You’re more likely to have an authentic travel experience if you’re clear on what it means for something or someone to be authentic- period.  It’s also fitting to think about authenticity at the start of a new year.  This post explores what authenticity means at a deeper level, before suggesting some ways this definition might help inform our travel choices and experiences.

What it means: to the dictionary and to philosophers

If you look up the word “authentic” in the dictionary you’ll find lots of references to origins, roots, and being genuine.  Being one’s true self also factors into the mix.  But what does this type of truth mean?

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the way we lead our life should be directed by our inner thoughts and values, rather than just external social norms.  And Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor spoke a great deal about the distinction between one’s inner and one’s public self.  In this way, any effort to become more authentic involves:

  • reflecting about what motivates and constrains us at a very primal, individual level; and
  • appreciating the similarities and differences between what is best for us as individuals compared with what society says we should do.

Of course, an important argument against searching for the authentic self is that it can encourage people to be, well… selfish1. But Taylor suggests that we could have our cake and eat it too.  He says that a quest for understanding the true self can come without resulting in selfishness- the key is in embracing self-transcendent values and experiences.   Self-transcendence means a person consciously accepts s/he is one small part of a larger universe.  And Taylor argues that we must also recognize how even our authentic individual self isn’t static or constant.  Instead, our authentic self is something both enabled and constrained by the broader social values and culture that surrounds us, even though our authentic self is also much more than that2.  We don’t exist in isolation, but as part of a larger whole that shapes us, and which we in turn shape.  So authenticity involves a search for what is good, true, and transcendent.  And it’s fluid, meaning what worked last time won’t necessarily work the next time. This search for authenticity may, but does not have to, involve religion and/or spirituality.  For Taylor, even time spent with beautiful music, art, or poetry, can help us achieve a certain level of self-transcendence3.

Then what does this mean for authentic travel?  If we follow Taylor’s suggestions for leading more personally authentic lives, then authentic travel can involve a quest for (at least) two broad strands of authenticity.  One is about finding experiences that help one embrace what is good, true, and transcendent in oneself.  And another is about spending one’s travel dollars to reinforce or support, those places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions.  We’ll talk about the first strand here, and examine the second in a future blog post.

Travel experiences that boost personal authenticity

What type of travel helps a person find their truest self?  Following Taylor’s lines, this type of travel might involve experiences that help us set aside (at least while travelling) some or even all conventions and habits in our own lives that keep us from being good and integral people, or as good and integral as we believe that we could be.  For example, an authentic traveller might seek travel experiences that propel him or her to:

  • lose track of her or himself in the experience;
  • become more curious about (and kinder to) others who initially seem quite different;
  • build his or her courage muscles; or
  • enhance an ability to be generous.
Some find self-transcendence in settings close to nature

An authentic traveller could even choose experiences that help us do all three at once.  (And, of course, these are not the only self-transcendent virtues around.)  Also, depending on who you are and what your starting point is on any of these things, that might take a range of forms.  For the inexperienced traveller, building one’s courage muscles might simply involve travelling alone for the first time, and learning how to talk to strangers from another culture.  For others, it might involve connecting with a place in ways that cause other forms of personal growth- strengthening one’s navigation skills; being deprived of certain daily luxuries that we suspect may not be great for us.  In his guest article  for this blog, Allan Herle undertook a long overland journey by motorcycle where he felt he had more immediate contact with people living in towns in ways that were quite different from his own lifestyle.  This experience helped him grow as a person.  Self-transcendent travel could include volunteer experience, such as helping to build housing in another country; restore a wildlife conservation area; or teach schoolchildren English. It could help us interact with another group to learn more about other ways of being human.

The idea of authentic travel as seeking self-transcendent moments opens up a range of exciting possibilities.  I’d love to hear about how other people have gained these experiences.  And watch for a future post discussing places that have embraced what is good, true, and transcendent in their citizens and public institutions.

  1. Christopher Lasch (1979) cautioned that the emphasis on exploring the authentic self in fact sounded dangerously similar to the diagnosis for narcissistic personality disorder. Lasch, C., 1979, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York: Norton.
  2. For a more fulsome discussion please see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on authenticity .
  3. For a clear, concise discussion of Taylor based on extensive familiarity with his works, see Bernard Braman’s (2008). Meaning and Authenticity. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.