5 Observations from the Old Guy Behind the Camera

(a.k.a. 5 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling and People-Watching)

I’ve experienced combat, cancer, and the advent of the cellphone, and lived to tell about them all. The transitions of my life have been many and varied, from maintaining a regimented military career to fighting a potentially lethal disease (and winning!), and finally to creating an engaged, inspiring, and adventurous retirement for myself. Now I travel, take photos, and paint — and along the way, I’ve learned a lot. So here are five observations from the old guy behind the camera.

1. You can’t fully understand your own nation until you leave

As a military member, I’m well acquainted with the meaning of being an American and all the wonderful rights and freedoms we enjoy every day. What I didn’t know was how other countries perceive us, or how they perceive themselves, until I traveled to some of those places. 

Other cultures don’t view life the same way we do. Some of the differences in viewpoint are for the better; others, for the worse, but one thing’s for sure: Once you’ve dipped your toes into how other people live in faraway places, it gives you a new perspective on your own way of life, which remains with you long after you return home.

Since I began traveling to other countries, I’ve made sure to take photos of the plants and animals, buildings and signs and streets, all the elements that give a place its particular character. (I learned the hard way to be careful about photographing people, though! You really need to get their permission first — usually it’s as easy as gesturing with your camera, then waiting for the response.) 

Whatever images you capture from your own travels, pay attention to the images you’ve captured. When you go back later and look at them, you’ll likely be surprised at the details you notice — the light, the way a street or town square is organized, the way people interact. It’s amazing what you can discover from behind a lens.

NOTE: As you explore the world (or even places in your own backyard), be sure to spend time looking at life from the outside of the lens, too. If you don’t, you’re going to miss a lot.

2. Overplanning is just as bad as underplanning

You want to plan your travels, of course; almost nobody can afford total spontaneity. Without some planning, you’ll either pay exorbitant prices, wind up somewhere with no place to stay, or lose out on availability for the period you want to take your trip.

That being said, in my years of traveling after retiring from the military, I’ve learned that overplanning can be just as problematic as underplanning. Do you really want to know everything you’ll see before you get there? Reading every blog post or watching every YouTube video about a destination or adventure can spoil it before you see or experience the real thing

Bottom line: When planning your travel, be sure to leave some room for the “wow” factor. Stumbling upon “that cool little place hidden around the corner” is one of the experiences that make for unforgettable travel memories. So don’t overthink your planning or continuously second-guess yourself. Just go with it! Even when you’re not traveling, the best adventures in life have an element of spontaneity. Live your day with a bit of impulsivity in the mix, and you’ll probably find yourself more fulfilled.

3. Learning to accept discomfort is an important skill

No doubt, dealing with the aches and pains of aging is hard, but it sure beats the heck out of the alternative! earning to accept and remain in discomfort — including loneliness — is one of the skills that will serve you best in life. Doing so helps to make you resilient to life’s difficulties. And let’s face it, we all encounter new challenges as we age, be they physical, mental, or emotional. 

Accepting and navigating discomfort not only prepares you for what’s around the corner but also makes you appreciate even better what you already do have. Struggles in life are ongoing, no matter what age you are, so learning how to accept and overcome (or at least deal with) them makes life that much sweeter.

4. Connecting with people is essential

It’s a proven fact that your connections with other people can keep you healthier and happier for longer. Relationships of all kinds are valuable. Many don’t learn this lesson until it’s too late — usually not until a romantic relationship ends, a friendship is severed, or someone deeply cherished passes away. After we lose them, we begin to realize the importance of these relationships.

And they don’t all have to be close connections; even casual relationships can enhance our days and remind us we’re part of a community, whether local or global. Perhaps it’s a brief chat with the counter guy at your local convenience store or even just a wave exchanged with the bike commuter who passes every day. When you’re in an unfamiliar country, it can seem more daunting to extend yourself, but even a smile from a stranger can make being far from home seem less lonely. 

As you travel through life, either locally or to distant places, whether solo or in a group, be sure to try and connect with the people you meet. Just a friendly “Good morning” or other small talk can make life feel a little more connected for everyone involved.

5. Power of listening cannot be underestimated

Most people don’t listen very well, so when someone does, the effects can be powerful. Consider the fact that most people today communicate far more with their phones than they do face-to-face with people. If a conversation isn’t taking place in a text, on social media, or via some other digital format, a good number of people won’t hear it. And even if they are talking with you in person, chances are, they’re distracted by their phones. 

On the other hand, think about how it affects you when someone really listens to you, looking you in the eyes, visibly paying attention, responding and asking questions: It’s an incredible feeling to be heard! Plus, people tend to always remember those who pay close attention to the things they say. 

Active listening is a rare trait these days. Give other people this courtesy and they’ll — hopefully! — be more inclined to give it to you in return. (And even if they aren’t capable, at least you’ll be learning something.)

These are just some nuggets of wisdom from a guy who’s taken the time to really look at life. In my process of slowing down and paying attention, I’ve found it amazing and rewarding to smell the roses, hear the birds, and see the sunsets — essentially all the enjoyable things in life you can see, hear, and learn when you slow down. Don’t let life pass you by without taking that time.