The irony of long-term travelers is that despite all the people they meet and the places they go, they’re often some of the loneliest souls in the bar.
Nowhere feels like home to me.
The past few years have kind of been a whirlwind – when I get unhappy or don’t feel like where I am has a purpose, I just move. I’ve been to a couple places – New York, China, and home – twice.
The main reason I keep moving is not just that I used to say “what now?” where I lived but because of one main thing: nowhere feels like home.
And that’s one scary ass feeling. It feels like there’s no home base, it feels like there’s nowhere you’re meant to be, it feels like there’s no point in coming back anywhere.
It also feels like there’s no purpose out there for you – cities and places just feel like cities and places you see when you’re a traveler. It all feels like you’re a spectator.
It’s the traveler’s curse. Travel too long, or too far, and you’ve stretched yourself so far that the anchors and tethers have been broken to one place.
As a result, you’ve become a lost soul.
“Omgggg Prague is so nice” And Other Shit White American Girls Say
I had traveled to 25+ countries before my 22nd birthday, and something was getting old.
I was tired of doing the generic tourist route, tired of just seeing a place to check it off the list, and tired of traveling just for sightseeing and for no other reason. It was like traveling just to brag.
“Wow have you seen Prague, Paris, Barcelona?” It was the American white girl bragging status that bothered me: “Omgggggg Prague is soooooo nice!”
Yeah, I was done.
So I started living in places longer. I studied in Switzerland, then lived in China, and have plans to live in a couple more places over the coming decade (even investing in an a place. French countryside? Yes, please!).
Problem was, at some point I started to get a little listless, the 4 hour work week lifestyle began to bore me, and I wanted to return home. Back to my roots. The Anchor.
Except when I came back home I felt empty. It was just another place, another city with more people I didn’t know. Most childhood friends had moved and left.
Sure I had my family and some other friends, but I felt just as lost as a tourist wandering around Rome. It was the strangest feeling of detachment, like I watched a scene unfold before me with no emotional interest or connection.
So what do you do when home isn’t home?
I’ve noticed a trend that is increasingly common in lost 20 somethings – generic, one-way ticket type travel.
Nothing’s waiting here, so why not go somewhere else, right?
For the majority of people, I totally agree. Book a one way ticket and just get out. Build your wings on the way down. Plan the next year of your life during the plane ride over.
But there is one big problem – 1 year, or 3 years or 5 years down the line, when you decide you want to stay in one pace, you’re setting yourself up for some massive internal breakdown because you’ve constantly uprooted yourself and spread your purpose, pieces of yourself, all over the world and not in one place.
The reason why nowhere feels like home is because in your head you’ve spent too much time changing your external circumstances (outside) instead of your internal world (inside). And you’ve placed all the emphasis on the external for your roots.
The consequences of just changing scenery
At some people during my moving around the world I realized it was totally pointless. Every city felt the same – like nothing. Home (where my parents lived) felt the same – like nothing. They were just.. places.. they held no allure. I didn’t feel anything special in them.
None of them felt like a place I was “supposed” to be in. And that feeling scared me shitless! The feeling of life, or a place, being meaningless is one of the scariest things I’ve encountered in my post-college years.
I was talking about this kind of long-term travel with some friends when a friend talked about the story of his dad. His dad is a very wealthy businessman who is constantly traveling around the world.
He’s self employed, so he sleeps and wakes up when he wants. And he can travel whenever he wants. But he travels so much that he’s rarely at his home base, and instead is often at his other places around the world.
After a few years he started to have this feeling of a cloud hovering over him. He traveled so much that nowhere felt like home and he felt totally lost. He had no idea where to go “back” to when he needed to recover and recuperate, so he sought the help of a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist told him one thing: Find an anchor and set some roots. Create some place that is your home base, or else you’ll get lost. That can be a person, family, a place, a job, or anything. It just needs to signify that it’s your safe place to come back to. And you need to give some place that significance.
It’s gotta be deliberate in other words. This place is my home.
I thought back to the previous years of my life and found an interesting trend.
The first three years of college I hated – they never felt right, meaningful, or connected. College just felt like scenery. I even applied to transfer twice and got accepted, but I figured if they made me stay an extra year I would hate college that much longer, so I stayed and toughed it out.
Around my junior year I studied abroad in Switzerland and had a crazy fun time exploring Europe, speaking French, yadda yadda yadda. It’s hard not to think study abroad is the best time of your life.
But I came back from study abroad and school still didn’t feel right. So I knew something was up, and I knew I needed to make changes.
I joined the crew team — long story short, after being in a community that felt meaningful to me, close friends I could see 7 days a week because we trained together, my life there took on a purpose. That one year became more meaningful than my entire college experience combined. And the only thing that changed? The people.
People are one form of purpose. And having no purpose in a particular place is why it feels “empty” and like you’re just watching it like a traveler passing through.
The life of most unemployed 20 somethings from the outside looks great to some people: partying, sleeping in, video games and movies all the time. From the inside, it’s often the most miserable, meaningless experience a person can go through. It’s just hollow, and those experience serve as tiny placeholders until meaning can come in and fill the void.
When Nowhere Feels Like Home
The irony of traveling a lot is that you can truly lose yourself. Some will argue the opposite: traveling is the easiest way to find yourself. Having traveled a lot, I can say it truly depends on the person and what they are coming back to after their travels.
After all, in all the stories the wisemen would go in search of enlightenment / everlasting happiness all over the world just to say that they never had to leave their home in the first place, right?
I don’t want to get too philosophical here and say that happiness must be internally created first and not found outside – since I don’t really have experience doing that.
But what happens when you travel to so many places and leave so many pieces of yourself all over?
Instead of begin able to say “that tree is where I had my first kiss” or “that corner is where I scraped my knees learning to ride a bike” , they just become more places, more places, more places.
In any case, if you’re lost and can’t seem to shake that uneasy feeling that nowhere is home, remember these couple pieces about getting unlost:
Think about home for a second. What qualities of a place make you think of home? Probably #1 is people. #2 is the ambience, the feeling of it being cozy, warm, where we’re supposed to be. It just feels like home, right? That’s the intuition behind purpose.
“Supposed to be” comes from the feeling of having a reason to be somewhere or do something. And purpose is often attained through your mission or your work.
The single biggest factor I’ve found that affects the feeling of listlessness, the feeling of a place just feeling like a place, is the people you surround yourself with. Aka what community you’re a part of.
But for whatever reason, just having friends doesn’t given people purpose. It’s being a part of a group of friends that have some kind of common goal or mission. It’s a group that helps you improve yourself and attain mastery of something, rather than just a drinking and gossip group.
For me, that was joining a sports team in college. And in China it was training with wrestlers and developing close relationships with two friends that suffered with me in our old-school Chinese training.
Common people + a common purpose = meaningful community. Assuming you’re living away from family, these people become your new family.
A close second to finding a community you belong in is finding work you can engross yourself in.
Think about going through a terrible breakup – what’s the best way to keep going? Yeah.. keep going. Pour yourself into your work, stay focused, and keep trucking along. Things will regain their meaning and their feeling over time.
Viktor Frankl similarly echoed 3 ways to find meaning, in his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning:
- Meaning through work
- Meaning through a loved one
- Meaning through the ability to rise above oneself; aka finding meaning in suffering and a greater purpose to live for
Roots Take Time to Grow
Just like a tree’s roots, setting your own roots takes time. We are rarely born into a purposeful and meaningful life. Instead, purpose and meaning are consciously created.
In my travels, I’ve met several children of families that were in the foreign service, regularly moving to a new country every 2 to 3 years.
And, surprise surprise they all get along great with me. “Uhh dunno where I should go next. Doesn’t really matter… nowhere feels like home anyway.”
I can’t help but feel like this process is not without consequences. With family or with a loved one, the process becomes easier and more bearable since you can kind of pack your family to go (meaning through loved ones). But what about the solo traveler? What about the person bouncing around and trying to find their purpose, their destiny, their life?
I would still advise most friends how I always have: if you are miserable and don’t know what step to take, book your one way ticket and plane your life on the way over.
Long-term travel and living abroad, including location independent work, definitely are skills. The art of purpose maximization can be tricky especially when where you live doesn’t matter. If you don’t have to live anywhere, what’s the incentive to sit down and actually try to invest in a life somewhere?
Just remember: purpose takes conscious work and investment to grow. It rarely magically appears at the most convenient time.
From one lost 20 something to another, all I can say is this:
Whatever you decide on, don’t forget to set some roots.