Penelope Trunk says we need less travel – I say we need fewer after-school specials
August 25, 2009, 10:27 am
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I’m a big fan of Penelope Trunk’s blog – it’s insightful, sometimes racy (which is always fun) and it talks to 20-somethings like they’re thoughtful, intelligent people rather than a generation of spoiled, irresponsible, self-entitled laze-abouts.

Last week, Penelope posted this article about why travel is a waste of time. And I had a really odd reaction to it.

I don’t disagree with it – in fact, I think there’s merit in everything she says, though I personally really enjoy travel and find that you can get a lot out of it.

No, my odd reaction came specifically from item #4 in Trunk’s list, which essentially boils down to the idea that it is far more productive and rewarding to build an every-day life that is so fulfilling, you don’t need to get away from it to find satisfaction, which makes travel kind of pointless.

In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense. Why only enjoy your life for two weeks out of the year when you could enjoy it year-round with a bit of self-knowledge and a very small dose of enterprise? But here’s where things got interesting for me – my gut reaction to that idea was crippling anxiety.

Then I thought to myself, what the hell? Why on Earth would the thought of self-knowledge and self-fulfilment cause anxiety, of all things? Why would the thought of figuring out what makes me happy, and then doing it, make me want to run screaming from my computer?

And I don’t think it’s just me that has trouble with that idea. I sometimes wonder – moreso after today – whether the 20-something identity crisis is more a product of anxiety than a lack of options. It’s not that we don’t know ourselves – it’s that we’re afraid to admit to ourselves what it is that we really want out of life and that anxiety makes it very difficult to move forward. But none of us has any idea where that anxiety comes from, let alone how to deal with it.

Fortunately, I have a theory – and it’s just one, and very unscientific, so do with it as you will. But here it is nonetheless.

All our lives we’ve been told “if you can dream it, you can do it! :D”

This is a nice thought. But it inspires people to take a very goal-oriented approach to happiness. In other words, it’s a way of thinking in which your only interaction with your potential happiness is to imagine some kind of end result.

Now, having the goal in mind is crucial, even essential, to success. But being so focussed on the goal that you lose sight of the process makes the gap between where you are and where you’re trying to get absolutely enormous. Not just enormous – insurmountable. And since nobody has been saying anything about the process – just about “Dreams!” and “Shooting for the Stars!” and all that nonsense, everybody is completely focussed on the finish line with no idea how to even get to the starting gate.

So this is where the anxiety comes from – we’ve all grown up dreaming about all the things we’re going to do when we grow up and now we’re suddenly in our 20s and in a position where we have to actually do something to make them happen. But nobody really knows what that something is. And that makes the gap between where we are and where we want to be so intimidating that many of us simply don’t bother. Instead, we get an unfulfilling 9-to-5 job and try to fill the gap with toys (sometimes literally, since much of the market for escapism right now is based on nostalgia for when we were kids in the ’80s, e.g., the new Transformers and GI Joe movies). Or alcohol. And we work and hate our lives and take two weeks vacation every year to try to get some fulfilment when what we need most is an honest examination of what we want and a practical look at what it takes to get there. And a serious reduction in this “If you can dream it, you can do it! :D” BS.

But I’m still going to travel. The world is neat.