Last week I sat on the edge of a thin mattress in a small room in Vientiane, the capital of the southeast Asian nation of Laos. It was 100 degrees. I carried only a backpack. After that day’s plane trip up from Thailand, I sat, took a long swig of warm water from a bottle, and felt the rumble of the motorbikes and auto-rickshaws outside settle thickly in my mind. I thought about where on Earth I might be going.
We’ve all heard the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. What we don’t hear very often, though, is that invention isn’t just about the creation of things. It’s about the creation of people.
Each one of us invents ourselves. But we only do so based on necessity. We become only what we need to become.
Most of my friends think of me as a talker. When I’m in my comfort zone — at work, at bars, at parties — I relish the mental ballet of keeping up a good conversation. So my friends are surprised, from time to time, when they realize that I can be a very shy person. When self-doubt comes seeping through the cracks, I see the overly-nervous version of myself as a sort of deep dark truth, never fully flushed out and resolved.
Being an introvert is just fine, but being shy is something shallower, more circumstantial, and altogether less enjoyable. Shyness is a rather corrosive form of indulgence, and its main ingredient — self-doubt — is an empty, but infinite, luxury.
This hot, foreign little room, however, doesn’t feel like luxury. Which is good. I’m traveling in order to do without luxury. On this street, they don’t do air conditioning. And me? On this street, I don’t do shyness. The backpack holding my life right now is small. These days, I don’t have room to carry doubt with me.
Compared with English, I speak almost no Thai. Over the past few months this has made me nervous about speaking with Thai people. But those months have also made me much more confident about making new friends among the English speakers I’ve been meeting.
Now, in Laos, I feel the strain again. I speak even less Laotian than I speak Thai, and so I’m nervous once more. On the other hand, now I’m relieved to speak with the handful of Thai people with whom I’m crossing paths.
The more we comprehend the amount we don’t know, the more we trust in what we’ve had the privilege to learn, and the more we appreciate the people who have taken the time to teach us.
I saw this revelation coming from a ways off. But what surprised me is the landscape I now see on the other side. It’s not uphill. To my relief, it looks an awful lot like the best of the world as I’ve already known it. A world with people who chat, smile, laugh, and help.
Necessity is the mother of everything we’ve ever made of ourselves. When we need to get somewhere — really, really need to — we invent what we need to get there. We invent a self that packs a slimmer, poorer bag.
And that larger, heavier bag you used to tow around, buckled tight against the forces of doubt, worry, and all those other stale mental stuffings? Leave it in the attic, burst, gathering dust.
We don’t all cross national borders very often. But we cross borders of different sorts all the time. We need to. And that necessity is a special ticket unto itself.
Sometimes you’ll feel small in the face of what you need to do. And you will be small. So pack accordingly. Trust in your lightened load. Be the need, and invent the self that needs it, and makes it.
To find the bigger world, pack a smaller bag. We become all the more inventive, and confident, for doing more with less.
Yes, exploration is a great breeder of humility — it tends to sharpen your view of what you lack and what you are outside of.
But what better way to learn to love your own history, your own talents and efforts? What better way to trust in what you’ve so hungrily, and inevitably, come to know?