Recently I’ve decided I don’t want to get another job where I work for a company. From now on I plan to only work for myself. In that spirit I’ve gotten my first English private tutoring student to make some money while in Beijing. He works for a Hi-Tech American company and once a week we get together for conversation practice.
He’s a really cool dude who’s interested in a lot of the same things I am. We’ve read a lot of the same books, were both interested in personal development, we’ve both looked into things like NLP and we can have a lot of cool discussions about all of it. His English is really phenomenal so it makes the classes quite easy and fun.
At our last class together he asked me a really interesting question. He asked “What is the one most important thing you have learned from travelling?” Maybe since I run a personal development through travel website, answering that question should have been easy, but I found it hard to pick one specific thing since I’ve wrote about so many different ways I have learned from travel. Eventually what came to mind as my most important lesson was:
“Travel has really taught me, and brought to light, how much I don’t know”
A lesson where you learn how much there is about the world you don’t know might sound funny at first, almost as if you lost knowledge rather than gained it… but let me explain.
We know it all
In western countries most of us live in a specific type of place for most our lives. Even if we move from city to city we’re still immersed in the same kind of culture with the same kind of people. Within this environment we learn a lot about how the world works. We learn how people behave, we learn what is expected of us from society and our family, we learn how to fit in, we learn our roles in our cultures, we learn how to survive and make it in the world, we learn values and morals, we learn pretty much everything about the world… right?
The problem with all this knowledge that we gain is that it comes from our environment and the opinions of the people living within the environment. This view of the world isn’t the real world it’s just the filtered viewpoint we receive from the things we perceive in our surroundings. All of this environment specific knowledge becomes all we know and we take it for granted as truth. There is no need to question the information because everyone in the environment agrees it’s true or even that it’s self evident.
My student and I talked about how the world we perceive isn’t the real world. Instead it’s a mental map that we create to perceive reality in our own way. As we experience the world we add things to the map to make it more and more accurate to our perceived version of reality, but it’s still based on our perceptions. The mental map of a rich American boy may be completely different than that of a poor girl raised on a secluded Chinese farm. Their views on what the world is and how it works can be completely different. Neither one of their realities are complete because they both can only perceive things based on their mental map of reality.
When we travel what we are doing is expanding our map of the world. The small canvas we used to accept as reality grows to include all that we learn from the various people we meet from all over the world. We realize there is a whole another world of information that we still have a blank map for and we are then free to learn and fill in the details for this blank space.
Learning how much you don’t know allows you to question the former knowledge you had about the world to see if it fits in to your new beliefs. I’ve learned that travelling doesn’t need to be a short term (gap year) kind of thing, where I go have some fun and then return to the real world and go back to a normal life. I’ve expanded my map to see how many countless opportunities there are in many countries all over the world to live life in a different more interesting way than what I had previously thought was possible. When you meet travelers who live by the beach, work for themselves, who don’t have a degree, haven’t had a real job in years, and are financially well off you realize our idea of what’s necessary to live a good life (go to university, get a good degree, find a big company, work for many years and work up the ladder) isn’t necessarily the only way to make it.
Travelling also helps us realize how much we don’t know in terms of culture. We think we know how social interactions should work, how families should work, how relationships should work, but once your immersed in another culture you see there is a whole new way of looking at these thing you hadn’t thought about before. You realize you don’t know how these things work, you just know how they worked back in your limited environment.
In North America success is often defined in terms of having a nice house, a good job and lots of money however in China success is often defined by having a happy family with solid relationships. When we realize we don’t know how success should be defined and become open to these kinds of differences they can change our paths and goals in life.
Expand your mental map
When we realize how much we don’t know it teaches us a lot about learning from others. It’s easy to reject other people’s ideas and cultures because they don’t fit into your own, but if you accept that you don’t know what is best, you open yourself to gaining new knowledge and becoming a person with a more complete mental map.
A heard a quote once that says something like “The problem with the world is, the ignorant are sure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Learning how much you don’t know helps free you from any past ignorant ideas you held about the world, and is a great way to grow!