The Porous Boundary Between People and Culture

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Dr. Gustavo
Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
October 4, 2022

I believe (and science supports) the idea that culture shapes human behavior. But we, as people, also shape the culture we are in. The boundary between people and culture is porous. That’s a truth that I knew and understood, but that I did not fully appreciate until I hiked El Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Whether we like it or not, for good or for ill, we take ourselves with us wherever we go.  We bring our personality, tendencies, habits and experiences into whatever culture we enter. As we enter into a culture, some of our tendencies and habits will remain. Others will change, if we are open to it.

 I tend to be very logical and thoughtful. As much as I enjoy people’s company, the work I do (and what the culture requires me to do) as a speaker has made me more introverted than I was when I was younger. Those are the tendencies and habits I brought into El Camino. As a result, I spent the first four days covering 55 miles, walking alone, in introspection, assessing my life. At the end of Day 4, I met many of the people pictured here.

From left: Heidi, from Germany; Helia, from Brazil; Laura, from Germany; Silva, from Italy; Guillermo from the Canary Islands, Spain; myself, from Denver; and Ana, originally from Poland and living in France.

The group of us, all from different backgrounds and places, bringing different experiences from different cultures, were able to come together, regardless of the differences between us. That’s because the culture of El Camino is to connect with other peregrinos (pilgrims).  While I could have continued with my own habit of introversion, the culture in which I found myself pulled me in, and I adapted my behavior to fit the culture. 

Learning from Others

Of this merry group of pilgrims, I became closest with two: Guillermo and Silva. The three of us created a subculture of our own, where we could learn from each other and “test out” different ideas and behaviors.

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(From left: Silva, Guillermo, me)

Guillermo is like few other men I have met. He was doing his sixth Camino. He is a successful technology professional in the Canary Islands, with clients large and small. He is also a HUGE fan of rock music and an encyclopedia of music lyrics. Along with a touch of irreverence and rebelliousness, Guillermo brings with him a profound self-awareness — of his emotional states, of his needs and wants, and of who he is as a person. Guillermo also brought with him an appreciation of people and how they behave differently late into the night. He is moved by sharing experiences, with locals and pilgrims alike, many of which can only be experienced late at night. While his desire to share different experiences and stay out late isn’t part of my own cultural norm, I adapted. Let’s just say that through my willingness to adapt, on more than one occasion (particularly one night in Lugo), I was imbibing more than I would normally and staying out later than I normally would when I had a long hiking day ahead of me.

Silva is a force of nature. She was doing her seventh Camino. She is an accomplished attorney who was born in Sarteano, Toscana (Tuscany), Italy, and lives in Milano, Italy. She is leaving law to start a business guiding hikers through Toscana, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. This is a courageous professional change, and she was using El Camino to gain insights about her new business venture. Silva brought with her a profound spirituality and the ability to balance her powerful intellect and her very human emotional experiences, moment to moment. So, I learned and I adapted.

Growth Outside Your Comfort Zone

As someone known to “live in his head,” I plan and execute. Months before starting El Camino, I had already planned every stop, in every town. Because of my experience with both Guillermo and Silva, and my willingness to adapt, I decided to change my plans toward the end of the Camino. I had learned from Silva that if I covered what I had planned to be the distance of my last four days in three, I would get to experience the festivities of Santiago’s Birthday, July 25, in Santiago, and get an extra day in Santiago. So, I did.

The challenge for me was not the distance; it was the uncertainty of not having a place to stay since I was giving up my established reservations. It was unsettling. It was difficult. It is not typically how I travel, but I did it anyway – trustful surrender.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” In other words, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Living in our comfort zone (for me, in my head) allows us to repeat behaviors we know and are familiar with. Moving outside our comfort zone allows us to grow, learn and flourish.

For me, stepping outside my comfort zone was about breaking my plans and risking not finding a place to stay. For some of you, that may seem like a small innocuous thing. But for me, it wasn’t. It was a step outside of my comfort zone that facilitated growth in the direction of trustful surrender. And that’s the point.  

No matter where we are in our lives and our worlds, we all have an opportunity to grow. The steps will be different for each of us, but what each of us has in common is this: To grow, we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a huge step – in fact, it’s better if it’s not. But if we are not willing to take that step, we cheat ourselves out of learning what we are capable of. We cheat others of the possibility of experiencing us differently, and we cheat the world of our greatest, most capable selves.

The Lessons

  1. Travel without connecting with others is just movement. It is in engaging fellow travelers and locals that we extend our contact with, and influence in, the world around us.
  2. We choose —  the behaviors we keep or change, the people with whom we surround ourselves who might influence any change, and the behaviors we find most adaptive.
  3. Real growth does not happen without exchanging comfort for discomfort. Comfort teaches us to do the same things over and over again. Discomfort teaches us to do things differently.

The picture of the top of this blog would not have been possible without the people I met along the way. I’m sure I would have made it, but it would have been an entirely different experience without them.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note

Buen Camino!  (Have a “good way”!)

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