04/02/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Traveling on the Threshold

They say that it's more fun to go 60 mph in a car built for 40 than to go 100 mph in a car built for 300. If you've ever driven fast in a slow car, or slow in a fast car, you know this is true.

I think this is why: the thrill from driving fast isn't really about speed. It about experiencing a vehicle being pushed to its limit, its final threshold before it gives in, gives out, loses control. It's being on that threshold, not the number on the odometer, that gives the thrill of going fast. That's why pushing a junker to 60 is exhilarating, while cruising down a freeway in a Ferrari is merely pleasant.

This threshold exists everywhere -- cars, art, travel, life -- and anywhere people are making choices and interacting with the world. The threshold is that final, gasping point where a process is being pushed as far as it can go before it falls apart -- the point at which great art is made, risks pay off, love is found. Living on this threshold is a subtle art, but the alternatives -- playing it safe, or living in excess -- are hardly more appealing.

Most people have an instinctive awareness for this threshold. Much of youth is spent dreaming of the threshold, and much of adulthood is spent in search of it. We admire the risk-takers and those who vibrate with confidence. We pity those who were too chronically cautious to step out of their comfort zones as much as we mourn those who lost themselves to extremes.

The heart of traveling is exploring this threshold. It means taking as many risks and chances as you think you can, without taking those last one or two risks that can lead to serious regret. It's about finding the point at which you are ecstatically in control.

The particular threshold will, of course, be different for everyone. The young gun on his first trip around the world might feel bored every minute he isn't bungee jumping into a ravine. For him, the threshold will be finding the most spectacular settings and heart-stopping plunges, without being tempted by unsafe off-the-books operators who will promise the forbidden and lead him into danger.

For the retired couple enjoying a second honeymoon, however, the threshold will be somewhere very different. For them, it might mean wandering off the beaten and commercialized tourist trails and getting a few steps closer to the local culture, without letting themselves be taken in by the scammers who prey on those who are far from home.

Of course, it's easy for me to dispense shallow platitudes about lives lived fully. The challenge comes with putting this into practice while simultaneously balancing the duties and obligations owed to friends and loved ones back home. When people are depending on you, playing it safe is often the mature choice. That said, anyone can take steps toward their limits, if they so desire.

So how do you find your threshold while traveling? Here's an exercise that might help:

Next time you're traveling and you feel a little flutter in your stomach or get an image in your head of something you could -- but really shouldn't -- do, stop what you're doing. That flutter is a wish, and your default setting is likely to automatically rationalize it away as "unrealistic." This is a defense mechanism to protect your sense of self, and this is the mechanism you'll need to overcome in order to grow.

This time, instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, recognize that between you and that wish (unrealistic as it may be) is a very navigable ocean of possibility. Think about what experiences that wish represents (exploring a wild jungle?), and what realistic, responsible ways you can go about having those experiences (taking a two-day trip into a nearby rainforest?). Think of the wish as a point on your compass, giving you a direction -- but leaving it entirely up to you to decide how to get there, and how far to go. If you do your research and use your judgment, you can go much farther than you might think.

Time spent traveling is precious time, wisely spent -- you never have as many opportunities to push and challenge yourself as you do while on the road. Finding your threshold is a joyous exercise of self-discovery, and I would encourage all of you to seize your opportunities.