"Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world"
- Gustave Flaubert
You'll be hard put to come across someone who doesn't list "travelling" as one of their hobbies, interests, or bucket list items. But I think there's more to travelling than just ticking off things on a bucket list, and in fact making the move to a different country can be the most impactful change you can make on your life.
It's about more than seeing new places
I made the move abroad for university, and it has single-handedly changed the course of my life. But the impact does not come from the new place being objectively better than the old. It's about what that change enables.
The move abroad is like an earthquake. It shakes up everything in your life, and just like shaking a tray of sand, it enables new patterns to form. It is the single biggest catalyst for changing and improving yourself.
For me, this meant:
- Building a new social circle. This is probably the biggest influence on your thoughts and personality. I got to know people who had grown up in a totally different society and without making an effort, I learnt about things I had never given a second thought – classical music, programming, competitive frisbee, ideas on philosophy, religion, and so on.
- Changing my habits. When you're in a new place, it is surprisingly easy to re-imagine yourself and to think "instead of a person who studies in his free time, what if I was a person who plays lacrosse and chess?" Fair enough, you may not want to change because you're happy with who you are – or you may only think you are happy, which takes us to...
- Exposure to new world views. To echo the quote at the start of this article, travelling does give you a sense of how small and unimportant you are. When growing up, you're inclined to learn that "this is the only way to think about the world" and you'll internalise a bunch of stereotypes about anything and everything. It's not entirely your fault to assume that your views are objective because, most likely, people around you think the same. It's only when you live in a new society (and make some effort to integrate) that you'll realise how subjective our world view is.
There are other more tactical benefits, like better job opportunities or quality of life, but that's not the focus of this article (and they don't always hold true depending on where you're going). The point is that it's an opportunity to redefine yourself and your world view.
For all it's merits, it does take effort!
This article trivialises the investment required in making the move, but that's intentionally kept out of scope. What I want to focus on instead is the mindset you need to make the most out of this change. I think at the very least, this goes for any international university student trying to find their place in a new country.
To really reap the benefits of moving abroad, it's crucial to:
- Get involved with the local community. If you're abroad for university, try and make friends with local students rather than other students from your country (which tends to be the easy fallback). Or join a job (even a weekend job) or something similar where you can be in some organised activity / community. The key is to force social interaction with new types of people. Moving to a new country can be a daunting change, and with everything changing at once it's common to recluse yourself and only engage in "easy" social interactions. For example, in almost any country, you'll come across pockets of people from the same society who have made no effort to integrate (for example, in Barcelona you'll see lots of south Asians who don't even speak the local language but have been living there for decades) – this is a wasted opportunity.
- Keep an open mind. Depending on where you go, almost everything about your world view can be challenged: there are no sacred cows. The most common point of contention is religion, because it's so fundamental to your world view. To really make the most of the opportunity, you have to learn to separate yourself from your preconceptions and your world view and instead become an observer of the same. Be open to new ideas!
I've made this change in my life twice so far, and have learnt something new about myself and the world both times. It's one of those things that is definitely a no-brainer to have tried at least once!