When I tell people that I left behind my life—my boyfriend, my house, my job, security—to travel the world indefinitely, I’m often met with awed responses. You really did that? people ask. A colleague at the top of his career told me not traveling was his greatest life regret. That potent cocktail of mounting responsibility, a desire for security, and a thirst for career progression often means we suppress wanderlust, but that trend is gradually changing. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more people are taking a midlife career break and stepping away from normality to discover more about the world—and themselves. From riding a camel through the Sahara to climbing centuries-old temples in Myanmar, taking a grown-up gap year did so much more than open my mind to the world—it taught me invaluable lessons about myself. Here’s what I learned from leaving my life behind to travel the world.
Packing clothes to last me for months was a huge challenge. I crammed my bag full of every creature comfort from my former life, deluded that a deluxe hair treatment or designer skirt would somehow come in handy wandering the souks of Marrakech or hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia. As time went on, the contents of my bag shrunk. Learning to live with fewer possessions forces you to focus on necessity and find pleasure in relationships. It turned out that decluttering my wardrobe was the first step to detoxing my life.
This was my routine before the trip: I’d wake up and check my emails in bed, spend the day in front of a computer at work, catch the subway home while messaging friends, then watch Netflix to unwind with dinner. Sound familiar? Traveling forced me to drop off the grid. There was one moment when I fell asleep in the jungle in Laos and knew that I’d never been more remote or uncontactable in my life. I listened to the cicadas and monkeys and realized that disconnection doesn’t have to be terrifying. It’s liberating.
Wandering through obscure pockets of the world where I couldn’t speak the local language (and the people I encountered couldn’t understand English) was daunting, but I learned that no matter where you are, people understand a smile. It breaks the language barrier. It’s compassionate. It’s promising. It’s kind. Too often, we brush past people on the sidewalk and keep our gaze down. A simple smile speaks volumes.
After months dedicated to the pursuit of hedonism, I was spent. It’s hard to believe, but yes, there is such thing as too much time at the beach, too many days spent sleeping in, and too many mojitos (okay, maybe not that last one). Allowing myself to completely destress propelled me to realize that living in a constant state of relaxation isn’t fulfilling. When you’re desk-bound, a life without cares might seem like bliss, but in reality, it won’t feed your soul. It didn’t take long before I started working remotely. It wasn’t because I needed to—I wanted to. The realization that I need to work for my own satisfaction is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned.
If you’ve ever dreamed about trading your office cubicle for a camel in the desert, or saying goodbye to your stable job for days of unforeseen adventure, this is my advice: Do it, but do it well. Traveling the world to run away from your life won’t lead to happiness, but deciding to let go and learn about yourself could be one of the best decisions you ever made. It was for me.
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Would you ever considered taking a break from everyday life to travel the world? Share your thoughts in the comments below.