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How Travel Makes Me a Better Leader

“What’s most important to you as you prepare to take this break from your career?” said my financial planner. My answer was simple, “Travel. I want to travel as much as possible.”

I was in the early stages of planning a career change, making a sharp left turn from my current trajectory. There wasn’t something specific that I’d say was wrong, but my life just didn’t feel right. I knew there was something better out there for me.

I could hear the hesitance in my mother’s voice when I told her I was going to go back to school full time and travel. Couldn’t you go back to school and keep your job? I saw the shock in my friend’s faces when I floated the idea by them. But you’re being paid so well at a Fortune 500 company.

Learning to see the world from another's perspective while playing with schoolchildren in a remote village in Myanmar.

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Should I Follow My Head or My Heart?

My heart would race each time I thought about the change I was embarking on, but my mind knew it was the right path. Working 50+ hour weeks, traveling for business on Sundays, and getting calls in the middle of the night may have earned me a solid income, but didn’t allow me to live my best life.

The biggest point of anxiety for me was, how would I explain to future employers that this 18 months of travel and school wasn’t just one big jolly holiday? Was I about to make a huge mistake?

Taking the Leap

But, being adventurous at heart, I took the leap. My year and a half long online Master’s program would allow me complete freedom, something I’ve never felt as an adult. And I squeezed every ounce of adventure possible out of that time in Kauai, Nicaragua, Peru, Norway, Colorado, and the Southwest US.

Along the way, though, something else happened.

Fast forward, a year and a half, and I am newly graduated, recently employed, feeling deeply thankful and reflective on this experience.

As it turns out, I have quite a story to tell employers. This year of travel, adventure, and growth has made me a better leader which, when you do leadership development for a living, is a pretty awesome thing.

RELATED POST: Lessons Learned While Hiking the Inca Trail

Image of me looking out at downtown LA from the trails at Griffith Observatory at sunrise.

What Makes a Great Leader?

Leadership means something different to everyone, but I believe that every person can be a leader in their own role or circle of influence. So, whether you’re a formal leader or not, travel has made you better at what you do. I’m positive that you have a similar story to tell.

When you clear out all the other “stuff” demanding your attention and mental capacity, you can have truly breakthrough revelations. Somewhere along the miles I’ve hiked and traveled this past year, I discovered my leadership philosophy. In fact, it became so clear to me that I included it in my final interview for the day job I have today.

Each of the points below is fundamental to what I believe to be true about leadership.

What I Say About Travel in Job Interviews

I learned the power of being present while volunteering in a remote village in Vietnam when a stranger invited me into her home to share tea. Without words, we sat silently, being present in each other’s company. This moment of heightened presence helped me realize what a distracted leader I’ve been in the past and how much I’ve missed in my interactions with employees and peers.

Learning the importance of being present in the moment as this Vietnamese woman invited me into her home to share tea.

I discovered the value of being vulnerable while traveling solo through Nicaragua. Strangers offered rides, cell phones chargers, engaging conversation, advice, locally made cheese (yum!) and even a stay at their beach house because I was willing to be vulnerable with them. I can now see that genuine vulnerability isn’t a weakness in a leader, it engages others.

I learned humility on Day 2 of hiking the Inca Trail (so many stairs). Consequently, I also learned the power of positivity on the same day. Demonstrating humility and recognizing your own limits creates space for others to step forward. As a leader, you don’t need to always have the answer. Sometimes, it’s more important to admit when you don’t have the answer.

RELATED POST: Four Lessons Learned While Living Abroad

I learned patience when, as a female volunteering in a Muslim community in Zanzibar, the local men discouraged me from doing hard labor. As frustrating as this felt in the moment, I recognize how uncomfortable this was for the men we were working with. Leaders need to be able to let go of doing things their way and instead seek to understand and encourage other approaches. 

After moving overseas solo twice, I learned to be confident in my ability to always land on my feet. Whether all of my personal belongings are lost at sea or my long boat breaks down on a river in Laos, I’ll figure it out. Confidence, when used effectively, can inspire others to achieve more than they thought possible.

RELATED POST: How Not To Die While Hiking the Kalalau Trail

I learned to make difficult decisions under pressure when I was stranded 11 miles away from safety while hiking the Kalalau Trail. Sometimes as a leader, you don’t have the luxury of time. Decisions need to be made now, and the impact can be significant. Great leaders are able to quickly analyze risk, ask the right questions and communicate the steps forward.

I learned the power of kindness from my hiking guide in Nicaragua, who held my hand the last 2 miles when I injured my knee. Without hesitation, he recognized my need and he made me feel safe and supported until we made it to the trailhead. In tough times, kindness from a leader can be what motivates you to stay the course.

I learned to be assertive while driving a scooter in Vietnam and when a taxi driver in Australia tried to do God-knows-what with me. Most situations as a leader are not as risky as these, but I can now better recognize situations that require me to push for what I (or others) need.

Learning to see the world from another's perspective while playing with schoolchildren in a remote village in Myanmar.

I’ve continued to expand my ability to see the world from other people’s perspectives. The more that I see how other people live and experience life, the more I recognize the privilege that I have. What struck me after volunteering in Vietnam is how happy the people seemed with so little. This made me realize that happiness in life and in work means something different for everyone. As a leader, it’s my job to understand each unique person’s motivations and needs, without judgment.

RELATED POST: An Early Mid-Life Crisis in Vietnam

When building bamboo huts in Myanmar, I learned that it’s ok to ask for help. In fact, it’s not just ok, it can be a compliment to the person you’re asking. The man teaching me the thatch roof technique had a stone-cold face all day, but when I asked him for help he’d crack a smile and let his pride peak through.

Active listening brings out the best in others. A young girl in Myanmar taught me this as she shared her first experience voting in their election.

I have improved my ability to actively listen to the stories of others and worry less about sharing my own. In Myanmar, I had the unique experience of hearing a young girl talk about her first time voting and how hopeful she was for the future. She became so alive as she spoke. This interaction made me realize how listening without distraction can bring out the best in an employee or peer. 

I learned tenacity and persistence when I decided to launch This Big Wild World, having zero experience in all things related to blogging. One weekend, I sat down and just decided to design this website. It was frustrating and I wanted to give up so many times, but I remembered that this was about inspiring adventure in others. With this goal in mind, I persisted. This solidified for me the importance of setting clear and compelling goals as a leader. 

And somewhere along the way, I let go of my desire for perfection because the messy journey is all part of the adventure in life. Let’s be honest, no one wants to work for a perfectionist.

Learning to be vulnerable and patient while cooking traditional Swahili food in Zanzibar.

The Final Lesson About Travel and Leadership

Lastly, there is so much more to learn in this big wild world and I am committed to being a lifelong student. Through travel, I’ve discovered more of what I have to offer and even more about what I have yet to learn. There’s something powerful in self-awareness.

So, was my leap worth the risk?

Without question, yes. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m living my best life doing work that I love. I believe this was all made possible through travel.

If you’re considering a similar journey of your own and want some more inspiration, these travel quotes will inspire you to take the leap!

Enough about me and my journey! I’d love to hear your story about how travel has made you a better leader. Drop me a comment below or send me a note through the contact me page!

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When I left my career to go back to school and travel the world, I wondered if I was making the right decision. How would I explain this to future employers? Here's what to say about travel in an interview and how travel makes me a better leader. // why travel is important | how travel changes you

10 thoughts on “How Travel Makes Me a Better Leader

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, Sarah! I’m glad you found my post helpful. I truly believe that travel helps us each grow in different ways. Taking the time to reflect on how we’ve grown is so powerful. It boosts your confidence, provides you with clarity, and helps you articulate your story. I’m sure that you have a great story to tell in an interview! Best wishes on finding the next step in your career and hopefully lots of adventure along the way 😉

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing your incredible experiences and valuable tips for applying what you learned in the real world to your new careeer. I’m in a similar position. I quit my job to travel with my husband and we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it is we want to do. I get scared sometimes that we won’t be able to best represent what we learned from travel and time off that will make us better employees in the future, so it’s always helpful to read about others’ similar experiences. Congratulations on finding your new career!

  3. This Big Wild World says:

    Hi Alison! My work now is within Human Resources, focused on leadership and team development (among other things). For the first time in my adult life, I feel like I have work-life balance which allows me to fuel my passion for adventure while maintaining a career that energizes me. That’s wonderful that you’re able to expose your children to other cultures and support their growth and development through travel 🙂

  4. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much, Crystal. My only regret is that I waited so long to decide to pursue something different for me. But, it’s all part of my adventure!

  5. alison netzer says:

    I would love to know what your job is now! I love to travel and now take my kids and introduce them to being humble and accepting. I have traveled solo, it is very freeing!

  6. Crystal says:

    Such amazing experiences and lessons learned. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in working around the clock to make ends meet and I love seeing that more people are traveling the world like this. It gives you such an amazing full circle perspective that is so much bigger than our in and out lives.

  7. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much! I love this story… I can just imagine your confusion when you realized you were staying for dinner! I appreciate you sharing your story 🙂

  8. Paul Drecksler says:

    This was great. I love how you can attribute lessons to specific events. I do the same thing. I remember learning patience in Thailand when I was 20 years old and we went to my friend Claudia’s aunt’s house to “pick something up real quick”. My friend Dylan and I were expecting a classic American quick-in quick-out visit, but tea and snacks turned into dinner several hours later. And I’ve never been in a hurry since. Congrats on the great year you’ve had and cheers to an even more amazing upcoming one!

  9. Sage Scott says:

    I absolutely love this post, your willingness to share such personal stories, and all that your experiences have done to shape you as a leader and a fellow human being on this earth. <3

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