Listen, can you hear it? Go ahead and pause your Spotify playlist for a second and just listen.
Aha, there it is: the faraway melody of an accordion drifting lazily from under the Eiffel Tower, inviting you to come and sit a while by the Seine. Or perhaps you can hear the fragrant whirring of a million Italian espresso machines beckoning you to leave it all behind and experience la dolce vita. Then again, for you, that enticing melody could be the clatter of a Beijing market, the silent grandeur of the Icelandic coastland or the flea-market elegance of Tangiers.
Or maybe, the little voice you hear is not calling you to a particular place, just anywhere but where you happen to be right now.
We often use the term “wanderlust” in a completely lighthearted, consequence-free way. It’s a romantic idea to live a carefree, roam the globe, go off and “find yourself” kind of life. After all, “not all who wander are lost” (please don’t ever get this tattooed on your lower or upper back).
And yes, there is something undeniably beautiful, exciting and seductive about moving out into the unknown. But for all of its positive and inspiring effects, wanderlust can also be a great detriment to our personal purpose and contentment if it is not managed well.
At its core, wanderlust is a longing for something you don’t have, and therefore it is an emotional impulse that deserves thoughtful consideration: Why do I want to go so badly? What is behind my motivation to see the world? Is there something I might be trying to run away from?
As someone who has personally struggled with feelings of wanderlust since my parents first sent me to Europe on a school trip in 1996, I have learned it is both impossible and unnecessary to try and squash wanderlust entirely. Besides, there is nothing wrong with the desire to see the world, know its cultures and fall in love with its myriad of tribes, tongues and cuisines!
But over the past two decades, I have learned a few tricks to help manage the desire to go while also focusing on being right where I am. Here are five steps to help you address the wanderlust that overtakes you every time you land on the NatGeo channel:
Step 1: Investigate the Impulse
Why is it you want to travel so badly? Is it because your roommate from freshman year just left to serve with Peace Corps in Tanzania and you were stuck interning at a desk job all summer? Or maybe you have a passion for world missions or international business. Maybe you have always wanted to go someplace where you can be totally unencumbered by your family, identity or past (note: Ibiza, Cancun and Bangkok are not the places to do this).
Whatever is at the root of your desire to go off and see the world, think through it carefully, share your desire with a few people you trust, approach it prayerfully and then move on to step two.
Step 2: Honestly Survey Your Now
Where you are right now, today, is probably underrated. Your school, your job and the city you live in are always “less green” than the amazing places on all those travel blogs. Trust me, I run one of those travel blogs, and I too am often looking across the fence for the next adventure. But it is important to make an honest survey of exactly where you are today to understand where you want to be.
Do you have a steady job that is helping you pay off those pesky school debts (this is a good thing!)? Are you in a romantic relationship that could potentially go to the next level if you stick with it? Are you involved in an organization that is counting on you to keep your commitments?
Chances are, the answer to one of these questions is yes. And while the world is full of adventures just waiting to be had, you’re probably in the midst of a real-world adventure right now: growing in relationships, experiences, and responsibilities right where you are. Don’t overlook those things as you dream about heading out on the road.
Step 3: Assess the Feasibility of Your Dream Trip
This is a big one: traveling takes time and costs money—a lot of money, in fact. Half of seeing the world is logistics: where you’ll stay, how you’ll get there, what you’ll eat along the way.
So, consider two major questions: When should I go? and How will I pay for it? Even if you can’t take your dream trip this year, start saving for it now. Open up a specific bank account that will help you set aside the funds you need to get to you to Lollapalooza 2014, Tomatino 2016 or World Cup 2020.
Trust me, it is much more freeing to pay for a trip with money you’ve set aside than it is to max out your credit card in one fell swoop (all the dads in the universe just simultaneously patted me on the back for this one).
Step 4: Study, Plan, Save
This is where the process gets fun. Decide exactly where you want to go and what you want to do: a trek through the jungles of Ecuador? Sailing the Aegean islands? An internship for a “new Nordic” restaurant in Oslo? It has never been easier to study the world than it is right now. So dream big, learn the insider tips and start making a plan.
This process should go hand in hand with Step 3: your expectations and your budget need to line up realistically or you’re headed for disappointment. I think the best guides are people who have done it before you. Ask for advice, weigh all the options and try to connect with locals there on the ground if you can.
Step 5: If the Time is Right, Get Going!
You’ve looked inward at your motivation, you’ve studied, planned and saved and now it is time to get going. Traveling (especially internationally) takes a lot of thoughtful preparation. You need to seek advice, make real decisions and invest in things. Travel requires imagination, courage and resourcefulness. The best of journeys test us in these areas – and that is what traveling is all about. This is why the voice of wanderlust is so compelling: it calls us to change and grow through experiencing the new and unknown.
So when exactly does wanderlust go away? After a semester in Cairo? When you get back from hiking the Appalachian Trail? Frankly, for some of us it never does. Often, the more you see, the more you want to see. The more people you meet, the more peoples you want to meet.
But as I’ve gotten older one thing is certainly true: The wanderlust I feel has to be tempered to fit into an intentional life balance between adventure and responsibility. My desire to experience the exotic cannot take precedence over my current commitments, relationships and calling.
The great news is that these two things, a desire for adventure and the need to be grounded in reality, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the place they overlap is probably precisely la dolce vita you’re longing for.
Austin Sailsbury lives, writes, and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow him on twitter @austinsails and at his blog Wayfarers All.