Many years ago, a few months after I’d started dating a boyfriend, I drove him to the San Francisco airport for a business trip to Zurich and Paris. On the short drive from my home, he asked about my plans for the week. After mentioning a few meetings, dinner with girlfriends, and yoga, he asked whether I’d rather spend a long weekend in Paris with him.
My instant reaction was, “OMG! How amazing!” I’d never been to Paris and always wanted to go. But prior appointments and obligations piled up in my head, and what came out of my mouth was: “Thank you! I’d normally love to go, but ….” He called the airline from the car, and told me that if I changed my mind, there was a ticket, courtesy of his frequent flier miles, waiting for me on the first flight the next day.
As I dropped him off and drove home, a dilemma-ridden dialogue ensued in my head. The pull of obligation, responsibility, other peoples’ expectations (or what I perceived as expectations), and a litany of other self-imposed hurdles battled with my sense of adventure. There were—as there always are—many sensible reasons not to go, along with my “this is crazy/not planned/why-would-I-go-at-the-last-minute-just-for-four-days” mindset.
Fortunately, I snapped out of it and started packing. (The meetings were not really that crucial, and my friends were quite happy to reschedule on the promise of trip details.) The next morning I jumped on the plane and had one of the best, most romantic weekends of my life. That “last minute Paris” trip is one of my favorite memories, and that boyfriend eventually became my husband.
This very vivid memory triggers the first lesson I would tell my younger self: There are always reasons you can find not to experience new things, not to get out of your comfort zone, but the benefits of doing it anyway can be amazing. This is never more obvious than when you’re travelling to new (or old!) places.
Travel is a colorful metaphor for life. There is something magical about falling asleep on a plane and waking up in a new city or a new country. Each new day brings a unique sense of exploration. To me, one of life’s most enjoyable experiences is being in a new locale with different terrain, climes, feel, cuisine, and people, and often a new language and alphabet, too. Travel initiates the child-like joy of discovering something new, novel, and memorable. Just experiencing another way of life takes you out of yourself. It forces you to adapt and to gain a new perspective. Bonding with travel companions helps you take on a fresh intensity and focus.
Likewise, when things go wrong, it can be deep learning experience compressed into a short, vivid time period. Stress levels in such situations can be a barometer for handling stress in “real” life, and they are an easy way to build awareness, feel vulnerable, find hidden skills and strengths, and ride the adventure. Getting lost, losing all your cash and passport, realizing the American Embassy is not where the guidebook says it is, sleeping in your rental car stranded in a flood, missing a ferry/train/plane (or all three consecutively), landing without luggage for the trip, being mistaken (twice) for a Mafiosi’s daughter-in-law (once it got me into a great Miami club; the second time I was booted from an Italian restaurant—well, it was a mafia wake. Oops.) or just trying to order when you’re illiterate in the local language are all part of the rich colorful experience. (And yes, I’ve done all of these things.) Not all travels are postcard perfect, but the journeys are character-building, and make for great stories to laugh about. Most importantly, traveling reminds me that when things go awry, it does not spell inevitable disaster. Nearly all the time, you live to learn another day.
I would tell my teenage self and my young-adult self never to hesitate about traveling for fun and to get on a plane as often as possible. Plan the random cross-country car trip with friends or family. Attend your slightly-known cousin’s wedding or your brother’s bowling tournament in a small town you’re likely to never visit again. Some of the best experiences in life are completely unexpected, happen at the last minute while traveling, or both. I live for these moments. That thrilling feeling of stomach butterflies I get right before a trip reminds me that I am alive and celebrating it. Just when I think I have absolutely too much to do and could not possibly break away from the grind, that’s about the right time for me to jump on a plane.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
Jennifer Hill is an international start-up lawyer advising high-growth technology companies and venture funds around the world, and an entrepreneurial and small business commentator for MSNBC, CBSi and the Huffington Post Small Business. She's held senior business development and marketing roles at tech companies in Silicon Valley and Austin, and she now resides in the NYC area. She was named a 2011 "Rising Talent" by the Women's Forum for the Economy & Society.More from this Author