Woman on bridge in Vietnam

How Travel Affects Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.

British poet William Ernest Henley is a good example of self-efficacy and locus of control (internal). He penned the words above in 1875 as the close to his poem Invictus. Henley had lost a leg at age 16 after tangling with tuberculosis.

Years later, doctors told him his other leg needed to go as well.

Instead of accepting his fateful situation as unchangeable, Henley took matters into his own hands. He traveled to Scotland and sought out famed surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister who was pioneering new techniques at the time. With much effort and numerous surgeries, Dr. Lister was able to save Henley’s other leg.

Henley was a gruff, whiskey-drinking, Victorian-era poet. He purportedly served as inspiration for Long John Silver in Treasure Island, if that tells you anything.1 But despite being ill for most of his 53 years, he became a well-known poet. Much of his most powerful work was written while surrounded by suffering and death in hospitals. Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and President Obama, among others, have all referenced Invictus at some point.

Traveling while ill and with one leg in England—or anywhere, for that matter—in 1873 wasn’t exactly easy, but Henley was rewarded for his strong internal locus of control and willingness to embrace discomfort. He got to keep his leg.

Invictus is Latin for “invincible.” I don’t know if Henley considered himself invincible. I certainly don’t feel invincible. Nature has reminded me of that with quite a few close calls over the years. But I do enjoy a higher level of self-efficacy thanks to making a life of independent travel.

Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

Chance favors the prepared mind. – Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur’s famous quote hints that our sense of agency (self-efficacy) and personal power may not be able to change all outcomes every time, but some diligence can better our odds of success.

The concepts of self-efficacy and locus of control differ slightly but are intrinsically linked. Here are two loose summaries:

  • Self-Efficacy: Your confidence that you can succeed in specific situations or achieve the outcome you want.
  • Locus of Control: How much you believe you have power over outcomes rather than rely on chance, luck, fate, or “the universe.”

Locus comes from the Latin for “location.” People lean toward either external (chance or fate control outcomes) and internal (the decisions we make affect outcomes). Maintaining an internal locus of control is more ideal for having the power to change.

If Henley had possessed an external locus of control and resigned to his role as a victim, he would have lost his remaining leg.

Again, the ideas of self-efficacy and locus of control are closely related but not completely interchangeable. But when combined and expressed, they can make you a dangerously competent person. Extensive travel can certainly help you foster a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy

The concept of self-efficacy was perpetuated most by Dr. Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.2 Still working at age 95 [time of this post], he’s considered by many to be the most cited and influential living psychologist. His 1997 book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control isn’t a “fun” read, but it will change your life.

To quickly reiterate, self-efficacy is described as how much “agency” you feel.3 It’s your level of confidence that you can get something done or fix a situation. How much self-efficacy a person holds influences their ability to succeed at a task and create the outcome they want. Self-efficacy also helps you overcome adversity and determines how much effort you’ll put into something.

Decades of research shows that people with high self-efficacy more often succeed at what they are trying to accomplish—possibly due to persistence. People with a lower sense of self-efficacy are less likely to “get back on the horse” after getting thrown off a time or two. They lack the confidence that they have what it takes to overcome resistance, so they ask themselves, why take the beating?

People with a higher sense of self-efficacy don’t feel singled out when things go wrong. They know challenges aren’t a personal attack. People with lower self-efficacy and an external locus of control are likely to take a victim stance and feel like “nothing ever goes my way” or that they are cursed with bad luck.

How Travel Affects Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

Being a stranger in a strange land is good for mind and body in so many ways, but for a moment let’s focus on what I believe is the most important benefit of independent travel: boosting self-efficacy.

Although observation, persuasion, and emotion all play a role, greater self-efficacy largely comes from past personal experience.

As a new diver, I was understandably nervous on the boat heading out to my very first dive site. I wasn’t sure I could remember everything I had learned and do what needed to be done underwater. And what if my assigned dive buddy or I had an emergency?

Later, when heading out on the boat for my 10th dive, I was excitedly asking the divemasters, “Are we there yet?” like a kid in the backseat on a family vacation. Experience had boosted my self-efficacy. I was much more confident I could get through a dive without screwing up.

I was probably first exposed to self-efficacy while watching the TV show MacGyver as a kid in the 1980s. Nothing leaves an impression on a young boy more than watching a guy get himself out of a dangerous situation with nothing more than whatever he found in his pockets. MacGyver was dangerous with a rubber band.

Independent travelers learn to adopt a high level of MacGyverism. The road throws some of the most bizarre, unthinkable scenarios your way—sometimes on a daily basis. You often have to sort out field-expedient fixes with little assistance.

Vagabonding travelers learn to save the oddest items; you never know when that piece of string might come in handy to fix something in the future. I’ve made expedient repairs on my backpack, shoes, laptop, and everything between. Sometimes the repairs are to the body. I’ve set and bandaged my own broken thumb (with audio help from a nurse friend at home) along with fixing other injuries.

But self-efficacy doesn’t have to be applied to fixing things that broke or went wrong. Research shows, simply having a higher self-efficacy can help you accomplish what you want to do.

In Summary

The fastest way to increase self-efficacy and foster an internal locus of control is through personal experience. The quickest way to obtain personal experience is with exposure to novel, unpredictable environments (i.e., travel).

In 2015, in a eureka moment after being swarmed by bees, I realized that it’s the unpredictability of the road that is so addictive. This unpredictability is also what hones the self-efficacy that can carry over into other areas of your life.

I personally believe there’s no greater way to boost your self-efficacy and internal locus of control than experiencing long-term, independent, vagabonding travel for yourself. A part of that process is learning to fail well and often until we raise our self-efficacy.

Be in a hurry to fail, then pick yourself up and do it again. Each time we attempt, fail, and repeat is yet another strike from the ethereal hammer that forges us into competent, successful human beings.

References

  1. Britannica. “William Ernest Henley.”
  2. Albert Bandura homepage.
  3. ThoughtCo. “Understanding Self-Efficacy.” January 13, 2019.