Probably the most important personal lesson I have learned while traveling is that in life it is possible to do anything. I truly believe, whether naïvely or not, that it is possible choose any path in life and achieve considerable success at it. Personally, that could mean founding an international adventure travel company, getting a geology degree and working for an (honest) diamond mining company in the Congo jungle, becoming a nomad on the Mongolian steppe, getting hired as an Al Jazeera war-zone correspondent, buying a piece of land in the Canadian mountains and living out a peaceful, natural life with my future family, working as a business consultant to help NGOs function better, or a crisis doctor for MSF; even becoming a politician or a Wall Street banker. Not that I find the latter two appealing, but the point is that I know it is possible if I commit myself.
Yes this might sound over-optimistic, and some people would tell me that optimism dies in the real world if one sets their goals too high. But that is beside the point. Aim for the stars and you might just land on the moon. If you have targeted something and want it with complete conviction, then nothing could be more satisfying than striving for that goal. Yes the steps forward might be slow and heavy, but they will come. And yes maybe there could be some huge or immovable roadblocks, but it is about the satisfaction and magic that happens when going after what you believe in. I have met enough successful and amazing people with highly unconventional and sometimes barely believable stories about how they reached their goals to know that anything is possible.
These questions go to the core of my underlying uncertainty about the meaning of life. Is it giving back to the world and trying to leave it in a better state than you found it, or is it being a good individual and giving back positively to the energy of the universe? (This terminology is my quantum physics pantheistic interpretation of God coming into play, but you get the point.) Is it enough to be happy and at peace with one’s self?
I have met many intelligent and inspirational people who have followed each of these two branches. Working in the Canadian Rockies as a tour guide, for example, I met old cowboys who have spent their entire lives riding horses through one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. They are perfectly fulfilled in life, have a never-ending basket of interesting experiences, specialized knowledge, and insights into life, are never bored – there are always new challenges to face and new mountain paths to ride – and give off the aura of genuine happiness. On the other hand one doesn’t have to look far to find example upon example of ambitious people doing amazing things and contributing to the betterment of society an advancement of human knowledge, and also seeming happy and fulfilled in the process (I wont even list an example because virtually every speaker on TED.com fits the category).
So what is the answer? For me, traveling the way I do puts me in the peaceful-life category for the most part (except when I inspire other people to travel or live their dreams, at which point I feel useful to society, or rather to the people in society), but I have always looked at traveling as a means to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding that will allow me to one day make a concrete contribution to the world. But the thought often crosses my mind – whether it be at the sight of a perfectly happy nomad, a Mozambican scuba diving instructor, a deeply religious Imam, or a Canadian cowboy – what if I chose that peaceful path in life? Besides learning new skills, studying history, and keeping on top of current affairs for interest’s sake, leaving the work of the “real world” to those people who either really enjoy it or don’t think they have a choice.
I suppose I have made this article into a case for the peaceful-life choice, because despite all the points I have made here, and often make to myself, I still feel drawn to the passionate, hard-working career branch of the fork. I suppose the other would feel too much like watching a sporting match from the sidelines, something I have never been content to do. But still the internal debate continues, and whenever in my endless searching I come across a career with a hint of potential for passion, I remember that I could equally well spend the rest of my life climbing mountains or hitchhiking the world, and I think, why not? Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, or in this case, on the other branch of the fork in the road. But a decision has to be made…