Roman Krznaric: Time to swap introspection for 'outrospection'

Walk into a travel agency today and you will be offered the usual array of bargain trips to beach resorts, luxury cruise vacations and weekend getaways to romantic cities. But the founder of the most successful travel company of the nineteenth century had a very different idea of what a holiday should be all about.

He was a lay Baptist preacher named Thomas Cook, who organised his first package tour in 1841, taking 500 working people on a 22-mile train trip from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a temperance meeting, where pious ministers called on them to abstain from the demon drink.

Although this may not be your idea of the perfect holiday break, Cook believed that travel should not just offer leisurely respite from a routine job, but give you a chance to question your values and how you live. "To travel is to dispel the mists of fable and clear the mind of prejudice taught from babyhood, and facilitate perfectness of seeing eye to eye," he said.

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If we want to embrace Cook's original vision, we need to invent a new kind of travel which provides an adventurous and inspiring approach to the art of living. I believe the solution is "empathy travel", a revolutionary form of journeying in which we step into the shoes of other people and learn to see the world from their perspectives. Instead of asking ourselves, "Where can I go next?" the question on our lips should be, "Whose shoes can I stand in next?" Let me explain myself.

The 20th century was an age of introspection. Therapy culture and the self-help industry lured us into the narrow view that the best way to understand ourselves was to look inside our own heads. So we spent several decades contemplating our inner desires, hopes and aspirations, searching for direction in life. This was all taking place during an era of capitalist individualism, and the unsurprising result was to make us believe that the secret to happiness was the self-centred pursuit of personal wealth and status. That's why the self-help shelves in bookshops were quickly filled with manuals on how to get rich, be successful, and realise your dreams. Selfishness became the favoured route to the good life.

The age of introspection was a mistake. All the happiness gurus have discovered - a little too late - that filling up your bank account or climbing to the top of the corporate ladder is not the route to personal fulfilment. In fact, it is likely to make you more stressed and miserable as your apparent "needs" expand exponentially. How could you possibly survive without a holiday home in the Maldives or the latest BMW coup?

We need an alternative to the narcissistic introspection of the last century, from which we are only beginning to recover.The 21st century must be transformed into an age of outrospection, where we discover who we are by stepping outside ourselves and becoming interested in the lives of other people.

Empathy is the ultimate art form for the age outrospection. Looking at life through the eyes of others catapults us into a whole new set of values, experiences and goals. It challenges our own myopic perspective on how we should conduct our daily lives. Nobody knew this better than George Orwell.

Orwell is usually remembered for his novels Animal Farm and 1984. But he should also be remembered as one of the greatest empathetic travellers of modern times. After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. "I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed," he wrote. His solution was to go native in his own country by dressing up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and living on the streets of East London with homeless beggars and vagabonds. Sometimes he would don his disguise for several days, and at other times he would disappear for weeks, sleeping in doss houses and trying to get arrested so he could find out what it was like to be in prison. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities and relationships. He not only realised that tramps are not "drunken scoundrels", but developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life.

I am not advising you to spend the night in a homeless shelter. That could too easily become a form of poverty voyeurism. The lesson from Orwell is that stepping out of your normal life can be energising and mind-expanding. The challenge is to discover lives that are different from your own.

How, in practice, can we turn empathy into a mode of travel? One option is to cultivate curiosity about strangers. That means having a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus, or the guy at the corner shop who sells you a newspaper every day. You will need to find the courage to get beyond idle chit-chat about the weather and discover how they see the world - what are their views on family life, politics, creativity, death? And be ready to share your own thoughts, to make it a mutual empathetic exchange.

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A second strategy is to conduct experiments that help overcome your prejudices. If you disdain people who live off the welfare state, spend a week trying to survive on Job Seeker's Allowance, which is currently 65.45. If you are fervently religious, you might treat yourself to attending the services of religions different from your own, or a meeting of humanists. You get the picture.In terms of life experience, this kind of extreme travel beats climbing a Himalayan peak.

"Know thyself," advised Socrates. We will only know ourselves when we have become empathy travellers, embarking on journeys into the lives of strangers. It is time to leave the era of self-centred introspection behind us and step into the adventurous age of outrospection.

• Roman Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London. He will be speaking on "Global Perspectives and Empathy" with the American choreographer Alonzo King and Judith Robertson, director of Oxfam Scotland, on 28 August at The Hub, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

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