How to Maintain a Career and Take on Long Term Travel / by Amy Thibodeau

Ignite Phoenix

I am now almost exactly mid-way through an entire year of traveling. The decision to undertake this journey, and the giant leap off the well-worn path of a normal career trajectory did not come to me easily. First off, I'm 32. I'll be 33 in February. All through my twenties I did the things that were expected of me: I bought a house, had pets and slowly built up my career until I was near the top of my field in my chosen sector in my Canadian province. Then, around the time that I turned 30, I had a quarter life crises of sorts. You can read more about it here, but to sum it up, I did some solo traveling and fell madly in love with the world beyond the boundaries of my hometown. I felt stuck and lost and somewhere in there, I gathered up the courage to move to London, UK.

Moving away from home was hard. My family was sad that I'd be so far away and I suspect they were a little bit scared for me; it was a big risk as I had no gainful employment lined up. I had to sell my house, find long term, loving homes for my pets, and say goodbye to the familiarity and comfort I'd come to rely on.

After living in London for about a year and a half, my fiancee and I decided that we just weren't fulfilled in our lives. We loved London, we'd managed to take some great trips using it as a base and we were both saddled with very serious careers. We made good wages (well, he did anyway) and were doing our part to take full advantage of one of the best cities in the world. But it wasn't enough. Despite our capital "c" careers and all the other things that should have made life wonderful, we found ourselves stressed, edgy and longing for a different kind of life. So we decided to do something crazy: sell everything, put our stable careers on hold, give up the lease on our perfectly beautiful Islington apartment and risk everything to spend a year traveling. Given that they'd just really settled into the idea of me living half way around the world, my family were surprised; my fiancee's mother cried and worried; and many of our friends and co-workers congratulations were tinged with scared eyes and the words, "I could never do something like that. You're so brave."

Here's the truth: we aren't brave and the kind of traveling we are doing can be terrifying. The reality of being completely rootless can feel overwhelming especially if you don't have a plan to cope with the inevitable stress that is bound to come up. In response to some of these issues, I'm going to do a series that tries to address and demystify some of the common fears and negative assessments people experience when announcing to the world that they plan to travel for an extended period of time: Long Term Travel Will Ruin Your Career, Long Term Travel is Irresponsible, Long Term Travel Will Bankrupt You, Long Term Travel is Dangerous and Long Term Travel is Selfish. And without further delay...

Myth #1: Long Term Travel Will Ruin Your Career

We heard this one quite a bit in the months leading up to our departure. Okay, most people were a bit more subtle than this but their feelings on the matter were pretty clear. I believe that these kinds of statements generally originate from three places:

  • People of my mother's generation and older were generally raised to believe that having a job - any job - that paid the bills was a privilege. The idea that anyone would give up a well-paying position is almost inconceivable to people who lived through events like the Great Depression, World War II and the almost non-existent safety net of the Regan and Thatcher years. To this group, work is not about fulfillment and happiness, it's about security, which is valued above almost everything else - especially in the current climate of economic instability.
  • Many people aren't happy in their jobs but for their own personal reasons they feel that they can't leave. It can be very painful to watch others do the very thing you want to do more than anything else; that pain can come out in the form of schadenfreude, even unintentionally.
  • Some people are jerks and just want to bring you down. Where possible, these people should be ignored completely.

Presumably, if you are the kind of person who values job security more than anything else, you are probably not going to quit your job to travel around the world. But, just because you choose to travel does not mean that you are forfeiting your future career aspirations or that you aren't passionate about your work. There are plenty of ways you can further your career in inspiring ways while on the road so that if and when you return, you'll have crafted some wonderful, tangible skills and experiences to include on your shiny new CV:

  • Location Independent working is becoming more and more accepted and is increasingly possible with technologies such as Skype that allow us to connect with others easily and cheaply. My partner and I run a freelance web consultancy and content strategy boutique agency and in recent months, we've had more work than we know what to do with. Of course this process did not happen immediately and requires a lot of forethought and planning to be successful. Neither one of us wants to work full time at the moment, but the ability to supplement our income while on the road means that we don't have to dip too deeply into our savings. Check our the Location Independent website link above for a wealth of excellent information about what it takes to be a LIP (location independent professional).
  • If you love your job, consider asking your employer for a sabbatical or leave of absence. There is some great anecdotal evidence out there about how time off can actually make you a more valuable employee. Stefan Sagmeister's Ted Talk called The Power of Time Off is one of my favorite examples of this. He takes one year off every seven years and it has profoundly changed the way he works for the better: "If I look at my cycle, seven years, one year sabbatical, it's 12.5 percent of my time. And if I look at companies that are actually more successful than mine: 3M, since the 1930s has given all their engineers 15% to pursue whatever they want. There is some good success. Scotch tape came out out this program, as well as Art Fry developed sticky notes during his personal time for 3M. Google of course, very famously gives 20% for their software engineers to pursue their own projects." If you are thinking about making this case to your boss, Sagmeister's presentation is a very worthwhile watch.
  • Look for ways to enhance your skill set while you travel. This may mean creating a reading program for yourself, taking an online course or finding a mentor you can learn from remotely. Just because you are traveling doesn't mean you have to stop your professional development, it just means you might have to find more creative ways to engage.
  • Networking is infinitely possible on the road. Whenever we arrive in a city, we always try to reach out to other local people working in our field. As a result we've met great folks from the USA to Australia and have increased our understanding about what is happening in our profession in different international locations. LinkedIn, Brazen Careerist and even Twitter are great ways to stay connected with what is happening on your field. You can also look for local events related to the kind of work you do. When we were in Arizona, we attended Ignite Phoenix and met some very cool people that we still keep in touch with today.
  • Publish your critical thinking, brain storm and consider your field from beyond the comfort of your office. Start a blog and share it with your online networks; or if you are really motivated and think you have some big insights to share - write an e-book. Don't think that just because you are on sabbatical that you need to stop using your brain, particularly if you are passionate about what you do.
  • Make time to explore the projects you've always wanted to do - not the ones that will necessarily make you rich, but the ones that have been floating around the back of your head for years, the ones you've always promised yourself to make time for when things slow down (they never do). Make art, learn how to play an instrument, learn how to do the breast stroke, build a web application ... If you could do anything, what would you want to do? How can you make it happen?
  • Volunteering is a great way to meet people, expand your network and explore different niche areas you might be unfamiliar with. Don't pick volunteering opportunities solely based on what you think might look good on your CV; choose organizations that speak to you and excite you. Four years ago, when she was 23, Maggie Doyne decided to take a gap year when she graduated from her Jersey high school. During her trip she volunteered in multiple places, which eventually led her to Nepal. Maggie now single-handedly runs an orphanage that has transformed the lives of over 30 kids and a school where hundreds get an education through her foundation, BlinkNow. Not everyone is going to end up on the other side of the world saving lives, but the point is, volunteering will lead you somewhere that could change your life forever. I've embedded a talk Maggie recently gave at the Do Lectures at the end of this post. Don't watch it unless you want to be insanely inspired.

There are many reasons you may choose not to undertake long term travel, but the fear that it will ruin your career should not be one of them. If you are passionate about the work you do, there are endless opportunities to build on your skills in a way that is almost impossible to do from within your comfort zone. It isn't always easy, particularly when Internet connections are unreliable or slow and accommodations are noisy, but it is always possible.

How do you keep engaged with your career while traveling? Tips and opinions are welcome, as always.