The following is a selection of twelve lessons we shared in our talk at the World Domination Summit (WDS), plus one of those aha! moments.
When Chris Guillebeau asked us to speak at WDS about our lives and what we’ve learned, we were beyond honored and excited. Then reality hit.
Holy poop. What are we going to say in front of all those people?!
In front of *all* those people at WDS. Photo courtesy of Armosa Studios.
We stepped back to understand, re-evaluate and possibly to reaffirm why we chose – and continue to choose – to undertake this journey. In doing so, the hardest work wasn’t figuring out what to say, but rather what not to say. That’s what happens when you try to boil an ocean of experiences into a teacup.
To us, travel is not a transaction. It’s not a checklist. No, travel is the ultimate opportunity to make human connections and to learn from them. Fortunately, our fear on stage subsided when the stories of people we’d met on our journey took over. They were center stage, not us.
So here’s the condensed version: Twelve life lessons on the road, as distilled from our keynote presentation at the World Domination Summit (WDS). If you’re thinking, “This isn’t short!” keep in mind that it should take you much less than 40 minutes (the length of our talk) to read.
A Scrabble board of the main themes of our presentation, thanks to James Todd
Note: We’ve added some notes and peppered in some examples different than the ones featured in our presentation. So the following is not exactly a transcript, but perhaps a variation on a theme. Why? Because you just had to be there.
1. The only way to satiate that burning curiosity: get up and go, do.
Curiosity is a catalyst that moves us between chapters. It guided us from San Francisco to Prague at the end of 2001; it also drew us away from Prague in 2006 to explore the rest of the world. It continues to influence so many of our decisions, from the everyday to the life-spanning.
We’re reminded of: Taking a boat up the Rio Paraguay for 36-hours between the river towns of Concepcion and Vallemi. While a full navigation of the river was not on tap, we couldn’t have left the country without scratching this curiosity itch.
2. Embrace regret avoidance.
It’s one thing to talk about doing something big, something more, something different. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it. Sometimes it’s even terrifying. That’s OK. The small print: fear is human, and of this sort it’s applauded. So when you’re sitting on the edge of the bed deciding whether to take your big life plunge (whatever that may be), look out 5, 10, 15, 20 years and wonder: “Will I look back and regret not doing this? Will I wonder, ‘What if?’”
We’re reminded of: Something we call deliberate living.
3. If people think you’re doing something crazy, you’re probably doing something interesting.
Not that “interesting” ought to be your talisman of life satisfaction. After all, “interesting” is one of the weakest words the English language has to offer. However, when you’ve actually given a bit of thought to what you’re doing and people look at you like you’re nuts, it’s likely that yours is a departure from the norm, a risk. Departures can be unsettling.
We’ve spent a significant chunk of our adult lives together answering questions like, “Are you crazy?” These queries usually are a sign that we’re on our way to or in the midst of something good.
We’re reminded of: Base-flying off a 37-story building in Berlin for our 11th wedding anniversary.
Before continuing with the list, we take a break for one of those real aha! moments and a word from one of our philosophical sponsors.
Late last year, as in almost exactly five years after our journey began, we found this quote from Vaclav Havel — the famous Czech playwright, dissident, Velvet Revolutionist, and first president of the Czech Republic – just after his death:
Prior to Havel’s death, we’d never before seen these words. But when we read them, they took our breath away. There it was, ex post facto, the rationale for choosing to do what we do, the way we do it. Those words resonate deeply and speak directly to the motivation of this journey, tapping right into the heart of what we do.
It’s our “Why.”
Our journey features absolutely no guarantees and sometimes deals up more uncertainty (of various stripes) than either of us can seem to withstand, but we continue. Why do this? Why travel like this? Because sharing our stories helps to humanize people and places that are often misunderstood, feared or completely disregarded. Sometimes, we do it in service to humanity. Sometimes, we just do it for ourselves. Regardless, we believe that more understanding = less fear = more peace.
And when we think about it, this quote is apropos to the WDS conference. Hope and optimism are not the same, but through great effort, it’s possible to merge them. When Chris Guillebeau opened the WDS conference, we were heartened to hear him emphasize the three primary themes of the conference: Community, Adventure, and Service. While the name World Domination Summit sounds harsh to some, its those calls to service and to embrace our humanity that sets it apart.
Break over. Back to the rest of the list.
4. There is no greater generosity than the generosity of spirit.
Throughout our journey and our lives, we have found ourselves repeatedly humbled by the generosity of those who have very little, but who find room to give all that they are able, without reservation. The great irony is that this happens most often in countries deemed “dangerous” back home.
We’re reminded of: Driving through the Wakhan Valley in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and not having a place to stay for the night. We were humbled by a local shopkeeper who took us into her home. We shared dinner together with her family and spent the night. Despite the fact that basic necessities can be a struggle, this family shared with us all that they could and welcomed us into their home, with little expectation of anything in return.
5. Travel: At the end of the day, it’s all about the people.
We all love a beautiful landscape, building, or sunset. But when we return from afar, it’s often the stories of the people we’ve met that remain with us. Similarly, when you’ve visited a place, news stories from there carry much greater meaning because they’ll remind you of people you’ve met. Places are slowly transformed from objects into communities that hold human connections.
6. Don’t forget to ask about the bean soup.
In travel, as in life, follow your curiosity, ask questions, and say “hello.” Provided your interest is genuine and heartfelt, you should never be embarrassed to pursue, to ask, to engage. And when you do, especially when you are in a foreign place, average ordinary people will more often than not come to your aid.
We’re reminded of: A touching impromptu feast courtesy of the gregarious market women of Zugdidi, Georgia when we asked where we might find lobio, our favorite Georgian bean soup.
7. We’re all more connected than we think.
“It’s a small world.” We’re often quick to the cliche, without considering its implications. One implication: we’re all more connected than we think, and not just through social networks, but through who we are and the things we have experienced. We have a lot in common to talk about, you and we. We have the opportunity to make personal connections anywhere we choose to go in this world.
So the next time you are riding that bus to Timbuktu, the train to Portland, or to wherever in whatever, don’t forget to say hello and strike up a conversation. You just might be surprised by whom you meet and what connections you share.
8. It’s incredible what can happen when someone invests in you, has faith in you.
In our work with microfinance projects from India to Bolivia, many of the people involved previously never had anyone invest in them. Investment, even in very small amounts, can be a powerful gesture. Often, the ripple effect goes beyond the cash and says: “I believe in you.”
It’s mind-boggling to think that $10 or $20 loaned to someone can help start a business and change a life.
Chris Guillebeau understands the power of this. With the help of an anonymous donor, he gave each WDS attendee $100 to invest in their dreams. The gesture itself is worth much more than the actual value of the cash. Why? It’s the difference between “Here’s a 100 bucks.” and “Here’s a 100 bucks, I believe in you and am interested to see what you can do with it.”
We’re reminded of: The women from a village in northern West Bengal, India and the stories they told of their own personal and community transformation because they participated in a microloan program with Five Talents.
9. Life is a team sport.
Never underestimate the power of support, of a group that believes in you and helps you through difficult times. At some point in our lives, we’ve probably all felt like we’ve had to go it alone, haven’t we?
We’re reminded of: Visiting a small microfinance group loan program in Huancavelica, Peru with Five Talents. One of the women spoke often about her group’s support for her – including covering her loan payments when she was sick. She regained her health and continued to run a small business. “When one of us falls, we help her even more,” she recalled with tears in her eyes.
10. Focus on what you have, don’t dwell on what you don’t.
It’s easy to pay undue attention to what is missing. And in doing so, it may be easy to get caught up in the comparison game, of what other people have or the easy breaks they’ve apparently received along the way. Let it go. Focus on what you have and you can move forward and put into perspective what you believed was holding you back.
We’re reminded of: Josephina a woman we’d met outside of Guatemala City through a Kiva microfinance project. While she was missing part of her right arm, she had an unassailable spirit and ran multiple businesses. Her mother taught her that she could do anything that someone with two arms could do.
11. Human connections transcend borders.
People we’ve met the world over, regardless of sophistication, voice the following thankful reality: “Actions of governments are different than the actions of the people.” Travel provides the platform and opportunity to create these human connections, to strip away the fear of the “other” and to discover that we are more similar than we are different.
We are reminded of: Our travels through Iran, a place where we were warmly welcomed – as Americans – by ordinary Iranians everywhere we went, even as our governments barely spoke to each other.
12. Personal accomplishment = great; shared accomplishment = sublime.
Accomplish something on your own and it feels great. Work with others and motivate each other to bring out everyone’s best, and it feels even better.
We’re reminded of: When we first approached Mount Kilimanjaro, we looked at it as a sort of “man vs. mountain” exercise. However, climbing it proved to be anything but. Each person on that mountain struggled in his own way, but by motivating one another, we kept going one foot in front of the other until we all made it to the glacier top, within minutes of one another, after bouts of defeat just hours before.
That together we all made it, that’s the story.
What are some of the most significant lessons about life that you have learned from your travels?
Some of you have asked for video footage of our presentation at WDS (World Domination Summit) 2012. We’re working on it. We hope to be able to share some clips soon.