Home » Tough skin and a soft heart: what being fearless means to one solo traveller

Tough skin and a soft heart: what being fearless means to one solo traveller

written by Lauren Steele February 15, 2018
Four travellers share a smile on a morning hike through the mountains

It was an Uber driver who told me once, “You gotta live with tough skin and a soft heart.”

I was in Philadelphia, on my way to an Interstate-side Ramada Inn – tired, unimpressed, uninspired. Philadelphia isn’t a particularly exotic destination, and a Ramada Inn doesn’t offer much overnight sex appeal, and the idea of getting excited about where I was had little to no allure. I was engaging with this driver partly to keep from falling asleep in the backseat and partly to entertain myself. I didn’t expect much except a pleasant exchange and a five-star rating. But the minute those words fell out of that driver’s mouth, I piqued.

“Live with tough skin and a soft heart.” For me, that directly translated to, “Be fearless.”

Like most kids raised in the cornfields of middle America, I didn’t travel much as a kid. There were no ski holidays during the winter, no summer vacations to the far-flung cities of the world to learn how to be a tourist. But there was work to be done, discomfort to feel, worry to alleviate, stress to soothe. I had learned (or earned) that tough skin, but what about that soft heart?

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It was like a slap across the spirit. For at least 17 passport stamps, I had prided myself on my courage – my ability to go and do and try and be there. I thought I was brave. I was doing stuff that made me uncomfortable all the time. I’m a woman who moved to New York City without knowing a soul, saw her first mountain at age 21, and took her first bite of sushi at age 22. I was comfortable with being uncomfortable, but that didn’t mean I had courage. What was I really afraid of? Certainly not going, or doing, or trying. But I was scared of sharing. Being. Feeling. Having a heart soft enough to be affected by the formative hands of the world I was a part of.

We sneakily sabotage life with fear.

We become afraid to say too much, to feel too deeply, to let people know what they mean to us, or to have an idea. Being fearless does not equivocate hardening yourself to the world – fearlessness is the complicated dance of giving fear less power over you. Be bold in who, and how, you become. There is courage in that.

Stop tolerating less from yourself.

Lauren explores a glacier in PatagoniaAt the end of the day, be excited to be alive. When we settle for anything less than what we want, we destroy the possibility that lives inside of us, and all the purpose this crazy world wants out of us. The next Michelangelo could be sitting behind a Macbook right now writing an invoice for paperclips, because it pays the bills or because it is comfortable or because he can tolerate it – or because he’s afraid.

Don’t piss this opportunity away. Action cures fear – whether it’s feeling tough enough to scrape your skin or softening your heart enough to share this life.

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We have before us an unholy marriage between willing and able. For too long, it’s been too easy to convince ourselves that we are quite willing – willing to try, willing to go, willing to say it, or willing to act – but we say over and over that we are simply incapable. “Oh, I’d love to, I just don’t have the money. I don’t have the time.” Really, we just don’t have the courage to admit that we can. Humans are so incredibly capable – we are just unwilling to acknowledge our capacity for effort, exposure, emotion… It’s scary.

We have to stop saying that we’re incapable.

Admit you’re capable, but simply unwilling. Then, maybe it won’t be so easy to hold yourself back. I was unwilling to open myself up and let my life and opportunity affect me. But when I saw the opportunity to share and love, I realized that I was afraid, because sharing your experience with those around you is the highest privilege of travel. Sharing your memories of life is the highest privilege of living. I wanted to earn that privilege.

When your mind is made up, it’s not so scary anymore.

Don’t have the money? Start a GoFundMe for friends and family to donate to your travel. Get a job for three months bar-backing or dog walking (my final resort in January 2015 in New York City to be able to pay my first month’s rent and keep that city from shooing me away).

RELATED: WHY TRAVEL MAKES THE WORLD SMALLER

You have the time – make the priority.

An uncomfortable amount of our experience comes from the attitude we have. You are shaping your experience every moment of every day with the mood (or perspective, or point of view, or whatever you want to call it) that you bring into every situation. When we don’t take ownership and responsibility for the power we have to create in our lives, how can we expect to feel empowered?

Life and work, and life and love, are not irrespective of each other. We must strive to do extraordinary work – we must strive to find extraordinary love. Only then will we tap into an extraordinary life.

Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that scary? Yeah, having what we want is scary. What if we lose it? What if we fail – what if it fails us? Take courage, be fearless. That doesn’t mean that you have less fear – it means that your fear has less power over you.

Feeling inspired?

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4 comments

Henry Collins April 14, 2018 - 2:17 am

Wow amazing post! I wish to travel the world some day, and go on new adventures.

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John April 4, 2018 - 3:14 am

I really gotta say, I have a strong urge to up and leave, go somewhere like Nepal and just risk an adventure. Great post, beautiful pictures. Plainly amazing.

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Eldon Albertson February 15, 2018 - 5:51 pm

I am 78 years old and spent almost 3 weeks traveling alone in China to Beijing, Xi’an, Hong Kong and Macau, in November and December 2017. I made all of my reservations online except for the half day and day tours I took in those cities or out into the countryside. I visited many interesting places, including the home of an elderly couple living underground in a cave cut into the mountainside in Chen Lu, the pottery town near Xi’an. My guide, Andy, helped them take a heavy door into their enclosed compound. They invited us into their home. From Beijing, I took a bus and a taxi to Gubeikou town, a three hour ride, because I wanted to see an unreconstructed part of the Great Wall. My taxi driver and I hiked, for an hour, up through scrub brush along an almost non-existent trail, until we reached the wall…what was left of it. We spent about a half hour walking along the remains of the wall before heading back down to the car. That trip back to the car took another hour. The only living creature we saw during our mountain hike was a rabbit scurrying swiftly up the hill. It was a very satisfying experience to see a place that very few people take the time or energy to visit. Guided tours do not take you here. I never met an unfriendly person anywhere. I would stop people on the street of Beijing to ask directions, knowing that they likely did not speak English. They were always friendly and helpful. I came home with about 2,000 pictures, which I can use to relive my trip. If you need to travel alone, do not let that stop you. In the past few years, I have traveled to Morocco, Egypt (before the troubles), Peru, India, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam and Germany (although driving on the Autobahn is getting a bit stressful now). If the future is kind to me, I may take more trips by myself. I am willing to help older single travelers if they need it. If you are a US citizen, you get a 10 year multi-visit visa to visit China now and airfares from the US to China late in the year are very good. Round trip for me from Eugene, Oregon, to Beijing, in November-December, was only $522. I expect it to be about the same in 2018.

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Rebecca Shapiro February 16, 2018 - 2:26 am

Hi Eldon. Thank you so much for that comment – so great to hear about your adventures in China! It sounds like a fantastic trip. You have a tremendous attitude towards traveling and it’s amazing to hear where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. If you’d be interested in helping us encourage more people to travel and would like to discuss writing for the Intrepid Travel blog then it’d be great if you dropped me a quick note to rebecca.shapiro@intrepidtravel.com – happy travels!

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