Last updated on May 2, 2018
Dear Young Dreamer,
The end of the school year is here and freedom whispers on the air. Your attention wanders in these final days of lectures, homework, and classroom chatter. Trust me—I understand why. Although the world thrust upon me “adult status” many years ago, I remember the keen yearning of adolescence. A yearning to my spend days hunting through the yard, chasing my brothers, and feeling the sugary slide of Gatorade washing away the summer heat. Or in truth, in my high school years I yearned to sleep until noon and have my parents just leave me to myself. And though you no doubt appreciate summer’s freedom, your emails tell me that you’re looking ahead to what comes next.
Your thoughts are jumbled right now with the woes and stresses of your these difficult years. The world expects a lot of you: school, homework, jobs, college planning, extracurriculars … the list goes on and on. Although you’re on the cusp of adulthood, you’re not there yet. Which means you war with the twin duties assigned to you: honor your childhood yet plan your future. You dream of being a writer or an engineer, of being a nurse, lawyer, architect, social media maven. You haven’t told me what you want to be “when you grow up,” but know this: for most people, our jobs are not a single thing, but an evolving process. Asking you to name it now is unfair—instead pursue something you’re good at that also lights you up inside. That’s where the magic happens. Happiness lies at that intersection. Instead of an unmitigated: Follow Your Dreams. I say dream big put stay practical, for that’s how to achieve the biggest dreams.
It’s the practical part that most people miss. You wrote that you wanted to “just get through this.” Even the most idyllic childhood has its obstacles, and yours was far from idyllic. But a setback—or even 20—won’t prevent you from reaching your dreams if you stay rooted in the practical, in the actions you can take to bring yourself closer to your dreams. Study hard. Save aggressively. Chart a course ahead and then actually stick to it. As rough as life can be, hold onto dreams that light you up inside. Your dream of world travel—hold tight to it and set it as the benchmark for your decisions. You wrote that travel is your way out, it’s your way forward. It was for me, too. It was a goal I believed would finally signal that I had made it through to the other side of my troubled background. I made it there. You can, too.
At no other point in your life will society give you permission to dream like you can now. You don’t need that permission, of course. The very notion of someone else codifying your life based on their life is false. I urge you, fight against those who ask you to conform. But temper it with grace and acceptance, for you are still young, still subject to the will and best interests of those who love you. There is good and rightness in that.
Young Dreamer, you wrote to me with the conundrum of your travel dreams. You hear the siren call of travel, and you wonder how you, a teen, can make your dream a reality. You take classes and learn information that holds no interest most days—facts and figures you can’t fathom that you’ll ever need. It’s true and you’re right—you don’t need most of it. But you do need the ability to process those facts, to analyze the world around you, synthesize information, and above all, to think for yourself. These exact skills you’ve learned in school will help you overcome obstacles that stand between you and your dreams.
When other adults ask for travel advice, I tell them just to do it: decide you can travel and find the way to make it happen. I tell them, “traveling now will change the direction of your life.” Because longterm travel does just that. Travel changes the course of your life and can jumpstart your quest to discover the life you were meant live. The questions answered by life on the road can be found elsewhere, but not as quickly, not as deeply. Travel is a boot camp for life that is hard to replicate with other life experiences.
But you present me with a conundrum of my own because I cannot orchestrate your future, and neither can you, in many ways. Your parents’ decisions and economic status dictate if you holiday in Europe, join student exchange program, or work full-time.
Given that your parents and fate’s capricious whims have shaped your life until now, I understand your struggle. How do we make your travel dreams stay alive, how do we get you closer to making this dream a reality? Because, more than anything, I want you to maintain the flaming beauty of your dream of travel the world. I want you to hold tight to this belief that you can travel young. It’s a dream some tout as wishful thinking, deeply unpractical, or some may even level the ultimate insult: they tell you you’re naïve, that you’ll grow out of it.
It is my deepest wish that you never do.
You will grow and change so quickly in these coming years. You will fall in love with people, with new ideas, and—if you’re lucky—with a line of work that brings you joy. Travel is a beautiful dream but not an exclusive one. It’s a dream that can last a lifetime for there are ever more corners of the world to see, foods to taste, and people to meet. So although I could have prefaced this letter with the acknowledgement that dreams shift and change—for that is the absolute truth—it is my hope that together we can light a spark for travel that carries you through the coming years. A plan for travel that acts like a silent ship running alongside your life as you take your first solo steps into the world. It will be there waiting for you, always inviting you to step on board when you have the time. It’s there waiting for you, asking you to make life, career, and financial decisions that keep your travel ship on course, running parallel to whatever life you build.
And now you’re wondering if I’m crazy and carried away. I slip into “ramble mode” according to my niece; she’s been subjected to these whims of thought often enough.
No matter. The truest lesson I can share with you is that traveling young will change you. The desire to travel goes deeper than a flippant answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Travel is not an answer to any question, but rather a path you take to arrive at an answer that is more honest and true to who you are and what you are meant to do.
You’re in an in-between land caught between a child and adult; it’s a lovely and strange place. It’s a time when you have freedom to figure out who you are. But can I be frank? On the verge of turning 30 this year, I remain answerless. Actually, every time I’m sure I have the answer, it changes … which is, perhaps, the lesson. I wish someone had told me that who you are evolves with each new experience and each tragedy you face, with every obstacles you overcome and every moment of pure joy.
Let’s shift back to right now Young Dreamer, because your quandary has you discouraged. You believe travel is unattainable.
I once thought that, too. I once thought long-term travel was reserved for the rich, for the clever, for the people who had something I lacked. I lived in a place of seeking permission. I looked at my peers—my best friends and those in my classes—and assumed that their biggest dreams were my ceiling. If none of them dreamed of traveling then it was surely out of reach.
Pushing through the naysayers is the hardest task ahead of you. Look beyond the society’s rules and permissions based on your color, class, gender, or age. Realize that if you dream it—if you hold something in your heart and want it enough to move mountains, then there is validity and goodness in your dream.
The limitations and many the reasons you can’t travel right this instant frustrates you. I get it. But one day soon your circumstances will change and it will be up to you alone to assess your life. You alone must believe that long-term travel is possible for someone like you. Grasp tightly to the belief that you will take a gap year abroad, or leave on a mission trip for a year. Defend fiercely your goal to study abroad during college or find an international job.
Now may not be your time to travel. Accept that without losing hope. So many factors play into this part of your life—parents, money, family politics, national politics, education—the list is long. By maintaining hope and faith that you will travel, options you never dreamed possible will appear. When you believe, that’s when we can explore the world from the perspective that someone in exactly your situation—be you poor or rich, troubled or not—can travel someday. All you need to know is that it is possible, and from there we’ll find the opportunities to make it happen.
When you accept a decision as fact, you begin to see opportunities that you never noticed. Joseph Campbell says,
Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.
And in that spirit Young Dreamer, with a summer of freedom ahead of you, I leave you with practical ideas that may take you closer to your dreams. Some won’t be right for you. You might hate a couple of them. And you definitely need to discuss a couple with your parents. But look for one that sparks an idea of how to keep that travel ship floating alongside your life. Which idea nudges you closer to bringing travel into your life.
- Find an international pen pal: When I was growing up this involved actually mailing letters via the post, but now with email and Facebook (and still old-fashioned letters too) you can develop a friendship that spans borders. This sounds antiquated in a way, but a German friend of mine exchanged letters for years with an American girl and they became such good friends that by their high school and college years they spent the summers at each others houses. There are tons of sites that help connect pen-pals but Students of the World is good, safe place to start (and be a safe internet user when chatting with others, always check first with your parent).
- Arrange a student exchange: The premise here is that you spend a few weeks up to an entire school year living abroad with a family that has agreed to house and feed you and send you to school. A French student attended our high school for a semester and it was very cool to meet her and get to know her (and she got to really practice her English!). AFS USA and Youth for Understanding are both very credible and both offer scholarships of some sort too.
- Start a business: This one seems like the odd man out, but really if you can’t travel now you could take the initiative to start your own business—the people who come into your life as you delve into that world of becoming an entrepreneur could very well be the people who help you create the opportunities to travel later on. Plus, it can be good fun, a good use of your time, and at the very least you’ll learn tons. :)
- Fundraise for a good cause: If you know of something happening overseas that you care about, why not find a creative way to fundraise for the cause and then donate that money to an organization helping to solve that issue? This not only brings you right into contact with the places you want to visit, but you are helping your friends learn and care too.
- Read a lot of good books: The best stories will take you out of your situation and right into the lives of other people from all over the world. Reading will give you some of the nuances of a culture and will make you even more ready to meet and interact with the locals once you arrive in your dream destination. This page lists out tons of book suggestions for each country, or ask your English teacher for a recommendation for a country you’d like to visit, I bet she’d be thrilled to help you find a good book.
- Take a mission trip with your church: If you’re part of a church or religious group it’s very common for these groups to place an emphasis on service, and in many cases when you join a program you spend some really fun weeks and months raising the money for your trip.
- Join a travel writing program: Consider honing other skills that bring you into the world of travel, a good course takes you through some of the skills and ideas you’ll need on the road if you hope to share your trip with others.
- Learn: More than anything, if the rest of these aren’t a good fit, keep finding things that make you light up inside and learn more about those, even if it’s not your assigned homework. Earlier this year I shared a big list of free courses you could use to learn the languages of the places you want to visit, or even take classes about astronomy, photography, programming, or really anything you love. Listen to international music, practice cooking recipes you hunt down online … take the initiative to creatively bring elements of travel into your life.
Young Dreamer, I so appreciate hearing from you. I love knowing that you can’t imagine your future without travel. More than college and work, my one-year round the world trip changed the course of my life. I am humbled that you reached out, that you cared enough to email a kindred soul—never lose that pluck for it’s more valuable a trait than you yet know.
Travel young, travel far. Never stop dreaming.