When was the last time you asked yourself why you traveled? When was the last time you thought about why you did what you do on the road?
For many people, the answer is never.
Sure, they may have a vague sense that they’re traveling with a purpose, but they aren’t entirely sure what that is. Are they looking for adventure, to meet new people, to grow personally, or just to relax? A bit of everything? The answer is unclear.
Identifying your Why for traveling is one of the most important things you can do when planning a trip. It gives focus to your preparation, inspires action, and provides strength in challenging moments—both before and during trips.
Fortunately, there’s a number of things you can start doing right now to help find your Why and begin to travel with a clear purpose.
The Importance of Traveling With a Purpose
As a general rule, we rarely start with Why. Instead, we prefer to follow social norms, traditions, or our baser instincts and simply ask ‘what’ or ‘how’.
In our day-to-day lives, this lack of introspection gets us in all sorts of trouble. It compels people to go to college, get married, buy a house, or invest in the stock market without knowing if any of these things are truly right for them.
You may have experienced a trip that started with a ‘how’ or a ‘what’ rather than a Why. You have if you’ve ever gone somewhere simply because it was famous, because someone told you it was nice, or because you felt you needed to.
When you do this, you are using someone else’s Why. And as a result, you have no clear goals or purpose. So you rely on others to tell you what to see and do. Perhaps your values align with theirs and you end up enjoying the trip. Or maybe you spend your vacation seeing things that are just OK and return home feeling somewhat disappointed.
Elliot Windmill, a travel blogger and friend, recently described such a trip to me. Despite having no interest in gambling or grand displays of wealth, he was convinced to visit Las Vegas a few years back by a group of friends that said he had to do it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, within hours of his arrival, Elliot was ready to leave. He realized what he had known all along—that he city wasn’t for him. So he drove back into the desert, the bright lights of Vegas fading in his rear view mirror.
As he puts it, “Traveling is representative of life. If you listen to your inner voice and follow your heart, you will find the places that speak out to you, that reach out and touch you, and which make you feel like you’re home.”
Those who travel with purpose have more impactful and productive trips, regardless of circumstance. Research shows that being purpose-minded “frees us from feeling the full weight of the obstacles in front of us, whether a literal hill we must clim or a personal challenge we must overcome. [Purpose] reminds people that where they are right now is not forever.” Finding purpose in life has even been correlated with increases in financial well-being.
Purpose Versus Goals
The difference between purpose and goals when traveling is subtle, yet important.
Purpose is a long-term reason (or reasons) for doing what you do. It’s not one step in a series, but rather the objective or cause for all the steps you take. It can—and perhaps should—evolve over time, but it won’t disappear.
In contrast, goals are the steps you take to achieve your purpose. They are more fluid and often temporary. The best goals have a clear beginning and end, and you can envision accomplishing in a specific period of time before moving on to another goal.
For example, someone who’s identified their purpose for traveling to Cuba as being to empower the local people might have a goal of helping one local entrepreneur a week to write a business plan.
If we confuse goals with our purpose, we run the risk of either focusing on the wrong things or even failing to identify our true objectives at all.
How to Find Your Why And Purpose For Travel
Sometimes your Why becomes clear right away. If it does, then follow it. Other times, your Why may be a bit more enigmatic. You might need to search within yourself to figure out why you want to hit the road.
The following questions can be useful when trying to figure out your Why:
-What is one thing that I want to improve in my life?
-What do you fear most?
-Where do you want to go from here?
-What’s stopping you from achieving your goals?
-If I knew I was going to die one year from now, what would I do?
-What do you really want in life?
-What would I regret not having done by the end of my life?
-If all your problems were solved, what would you do?
Another technique you can use to develop your Why is to imagine yourself as the protagonist of a novel that takes place over the course of your trip. What would happen during that story? Where would you go? What kind of narrative arc would you hope to see played out?
As you learn more about yourself and the world during your travels, your Why may change. Not only is that OK, it is to be encouraged, as it means that you are learning and growing. Embrace your new Why and use it to guide you moving forward, just as you did with your old Why.
When developing your Why, it’s important to be realistic with what you hope to achieve. Unlike what you see in popular culture, one trip won’t magically cure all of life’s ills. You can’t just leave home, join a yoga camp, and expect to no longer have any problems after a week.
Travel will not complete you. Instead, it will show you different paths you can take, allowing you to leave behind various aspects of yourself while also recovering or discovering new ones—just as it did for Michelle when she visited Morocco a few years ago. As she recounted:
“After a difficult year of divorce and illness, I felt that my soul needed to push itself to the limits, to go somewhere far away and immerse myself in culture, art, and food that was different from my everyday life. I was worried about traveling alone as a single woman, but the trip was a transformational experience, reminding me of my strength, and I am so grateful I trusted my gut and let myself be spontaneous.
Bargaining with unscrupulous taxi drivers, navigating the winding streets of the souk, watching the sunrise over the desert on the overnight train to Marrakech, sitting on a dirt floor of a local hammam and chatting in broken French while a Middle Aged Moroccan woman scrubbed me down- these experiences inspired me and reminded me of how far I’d come in life, a seasoned traveler with the whole world ahead of her.”
People travel for various reasons. Being clear to yourself about your reason for traveling —identifying your Why at the start of your planing process—helps give you direction before, during, and after your trip. Results in life come from preparation and understanding. The sooner you can find your Why, the sooner you'll travel with purpose, and the better off you'll be in the long run.
If you’ve identified your Why and want to take the next steps to achieve your travel goals download my FREE guide The Traveler’s Mindset: How to Mentally Prepare for Journeys of Adventure and Growth!
Ian consideeingworking on Indian reservation in NewMexico later this year and I am interested in ancient archioloogy and areasishould put on my list while there
Hey Dr. Jay,
That sounds like a fantastic experience! There are a ton of fascinating archaeological sites in New Mexico.
In particular, I would recommend the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, and Pecos National Historic Park.
You’ll have a wonderful time no matter where you go.
I really enjoyed this article and felt it was timely for me. Thanks!
Glad it was helpful, Nicole!