“If you have an urge to see the world, you should listen to that and go. Worry about your career and money later.”
Those were the words I’d told a former co-worker a year ago, when she’d approached me for advice on what to do with her life. She was about to graduate college and was at that age when the life you’ve been steadily preparing for your entire existence has suddenly, surreally arrived. She was anxious about her future; unsure of her next move and afraid she’d make the wrong choice. I’d felt that way at 23 and could relate to her confusion and stress. I’d spent my whole life working towards earning a college degree and once I’d finally reached that milestone, I’d felt lost. What am I supposed to now?! I remember fretting to friends and family members.
I’d reacted to my quarter-life crisis by delaying reality and running away to work on a cruise ship.
Two days after walking across the stage to accept my college diploma, I was working as a camp counselor for a cruise line in the Caribbean. I spent the next 10 years traveling and working abroad; teaching English in Japan and Guatemala and then working for an airline.
I recently ran into this old co-worker a couple of months ago. The last we’d discussed, she was going to take time off after graduation and live in Europe. She’d had friends in Amsterdam and had become enamored with the Netherlands after discovering some of her favorite music originated there. But when I ran into her, she’d told me that she hadn’t gone to Europe and had accepted a job at a local PR firm instead. She seemed genuinely happy about her decision to put off travel in favor for her career and had no regrets. That got me thinking: Should I have done the same?
If I’d had, I’d probably be further on in my career. I bet if my old co-worker stays on this upward track, by the time she’s my age—in her early 30s—she’ll be at the head of marketing for some major company; raking in the big bucks. In an alternate reality, that might have been me.
Instead, my life went a little sideways. After abandoning a career in New York and a waterfront apartment in Brooklyn, I took off to India and then Japan and Guatemala. Now I’m 33 and my career in marketing (I work as a freelance writer and recently started a social media consulting company), has only just begun. Do I regret having spent so much of my 20s traveling? Sometimes. There have been low days when friends 10 years younger text to invite me to go out to eat and at some pricey new restaurant and I have to decline because unlike them, my financial situation often swings from broke to “If that check from a client doesn’t come in the next two days, I’ll be eating nothing but Ramen and rice for the next two weeks”. During those dark days, I find myself wishing I’d spent more time trying to get a “real job” instead of floating between seasonal au pair and ESL teaching gigs.
I think more often than not, I’m glad I chose to explore. Travel isn’t for everyone, obviously. Some people have no desire to leave their corner of the planet, and that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. But I think those who want to see the world, should. That innate desire to explore likely won’t go away (in fact, some scientists believe it’s been encoded in our DNA) and those who have a lust for the wander likely won’t ever look back on their backpacking trip through Thailand as a waste of time.
So without further ado, here are:
7 Reasons Why I’m Happy I Postponed a Career to Travel
1. Travel gave me a world perspective
Traveling and living abroad taught me that there is more than one way to look at the world and that just because something is unfamiliar or nonsensical (to me) doesn’t make it wrong. Bird saliva would never be something I’d consider as an edible substance, for example, but when I was visiting Hong Kong, I ate it as an ice cream topping. Realizing that there is always more than one way to look at a situation has helped me both professionally and in my personal life; I’m more tolerant, open-minded and better able to problem solve from a broader, “big picture” point of view.
2. I became more culturally sensitive
I think the key to being culturally sensitive isn’t just being aware that cultural differences exist, but in having a deep understanding of what those differences are and how they’ve come to develop. In my opinion, that deep understanding can only come through full emersion into another culture. Living abroad in Europe and Asia forced me—by means of survival—to examine and piece apart those differences. And when I returned home, my view of other cultures had shifted. Previously, I might have thought the Japanese person loudly slurping noodles in the restaurant booth next time me was a sloppy eater or that my Dutch neighbor was rude because she rarely smiled and never said “how are you?”. Now I knew what I’d seen as rude or unfriendly behavior was nothing more than a cultural difference I’d been misinterpreting.
3. I learned several foreign languages
Learned. Past tense. Ha. While I don’t habla Espanol very well and my Nihongo isn’t what it used to be, I can confidently say that the year I spent in Germany and the four months I spent in Austria paid off. I still speak German fairly well, which is one of my proudest accomplishments. It’s no easy feat learning a second language. Plus, studies have shown that learning a foreign language can make you smarter, improves your memory and even helps to ward off the affects of dementia.
4. I became more creative
True story: Living abroad makes you more creative. The studies have proved it. Though I’ve never been tested myself, I’ve found that a lot of my best writing was written while I was abroad or on the road. Frequently when I’m facing a creative roadblock, I’ll hop into my car and drive somewhere new and that’ll be just what I need to get the creative juices flowing again. Mini road trips (even just for the weekend) can also work great if I’m trying to solve a problem in my personal life. I’m so grateful I took what amounted to nearly a year off and traveled, doing nothing all day but journaling, reading, and philosophizing. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a break from the real world and revaluate who you are and where you’re headed.
5. I discovered my love of writing
Maybe I would have discovered this eventually anyway, but I still credit this travel blog (which I started while living in Japan) as being the catalyst that jump-started my writing career. Prior to starting this blog at the age of 25, I knew I liked writing, but I didn’t realize to what extent. I certainly never considered my writing to be something anyone would consider worth reading and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would one day be able to make a living off of it. But after receiving so much positive feedback from strangers on the internet, however, and after having several big brands commission me to write about my travel experiences for their websites and magazines, I realized that I’d fallen in love with writing and wanted to find a way to be able to do it full time.
6. Travel helped me launch a career as a travel writer
I’ve landed several prestigious writing gigs as a result of editors and marketers finding me through this travel blog, which I never would have started if I hadn’t fallen in love with travel. The gigs include a partnership with Expedia, a writing job with the MasterCard travel blog and even my own travel column for a travel site.
7. In fact, my travel experiences have helped me land nearly every job I’ve ever gotten
I beat out 2,000 candidates to land a job with a major airline at the height of the recession because the interviewer loved that I’d lived abroad and had worked on a cruise ship. My travel experience has also helped me land jobs as an ESL teacher and event planner. Travelers make some of the best employees because for the most part we’re a worldly, cultured and courageous bunch.
Would I have Gained All These Insights If I’d Just Stayed Home? Maybe.
Travel isn’t the magical cure-all for your problems. If you’re a self-centered jerk now, you can live in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan or work for an NGO in Borneo for a year, but you’ll probably still be a self-centered jerk when you return home. I think travel helped transform me in part because I was ready to be transformed. The intense desire for self improvement was inside me long before I ever stepped foot out of the country, so there’s certainly some validity to the argument that I’d probably have become the person I am today regardless of whether I’d spent my 20s meditating in a monastery in Tibet or working at a Starbucks in Tulsa.
The Bottom Line? Chase Your Passions
I think that ultimately what people do in their 20s doesn’t matter nearly as much as they think it does. But I also think that if you’re hesitant about taking a travel gap year or working abroad because you’re worried about wasting money or delaying your career, don’t be. Your 20s are about experimenting; about trying on different careers, relationships, cities and personalities to see which ones fit best. Taking risks, making bad decisions and getting lost is all part of the process. The more experimentation you do—whether it be in Minnesota or Malta—the better off you’ll be.
So if you’re 25 and you have a dream or a secret passion, don’t be afraid to follow it. Your career can wait.