Updated: Mar 27
By Hannah Stephenson
The idea of ‘finding yourself’ while traveling is a tired cliche by now, and one I loathe repeating. Travel affects everyone differently; some discover a subtle new shade of confidence, whilst others gain a whole new lust for life. However, for me, the biggest change has been how I perceive myself and measure my own success. I didn’t ‘find myself’ while traveling, but I did find greater self-worth.
A Graduate Failure
That’s not to say I didn’t have any sense of self-worth before, but it was mostly dependent on external factors versus originating from within. For the majority of my teenage years, I was obsessed with studying and achieving the best grades possible. All my self-worth came from academic success. As I got older, I did relax a little on the nerd front, but I still wanted to climb the success ladder and ‘make something of myself.’ Everyone told me university would be the best years of my life-- but after that, it would be time to buckle down and grind, grind, grind until retirement.
To no surprise, my self-worth took a huge hit when I didn’t land a coveted corporate job title after university. While many of my classmates headed onto London offices, I took temporary work as a data analyst. There was nothing wrong with that role, but my own standards I placed on success left me feeling like a failure.
Bored out of my mind and unwilling to accept that the best years of my life were already over after university, I decided to take a year out and teach English abroad. I waved goodbye to Cambridge and knocked on Vietnam’s door.
Defining Success Abroad
Vietnam felt like a different planet. Nothing was the same. It was a steep learning curve, and wasn’t always easy-- but it made me feel alive in a way I never experienced before.
No, I wasn’t climbing the career ladder. In fact, the only growth my teaching job offered was an 85 cent yearly increase in my hourly pay. No, I wasn’t making corporate contacts or getting treated to fancy business lunches. But I was living. I made lifelong friendships, sampled crazy street food and took way more holiday than an office job would ever allow me. I fell in love with life.
Being an expat leaves you in a strange social position. Vietnam is far from multicultural and as an expat, I was very much outside of what you might call normal society. Instead, I chiefly belonged to a rag-tag community of expats who were a small society unto their own. In this strange new world in which I found myself, ideas about what it meant to do well in life were very different. Long-term travel quickly ceased to be a career break and instead became a lifestyle.
I still have goals, of course, but the posts have moved. I’ve come to learn, although we need money to live, it’s not the end-all-be-all of life. Success to me doesn’t look like piles of cash, or a fancy car, or a hard-earned promotion. At this very moment, I’m broke. Unlike many of my former classmates, I haven’t amassed any significant savings since I left university, I haven’t paid into a pension, and I haven’t bought a house. Yet I FEEL successful. I’ve seen and done so much in the past few years of traveling. I’ve had countless adventures in remote exotic locations. I’ve been happy. I’ve been free. I’ve become the person I always wanted to be. How could that constitute failure?
Body Image Issues
Travel forced me to grapple with my self-esteem in other ways. I struggled a lot with body image. I’ve never felt terribly confident about my own appearance and spending so much time in summer clothes and swimwear did nothing to help that. I couldn’t help but compare myself to other women-- and always found my own body inferior.
On a practical level, finding clothes was often difficult in Southeast Asia. I was far from the only person to experience this, but it still left me feeling sad and deflated for much of the time. My own reflection reduced me to tears on more than one occasion.
I wish I could say I’m now thankful of those struggles, but I’d be lying. I wish I’d never felt that way. However, I did eventually come to realize I was so much more than my appearance. I am now comprised of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done, which is much more fulfilling and important than my cellulite or belly rolls. I gave up on my lifelong struggle to lose weight and decided it was time to pick my battles more carefully. I set a new goal for myself: stop caring about your weight. Stop letting body image issues make you sad and keep you from enjoying things to the fullest. Travel made me realize, life is just too short to give a damn.
A Farewell to Materializm
Perhaps it’s the sheer abundance of knockoff items in Southeast Asia, but I’ve also kissed goodbye to a lot of my former materializm. I despise the idea of buying designer items as status symbols-- because what does a Louis Vuitton handbag really do for your self-worth? (Answer: nothing meaningful.) Don’t get me wrong, I love fashion. I just don’t like the idea of bolstering my self-esteem with expensive items that have nothing to do with my character. Self-worth has to be built on more than mere possessions, because possessions can easily disappear. Measuring your success with someone else’s ruler is only going to damage your self worth and leave you feeling like you’re not enough. Sure, a handbag will last longer than a trip to Thailand, but the memories can never be taken away from you. They become part of you. The impact travel leaves on you is deeper, and ultimately, far more meaningful than an accessory you’ll eventually tire of.
Many people think -- and I used to be one of them -- that being rich and thin constitutes success and happiness. Travel taught me that it doesn’t have to. We have to paint our own picture of success. There are seven billion people on this earth, and we can’t all fit into the same narrow mold.
The idea of ‘finding yourself’ is bandied around a lot when we talk about travel. I didn’t find myself, but alternatively, I discovered something more. I discovered the person I want to be. I found self-worth, I found new goals, and I found new priorities. If you haven’t already, I urge you to get out there, see the world and find out what really matters to you.
Writer Bio: Hannah caught the travel bug at an early age. At the age of 15 she took a school trip to Budapest and says she has yet to recover. In 2017, she moved abroad for the first time to teach English in Vietnam and she says, it was a crazy experience that changed her life forever. She is currently working towards a location independent lifestyle, sharing tales from her travels and making a never-ending list of new destinations to explore!
You can find out more about Hannah’s journey on her blog at: https://hannahoohnana.com.