Six Lessons from Six Weeks of Traveling Solo
In October of 2018, I did something I never in a million years thought I would do: I quit my job without another job lined up. I’ve written several posts about that decision, and the burnout that led up to it. But I haven’t written anything yet about what I learned from the experience I’ve taken to calling my Six Week Sabbatical here on the blog.
Let’s start with a dose of reality: taking a Six Week Sabbatical doesn’t make sense in a lot of conventional ways. One could argue (and they would be correct, to some extent) that it doesn’t make sense to take a hiatus from your career five and a half years in. I’ve got a long way to go at this point, whether I’m burned out or not. Why risk everything I’ve spent five and a half years (and arguably longer than that) building?
If you happen to be on the path to Financial Independence, then you may have your own set of arguments against something like a Six Week Sabbatical. It’s hard to argue that giving up your primary source of income and potentially ruining your chances of finding another job at the same level of pay makes sense. After all, a decision like that has the potential to set your timeline back quite a bit, if it goes badly.
Looking back, these arguments against the Six Week Sabbatical still sound valid to me... which is one reason I can’t believe I ever actually did it. But when I made the (albeit slightly rash) decision to quit my job and buy a plane ticket, I had a sneaking suspicion this Six Week Sabbatical would make sense in a lot of other, less obvious ways.
And on that point at least, I was right.
Here are six lessons I learned from six weeks of traveling solo.
Lesson 1: Things Tend to Work Out
At the point when I decided to take this trip, I had been traveling internationally for over a decade. Even so, it honestly never ceases to amaze me how things tend to work themselves out when you are traveling. I’m never going to be a person that advocates just up and quitting your job and buying a one-way flight with no plan and no money (I analyze risk for a living, after all). However, things sometimes go wrong… and in most cases, it’s no big deal.
Your plans can get derailed no matter where you are in the world (and no matter how detailed, elaborate and ingenious those plans are). But you’ll learn to adapt, and that ability to adapt will help you in every aspect of your life. The revised plan may not look like you thought it would, and it may cost you either extra time or money (or both), but nine times out of ten you’ll find a way around whatever issue arises when you are traveling. And when you can’t find a way around the issue, you can call in reinforcements. There are more people willing to help you than you may think, even if you are traveling solo. (I originally started writing some examples of this phenomenon, but that list got longer than this entire post, so I’m moving those examples to a post of their own. I’ll link to it here when it is complete!)
Lesson 2: Your Level of Worry Has Zero Impact
There’s a lot to worry about when traveling, and especially when traveling solo. Some people may interpret that comment to mean I think solo travel is unsafe, which obviously isn’t the case since I just spent six weeks traveling by myself. What I actually mean is that when you travel alone, there is no one to share the burden of logistics. And logistics take up a lot of time and energy: where to go next, how to get there, where to stay, is it in budget, etc.
That's a lot to worry about.
Ironically, this is the reason why the people I know who travel the most tend to be the most relaxed. Because, as mentioned in the first lesson above, things tend to work out. But even if they don’t work out perfectly, logistics are completely indifferent to your level of worry. This is another thing that travel has taught me: energy spent on a plan or on adapting to a new situation is well spent, but energy spent worrying about a plan that already went wrong is just a waste of energy. There’s no way back, only through. So don’t waste any time or energy "crying over spilled milk” as my grandmother would say... just grab a cappuccino and move forward.
Lesson 3: People are Inherently Good
Depending on where you are in the world and the news you have access to, you may think the world is a dangerous, unforgiving place overall. And depending on where you grew up or how you were raised, you may think that people who look, act, eat, pray or believe differently than you do are inherently bad in some way. This remains the single most important reason I recommend that people who want to travel find a way to do it... because there is nothing I can write that is more effective than learning this lesson yourself, in person, in the real world:
People are inherently good.
You can be as unobtrusive and self-sufficient as possible when traveling, but sometimes, you’ll still need to ask people for help. And in my experience over the past 11 years in 20 countries, people are kind and generous the majority of the time. Sure, you’ll occasionally run into a grumpy bus driver who is having a bad day (just like you might in your hometown), but you also may run into a nice family that invites you over to have a home cooked meal just because you asked for directions. Or a person that literally stops their own commute to walk you to the place you are looking for so that you don’t get lost. Or a random stranger who helps you lift your bag, or carry it, or just stops to ask if you need help. Or a person who takes time to chat and offer local recommendations (which tend to save time and money). Or the people you’ll meet at hostels that will put down their phone and start a conversation with you when they see that you are solo. Or the people that take the time to share their story and their perspective with you.
To all the good people I’ve met over the years I’ve traveled, and all the people I’ve yet to meet: thank you .
Lesson 4: Alone Doesn’t Mean Lonely
Believe it or not (since I write a public blog on the internet), I’m naturally pretty shy... but I’ve become less shy since I started traveling. Ironically, solo travel involves interacting with a lot more strangers than traveling with a group of friends does, in my experience. Personally, this is one of the positive things that travel has taught me: even though I’m not the world’s most outgoing person (and probably never will be), I can still meet people. And talk to people. And learn about people. And have a great time with people I just met, in a lot of cases.
This was by far my longest solo trip to date, but I never felt lonely. I met solo travelers from all over the world, and groups of friends who were happy to take on an additional person, and even friends of mine who happened to be abroad in countries I was visiting that I could meet up with while I was there. I was also able to spend a lot of time exploring cities on my own, coming up with ideas, writing, reflecting, relaxing and generally getting over the burnout that sent me on this trip in the first place. Overall, lonely isn’t a word I would use to describe myself on this trip.
Quick tip if you are planning a solo trip: spend a bit of time reading through accommodation reviews and look for reviewers specifically mentioning that a place is good for solo travelers. If you want to meet up with other solo travelers or people to hang out with, these reviews can really help to point you in the right direction. Check out this post for more inspiration.
Lesson 5: You Can
It's generally easier to break a big, scary goal down into more manageable pieces... and travel always reminds me of that. If someone in my hometown of 3,000 people had told me at age 14 (before I had ever boarded a plane) that at the age of 28 I would plan, pay for and go on a six week trip alone through five countries in Europe, I probably wouldn’t have believed a word of it. But somehow, over the years of studying abroad in groups of people, teaching English abroad with a group of volunteers, traveling with friends, studying solo and then ultimately traveling solo for 10 days in 2016... something like this trip started to look more realistic to me.
A lot of travel content I read makes travel seem very easy, and to some extent, that is what it is meant to do. It’s meant to make the logistics easier. But there is a challenge outside of the logistics, budget and execution of a trip... that little question in the back of your head asking whether or not you can actually do this. Can you go on a trip alone abroad? Can you figure something like that out? Can you spend that much time with yourself and your own thoughts, without a filter or buffer?
So I’ll answer those question with a question of my own: what if you can? What if you give yourself the chance to prove that you can? And after you do, you may start believing that you can do all sorts of things.
And that momentum is beyond powerful.
Lesson 6: When You Take Risks, Amazing Things Can Happen
When I made the decision to go on this trip, I was excited about having some time to apply to some business, blog and brand ideas that I’d been considering for a while. I knew getting out of the burnout fog would help me get my thoughts a bit more organized, but even I didn’t realize how powerful that time would be. After just six weeks making my ideas the top priority, I was able to create a (somewhat) cohesive vision for my new blog, brand and business, Going Places Media, which I launched as soon as I got back from the trip. I was also able to get through the burnout to a point where I felt passionate about creating again. And that alone was pretty amazing.
Through my entire experience with the Six Week Sabbatical, the overarching lesson I learned is that never prioritizing yourself and what you love to do the most is also a risk.
While I think we inherently know that quitting a job without another job lined up is risky, I never hear people talk about the risk of continuing in a situation that you know you should leave. We all have the ability to push ourselves through a hard season (in work or life), and that is arguably a good thing. However, there is a risk to your health, happiness, and creativity associated with pushing yourself through a hard season that never ends. We need to make sure we’re also considering that risk, because I wasn’t until I made the decision to take this trip.
Since I started with a dose of reality, I’ll end with one as well. After returning from my trip at the beginning of December, I did some interviewing throughout that month and received an offer that I accepted at the beginning of January. I’m well aware that this scenario could have played out differently: I could have had trouble finding any companies that were hiring at the time, or the six week gap on my resume might have prevented me from receiving any offers.
But here’s the thing: travel has taught me that I can adapt. Things don’t always turn out perfectly... but they also don’t always fall apart completely and end in ruin. Not knowing where you’ll end up on that spectrum can be stressful, and I completely understand that, because fear of that unknown prevented me from taking this time off work to travel for a very long time.
But taking a leap when you know deep down that you should can teach you things you never knew that you needed to learn... and who knows?
Those lessons may completely change your perspective on risk.
And maybe even on life in general.
I’m thankful I made the decision to take this particular risk, and I’m thankful for all of the lessons that travel has taught me. And as always, I’m thankful to you for following along and being a part of this adventure.
Have you traveled solo? Have you taken a sabbatical or mini-retirement? If so, I’d love to hear what you learned from those experiences... chime in in the comments!