Losing Yourself

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 sam e 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.

  • Nicky Spur

    I like how you’ve picked apart your true and honest experience here.

    I think the process of finding yourself comes after losing yourself. With so much stimuli and exposure you eventually filter out the unnecessary and find what’s important in your life. I don’t think it’s impossible to know what is most essential to your lifestyle until you’ve experienced many alternatives and know what is not.

  • Mary Hui

    I agree with Nicky – I think finding and losing yourself are tied together in a symbiotic relationship. Questions arise when you lose yourself, and pondering these questions allow you to find yourself. I found this to be also the case with movement – I think movement defines me, but on closer examination, movement and stillness really do come in a package. Losing, finding, moving, keeping still…it’s all very yin and yang.

  • Tony

    In january 2010 i started my careerbreak. I went to Argentina to try out a few new experiences, i have been “lost” for more then a year, it was difficult for me to not know, to not have a goal. People asked me: What are you going to do? I felt compelled to give an answer, sometimes i said: i dont know, sometimes i said whatever i was experimenting with at that moment. I discovered society has some difficulties with people who dont know what they want and i had too. I think the change started when i accepted the “not knowing”. A new friend a succesfull internet entrepreneur, one day proposed me to start a strength training program.
    I was a bit reluctant and unsure that it was something for me, but i tried anyway. After a few months training on my own, i started training with him. He was also interested in personal development. I applied probably 10-20% what i read. He is the only person i know who applies 80-90% what he reads.
    When i saw what he does, i thought, i want THAT. Now i am finally on my path again. Sometimes i have some guilt; if only i had discovered this earlier. I guess i had to see things with my own eyes before i could start believing in a new future.

  • John Doe

    One thing that generates this effect and disrupts your life and emotions pretty seriously is searching/falling in and out of love. It takes you on a unpredictable ride everytime and youre never the same afterwards.
    Having done this more than 5 times, it makes you fractured on the one side but also lets you get to know the real you but also drives you to find more about yourself and what youre looking for in life.

  • Al Pittampalli

    It’s really a sign of maturity, when you’re willing to be changed. Most people aren’t, because it’s difficult, and scary. But when we’re open to it, amazing breakthroughs can happen. Glad travel does this for you, I think debate does this for me.

  • Micheal Johnson

    Americans view eating from experimental view also. We experiment with how much food we can eat in one sitting

  • Paulien Maria

    Great post.

    In almost all self-help literature there is the concept of a ‘true self’, mostly repressed by societal demands.

    On the other hand there is the very interesting work of Michel Foucault and others who say: there is no true self, there is only society. Only through societal forces and narratives we are formed. (I hope you understand this is a very over-simplified 🙂

    I’m very suspicious towards the ‘true self’ concept. But it is a very attractive and comforting narrative, and sometimes even useful.

    In hard times though, when my identity and worthiness was torn down, it was very useful to me to ask myself one question again and again, while not searching for an answer. Answers bubble up, but they are just words and thoughts, not one of them is the truth. I just keep on asking the question, while not expecting or believing any answer.

    I love it you bring up this theme here.

  • Tim

    My own foreign quest was similar. It seems I had already “found myself” when I was younger, which provided a grounding force for me to focus an otherwise distracted, generalist mind. While my thinking was divergent, my core feelings about personal identity were rigid.

    Traveling Norway shattered my political and economic views. I was raised very liberal, and intuitively I was sure that Norway had figured how to organize society. Upon realizing that their harmony is achieved by forcing people to do things, I had to completely disassemble my ridiculous sense of ethics. I left dizzy and confused, but I think my mind opened up.

    Now, things are not so intuitive. Perhaps loosing oneself helps build rationality, and finding oneself helps build ideals. If this is the case, then the wise must loose themselves frequently.

  • n.roberts

    hi scott
    Always the brst inspirational i have seen

    nigel roberts.

  • Purple Hatting

    It’s the two sides of the same coin really. It always ends up being that way.

  • Scott Young


    I’m of a similar opinion–you could peel away layers of conditioning and culture away from a man, but like an onion, you’d eventually remove all the layers of skin until there was nothing left. The self is inherently a construction.


  • Ken Montville

    I like the premise in this article. It is true enough that society encourages us to “find ourselves” or discover a purpose or “passion” (the current buzzword that drives me up the wall) and live it out. Or, more often, just to get in line and follow the rules in order to eke out a comfortable existence.

    Filling in those blank spaces after they’re created is the hard part. What is my purpose, my passion, my bliss? What is it that I can do to feel alive and useful and meaningful…and still do what’s necessary to keep food on the table and a roof over my head (and my wife’s)?

    Finding the time and method, whether it’s travel or anything else, to lose oneself and create the blank spaces and, eventually, find something to fill those blank spaces is a real challenge.

  • Daniel M. Wood

    I think finding yourself is about what you make of it.
    If you take a trip partying and going with the herd you will become one of the herd, without an identity.

    If you instead chose to be yourself, to find yourself, do what you want and not follow the group at every instance I think it becomes a more self-discovery journey.

  • Steven Reda

    Great post, this makes me think of the movie Lost In Translation. This movie perfectly captures that sense of being lost and the sense of doubt that comes alone with it. It makes you question where your own life is headed.