To travel when young, or not? Sustainability of YOLOness.

Of course if you landed on this page, you may be expecting me to write something along the lines of why travelling when young is a must and how amazing it is and how it will fulfil your life… you are not entirely wrong, but read on.

In ways I could not pen down in my own words, this article on ‘Why You Should Travel Young’ by Jeff Goins does sum up very well why travelling when you are in your 20’s is an opportunity you may never have again. Part of the article I like the most -

“As we get older, life can just sort of happen to us. Whatever we end up doing, we often end up with more responsibilities, more burdens, more obligations. This is not always bad. In fact, in many cases it is really good. It means you’re influencing people, leaving a legacy.
Youth is a time of total empowerment. You get to do what you want. As you mature and gain new responsibilities, you have to be very intentional about making sure you don’t lose sight of what’s important. The best way to do that is to make investments in your life so that you can have an effect on who you are in your later years.
I did this by traveling. Not for the sake of being a tourist, but to discover the beauty of life — to remember that I am not complete.”

I loved the essence of this article, and I agree with most of what he advocates. Here comes the but…There seems to be a trend of articles of this sort sending out the message to young people, which basically centres around the YOLOnism theme (you-only-live-once-ism so make good use of that time), doing whatever it takes to have the most kick-ass experiences in your 20s’ at the expense of the time you have, because if you don’t do it now…you’ll never! The article goes on along the lines of-

“You won’t always be young. And life won’t always be just about you. So travel, young person. Experience the world for all it’s worth. Become a person of culture, adventure, and compassion. While you still can.
Do not squander this time. You will never have it again. You have a crucial opportunity to invest in the next season of your life now. Whatever you sow, you will eventually reap. The habits you form in this season will stick with you for the rest of your life. So choose those habits wisely.
And if you’re not as young as you’d like (few of us are), travel anyway. It may not be easy or practical, but it’s worth it. Traveling allows you to feel more connected to your fellow human beings in a deep and lasting way, like little else can. In other words, it makes you more human.”

While this can be very empowering (and it surely is), I do feel the whole argument that you will never have this time in life again or YOLOnism lacks some form of sustainability and overall ambition. After all, where will all this experiences take you? What is the end goal? Quitting a career path to go travel for 2 years can very well be the difference between being at the right time for a promotion or being stuck in a position to compensate for the experience lost. YOLOnism for travel (i quite like this term)  makes the case that the sacrifice is always worth it due to the experiences you gain in return.  But how true is that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love travelling – this blog is basically ALL about travelling. But I do believe one can strike a balance between both fuelling an intrepid lust for travel without having to drop your responsibilities/practicalities in your 20’s to gain the advantages from travelling.

But first, the advantages on travelling cited in this article are largely overrated- “being cultured, understanding different cultures, connecting to humans, having a newfound respect for pain and suffering, having seen that two-thirds of humanity struggle to simply get a meal each day…. “

  • This assumes that when you are travelling (especially backpackers) you don’t just stay within the click of fellow travellers you meet from the same country and party it up together, having no regard for the local culture, tradition and history . I’ve seen backpackers who come and go, with no effort to learn or mingle with the local people (no, having a picture with local kids in it doesn’t count). I’m not sure how this leads to being more cultured, connecting to humans who live a different life from you and so on. While you may learn plenty about other travellers, you may not learn as much as the actual destination you are visiting.
  • You can definitely achieve all the advantages from travelling from being more aware of communities around you in your own country – unless you live in Scandinavia with close income equality, most places in the world, emerging or developed countries still have pockets of society where people live completely different lives from you. You need not travel across the world to have respect for humanity struggling to simply get a meal a day – these people probably exist in your community but you just have not reached out to them.

Developeconomies.com wrote a brilliant counter argument to the article above, arguing that racking up debt, not building savings and putting off school and a career for travel may not always be wise and that time is not always against us. Wonderfully written, this sums up my view as well -

“If the way to become compassionate, cultured, and adventurous is to become open and adaptable, then you don’t have to fly across the world to reap the rewards of travel.  I would say that you can gain a lot of those same benefits just by moving to a new city, changing your routine, and making a concerted effort to consistently live outside your comfort zone.  
In doing so, you will open yourself up to new experiences, your perspective will change, and you will begin to see the world differently.”

Bottom line is – great experiences depend on what you make of it, not where you are. 

While I largely agree with what Goins has written and acknowledge his good intent on writing such a piece, I would equally advocate for working hard in your 20’s, accumulating identity capital and ensuring the experiences you gather can take you somewhere. (Meg Jay gives a great TED talk on this ‘Make the Most of Your 20s’) I don’t see the sustainability in having a great random experiences all around the world at the expense of putting off foundations you build in your 20’s for longer life sustainability and career prospects. This is probably the Asian in me speaking when I have in mind – what about savings? career growth? retirement funds?  While the experiences from travel are great, the experiences you give up may also be equally as great. After all, experiencing the world is one thing, making a difference in the world, something which can inevitably  only be achieved through sheer hard work is possibly a more sustainable form of life experience. Living in the moment is great, travelling is amazing, but putting off responsibilities in your 20’s just to pursue experiences when you are young may not be sustainable in the long run, or contribute to a level of fulfilment.

Just a thought.