Following is the full transcript of Lexie Alford’s talk titled “Life Lessons from the Youngest Person to Travel to Every Country” at TEDxKlagenfurt conference.
Lexie Alford – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
We are having the wrong conversation about our comfort zone. The phrase “getting out of your comfort zone” is thrown around so much today online and in motivational quotes that it’s begun to lose its meaning.
And this is because we don’t clearly understand what our comfort zone is, and it seems counterintuitive to leave it because it’s where we feel the most safe.
It also sounds like we’re sugar-coating something that we don’t want to talk about, which is fear.
Let me tell you a bit more about my story and how fear has played a role in it.
I come from a family of travelers. My mom started a travel agency when she was younger than I am now, and growing up they never left me behind when they went on their adventures.
I graduated early and got a degree from community college by the time I turned 18. And at that time I had traveled to around 70 countries. This was the point in my life where people began to ask me the most intimidating question that you can ask a young person: “What are you going to do next?”
And in attempt to answer that question, I began by asking myself what I was most passionate about, which has always been traveling, and how to make the most out of the cards that I was dealt, which was how much travel experience I’ve had at my age.
That’s when it dawned on me. I had over six years to break the world record for the youngest person to travel to every country. And this was the perfect opportunity that I was looking for to get out of the books and into the real world. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Flash-forward two and a half years later, and I spent countless hours crammed on planes, trains, chicken buses, tuk-tuks and junk boats traveling with nothing but a backpack.
I have encountered health issues, spanning from malaria in West Africa to hospital-worthy food poisoning in Pakistan. I learned how to cope with public anxiety attacks by myself in foreign countries, and I endured the brain-sizzling frustration of dealing with bureaucrats from every country that requires a visa.
Believe it or not, these have been some of my most treasured memories because they were the most defining moments of my life, spent far, far away from my comfort zone.
Proving to Guinness World Records that I have traveled to every country was a completely different story. According to a very strict pack of guidelines, I’m required to submit everything from plane tickets to accommodation and taxi receipts, to multiple witness statements from each country.
I struggled to find two people in each country that spoke, read and wrote in English that would be willing to help me with my witness statements. I had to plead with immigration officers at every border to please stamp my passport with enough ink, to be able to read the name and the date on the passport stamp.
I am now in the process of submitting nearly 10,000 pieces of evidence in chronological order, documenting how I entered and exited each country, along with a detailed itinerary of what I did in each place.
Beyond this very overwhelming amount of paperwork, somewhere along this journey, I discovered that there was more than one element of my comfort zone that I was going to have to get out of to get to where I wanted to go.
I now believe that there is a correlation between our comfort zone and our mind, body and soul. If you know that you have fears in general, knowing exactly where those fears are stemming from is the first step towards overcoming them.
I personally have a few very distinct fears. I am afraid of heights, which stems from my physical comfort zone. I have — I had a fear of being alone, which was completely controlled by my mind.
And I also am terrified of regret, which comes straight from my soul. The reason why so many people are unsuccessful at getting out of their comfort zone is because our comfort zone is not just one thing. It’s three.
The first is obvious, our physical comfort zone. Naturally, what we fear most is death. We’re evolutionarily wired to avoid situations where we could get hurt. And that’s why every cell in my body was screaming when I was standing on the edge of a 750-foot drop in Switzerland.
The opportunity came up to bungee jump off of the third highest platform in the world, and being someone that was always too afraid to jump off of rocks into the water at the river, this was by far my greatest fear, and the idea of facing it head-on excited me just as much as it terrified me.
When they strapped in my ankles and perched me on the edge, I was shaking. Three …Two … One …
I plunged into seven and a half seconds of the most intense sensory overload I had ever experienced. Complete terror turned into utter euphoria and resulted in one of the most significant moments of my life.
In that moment, I realized that I was capable of pushing my body’s limits and that it’s something that’s actually worth doing. I realized what was possible and became instantly hooked on the rush of having new experiences.
Little did I know at the time that facing my biggest fear was what would ultimately lead me to traveling to every country in the world, and out of 196 countries, I have only found myself in real, physical danger one time.
I traveled to Yemen as a photographer for a Norwegian author who was writing a book about the least visited countries in the world. On our last night in the country, I woke up to the sound of gunshots outside of my hotel. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see that there were 50 or so men congregated in the parking lot, yelling and pushing each other around, with six cars with flashing headlights blocking the only exit.
With no security in sight, I grabbed my phone to call my contact in the country, who didn’t answer because this was happening around 2:00 in the morning. I could hear voices outside of my hotel room even though I knew that we were the only people staying in the hotel.
That was the first time I had ever heard a fully automatic weapon discharged. I literally ducked and looked around the room realistically looking for the best place to hide.
In that moment, there was nothing I could do but sit with my fear of potentially being kidnapped, until eventually, all the men disappeared, and I could cry myself to sleep after the adrenaline wore off.
The next morning, I called — I talked to my contact in the country and asked him what had happened the night before. He responded with, “Oh, that? That was just a wedding party.”
Since Yemen is an Islamic country, they do not drink alcohol, and one of the ways that they celebrate is by shooting guns. Basically, what this means is this scariest thing that has ever happened to me while traveling was only scary because I didn’t fully understand the culture.
The fun didn’t stop there.
Getting out of the comfort zone that I had created around myself mentally would prove to be an even greater challenge and would require me to develop an entirely different aspect of my character. We are creatures of habit. We are most comfortable with things we can easily understand and predict.
We fill our lives with routines. We wake up, go to class or work, eat our meals, maybe work out and go to sleep at basically the same times every day. We surround ourselves with the same stable relationships for years.
We try so hard to live up to other people’s expectations of us that sometimes we let our passions take the back seat because ultimately we don’t want to become isolated from our society.
After I traveled to the first hundred or so countries, the destinations became more and more obscure, and I stopped being able to talk my friends and family into coming with me.
If you’ve never traveled for an extended period of time by yourself before, it might be hard to imagine what it’s like to spend days in transit on airplanes, in airports, just to end up in an empty hotel room by yourself at the end of the night.
After months of this for me, it resulted in intense loneliness, which was something I didn’t even realize I feared because I had been sheltered from it my whole life.
At the peak of my time spent alone, I found myself in the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, in the south Pacific with a population of only 11,000 people. I spent four days in the capital, Funafuti, because that’s how often flights go in and out of the country. There was no Wi-Fi, no cell reception, no connection to the outside world whatsoever other than a small post office, which happened to also be the country’s number one tourist attraction.
When I thought that I would be spending my time in Tuvalu completely alone and without any distraction, I noticed the only other foreigner on the island. She was a kindergarten teacher from the South Side of Chicago who also happened to be traveling to every country.
We bonded so quickly and deeply over all of our shared experiences that we ended up going from complete strangers to traveling to Fiji, Tonga, Chad, Central African Republic and Saudi Arabia together.
From the seven and a half months I spent traveling alone to 50 or so countries, I learned how to be alone without being lonely, and this did wonders for my self-confidence, but it also completely changed the way that I think about the people in my life.
Now I have an appreciation for the time that I get to spend with the people that I care about the most in a way that I used to take for granted, before I knew what it was truly like to be alone.
I also discovered that we have so much more in common with people around the world than you may think, because ultimately we all want the same things, which is why at the root of our spiritual comfort zone, the layer closest to our souls, we are all looking for fulfillment.
We are afraid to leave the safety of our routine to pursue something greater because of our fear of failure. I set myself up for a goal with a very realistic potential for failure, not because my family wanted me to or because it was easy but because I knew that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t try.
And now, I make the majority of decisions in my life based on the answer to a very simple question: “Will I regret not doing this?”
If the answer is “Yes,” I know that I have a moral obligation to myself and the people around me to do it, even if that means jumping off of a 750-foot dam or spending seven months alone or giving a talk in front of strangers.
Being in a state of comfort itself is freedom from pain, but when we subject ourselves to genuine discomfort, and plunge into the unknown, that’s when we learn to transcend the layers of our comfort zone, manage our fears, and become empowered by them.
Ask yourselves: How uncomfortable are you willing to become in order to reach your fullest potential?
Download This Transcript as PDF here: Life Lessons from the Youngest Person to Travel to Every Country_ Lexie Alford (Transcript)
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