I have always traveled. I love traveling. I hope travel will forever be a part of my life. But rarely have I ever paused to wonder why. What’s the drive behind an industry that pushes around billions of dollars, creates millions of jobs, and produces countless tales of adventure and misadventure alike?
The work of Pico Iyer in his essay “Why We Travel” gives perhaps the deepest look into our motivation to go places. Like the adrenaline rush of a roller coaster, he says travel “whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.” He talks about how we travel to enlighten our ignorance, to enrich our compassion, and to leave our worldview behind in the attempt to create a larger one. If you’re a traveler and you haven’t read it, you should. It’s beautiful and eloquent and profound.
I recently asked Michael Bennett, Chief Adventure Officer at Muddy Shoe Adventures, about his take on why we travel. He broke down Pico Iyer’s ideas into three stages that he’s seen manifest themselves repeatedly in the lives of travelers.
First, he explained, we travel to disconnect. We travel to get away, to break free from the hum drum of daily life – our jobs, the people around us, the bombardment of technology and everyday stresses. By letting ourselves disconnect in this way, we move into the second stage, which ironically is connection. But not a connection with the things we left at home. A connection with new people and new places and new experiences that we would never find in our own backyards. And these new connections allow us to move into the third stage, reconnecting with ourselves. When we leave our assumptions behind, we start to see a whole new world in which we begin to understand ourselves better.
I like all of these theories, and I see the truth of them reflected in my own experiences. But I recently learned of another motivation, one that is not so pretty or profound.
It came to me in the form of an article about marketing travel to millenials. (That’s me!) I’m generally fascinated by what someone on the outside has to say about my generation, but this one kind of stung. It took my thirst for wandering, freedom, and adventure and gave it the ugly acronym FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out.
Ouch. How dare they take my identity as a traveler and turn it into a mere symptom of my generation? And yet I found myself nodding along in agreement. I have to admit this FOMO is a very real thing, and I’ve seen it in myself just as much as I’ve seen the more poetic, idealistic motivations for travel.
No doubt you’ve seen it too. It’s plainly evident in the way we travel, how we update our statuses, post photos, and tweet our every move. We trade souvenirs for selfie sticks and change our profile picture before we even get home. Instead of telling our friends how the journey transformed us, we make a new album to show off the trophies of pictures we collected from the hunt.
“Look at me!” we scream online. “I go to cool places!”
It’s the highly evolved version of peacocks fanning their shimmering feathers for the ladies. And social media has made it all possible.
The year I started college was the year Facebook went big and never went home. You couldn’t meet someone in a dorm or a class without being asked if you were on Facebook. Suddenly there was a whole new platform for self-expression and putting our identities down on the unshreddable paper of the internet.
So here we were a bunch of 18-22 year olds starting our adult lives in a space where we no longer compared ourselves to the Joneses on the other side of the white picket fence but rather to the dozens and then hundreds of Facebook friends showing off the happiest moments of their lives.
And the FOMO crept in. One of our friends got an amazing internship, some person from some class we took was now studying abroad. Then we got older and people planned elaborate internet-worthy weddings and baby announcements. Tack on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and what have you, and no wonder we start to feel like we must do ALL of everything.
Just having a job and a family and a spot of green grass isn’t good enough any more. We now want to experience everything we possibly can and inevitably grow envious of anyone gobbling up a slice of life we haven’t tasted yet.
But let’s take a breath. Is this FOMO really just another character flaw of malcontent millenials? A marketing angle for older generations to take advantage of?
Because last time I checked, baby boomers have their bucket lists too. Just a couple weeks ago, I was at the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show where my age group felt dwarfed in comparison to the masses of graying heads with time and money to spend on going places – baby boomers wanting to make up for 30 or 40 years behind the bars of a cubicle block.
My conclusion? The fear of missing out isn’t a symptom of one generation. It’s a bug we all share, a piece of our common humanity. It keeps us active and engaged in our world. It makes us adventurous and bold, dismissive of the status quo, pioneers of change. It doesn’t let us grow bored or aimless. We look into the future and see ourselves not dying with regret for things we never did but satisfied that we did everything possible to live our lives completely.
And so I’m thankful for FOMO. It might sound ugly and it certainly isn’t very flattering. But it’s honest. It might take us a trip or two or twelve to understand what Pico Iyer is talking about. But if the fear of missing out will get us off the couch and out the door, then I’d say it’s a good enough place to start.