The Greatest Lesson I've Learned

The Greatest Lesson I’ve Learned From Travel

Derek Personal Stuff, Perspectives 39 Comments

The Greatest Lesson I've Learned
I know nothing.

That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned during all these years of travel.

Sure, I can tell you where to snorkel in Bali or give you a great route for a road trip around Romania or explain where to find a unique spa experience in Kyrgyzstan, but when I really think about all of the issues and situations that the world faces these days, I really know nothing at all.

I read. I meet people, all the time, all over the world. I talk and discuss at length with others about politics, about religion and conflicts and economies and why it’s so difficult to find a good pair of sunglasses that actually fit my head shape.

But the more I read, the more I converse with others and the more I travel this fine world of ours, the more I realize that not only do I know nothing, it’s almost impossible for me to know anything.

Travel has shown me that the very global topics that I am interested and eager to learn about, the very topics that we all read about, are even more complex and complicated than I ever imagined. It has also shown me that no matter how many countries I visit, I will always continue to discover that every aspect of life in every single nation is defined by an infinite amount of different thoughts, actions, deals, motivations, interests and beyond.

Every single person involved in anything has their own stake and as a result, has their own views, desired outcomes, reasons for taking sides and so on.

How can I know what every person involved is doing or thinking, both in the open and behind the scenes (where it gets even trickier)? How can I know the reasons why they are doing or thinking something?

I can’t.

And if I can’t know any of that, I’m just left with media reports and the conversations I have with the people I meet, which does provide some information and access to a handful of perspectives, but certainly not enough for me to claim that I actually know what’s really going on, that I actually know the complete story.

I can say I know what’s going on from one or two angles perhaps, but that’s about it.

Does it even matter? Maybe it doesn’t.

All I know is that over the years, I’ve learned time and time again that what’s bad for some people is good, or even wonderful, for others, that what at first seems to be one thing, so often seems like something else, something so completely different, soon after.

And that’s why it becomes so extraordinarily difficult to give sweeping statements about a government, about a conflict, about any situation whatsoever without taking into account every single person that is affected or that plays a role. But it’s impossible to take into account everyone’s position, which is why it’s impossible to possess complete knowledge about anything.

The more time I spend online, and the more time I spend talking about various issues, the more I realize that the internet has tricked us into thinking that we are ’experts’ simply because we have such access to so much information. We feel more comfortable making broad statements about the Middle East, yelling out our conclusions about poverty or claiming that we absolutely know what is going on with Greece right now because we’ve read 100 articles on the matter. But in reality, we still don’t know much at all because the internet can’t provide us with a completely unbiased view of what every person or every group involved is thinking and doing and why.

I’m Just Naive

When someone writes to me through the blog and tells me that my political views are naive or my thoughts on some global problem are overly simplistic, based on something I’ve written, my response is…

Okay.

To me, naivety is thinking that we, ordinary citizens, know enough about some situation to be able to claim, with such certainty, that we are right and others are completely wrong. None of us have been in the meeting rooms, none of us have seen the deals made, none of us were present at every conversation or heard the exact reasoning for every decision, none of us have spoken with the very people, on all sides, who are dealing with the issue first-hand.

And while relying on the media might give me an interesting story to read, it is important to recognize that whatever I do read is one small, and usually very biased, perspective. Thinking otherwise can be dangerous. Media is big business and with any big business, there’s always a hidden agenda behind everything. They work hard to try and hide this of course but what we read is exactly what they want us to read, not necessarily what is actually taking place, or at least not the complete story.

Danger

This is why you won’t see me talking in-depth about conflict, politics or many other global issues. I’ll gladly share my thoughts and general opinions based on what I’ve learned over the years but I’ll always add a note that I really have no idea what I’m talking about in the end, simply because there is no way for me to really know what I’m talking about.

Make sense? Maybe not. Maybe I really am just naive.

But, I still think it’s better to recognize that we only know a tiny fraction about everything. I still think it’s more useful to realize that each of us has been exposed to different information and therefore, each of us sees things in completely different ways, none of which can possibly be fully accurate.

Realizing these things has helped me try to seek out as many perspectives as possible with anything I want to learn about. It has helped me to hold off on making judgments and reaching conclusions without gathering as much information as I possibly can. It has helped me realize that every situation in the world is much more complex than it seems and that I should always remind myself of this fact.

Thank you, travel. Thank you for teaching me that I am indeed quite clueless. Funny enough, this lesson has actually helped me understand the world so much better in the end.

Do you think it’s possible to be truly informed about something? Am I the only clueless one?


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Comments 39

  1. Uli

    Thank you for this post! Your blog is really inspiring and I like that you share “real” statements and perspectives, not only “10 things to do in Kalkutta” and stuff like that. (Which would be quite interesting actually;). You made me laugh, think and changing my point of view a couple of times already. Of course, I dont know all the travel blogs in the world, but from my perspective yours is a really good one. You definitely make me want to grab a beer with you. Tell me if you are keen. 😀

    Save travels!

  2. Gueone

    the article made me realize that traveling is not necessary needed to learn greatest lessons like this. I have came to the similar conclusion after college at 25. After graduation, I realized that although I was an expert in one area The more I interact with people who do different things, I felt stupid and getting dumber day by day. And I realized that it is impossible to know everything and that shouldn’t probably be my priority.

    on the other hand it feels relieved to Hear this from Earl. I feel like I am not missing out a lot of things without having to travel much. This article also made me to revisit the idea of relativity. What I do won’t mean the same for everybody, which is okay as long as the person I am talking to has the similar view and humble enough to understand things.
    I am just sharing my thoughts coming from my exposures…thank you for sharing Earl.

  3. Kathleen Duffell

    Earl,
    You are absolutely right in what you say and I loved reading what you wrote. I guess we can only base an opinion on the little we DO know and admit that, as you do.

  4. J.

    Earl, your post has been interesting to read, and I found myself getting closer to what you say every day. The more I travel and the more I learn, the less eager I am to give a strong opinion on something.

    I think it’s very easy to read a newspaper article and to have an opinion about something, but the truth is everything has such a great number of connections, especially international events, that one really needs a lot of information to understand what’s going on, not mentioning also that still it’s almost impossible to actually GET all the information, as everything is filtered, like you say.

    Instead of giving opinions, I prefer to listen to others and challenge them to ask themselves if they are really sure they actually know what they are talking about! 🙂

    Do you do the same?

    J.

  5. Ron toung

    Great post Earl.
    Money, religion and influence seem to make the world go round. If decisions were based off of wisdom and morals and doing the right thing then that person making those decisions would never have been there in the first place. There are numerous ways to do things and get stuff done and the chosen way is most always influenced by $$. The nature of the beast.

  6. Victoria@ The British Berliner

    As usual Earl, your post has been thought provoking. I’ve always found you to be mature and thoughtful about why you write what you write. Kudos!
    Do I think it’s possible to be truly informed about something? Not at all. I studied politics at university and I was fascinated by the reasons leaders and people did what they did, in order to get what they want. I’m still fascinated. As long as we all understand that it’s a game then we’re on the right page and as bloggers and “media content creators,” we are part of that game. Someone once asked me why I don’t write about political issues on my blog. Ha! I might write a one-liner sentence here and there written as a jovial quip but I’m not going to start a game that I can’t finish!

    Wisedom is knowing that you haven’t a clue, leaving the table and walking out the door.

  7. JB & Renee

    When I turned 40, some of my younger brother’s friends who kinda looked up to me asked what I had learned from life. I remember sitting there with my mouth open like an idiot having no clue what to say. All I could mutter was a shaky “learn how to roll with the punches”. I kept kicking myself after that thinking what a stupid thing it was to say, but I’m actually pretty proud of that advice now. Like you, I know nothing. All I know is that your life can change in an instant, so you have to be able to adapt to whatever it is that life throws you. That, and to always, always be grateful.

  8. Michael

    Great post! I agree that everything is highly complicated and it is nearly impossible to understand every aspect to eg a conflict, let alone control it. But there is hope – as you work in an area or on an issue you do gain genuine knowledge and can understand complex issues. It is difficult but there are equally many very intelligent and experienced people everywhere who have enormous amounts of expertise. Once you begin working in the field you get a greater understanding. *based on my time interning with the UN

  9. Travis Longmore

    I love this post. It’s pretty refreshing reading something like this from someone that’s traveled so much. I think travel broadens the mind and can be dangerous in a way but you’ve summed up something I’ve been thinking about recently and nailed it. Nicely said!

  10. Marcell Claassen

    Never a truer word said mate!
    I’ve been travelling 16years and even though only 46 countries, my realisation of how little I know is almost embedded in me now.
    Good thing about that realisation is that I have an insatiable hunger to learn – ranging from the language, right through the different elements that make up the culture and traditions; these ultimately shape these people I visit.
    This has also taught me to be quiet and listen, much more than when I started travelling.

  11. Sean

    When I was traveling I South America I read the last Days of Socrates by Plato. And it uniquely changed my life. “I am a wise man, because I know that I know nothing.” Socrates. But more importantly I am wise when I know that I know nothing.

  12. Cheshirecat

    Early, you are young and may say you know nothing, but with time and age, all that information gets sorted out and gets filed in your brain for use later – it is not wasted or lost. When you get older, it will all come together to form a picture and you will see what works to affirm life and what doesn’t. From that, you can see which political systems work and which ones don’t. There are pros and cons for every system.

  13. Shannon

    Stellar article. I absolutely agree that we can know nothing, even with all the information at the touch of our fingertips. There are too many players involved, and a mass of complexities in the politics/economics/social/environmental issues that we seek to understand. Thank you for speaking so truly about travel and how even if we have been to many places, spoken with many people, or read many news articles, at the end of the day they are only opinions, subjective, and filtered through individual perspectives and life experiences.

  14. lani

    i’ll add my ‘yeah hurray’ thank you for you in the world Earl. may we all remember this as we travel, far or near.

  15. Scott Bloom

    As John Rodgers said “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But I will add after that ‘Everything IS the small stuff.’

    There is so little we are in control of, and I’ve learned with my time on this planet that it is all about control; control of land, control of people, control of arms, control of food, etc.

    We are not even in control of ourselves until we are adults and on our own and even then, we are limited by what we are prisoners by what have been taught to be “truth”. Of course we have to buy into that crap to begin with. Some become enlightened and shuck it off…some never do.

    You inform, enlighten, and yes, even teach us by your travels. We are uplifted by what you write, and you make us think.

    My mantras are:

    Don’t sweat the small stuff, cause everything IS the small stuff.
    There is no such thing as a free lunch.
    Treat others as you would like to be treated.
    Make mistakes, it’s expected.
    Never look back, because if you do you are not moving forward.
    Your path, which may be right for you, is not the right path for all.
    Respect your home (Earth) it’s the only one you will ever have.

    I try to live up to all, but of course I do not always succeed.

    1. Travis

      My mantra is: you can get used to anything. Of course, this works more with the long term and doesn’t really seem to apply to our immediate situation… We all lose the plot sometimes but, in the long run, I believe we can become the very things we want to see in the world.

      On a different note, I totally agree about being controlled. I don’t know if you heard about the lady in Florida who is in the process of being evicted for living “off grid” but, as someone who is planning someday do just that, I was shocked! I’m not anti-government but, seriously, what gives :0

  16. Travis

    GOT meme anybody? But seriously, this is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. The truth is as you said… basically, the world is full of opinions, and actual reality is often difficult for people to define. Fortunately, there are many things on which most CAN agree, such as common experiences.

    In any case, being unbiased, and ignoring the emotional desire to tout one’s opinions, is a good way to avoid an argument. This is something that I have been noticing in myself and others a lot recently and what’s really interesting is that, in noticing this, it seems I can see things a lot more clearly. The fact of the matter is that emotions have a way of lowering one’s intelligence but, if we can control our emotions, our perspective on issues tends to widen up a bit. An interesting quote by Einstein that may add some light, “It’s not that I’m SO smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

    A little patience can make a huge difference. To follow up on Bharat’s example, I would also add a quote which addresses our patience toward others: “[…] console the fainthearted, sustain the weak, be long-suffering [patient] toward all.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:14.

  17. Carmen

    Travel has made you a wise man, Earl. Keep travelling … and sharing. Love your blog, your stories, your insights.

  18. Lissa

    This Socrates logic not only applies to travel. I think it’s amazing how biased other countries are of Americans. They see all the million dollar homes on the American movies and think we all must be that rich. What’s stunning is how many Americans who live in the richest nation in all the history of the world live in similar poverty conditions as third world countries. It’s amazing how people assume so much about America. Poverty is very real here. That’s why I believe it’s important for everyone to travel and experience different cultures.

  19. Neysha

    This is an awesome point. I think I’ve learned the same thing about myself (and the world… does anyone really know what they’re doing? I think we’re all faking it till we make it… whatever that even means). I do think travel has helped me form my own opinions from what I’ve read and observed, but I’ve learned that just because I think one way now doesn’t mean someone won’t persuade me to think another way tomorrow. I’m learning to let that persuasion happen when it’s right, because that’s how we grow and that’s how we help make a difference. Great post!

  20. Laurie Heinitz

    Through out my life I often find myself repeating the Socrates quote “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. I wish more people would learn humbleness. Those who don’t are usually the people with the least amount of knowledge on a topic. Out of fear of others realizing they dont know much they try to act like they have all the answers. In my opinion those people always end up looking like the biggest fools or worse they end up causing wars.

  21. Scott Burke

    This is so true, Earl, it is indeed very difficult to understand other cultures and all their endless complexities.

    But I believe that you have / are doing it the right way, but being a real cultural insider when you travel; and also by writing about your experiences and thoughts, so that the rest of us can piece them together with those from our own travels.

    The lesson for me? The learning and the journey(s) never end. That can be either good or bad, depending on one’s perspective. For me it’s good – I’ve chosen to accept that I have a limited view of foreign cultures, despite traveling as an insider as a volunteer and manager of volunteers for years.

    But even with a limited view, I can still share that view and compare mine to others, so that I can bring more empathy and compassion to the world.

    I recently started tutoring a Vietnamese woman in English. I managed to offend her in our first session – by asking about the health of her parents. I caught myself and asked her if that was too intrusive, and she let me know (in a very subtle way, I think, to let me save face) that it’s kind of personal to do that after just meeting someone. So there you go – I learned something else about another culture!

    Keep up the great posts, Earl !

  22. Bharat

    I recently came across this line which suits on you the best: “When I am wrong or make a mistake, I am still a good person.”
    And another one which clearly says what is it to be fully acquainted: “Thou shalt come come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season”
    -Job.5.26

  23. John Pilkington

    I completely agree with Claudia. After visiting quite a few countries ourselves and even, dare I say it, watching some of the better TV documentaries following people around the globe who maybe have the connection to be able to stay with indigenous tribes and so on.. What lessons can we learn? We learn about ourselves, I think. About our own personalities, how we cope with unexpected situations. Hopefully we don’t feel that we cannot help others. We will probably choose some causes to support but maybe understand the viewpoint of both sides better.

    Your thought provoking questions are great and all the better because you have the credentials of having seen a great deal more of the world than most of us.

  24. Gilles Barbier

    I won’t start with Socrates as Claudia did, but quoting someone (I don’t even remember who): “a teenager with his high school diploma thinks he knows everything, a winner of the Nobel Prize knows he knows nothing”.
    Yes, the more you learn on any subject, the more you discover how little you know about this very specific subject.
    Discovering a country has always given me a complete new insight (I do not say knowledge!) of this place, the people, the culture, the history, the expectations, … far away from what I had imagined (we always have our own pictures / ideas about a place or a people or a subject, based on previous knowledges).
    Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go as far as you go. We do not know nothing but have a limited amount of knowledge and understanding about any given subject. The most important is to be aware of the limitations and of the possibility that we might actually be completely wrong (i.e. be ready to hear new ideas / information / insights and eventually adapt).
    Humble yes, clueless is in my opinion a bit strong.
    But congratulation for this excellent article! Basically I agree but wouldn’t be that definite.
    Cheers, Gilles

  25. John Rodgers

    I am much older than you and have been on the road an equal time as you. The one thing I have learned through those extra years is that all the knowledge we accumulate is store and we all think we are getting wiser which we are. Experience I think is worth more than the facts and figures you gain from the net.

    The saddest thing is that you and I and every other person in the world gains this type of knowledge though life experience and when we are gone it has not usually been left in anyway. If we could only amass that knowledge and information to pass on to the next generation before we are gone what a benefit that would be for them.

    I know that you are doing what you enjoy, you are sharing that with other people, you try to share and give you gained knowledge to others just as my wife and I do so you are doing it the right way.

    We are only here once so keep doing and sharing what you love with others and hope that makes a difference in the lives of others.

    As people from the 70’s generation might say “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”

  26. Claudia

    Socrates once said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.

    Your way of thinking is matured and refined and shows great sensitivity. Most people would be perfectly satisfied with the tiny amount of information they can get from dubious sources. So much so, that when they hear or read different arguments they actually defend their point of view in ways that escalate to insults.

    I will share an interesting story with you. Before deciding I had enough of it, I worked as a human rights lawyer and academic. I devoted 15 years of my life to research and report on issues such as racial discrimination and the protection of cultural identity, and in particular I focussed on the Roma minority living in Italy. You may be aware of that, but the Roma communities in Italy face a number of issues. Quite regularly, the media – a good portion of national media – publish sensational stories about petty crimes committed by a member of the Roma community. These cause lots of public debate, and the immediate consequence is that most readers begin sharing articles from dubious and unverified sources, in an escalation of racist speech. I used to comment on these, sharing what little facts I have gathered in the many years of research on the issue. I was accused of sharing biased information and actually asked to refer to the dubious sources that were quoted. In other words, people did not care to listen to what a person who had worked in that very field for years would have to say, as they were perfectly happy with their ignorance.

    I say, you are a good step ahead, as you have even started questioning what you may or may not know. I call that wisdom.

    Well done, and lovely post as always.

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