I found myself waiting at a bus stop in a foreign country, transport card in hand, backpack strapped on, and alone. Comfortably alone. I was waiting for the local bus to arrive and take me about 30 minutes away from the small Swiss village to the base of a mountain for a morning of hiking. With me I carried a paper map of the trail, a small backpack packed with a few snacks, water, a jacket, and the anticipation of an adventure, one just for me.
I was recently sent on a work trip to the most picturesque, magical Swiss town with both lakes and mountains dotting the landscape. Though I was there to work, I had a few scattered hours off here and there to enjoy my Swiss summer home, and I was determined to take advantage of this dream-like landscape and outdoor-lovers playground. I was sent over with a small team of people, all of whom I met for the first time upon landing. Unfortunately, given our work schedule, we barely or rarely had overlapping hours off with the other team members, which meant one of two things:
- I would have to wait for another colleague to have time off the same hours as me to enjoy and explore the area (which may never happen)
- I would explore alone
Though not always the easy choice, I chose the latter.
As I waited for the bus I was a little bit nervous, worried I may not find the right stop, take a wrong turn on my hike; and without the accountability of someone going with me I even debated going at all, as I had to wake up early in order to hike and make it back for my afternoon shift.
When I arrived at my stop, I rode a gondola up to the start of the hike, and set off on my own towards the path, using the red-white-red striped marks and my paper map to guide me. I ascended towards the first of 6 lakes I would pass on the hike, no headphones, just my breath and nature and some fellow hikers scattered ahead and behind. The further I hiked, the more secluded the trail became, and in fact, I barely saw anyone else along the way. It was me and the mountains—the green and rocky hillside, white snow-capped mountains and bright blue glacial lakes.
Though it can no doubt be amazing to share in beautiful experiences with others, I couldn’t help but to think how special this experience was. I was doing something just for me, and staring at the Swiss mountains taking in the beauty, it felt like a hidden secret that only I was meant to know about. As I hiked and hiked, I thought about the concept of what got me to this place—navigating foreign public transport, hiking alone and happy as ever— and how grateful I was for the courage and curiosity to explore, companion or not. I thought about how finding the motivation and confidence to try new things and do things on your own is like a muscle that needs to be exercised…. and though it’s not necessarily always (or ever) EASY, each time gets significantly less hard with more practice.
Now, this was not the first time I found myself waiting alone in a foreign country for my bus/plane/train/car to take me into the unknown, into the unfamiliar, towards some adventure. Adventuring and exploring—alone—was a muscle I had been training for a few years now, and it did not begin with grand, overseas solo endeavors.
How many times have you wanted to do something, anything—go for a walk, check out a new restaurant, picnic in the park on a gorgeous afternoon, go see a new movie, buy the plane ticket to that city you’ve been dreaming of visiting—but not found anyone to go with and not ended up going at all? Up there on my blissful solo hike, I thought about how so many people spend their whole lives waiting on and depending on others to do the things they want to do, and how that will turn into a lifetime of waiting, missing out on countless experiences like the one I had embarked on that morning.
The benefits of doing things on your own
Doing things on your own is a skill that can be developed and give you the freedom to take control of your passions and your adventurous side, and also provides many benefits along the way.
Getting out of your comfort zone strengthens your ability to overcome adversity and see things from a new perspective. In fact, psychiatrist Abigail, M.D. gives the advice, “Every time you try something new, allow yourself to be open to whatever experience arises, you are learning, and expanding your repertoire of life skills and self-knowledge. As you do this you are also expanding the size of your comfort zone.”
I love that last line, that as your experiences widen, so does your comfort zone. A few years ago I had never solo-travelled or backpacked and now with several trips with friends and then eventually that first leap into a big solo trip on my own, it is now my preferred method of travel!
And without relying on someone else, you build problem-solving skills and learn to trust your own judgement and intuition. Sometimes following someone else’s lead is just plain easier, and to be honest, can be nice. But if you stay in the passenger seat too long, you’ll never learn how exhilarating or empowering it is to drive, to be the decision maker, and learn how awesome your own instincts are and where they can lead you.
While I was backpacking with my best mate through Thailand, we would rent motorbikes to get around the cities and islands, exploring like the locals do. I got into the habit of letting her lead, and direct. Two months later, when it was time for me to continue on solo, I remember feeling nervous about navigating my way around without her, having difficulty trusting my own abilities to take the lead and find my way on my own.
In the beginning I would pull over every so often, stop, check where I was going, ask someone for help. Each time I stopped less and less, trusting myself more. I quickly realized the old story I had told myself of “not having a great sense of direction” was probably rooted in the ease and comfort of choosing to rely on other people to navigate. I was as capable as anyone of being the lead, of sitting in the drivers seat.
One year later I returned back to the same island, this time guiding my mom around. I navigated the two of us around the island just off of memory, no Google map, no stopping, no second guessing, and pretty damn proud of my strengthened sense of direction, instincts, and confidence in my abilities.
Lastly, without the constant chatter, attention or distraction a close friend or partner provides, you can enjoy getting to know yourself on a deeper level- you can have the space to reflect, learn about your likes and dislikes, what makes you uncomfortable, what fuels you and what you love about yourself.
How to practice doing things by yourself
So how can you train this muscle to make doing things solo more of the norm, less scary, and be an active participant in this adventure we call life?
- Start small. Take a walk on your own, run errands by yourself, go to a coffee shop and actually sit down and enjoy the atmosphere instead of going through the drive thru. See if you can do these things without talking on the phone or staying plugged into your phone or headphones. Slowly you will learn to find comfort in your own company and enjoy the pleasure of being present.
- Be brave. Nothing is more empowering than discovering and navigating to a new place successfully on your own, whether in your hometown or in a foreign city, especially by bike or on foot (because bonus: endorphins!) Try Googling “outdoor activities in [your area]” or bike or walk to a park. You can make it a whole date with yourself by bringing your book, a blanket, a fresh baguette and all of the things to make for a lovely picnic in the park!
- Positive thinking. Ask yourself what is the WORST thing that could happen by doing X activity by yourself instead of waiting for a friend to come with you. I always tell myself that even if something doesn’t go as planned, I will have a funny story out of it later anyways.
- And even more positive thinking. Even better, ask yourself what’s the BEST thing that could happen? I can tell you from experience I have collected so many amazing stories and new friends by going places on my own—interactions and experiences I never would have had in the comfort of a companion.
- Self-Motivation. Sometimes it’s not the fear of doing something alone that holds us back but rather the lack of accountability a companion provides. Maybe it’s an early morning exercise class you’ve been wanting to fit into your routine or a long hike you have been working up the motivation to do. Instead of waiting around, I challenge you to go at it alone, asking yourself “how good will you feel after you do this thing?” and letting that fuel you. Maybe in the moment an early alarm clock or strenuous hike doesn’t sound appealing but imagining yourself taking time FOR yourself and feeling so amazing afterwards will be so worth it. I promise.
Now ask yourself: what is it that you have been waiting for someone else to go do? Stop waiting and get out there—you’ve got this.