Meike Winnemuth is full of surprises. She greets the DLDw13 audience by telling them she is not yet fully awake – and then goes on to give a whirlwind of a talk. Her intent today: to speak about the lessons she learnt after winning 500,000 Euros on the game-show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
"One thing I learnt is taking risks," says the sharp witted Winnemuth in signature dark blue clothes. She would rather have the reputation of taking risks and occasionally falling flat on her face, than of never trying at all. Winnemuth thus decided to take a leap and spend her winnings on a year of total freedom. No plans. Just going. And for Winnemuth, doing no more than what she wants includes travelling.
She thought of this year as a series of experiments with very uncertain outcomes. She didn’t expect every city to be a success. “I saw them like test tubes. One could have turned me blue or caused me to explode." That didn't matter though, because the unexpected was what she sought. The journalist wanted to get lost. To for once in her life not know in the morning what she would be doing in the evening.
“This all sounds really great. But what do you do when you can actually do everything?” Winnemuth says. Freedom can be daunting. Departing from Hamburg, her first destination was Sydney. She arrived safely. But felt completely lost. Then a sign provided her with the heartfelt invitation to enjoy life she had needed. “Please walk on the grass, it read. You know you’re not in Germany anymore when you read that!” she laughs. At that point Winnemuth recognised that she had to give herself permission to enjoy life. Especially because when you travel, you’re alone. But alone does note mean lonely. And although Winnemuth was travelling alone, she could hardly help but meet people. Particularly as a female traveller, Winnemuth found herself welcomed by strangers. She took part in events like “You can Ukulele” and supper clubs, meeting interesting people around the world.
To make the most of your freedom, Winnemuth suggests you play as you go. She involved readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in a little experiment, where they could send her requests via email. Which they did; and she complied, for instance by buying a man a pair of white tango shoes in Argentina.
“Courage and curiosity are like muscles. You need to train them,” Winnemuth says. For that, you don’t have to be taking a trip around the world. A willingness to break certain boundaries will do. In addition to never being afraid to ask.
Winnemuth may have been physically alone during her journey, but her blog acted as her digital companion. “I started it not to be smart, but because I believe you need to give something back.” But lo and behold, pretty soon her readers were giving back to her, comforting her when she stumbled.
“You need to let things happen to you too,” Winnemuth observes. Too often we begin a process by thinking about the goal. Watching events unfold and enjoying the experience is an important lesson. One that includes accepting that being an absolute beginner is all right - sometimes even desirable. Winnemuth learnt to be a butcher in Sydney, tried scuba diving in the Red Sea, and “how not to tango" in Argentina.
Ending with her most important recommendation, Winnemuth says we should all “find out what you really want. Not what you’re supposed to want”. Travel is a great way to discover what makes us tick. For Winnemuth, she realised she still wanted to be a journalist, but her experience of writing changed completely once she was doing it out of self-motivation. It had turned into a labour of love. Ironically, the writing during her trip brought her the same amount of money as her game-show winnings. If she would have dared, she could have left long before the game-show.
She will keep travelling now, though. And she continues to give herself permission. Reminds herself to walk on the grass. “And I implore you to do the same,” Winnemuth concludes to thundering applause.