blank space.
Food is an insignificant example, but I picked up many blank spaces in my travels. Should I live abroad or build a home? Should I focus on career or learning? Should I make many friends or a few deep ones? All blank spaces in my life.
But there is value in a blank space. A blank space may not provide an answer, but it pushes you to search for questions you hadn’t considered before. That search creates growth.
Trying to fill a blank early, or pushing yourself to premature self-discovery isn’t necessarily better. Once a belief is part of our identity, it calcifies. Logic doesn’t easily remove what is chiseled onto our egos.
The Search for Better Questions
After my first brush with losing myself abroad, I now try to look for experiences that generate this effect. I want to find experiences that don’t answer, but disrupt who I am, so that I can be better after putting together the pieces.
Travel is one way. Meeting new people and reading books outside your familiar aisles in the bookstore are others. Many of the same things that trigger self-discovery, can trigger new blank spaces. The difference, perhaps, is whether you rush to fill them with new answers or wait to see where they take you.