Not long ago, I was browsing the travel section of a bookstore and came across a young couple who were planning to purchase the behemoth travel guide of all travel guides: The Lonely Planet’s The World. We got to chatting, and I quickly learned that they were organizing a year-long sabbatical after their wedding.
My heart did a little dance of joy for them, and then my voice caught in my throat as a bittersweet wave of nostalgia hit. After a brief awkward moment, I was able to speak, and I promised them that their decision was wonderful and amazing. I didn’t know a thing about these strangers, but I believed in them and what they were about to embark upon. I believed because I’d been there.
Like them, I dropped everything and traveled for nearly a year. I quit my perfectly good job to backpack around South America. Truth be told, I thought little—if at all—about what my trip would mean for my career in the long run. All I knew was that my position wasn’t enough to keep me put, nor was my current track compelling enough to scare me into staying. If either was the case, I wouldn’t be where I am right now, nor would I be writing about a year-long backpacking trip. Nope, back then I was resolute in my decision—regardless of how that would impact my personal and professional life.
I was young and confident that I had plenty of time to figure it out once I returned. Hard-working, ladder-climbing, 25-year-olds didn’t inspire me; nomadic backpackers with dirty hair and fingernails who slept on buses and spent their money on cheap beer did. This was my carpe diem moment.
So, one day, several years ago, I flew to Brazil and made my way around Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia before returning to Brooklyn in April the following year.
I traveled alone. I couchsurfed, learned Spanish, had an extremely lonely Thanksgiving at the southernmost point of the globe, celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in Buenos Aires, trekked to Torres del Paine with a group of guys I barely knew, fell in love with an Argentinian man, subsequently had my heart broken, and persisted in spite of obstacles that threatened my spirits.
I had a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants itinerary, and it was great. If I liked a place I passed through, I didn’t have to rush or leave. There were no planes for me to catch, no nonrefundable hotel rooms for me to check into. I was the ultimate backpacker on a budget, sometimes spending as little as a dollar a day. I’d just as soon walk two miles to get where I was staying than pay for a $5 taxi. This kind of frugality became ingrained in me. Before long, I didn’t know any other way.
I lived primarily on street food and never once got sick from it. Yet, somehow, I contracted mumps, a horrible, eye-opening experience that made me crazy with glee when I was finally well again. While I have no regrets about my choice, if I’m being totally honest, I regret not having kept one photo of my unbelievably enlarged face. (If you take one lesson from this, make it that you should never be too vain to save sick selfies.)
As time heals all wounds, my face eventually went back to its normal size. To this day, I remain grateful that I didn’t fly home to the safety and comfort of my parent’s home even though they definitely suggested as much. I didn’t give up then, and I didn’t call it quits when I got robbed in Peru.
The good experiences outweighed the bad by far though, even if the challenges, like narrowly escaping sexual assault, helped build character. And though I learned an enormous amount about myself, my fellow backpackers, the South American people who put me up, fed me, protected me, and helped me speak better Spanish, I’ve never been able to pinpoint the one thing that had the biggest impact on me. When I returned to the States, I had so many people ask me point-blank how I’d changed. It was as though I was expected to have had this major epiphany. They couldn’t wait to hear what I’d discovered.
But I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have a clue how to put my journey into digestible paragraphs, and I still don’t, not completely. Of course, I changed in countless ways that can’t be enunciated, but in many ways, I didn’t change at all. I didn’t go away hoping for some grand discovery about myself. I went because I had the travel bug, and I didn’t want to wake up one day and wonder why I hadn’t done anything exciting with my life when I had the chance.
None of this makes me special. I’m just someone who many years ago had a crap load of courage and not a lot of cares in the world. I don’t think it’s for everyone. Not liking your job isn’t impetus enough to quit and leave the country.
Besides that, it’s not without consequences because nothing is, right? My trip set me back a few years and several thousand dollars. When I came back, I wound up waiting tables at a local restaurant and then managing that restaurant; in fact, I bounced around a few different Manhattan establishments until I realized that it was absolutely not the career for me.
By the time I finally made my way back to writing and editing—skills that I’d continued to hone and grow throughout the years—I realized with a certain amount of resignation that I was a few years older than my peers in similar positions with similar titles. I could probably be making more money and have a more prestigious title if I’d stuck on the career path I started out on and accepted two or three weeks of vacation a year. And I also wouldn’t be sitting in job interviews, having to explain a year-long gap. Then again, any hiring manager who needed me to defend that decision in detail probably wasn’t the right manager for me.
But would I be happier with a title and salary more in line with a classic career trajectory? I can’t say for certain because I didn’t opt for that route, but I do know that in spite of feeling frustrated on occasion with my situation, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the answer to the question. Anyway, as far as my job search was concerned, I learned that it was never about excusing my choice, but rather exploring the benefits it reaped and the ways it helped build my character—both of which undoubtedly impact the work I do.
Even though I wasn’t in an office doesn’t mean I didn’t continue to learn and grow while I was away. My writing improved as I shared my adventures online, my ability to communicate with people different than me (in a different language!) increased by leaps and bounds, and my tolerance for going with the flow and adjusting as necessary went up significantly. Show me an employer who’d be upset by those three things, and I’ll show you an employer who doesn’t know what he or she’s doing.
Sure, my on-the-job skill set might’ve been rusty when I finally got my two feet on a re-envisioned career path, but my new ability to not just survive, but thrive was unparalleled. You think answering an email to a difficult client’s hard, try going to the local market every day and figuring out not just what to ask for and how much of it, but how to pay for it without getting ripped off. Try explaining to the man at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, who wants to give you a temporary passport, that you absolutely must have one that’s valid for at least three months so you can keep traveling. Try sitting on a bus for 36 hours while a border issue between Argentina and Chile is in full force and you have no internet.
I really can’t put into perfect words what my journey meant to me or how it’s affected my subsequent professional decisions. Fortunately, I've never stopped believing that mine is the generation of changing careers, of redefining what a career path means, of accepting that part of your own path might involve leaving it for a while, or going in a different direction completely.
If you believe that, then there are no limits to what you can do and achieve. You don’t need to sell your belongings and get comfortable rotating the same three shirts in a distant land to make a change. It’s up to you to figure out how to get where you’re meant to be. If that means turning your back on your law degree and going to culinary school so that you can open a bakery in a ski town, so be it. I'm optimistic in that I like to think of life as long, which means that it’s far better to take chances than resign yourself to doing something that you don’t actually love.