Recently, I had the pleasure of spending six nights kicking it in Jacksonville, Florida with my dear friend Angie. And I do mean kicking it. I must admit that for a second time (I also visited for a few days in 2015 in which we literally barely left Angie’s apartment — in our defense, it snowed) I kind of failed Jacksonville as a tourist.

But four whirlwind days in New Orleans and a family-filled nine days in Illinois before that and, well, an insane-in-the-membrane summer before that, it felt really nice to just slip into someone’s life for a while and join them for family barbecues, work days in the home office, mid-day runs to the build-your-own-salad spot, and afternoon swims in their new backyard pool. And slipping into Angie’s life means going to church on Sundays. With Angie one of my closest friends, I was looking forward to finally getting to experience this important part of her week with her.

like basically the only photo I took in Jacksonville

I grew up attending the church where my mom was a deacon every Sunday, going on church retreats with my cousin in the summer, and watching Veggie Tales videos until way beyond when my sister and I had technically aged out of them. (What, you aren’t familiar with this musical and magical cast of talking vegetables telling the stories of the Bible?! Pshhhh. Get with the program, guys.) Religion was generally a positive aspect of my upbringing, and yet I knew from a young age that I was quite certainly agnostic, long before I understood what that term actually meant. But I digress — that’s really not the point of this post.

The best pastors are fantastic storytellers, which is why I always enjoy a moving sermon, even if I get lost in the heavy scripture stuff. This particular Sunday, Angie’s pastor gave a sermon that at one point asked us to contemplate what the anchors of our lives were. The things that held us down when the winds of life really kicked up. He even gave us time to take notes in the snazzily designed programs we’d been handed as we walked in.

Wow, did that give me pause. And I thought about it for a long time after.

I suspect that for many in that room, faith was one of if not the primary anchor keeping their life grounded. And I think it’s a solid one: it’s something you can take anywhere and one can ever take from you. I’ve got nothing but respect for the people who have it. But for my own answer, I had to dig.

I think a lot of the valid answers to this question — home, marriage, family, career, maybe even our passions and our hobbies — are extremely important factors that make up the foundation of many, many people’s lives. But as so many of us painfully learn, especially these last weeks as the world reels with tragedy and disaster, is that none of those are, really, guarantees. Houses burn down and blow away. Relationships end. Jobs are lost. People who are foundational to our lives can be taken from us in seconds. Most of the time, when people lose those crucial anchors in their life, it’s a painful experience and it isn’t necessarily their choice.

For me, it was my choice. At the ripe old age of twenty-one, I decided to enthusiastically cut off all those bowlines for the unknown of long-term travel. Looking back, I realize I had no idea the gravity of that decision. I just wanted adventure, and I wasn’t letting silly things like stable job offers get in my way! So off I flew on a one way ticket out of New York, the contents of my apartment sold off and the things I couldn’t bear to part with packed away in my childhood home. But today I have the clarity to realize that I sacrificed a lot of things that, perhaps in another life, could have made me extremely happy, too: a permanent residence, more regular contact with my family, a more stable career choice, a more traditional relationship.

Instead, I chose an unconventional path that prioritized travel. And you know what? In shedding those anchors that I thought a life was built on, precariously stacked by things I couldn’t control, I gained something. I often write that traveling, especially solo, has been the most empowering experience of my life. Traveling alone has meant navigating unfamiliar cultures, problem-solving my way out of enormous challenges, forcing myself to learn to self-soothe in times of trouble, and most importantly, learning to deeply enjoy my own company and be able to hear my inner voice without the chaotic chatter of other people’s opinions or the drowning hum of the daily grind.

By sailing into the unknown I inadvertently built a foundation for my life that no one or no thing can ever take away from me: a lens of gratitude with which to see the world, a strong sense myself and a deep well of faith in my journey.

Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.  — Mark Twain.

How does travel build confidence and a sense of self? It just does. When your flight gets cancelled and it throws your trip into chaos, you deal with it. When you get dropped off at night at a hostel in an unfamiliar city and the doors are locked and you have no phone and no idea were you are, you deal with it. When you find yourself heartsick and ego-bruised and completely alone after a travel romance goes wrong, you deal with it. You suck it up, you deal with things, you figure shit out, and in between you find yourself regularly in awe at the absolute beauty and magic of this big wide world you’re lucky enough to be exploring. You’re surrounded by unfamiliar everything — language, climate, currency, everything. And you’re not just surviving, you’re even maybe every once in a while thriving. How could you not think of yourself as a total badass after that? And spending months with your own company as your only constant helps you develop a pretty rock solid sense of who else you truly are. Other than a badass.

Now, clearly, nothing is perfect — I still occasionally find myself feeling uncertain about the future. I still have certain people in my life that are able to push my buttons and rock my boat no matter how much meditating I do before I see them. And I still sometimes throw myself elaborate, lavish pity parties over things that amount, in the long run, to minor inconveniences.

But, well, I’m getting there. And I feel certain I would be a completely different human if I’d chosen a different path those six long years ago. Traveling changed me down at a cellular level. Yes, I still consider my family and my friends and my boyfriend my business and my part-time apartment here in Thailand to be anchors of my life. But traveling revealed to me that I have one that is stronger, deeper, and more permanent than any others: the confidence to truly know myself, the independence to carve out my own path and the creativity to find joy in life regardless of how the tides ebb and flow. I have me.

I get emails all the time from readers who feel lost and adrift. Don’t we all, sometimes? From now on, I’m going to have a new piece of advice for them: Be your own anchor. I have an idea for how to get there.

Tell me crew: what are the anchors of your life?

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