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The Profile Dossier: Rick Steves, the World's Greatest Adventurer
“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.”
In 1969, Rick Steves's parents took him to Europe for the first time. He was 14 years old.
During the trip, he meticulously recorded every detail on the back of postcards. He wrote about the location, the activity, the weather, and the expenses. It was that vacation abroad that made him fall in love with travel. He realized that life in the United States wasn't so special or unique.
“Right there,” he wrote, “my 14-year-old egocentric worldview took a huge hit.” He realized: “This planet must be home to billions of equally lovable children of God.”
Steves, 66, has built a wanderlust empire that features a brand with 70 guides, a popular TV show, and 100 employees who make his vision a reality. It all requires Steves to be authentically himself while showing fellow travelers how to visit Europe on the cheap.
Steves has been described as such: "He is a sort of spiritual travel agent for America’s curious but hesitant middle classes." He believes that travel is crucial to nourishing the soul and a journey we must make to fully explore the self.
"A lot of people travel just to affirm the way they see the world," he says. "I travel to change my understanding of the world."
Even more so than a tour guide, Steves is a savvy businessman. In 2019, his business generated an annual revenue of $100 million, and Steves is the sole owner of the company. Things were going great until everything came to a grinding halt during 2020 as the pandemic threatened to decimate the travel industry.
Even though he was operating without revenue, Steves continued paying his employees. "I owe it to my staff,” he says. "I mean, they've been with me through all my successful years. I need to spend whatever it takes to keep my team together because we will throttle up."
He emphasized that the demand for travel doesn't dissipate. It simply backs up. Most importantly, Steves refuses to give up because travel is his teacher, and the road is his school.
His philosophy? “Travel is intensified living, and one of the last great sources of legal adventure.”
Steves believes you can learn a lot about your own country by leaving it.
"Travel is more than a holiday," he says. "It gives us new experiences, acts as our greatest teacher, makes our lives more meaningful, and connects us with a global family. We can't all travel physically, but anyone can live with a traveler's mindset. It's a choice. Travel makes us more comfortable with the world, our hearts bigger, and our lives richer. And it makes us happier. And that is why we travel."
On becoming a world adventurer: Although Steves has spent nearly half his life traveling, he insists that he would never live anywhere but the United States. He built his business in America, raised his kids in America, and often talks about the glories of American life. And yet: Rick Steves desperately wants you to leave America. “I think it’s loving America to look at it critically,” he says.
On his life in isolation: What does a world traveler do when, well, he can't travel? This was Steves's predicament in 2020. Rather than yearning for a far-away land, Steves spent his birthday at home for the first time, while also learning to cook, enjoying the sunsets, stocking up on weed, and more.
On building a $100 million business: Steves has built an impressive $100 million travel business through sheer persistence and a genuine love for the art of travel. He got the idea through his own experience: When he went backpacking through Europe, he had trouble affording housing, food, and cultural experiences. When he returned to America, he realized that people were eager for recommendations on how to visit Europe on a budget. This is a masterclass on how to turn your passion project into a full-fledged $100 million business.
On a year with no travel: At the outset of the pandemic, Steves decided to just play the cards he was dealt. "I always tell my tour groups, 'If it's not to your liking, then change your liking,'" he laughs. And that's what he did in 2020. Here's how he dealt with the collapse of his business and the travel industry as a whole.
On developing a traveler's mindset: There are three kinds of travelers, according to Steves. There are tourists, travelers, and pilgrims. A tourist is likely to point out how many countries they've been to and what famous landmarks they've visited. A traveler is interested in learning, broadening their perspective, and trying new things. A pilgrim travels to gain a better understanding of themselves through their travel experiences. Here's how Steves recommends you can develop a mindset necessary to explore with fresh eyes.
On what makes a great host: A tour guide, Steve says, needs to consider themselves a teacher or a mentor for a broader perspective. The passion that powers a good tour guide stems from an intrinsic enthusiasm for their culture, he adds. "If you're passionate about teaching about a culture you love, you've got the foundation for being a tour guide." Here's how Steves gained a sixth sense for people's appetite for learning and experiencing new places.
On being stuck at home: Steves says he quickly got over the hope that he'll make any real money in his business when the pandemic started. "Once you get past that, you go, 'I'm very privileged. There's need in our community. We need to reach out. Our environment's fragile," he says. Sometimes, the lack of travel allows us to turn inward and pay attention to what's going on in our own communities.
On seeking adventure: Steves explains that travel isn't always glamorous. Sometimes, it shakes you to your core, makes you feel intense feelings of sadness, and leaves you confused and anxious. Steves felt these feelings when he visited El Salvador, but he says, "I was gaining an empathy for people who lost a civil war. People on the receiving end of globalization." The more you travel, the more eye-opening experiences you will have.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Strive for culture shock: Travelers often complain of "culture shock," referring to a type of anxiety that results from being cut off from your familiar culture and environment. To Steves, culture shock is the most empowering phenomenon you can seek out as a traveler. "Some people try to avoid culture shock," he says. "For me, culture shock is the growing pains of a broadening perspective. I seek culture shock. I revel in it." When you immerse yourself in uncomfortable situations, you might open yourself up to changing and evolving for the better.
You are not normal: Each society comes up with a set of "norms" or rules or expectations of acceptable behavior. Steves is here to tell you that no one on this planet is "normal." "Americans are experts at thinking they're normal," he says. "But ethnocentrism isn't just an American thing. Big cultures tend to be ethnocentric." In the United States, sitting on the toilet is normal. In other cultures, squatting over a hole is the norm. There is no "right" or "normal" way to do anything in this life. "I am changed when I recognize that," he says. "I'm humbled. It's pretty nice to travel with a mindset where you're humbled." It's all those little moments that humble you that allow you to come home with a broader perspective of the world.
The antidote to fear is understanding: When you haven't left your own bubble and you rely on getting your information from commercial television news, you may be fearful of diversity. "It's dangerous for us to be so fearful," Steves says. "Fear is for people who don't get out very much. The flip side of fear is understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel." You conquer fear when you meet people who don't look, sound, or live like you.
Seek to build bridges: Exploring new places allows us to recognize our differences and oneness at the same time. If you view traveling through a lens of curiosity rather than fear, there's a lot the road can teach you. Travelers, Steves says, seek to build bridges rather than walls. "Every wall has two sides, and two narratives," he adds, "for one to be truly understood, both must be heard."
Consider the trade-offs that come with great success: While Steves was traveling the world, his wife was at home responsible for raising the kids. When he would go to his kids' soccer games, he would feel frustrated that he wanted to be working instead of sitting there with the other parents watching kids kick a ball. "It was a difficult thing," he says. As adults, his kids now understand that he regrets that he missed the bulk of their formative years because he was on the road. "I just missed the joys, the little magic moments that you can't really make up for when your kids are in their 30s, and you finally slow down," he says. Sometimes, success is a double-edged sword. Steves made friends with strangers in foreign countries while having a hard time getting to know his own kids. Be careful what you sacrifice in order to get to the top.
Money can be a tool for good: It's no secret that Steves is rich. His business generated $100 million per year, and he is the sole owner. But he doesn't see wealth as a bad thing; rather he sees money as a tool to pay it forward. "I like to make money because when I make money, I can do things that give me power to do stuff I think is worthwhile," he says. Steves pays the rent for his local symphony, he bought an apartment building to help house the homeless in his community, and he prides himself in paying his staff well.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Self-consciousness kills communication.”
“Fear is for people who don't get out very much.”
“To me, understanding people and their lives is what travel is about, no matter where you go.”
“Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something is not to your liking, change your liking.”
“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.”
“I believe if you’re going to bomb someone, you should know them first. It should hurt when you kill someone.”
“Travel is intensified living, and one of the last great sources of legal adventure.”
“If you don't like a place, maybe you don't know enough about it... Give a culture the benefit of your open mind.”
“Europeans marvel at how Americans seem willing, almost eager, to work themselves into an early grave. My European friends have told me proudly, ‘We don’t live to work…we work to live.’”