World Travel or Finding Passion Won’t Escape Who You Are

Living in a foreign culture for one year, what struck me most was how many things were the same as at home. Not just cultural similarities, although between France and Canada there are many, but similarities in my life.

I remember one night in Paris, the girl I had been seeing for a few weeks decided to break it off. Despite us conversing in a language I hadn’t spoke just a few months prior, the conversation was nearly the same as one I remembered having three years prior, with a different girl, nearly a world away.

The good parts were mirrored too. I had a best friend and a great circle of friends in Canada. In France, the same great friendships evolved, even though the two groups of people had nothing in common.

It took time to realize the reason for the eerie similarities, both happy and disappointing, between my lives: the commonality was me.

Changing the Backdrop Won’t Change the Story

The two cult-like obsessions of modern self-improvement seem to be:

  1. Quitting your job
  2. Travelling around the world

In many ways, I admire these pursuits. I haven’t had a job in four years and I’ve lived abroad, so they are pursuits I’ve lived.

But I suspect part of the appeal of these two aspirations is that they both represent an escape. If you quit your job, you get to escape the tyranny of a boss, work and financial obligations. If you travel the world, you get to escape your life, starting fresh where nobody knows your name.

The problem is that the escape is a lie. Yes, you can successfully quit your job and follow your passion. You could even pack everything away and start again in a new continent. But you would still be you. You can escape to a new destination, job or relationship, but you can’t escape who you are.

The Temptation of Escape

Changing yourself is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing to change. Not only is personal change a lot of work, but it’s ego-deflating as well. It’s easy to blame a job, city or person. It’s much harder to see yourself as the cause.

The discomfort of personal change makes escape tempting. After all, if you pick a difficult aspiration, you can pin your hopes upon it as being your salvation. Just getting that better career, better place, or better relationship will lead to a better life.

Cal Newport shares a great story of one man’s own tortuous quest to find career fulfillment, and his agony in believing it was always just around the corner:

“For years, Thomas had imagined living at a monastery to be the ‘zenith’ of his passions — in his fantasies, it held the magical qualities that all his previous jobs lacked. But once he arrived at the Zen Mountain Monastery, he realized that although his surroundings had changed, he was ‘exactly the same person.’”

Don’t get me wrong, I think living in different cultures and loving your work are great. The fallacy is assuming that changing the backdrop of your life will fundamentally change you as a person. In some cases they can be a catalyst, but they aren’t an escape from who you are.

Bending Hope Inwards

People want to be tempted by escape. They want to believe that if they buy one more product, quit their job, live in a different country, embrace minimalism or maximalism, that they will be fulfilled.

They want to be tempted because the alternative feels bleak. After all, if you can’t pin your hopes on something, won’t they just tumble to the ground?

I see the solution as bending hope inwards. Instead of changing the backdrop, work on changing the pervasive commonality of your life: you.

Admittedly this is a lot harder than pinning hopes on an external goal. For one, personal change has few obvious fixes. Quitting your job is straightforward. Loving your job has no instructions.

Second, personal change requires looking hard at yourself. It requires embracing the paradox of being ruthlessly objective with your own insecurities while being confident enough to move forward. How do you spend hours examining your faults and leave feeling completely self-assured? Is it even possible?

Perhaps more than anything, personal change has a lot of false starts. Reading through my old journal entries, I see hundreds of failures. Each one seemed to be a grand solution to some problem in my life, and the majority ended back exactly on square one. Jumping on a plane feels like progress, especially when your personal efforts fly in circles.

It Begins With You

Whenever I get the feeling that a different career, degree, city or group of friends would change my life, I remind myself that it all begins here. Even if outside changes are good, they won’t escape who I am, and ultimately if I want to change the big problems it has to start right here.

The advantage of this approach is that, when you begin with you, changing the backdrop can actually help. It can catalyze your internal commitment and make it easier to change. But if you aren’t beginning here, with you, then escapes generally don’t lead anywhere.

Beginning with you also makes it easier to accept the things you can’t change. When you still fantasize about escaping, it’s easy to resent the things that change slowly, instead of adapting with them. The weather becomes less terrible, the work less toiling and the challenges more bearable when you start with yourself.

Best of all, when it starts with you, it can begin right now.

  • Heather

    I LOVE what you have written!!!!!!!!!! This is so true!!!!!!!!!!! I’ve ALWAYS thought this, and no one else has EVER agreed!!!!!!!!!! I am one of those people who can live in the mundane and always see something special in it!!!!!! But others can’t!!!!!!!!

  • Heather

    Hi Pertunda,

    It’s probably too late and you’ll never read this. However, this may help others. I would find out – what are the same situations/patterned behaviours you get into? Find out – is it a result of the people you seem to attract? Is it a result of the situations you tend to attract? Is it you?

    I used to attract toxic people into my life (I didn’t even realise some of them WERE toxic at the time), and realise now, 60% of the time it’s them, they are just nasty people. The rest of the time, it had to do with me not being assertive enough or explaining myself properly and thoroughly. So find out! Think deeply about why you get into these situations, etc, and how to get out of them. Find other wise people and truly listen to them. Not a smartass. A wise person.

    You sound quite young, so I’d say maybe quite a lot of it has to do with not realising who you actually are, because you’re so young. I’d advise you to try everything and anything. Give them all a go. In this way, you find out what you actually enjoy and love and work from there. If there’s anything that you DO love, but think is silly, examine why. Loving things is never silly. You may not be able to make money from it, but it’s something to be really valued. Find out if there’s a slant on it that you’ll love that you can do as a career. If you love writing, you can be a copywriter/blogger in your spare time, etc.

    And think about it – what IS your idea of a “better life”? Work from there. Is it realistic? Even fun? Most people’s ideas of a “better life” are simply what has been drummed into them in the media – not doing anything in the sun. Boring! A “better life” for many sensible people is one that allows them to contribute to society, to have healthy relationships with loved ones, and to have enough money to save for the future. Examine your idea of the “better life”. And understand what it means to you, and if it’s even a good idea, your “better life”.

  • Aylune Papyrus

    Excellent blog post, one of the best I read on the subject ^^ I wrote a similar one a while ago though not as thorough. I’ve definitely been guilty of this, thousands of times over, and just started realizing it recently… hard though to fight off the fantasies of being somewhere else (the habit is so ingrained it keeps coming back.)