5 Ways Travel Makes You Mentally Tougher
By Zoe Weiner
For the next 12 months, Zoe Weiner will be living and working remotely in 12 different cities around the world through an organization called Remote Year. As she moves to each new location and tackles new obstacles, she'll share what she learns with us here at Mental Floss. Miss her previous installment? Read it here.
If you looked at my Instagram feed while I was living in Cambodia, you would think my life consisted solely of going to temples, lying on beaches, and hanging out with monks. But those were just the picture-perfect highlights: The reality of my trip was much, much less photogenic.
When I moved to Phnom Penh, the capital city, I had no expectation that the experience of living there would be anything short of an adjustment. The country has a deeply complicated and conflicted history, and is in the process of rebuilding after more than a quarter of its population was wiped out by genocide only 30 years ago. Of course there were going to be challenges, but I arrived ready to face them head-on.
That's a lot harder than it sounds.
Here's something that most full-time travelers leave out of their blog posts and Instagram feeds: It's one thing to experience a place that is so culturally shocking as a tourist, it's completely different when you're trying to actually live there. The creature comforts that I've come to depend on to successfully get through the day—dependable WiFi, air conditioning, a meal that won't make my stomach churn—were nowhere to be found. Add to that a sporadic work schedule and less than four hours of sleep every night, and I was at my wit's end.
Growing up, my mom’s favorite refrain was "toughen up" (I was a really sensitive kid…). And that's exactly what I did over the four weeks I spent living in Phnom Penh. Full-time travel challenges you in a million different ways every day, and whether you realize it or not, each of these challenges makes you tougher. Here are five ways being a digital nomad gives you more grit.
1. YOU LEARN TO ADAPT.
How did I know that I had fully adjusted to living so far outside of my comfort zone? When I stopped balking at dogs and cats living in piles of garbage, people cooking frogs on the side of the road, and little kids riding on the backs of motorcycles without helmets on. These things are all normal parts of life in Cambodia, and they eventually became normal parts of life for me, too. I no longer looked at these things as “weird” or “foreign,” they were just things that I saw every day on my way to work.
2. YOU RECONSIDER "COMFORT."
As it turns out, the things you think you need to get through the day aren’t actually that important. Having air conditioning, iced coffee, and a comfortable bed may seem like the most important things in the world (at least, that’s how I felt), but once you realize you can survive without them, you’ll see that they’re really just fluff. "Things," I came to learn, aren't all that important for my general wellbeing. As long as you have the mindset of "I can do this"—which, admittedly, takes some time to get to—you'll be able to succeed.
3. YOU LEARN TO RELY ON YOURSELF.
There are few scenarios in life more terrifying than being lost in a foreign place, at night, with a dead cellphone and no idea how to get home. But if it does happen (which it did), you can’t shut down, freak out, or sit on the ground and cry in a panic—you have to figure it out. The more obstacles you’re faced with, the better you'll get at tackling them. And learning a bit of the local language doesn’t hurt, either.
4. YOU REALIZE WHAT'S REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU.
I’ve said it before, but the whole digital nomad is nothing if not a lesson in prioritizing. Being forced to find balance in work, life, and travel helps you figure out what, exactly, is the most important. You may be presented with the choice between taking on a major (but optional) project at work and a side trip to Phuket—and no one else is going to make it for you. You’ll learn your boundaries and how to say "no," because you only have enough hours in a day to say “yes” to the things that actually matter.
5. YOU BECOME MORE SELF-REFLECTIVE.
How do you respond to things that make you uncomfortable? How do you deal with finding a balance between work and life? What kinds of things do you actually enjoy doing in a new place? These are all questions that you'll ask yourself, consciously or not, every day. And in doing so, you'll learn more about who you are.