"I don't know what I want to do with my life. I think I'll just sign up for a work-abroad program and hope for the best."
The late twenties have proven complicated for us Generation Y kiddos. What we were told, what we expected, and what we got all turned out to be startlingly different things. And -- just in time for that quarter-life crisis -- a lot of us aren't sure where to find meaning. We wanted to find meaning in our careers, but after a string of free internships and a round of layoffs, the majority of us are just making due with whatever will pay the bills. We want to find meaning in deep, powerful relationships, but 21st century technology has made it too easy to keep every type of relationship -- from the platonic to the romantic -- at a pretty superficial level. We read about those who have given up the nine-to-five and started traveling the world and we can't help but go, "That's it. This is how I will get meaning in my life. I will travel the world."
I hate to break it to you, but you will not gain meaning by traveling the world.
This is coming from a woman with a severe case of wanderlust. I take pride in the fact that I spent a summer in Belfast, that I've climbed to the top of Florence's Duomo and I've ridden to the top of the CN Tower. I flood Facebook with pictures of me by Niagara Falls or the Colosseum. My frequent-flyer points are like gold to me. I am very happy that I got the opportunity to drive from New England to San Francisco and back, given me a chance to see just how vast and different America can be from coast to coast. I'm that type of person who sees those articles online and checks her bank account, bemoaning that she can't just cancel everything and take a sporadic trip to Peru.
Travel is in my blood. But it doesn't give me meaning.
Like anything else, we cannot go to any person, place, or thing, expecting it to give us meaning. The same way we cannot go into a church and expect to feel a spiritual awakeness just from entering alone. The same way we cannot go into the dating world assuming the "finding a man/woman" will give us clarity and purpose. It would be nice if everything had this intrinsic quality, but it doesn't.
It breaks my heart when I see a friend or former classmate jet off to South Korea, or England, or Brazil, purely because they are unhappy with their lives and want to find meaning, only to meander in their new country and return home essentially the same person, albeit with a few souvenirs. They'll return to their old jobs -- or find a position in exactly the same field -- and count the days until they can "find meaning" again.
Here is the nasty, gnarly, unfortunate truth: at the end of the day, cities are cities. Towns are towns. Countrysides are countrysides. There are roads, buildings, and a plethora of jobs that need to be done in order to keep the community going. These places will vary greatly in shape, size, and texture, but at the end of the day, it is still just ground beneath your feet. The cars might be on the opposite side of the road, but that doesn't mean the asphalt will provide you anything on its own accord.
So what does traveling get you? Perspective. You go onto those roads and into those buildings. You experience the shapes, sizes, and textures. You walk down Times Square -- not because there is something inherently special about Times Square, but because it differs so greatly from Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Montreal, Quebec -- and you take it all in. You don't gobble up these moments like a manic collector, fervently praying to complete a set or finish a series. You take in these experiences gently, let them swirl around organically, see what resonates and what passes you by. Take in the nuances and the overt contrasts. Take it all in and recognize that perspective is not meaning, but it can help you shape it.
Meaning in our lives will not come from outside sources, even if those sources are from far outside our house. Travel can open your eyes, but it doesn't make you better able to see. The same way a career for career's sake, a romance for romance's sake, a religion for religion's sake, will not give you meaning. Meaning cannot be given, shared, sold, or traded. It is created from within. It is created from deep intro- and retrospection, understanding what makes you tick and what shuts you off.
And it is created with the understanding that anything can be a catalyst. You don't need to backpack through Europe, or do a string of work-abroad jobs for the sake of doing work abroad. You don't need to do anything that doesn't resonate with you. You just need to step out into life with an open mind and a fearlessness to accept whatever emotions come your way.
You will not gain meaning by traveling the world. You will gain meaning by traveling your mind.