The Life of a Wandering Fool

 

When you’re continuously shifting from one country to the next, you’re also moving from culture to culture to culture.

Not everything is different of course – I don’t think I’ve been to a city that doesn’t have a KFC – but enough is novel that, unless you allow yourself to be pulled into the protective cocoon of tourism (where the natives all speak accented English and the food is portioned like you’re accustomed to back home) you’re bound to feel like an idiot from time to time.

Or maybe even constantly. A perpetual idiot.

And it’s strange, because no matter how intelligent you know you are, when you totter around a new place, not understanding street signs or knowing how to say ‘thank you’ or how much money is worth, you ARE kind of an imbecile, at least in practice. In a lot of ways you’re less capable than a child.

To make things worse, you’re not the only one who knows that you’re stupid.

Everyone who lives there has seen dumb-dumbs like you before, walking around with sunglasses and a worldly, knowing grin, not realizing that you’ve stepped in goat manure and are about to stomp a miniature spirit shrine, sacred to the locals.

You’re not just a fool, you’re a cliche fool. Yeesh.

But it’s all good. I’ve actually come to embrace this aspect of long-term travel, and now I use it to my advantage.

Consider this:

When you’re an expert in your field, it’s very difficult to ask questions, even very smart ones.

People expect certain things of you, and one of those things is that you will ANSWER questions, not ask them. This makes it very difficult to grow as a person, and to expand your horizons.

Look no further than experts if you’re looking to see mental geology in action, because there are few people more likely to plateau.

When you’re a dull-witted imbecile, however, you can ask ANYTHING and it will be considered a step in the right direction.

People will marvel at your ambitiousness when you ask them how to say ‘thank you’ and how much a Baht is worth. They’ll tell you everything they can, and then hand you off to someone who can tell you more.

The paradox of living the life of a wandering fool is that it’s one of the best ways I’ve found to become a more informed person.

Sometimes ‘I know’ keeps you from pursuing ‘I wonder’ – be less certain and you’ll achieve greater certainty.

20 comments

  1. Very interesting thoughts – there’s really a lot to this. It is quite hard for the occational traveller to risk (or know) looking like a fool by asking some simple question – I guess when you live like you do you’re forced to do it. And it definately has its benefits – none of the locals are going to publicly mock you, anyway :)

    And yes, even Reykjavik has a KFC. We lost our McDonalds after the economic crash though – good riddance, too :)

  2. This is a great reminder not to be afraid to ask questions no matter who you are or where you are. I like how you expressed not knowing means growing.

  3. I haven’t traveled extensively, but when I have visited other countries I have felt like… Hmmm. I have know idea what’s going on, and aside from feeling like an idiot from time to time it’s exhilarating!

  4. Spot on! Its a brilliant system – the less someone thinks you know, the more you can learn from them. One of the things that I love about traveling is that I never really feel stupid for asking questions. Foolish at times? Yes. But I’d feel like a complete idiot if I pretended to know something and ended up offending tradition/cultural norms.

  5. Spot on! Its a brilliant system – the less someone thinks you know, the more you can learn from them. One of the things that I love about traveling is that I never really feel stupid for asking questions. Foolish at times? Yes. But I’d feel like a complete idiot if I pretended to know something and ended up offending tradition/cultural norms.

  6. Good-hearted locals will also let you get away with a lot more when you do mess up. Great when you can bypass a subway fare or get a small free snack! The problem arises when these people keep treating you like the dumb foreigner and let you keep getting away with things! But when you do ask questions to refine your own knowledge of the place, people will “tell you everything they can, and then hand you off to someone who can tell you more.”

    PS, I dont think the above theory applies as much in Europe as it would in Asia.

  7. “Sometimes ‘I know’ keeps you from pursuing ‘I wonder’ – be less certain and you’ll achieve greater certainty.”

    Really, this has nothing to do with traveling and everything to do with your outlook on the world and the position you’ve chosen in it. People are scared to admit they don’t know something so they never learn.

    Great post – thanks a lot.

  8. Good post. I find the same applies to most aspects of life and work. If you can ask a few stupid questions from the start you disillusion people to your superior intelligence, and are free to continue asking stupid questions. Then you can surprise everyone by being intelligent every now and again!

    Of course it’s probably only you who thinks you had a reputation in the first place and only you who thinks the questions are stupid. Still, it’s good to break through that barrier.

    Hope you’re enjoying Phnom Penh and the practice went well today. Looking forward to hearing you talk at TEDxPP tomorrow.

  9. Way to stir the pot. I remember reading EM Forester and how he lambasted the middle class Londoners “reaching for their Baedeker” guide books every time they’re lost.

    I also think of all the rich yoginis following Elizabeth Gilbert to $1000/night Ashrams in India with cow like grins, as they marvel at their own transcendence. But I digress…

    One other truth: I’ve been the idiot. I’ve also been a confident Gringo adrift in strange corners of Latin America. I can’t be afraid to play the fool or I don’t engage with the deeper, more haunting, more-impoverished & culturally rich parts of culture.

  10. Great post. I also love to travel. It certaintly (if done right) can take you out of your comfort zone. And that’s where real learning and growth takes place. Thanks and best to you.

  11. I’ve been retracing some of my philosophic roots. Today I returned to the idea of professions of ignorance. Never pretending to know more than any one else. If anything: assume there is always more to learn.

  12. I had never thought about that before. You took this in a different direction then the title suggested to me. and I was pleasantly surprised. Thanks.

  13. I have traveled around the US extensively. It is not too hard to pick up the basics, no matter where you are, especially when, as you said, the currency and language are familiar.

    I have traveled outside the US ONCE. I went to Paris a few years back and learned that when avoiding the tourist traps, people are more willing to help, if you just ask. You act cocky, arrogant, they are more likely to look at you like an arrogant tourist and NOT help you, or give you mis-information.

    Great rationale on why it is okay to be an imbecile :)

  14. Yep – people seem more forgiving when you own up to your “I’m the new kid on the block” status. When I was in Italy and not speaking Italian the atmosphere was frosty because they thought I was French and just choose not to, However when they discovered that I was just a dumb American who didn’t know Italian, all was forgiven

    Riley

  15. Hey Colin!
    I love how your writing style changes depending on where you are. Hope things are going well in Iceland! Drop a line when you get back to NYC!
    – @katiefitz

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