For Ran Zilca, one of the most important lessons he’s learned in life is the power of getting out of our comfort zones and introducing change — virtually any change — into our lives. And nothing drove this lesson home like riding a motorcycle 6,000 miles — by himself — from New York to California.

Photo: Ran Zilca

Zilca hadn’t planned this trip. At 38, he was busy running a startup and married with several kids, living in Westchester County, New York. One day at work, he filled out a questionnaire that promised to assess just how much he really wanted to achieve certain goals. Out of nowhere, he wrote, “ride a motorcycle from coast to coast.” And lo and behold, the test ranked that goal at the top.

What followed was a month-long adventure that changed the way Zilca looks at the world and inspired him to share this perspective by writing a book (currently in the funding stage on Kickstarter) and obtaining his happiness-coaching certification. I chatted with Zilca in late June about riding motorcycles as a form of meditation, making dreams a reality, and what it means to be truly happy.

Hitting the Road

In his late 30s, Zilca found himself, like many of his peers, in a period of midlife transition. “A lot of people get to this point in life where the demands are the highest,” Zilca says of near-middle age. “But it’s also the first time where you don’t have a prescribed next chapter. Which is where the opportunity is — you actually have more freedom to choose.”

Zilca knew his life needed a change: “I felt this restlessness, like, ‘I’ve got to do something; I’ve got to put myself at some level of risk.’ Because the whole thing is starting to be too comfortable.” A cross-country road trip seemed like the perfect catalyst for change.

But at 38, Zilca had never even sat on a motorcycle. He was nevertheless determined to get his motorcycle license, so he signed up for an intensive one-weekend course with 12 other guys — and was the only one who failed. Luckily, he passed his retest a few weeks later, and thus began his love affair with motorcycles. He joined a local motorcycle club and started going for regular rides. Motorcycling, he says, serves as a form of meditation. While riding, he is present, engaged, in a state of flow. And these qualities have lasting benefits even after he’s hopped off the bike.

Shortly after his 40th birthday, Zilca set out on a trip two years in the making. To his few naysayers, Zilca would acknowledge: “It’s comfortable not to go on the bike. [Riding] is dangerous. The safest thing is not to move. But [when] you risk more, you gain more.”

Soul Mates for an Hour

One of Zilca’s first discoveries on the road was that “people are kind of scared of bikers.” But those people who weren’t put off by his Harley and leather gear took his overflowing bags and out-of-state license plates as an invitation to start up a conversation. Inevitably, people would ask where he was from and where he was going. He’d respond, “I’m living my dream.”

To his pleasant surprise, people often opened up in response. “You know what? they’d say, “I have a dream too.” He heard everything from traveling to Japan, to writing a book, to reuniting with an estranged sibling. For Zilca, these moments were some of the most fulfilling of the trip, and they provided him with two key observations: First, that every individual possesses their own personal wealth and depth. “Everyone’s inner world is very rich, and it doesn’t normally show in daily interactions,” he explains. Second, that most dreams are attainable. The barriers are typically within.”

Zilca found confirmation for his observations from illustrious sources: Thanks to connections he’d made at Signal Patterns (the startup he co-founded, which has since been acquired by bLife), he was able to meet with positive psychology experts such as Deepak Chopra, Phil Zimbardo, Caroline Miller, Byron Katie, Barbara Fredrickson, and other great minds during his travels. While he’d immersed himself in these experts’ writings prior to his trip, it wasn’t until he connected with strangers across the country that he fully experienced the meaning of these texts: Happiness comes from the service of others.

This realization quite literally changed the course of Zilca’s life. “When I came back, I felt like I wanted to make [helping people] my mission,” he says. A year after returning from his trip, he got board-certified as a happiness coach at the Institute for Life Coaching, where he now teaches. When coaching others, Zilca draws on the wisdom he learned on the road: “Different individuals are not necessarily different entities. You’re both a part of the same thing (you breathe the same air, etc.). [Knowing this], empathy and compassion become very natural, because the other person is you as well. If you even get a glimpse of that feeling… it changes the way you see the world completely.”

Coming Home — What Sticks?

The challenge was maintaining that perspective even after returning home to the suburbs and the same old routines. The first months back, Zilca says, felt like enlightenment. He started cooking (he’d never cooked before). He bought his kids a dog (before, he’d told them he was too busy to care for a pet). Now, almost three years later, he says, “There’s no turning back. You learn to see the world from a different angle, you don’t lose that angle.”

Like anything else, this perspective has to be maintained. Luckily, life makes that pretty easy: “There’s a wealth of opportunities in daily life to [practice being] happy. A lot of people think they have to do something extreme — and sometimes you do, to trigger a change. But change doesn’t have to be overtly external. To me, a deep change is usually under the surface,” he says.

Zilca practices happiness in his new home in Tel Aviv (he moved there with his family after returning from the road) by slowing down, being present, and constantly challenging himself to step out of his comfort zone (in his words, “comfort kills”). Being present has taught him that “thoughts about the past and future are illusions, basically. They’re only in our minds. [But] they can take so much of a person’s energy and attention; a lot of people go through life missing it. They’re not here.”

Presence has also challenged him to find meaning in what many of us consider to be the drudgery of everyday life, such as running errands, doing chores, or washing dishes with the kids. Really, he says, it’s all in the way you see it: “If you clean your house and think, ‘This is the place where I live. I’m cleaning it for myself, for my family’ — there’s meaning to it.”

Advice for the Restless

We all struggle with feelings of general restlessness or angst, and Zilca’s been there, too. His advice for anyone in a place where everything feels “okay” but nothing feels quite right? “The only way to get out of that toughness is to take a step out. Do something. Risk something. Most people who feel this restlessness know they need to change something, but it’s hard for them to identify what this is… So they stay in the same spot. [But] the most important thing is to get the heck out of there — the direction doesn’t matter. Regardless of which direction you [go], you’re going to be in a different place, and from a different place you see things from a different angle. And then you’ll know where to go next.”

No matter what, he says, “don’t let fear be the driver.” Just hop on your motorcycle, and ride.

What has traveling taught you about life? Share in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @lauranewc.