It’s true. I did decide to veer off of the traditional career path when I graduated from JMU. I was always a devoted student and I loved taking on as much as I possibly could during my four years in Harrisonburg. I had applied this go-getter attitude to my post-graduate adventure, when instead of heading to the office, I went to the airport and took off on a backpacking trip around New Zealand. What started out as a one-year adventure (which was to be immediately followed by starting a career) turned into five action-packed years through 25 countries. I dove in the Great Barrier Reef. I lived in a tent. I biked through the temples of Ankor Wat in Cambodia. I went skydiving three times and bungee jumping twice. I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I rode the luge down the Great Wall of China. I saw. I experienced. I learned.
But what I think is the most significant part to note is that I actually transformed during those five years. During my first year of traveling, I distinctly remember thinking, “Well now, this changes everything.” It felt like I had been given a new pair of eyes – like I had been building a life with only partial information, but with travel I was able to move forward completely informed. The flip side of this was that I became more aware of what I didn’t know and thus constructed how to take ownership of my education.
Did you know that muscle conditioning and cardio training actually change the way our bodies process food? They don’t simply burn calories – there is a systematic shift that occurs. Similar to the results and gains that we get from actively building our physical strength, our experiences change the way in which we approach the world. Sure, we often set off with the goal of forwarding ourselves in some capacity – learning a new language and culture, better understanding what makes an economy tick and grasping the implications of a country’s religious and political systems. But I would argue that what we often see as convenient byproducts—forming relationships or navigating through a new place—are ends in themselves. Not only do they cause life-altering shifts in the moment, they cause permanent effects that determine who we are in business and in life. And you don’t need to go to the other end of the world to experience these types of shifts. You just need to break out of that zone of comfort – on purpose.
In the coming paragraphs, I outline the three most significant life changes that took place when I sought opportunities for adventure and exploration. These are the shifts that continue to set me apart professionally. I make the argument that you should always dare to look over that edge; because in the end, the drop isn’t that steep.
Life Change Number One: You become the eternal student.
We all have something about which we can confidently say, “Yes, I’m good at that.” We may not be able to say that we are the best – but we all have something that we can, with a reasonable level of confidence, say that we will nail every time. For me, that is navigating a new city. I love the challenge and I jump at the opportunity to figure it out when traveling with others. It’s exciting to combine savvy street smarts with subway schedules, all while managing to find the best hidden gem of a restaurant and a little-known market, all in the same day.
What I love about travel and why I am such an advocate, all comes down to the fact that it forces you to recalibrate. Whatever your strength, you will at some point find yourself extremely challenged as you watch yourself fail miserably in the area where you normally excel. It’s usually a combination of terrifying and slightly hysterical (but you’re too terrified to laugh yet). So, let’s say your biggest strength is navigation and direction. You get lost. You don’t know the language. You don’t even know how to get back to where you started. What do you do? What you do is you figure it out, and fast.
Your failures will require you to learn, and learn quickly, as you are required to pivot, get back up and just make it happen. That, right there, is what I’m talking about. Agility. Flexibility. Grit. You bring that to any workplace and you will separate from the herd. Not only is this valuable when things go wrong, this way of approaching life enables you to anticipate multiple outcomes, planning ahead for each and every one of them. Now, not only are you agile, you are able to calculate risk. You can master the art of smart decision-making combined with the humility to know that you don’t know everything. And the best part? No one knows everything, but smart people know where to go and who to talk to in order to get it. This commitment to learning and improvement is a building block of effective leadership, successful marketing and smart strategy. We don’t know everything, and travel is a beautiful way to be reminded of that. A training ground for strategic response, travel reinforces our commitment to learning.
Life Change Number Two: You drop the expectations and start to live.
Travel heightens your expectations of yourself, while reminding you to limit your expectation that the world will meet you halfway. The systems, which we are a part of when we embark on our core development years, can trick us into thinking that the path is set. We are asked to perform at a certain level in high school in order to work towards a successful college experience. We are expected to choose a major that will lead to a strong career. Graduation is momentarily celebrated before we are launched into a pool of new expectations to stand out and rise up in our careers. All this carrot-chasing prevents many of us from pausing to beg the question: do I even want any of this? This promise of endless success and happiness, when do I get it?
Travel provides the gift of pause. It is a pause coupled with a new view of how others choose to live that gives us peak value. We are reminded that we are, in fact, in control of every single decision and that often, we are a single degree of decision-making from a major life shift. Isn’t that wonderful? The flip side of this is that this realization of complete life control has a price. The world doesn’t provide us with a guide for most divergent paths. Complete autonomy? That you will have. But a step-by-step layout guiding you to our collective conception of success? This won’t exist. But I promise, if you can live in that space of uncertainty, vulnerability, totally exposed and open to the world, great things can happen for you. You will be able to seek your fullest life, a life that is customized to your liking. Travel provides the space for you to learn about yourself by observing how you choose, act and feel without the backdrop of the structured communities to which we belong. A truer, battle-tested understanding of self can be attained, and a new courage, coupled with the inspiration to live in a way that serves you, suddenly becomes accessible.
Life Change Number Three: You seek adventure for adventure’s sake.
One of my absolute favorite parts of travel is that it gives you a thirst for experience itself. When you set out in search of an immersive and transformative experience, you begin to release expectations. As the weight of expectation and judgment is lifted, there is a suddenly a space for possibility. Your happiness, your experience and your outlook shift from being circumstantial to being completely unattached to outcome. This, to me, is the ultimate form of mindfulness, and something that I instantly notice in people. I call it mindfulness, but it could also manifest itself in attributes such as agility, flexibility or open-mindedness.
To be clear, this is not to be confused with indifference or laziness. There is still a quest involved with venturing out on any type of experience or excursion. There is still intention and purpose as well. The difference is that travel requires that you let go, mindfully, while proactively responding to the pieces you can control. This is a top asset of any professional. Thinking on your feet, remaining emotionally neutral, pivoting when necessary but ultimately, maintaining a stable agility in the midst of rapid, inconvenient and unexpected change—these are lessons that take leaders years to learn. Sadly, many never do.
This is what I love about travel. You can learn this very valuable skill set at an accelerated pace, if you truly open yourself up to it. When you have a steady, tried-and-true method for walking shaky ground, you open yourself up to experience for the sake of it. You can begin to see the value in trying something new, even if you find out that it’s not for you. You have more courage to take on new roles and responsibilities, to try more foods and to talk to total strangers. You become a life director while banishing fear. You become a better you. And if you’re lucky, and continually intentional, your example creates enriched experiences and inspiration for those around you as well.
Anna (’06) is the Founder of OutGrowth, a company that partners students with socially-conscious farms for one-month residential, project-based placements. Taking internships out of the office, OutGrowth combines students travel with career competency-building and community impact. Anna worked in higher education for five years after returning home from her travels and has a background in experiential learning, outdoor education, marketing, community development and project management. Currently, Anna is in the final semester of her MBA program at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School. In her spare time, Anna is a Corporate Wellness Coach at a Baltimore-based start-up.
OutGrowth is now accepting applications through April 1, 2018 for the 2018 summer Legacy Cohort. Visit www.outgrowthtoday.org to sign up for our monthly newsletter, follow us on social media and join our 2018 cohort!
Want to hear more from Anna? Check out her on-demand webinar now!
Presented By: Anna Fitzgibbon (’06)
Maintaining a dedication to the unfamiliar is challenging. How do we continue to build our careers instead of just having them? How do we ensure that we are constantly developing our competitive edge, keeping our skill set relevant, all while remaining personally invested in our day to day? Engagement will prove to be key, both as we seek personal and professional fulfillment, and as we remain nimble as the face of global leadership continues to shift.
Click here to register to receive the on-demand webinar, which will be immediately emailed in your confirmation.