On a cool spring evening, weeks before I was to receive my college diploma, I ran into two old friends at a pre-graduation party.
While I was excited to catch up with them, our conversation quickly headed in an unexpected direction when one of them abruptly said: “Move to London with us.”
The invitation was as serendipitous as it was sudden.
When we hopped the pond together later that summer, I had no idea that my time abroad was only beginning—that I would spend the next seven years making my way through 50 countries across six continents.
Now that I’m back in the United States, settled in cosmopolitan San Francisco, it’s finally hitting me how much long-term travel has shaped who I am.
There are the small changes—the fact that I use my own two feet and public transportation to get around instead of a car, and that shopping in markets around the world has made relying on local produce a reflex—but there have been larger life lessons, too.
Here are four:
Lesson #1: Embrace the unexpected detour.
One of the first things travel taught me is that things won’t always go according to plan: Buses will break down, flights will be delayed, and maps will occasionally be difficult to read (or, for this directionally challenged traveler, not so occasionally).
These snags along the way expanded my capacity to be patient and helped me accept the fact that most things are beyond my control.
They also led to unexpected, and often more rewarding, outcomes—the woman in Marrakech who, when I asked her for directions, invited me into her home for coffee, comes to immediate mind.
And while getting lost on the streets of a foreign city provided a welcome entrée to unscripted adventure, I realized that I rarely took in stride such stumbling blocks in my everyday life—the projects that took longer than I had anticipated, the last-minute cancellation of plans with friends.
When we're traveling, our most memorable experiences—our stories—are more often than not the result of a deviation from our intended itinerary. The trick is to continue to embrace this way of thinking—to view the little bumps in the road as opportunities to see what's in store for us around the bend—when we get home.
Lesson #2: Seek out—and celebrate—diversity.
Growing up in rural Virginia, I rarely met people who were radically different from me in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture, you name it.
That changed the moment I moved to London. I soon found myself at a dinner party where every single guest around the table hailed from a different country—Slovenia and Sri Lanka, Nigeria and New Zealand. Situations such as this arose regularly, and the amalgamation of accents and attitudes I encountered never ceased to thrill me.
When I began traveling beyond Europe, I was plunged headlong into a thrilling array of rituals, norms, and worldviews. I celebrated the Hindu festival Diwali in India; was invited to stay in the homes of more than a dozen Muslim families in Turkey and Bosnia; and sipped green tea with Buddhist monks while walking the 88 Temple Pilgrimage route on the Japanese island of Shodoshima.
Now, in my new hometown of San Francisco, whenever I pass a mosque on Sutter Street or a tiled-roof temple in Chinatown, I’m grateful to have settled in a city as varied as the world I'd spent the last seven years exploring.
Travel made the magic of diversity come alive to me, and now it's something I know I could never do without.
Lesson #3: Live every day with an open heart.
When I’m traveling, I can feel myself moving, in a quite visceral way, through the world with an open heart and mind. I smile at people I pass on the street, engage with fellow passengers on the bus, and go out of my way to get to know people I meet—ask their name, learn a bit of their story.
This isn’t always the case at home, where it’s easy to put the “run” in running errands and close myself off behind the harried freneticism of my to-do list. But now that I’m home more often than away, I’ve tried to hold onto the insatiably curious part of me that searches for connection when I'm traveling.
One Sunday night earlier this year, I was at my local laundromat when a young Asian man burst through the front door, asking when it closed. I assured him that he had plenty of time and was about to return to my book, when I decided to strike up a conversation with him—just as I might’ve had I been traveling. I learned his name was Chien Yu, and that he was from a place called Luodong Township in northeastern Taiwan.
As washing machines and dryers rumbled around us, Chien Yu told me stories about growing up in his grandmother’s home, taught me how to say thank you in his native language, Hokkien, and admitted that the fast pace of life in San Francisco is a continual challenge for him, because in Taiwan, “we prefer life slowly, so we live slowly life.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
By the time we parted ways, I felt reinvigorated, and reminded of how even at home, our everyday routines can lead to meaningful interactions that help keep us in tune with the world beyond our doorstep.
Lesson #4: Great risks lead to great rewards.
After my initial stint living abroad in London, I moved to New Zealand for a year and eagerly took advantage of the many adventures the country has to offer: I hiked glaciers and volcanoes, sandboarded and surfed, and crawled through caves in search of glowworms.
But nothing compared to bungee jumping on the Nevis Highwire outside Queenstown. I stood terrified as attendants strapped weights and cables to my ankles then slowly walked me to the edge of the platform—but once I spread my arms and took the leap, I experienced pure exhilaration in the eight and a half seconds of free fall that followed.
Back on solid ground I realized what a perfect metaphor the exploit was for the risks life asks us to take—and the rewards that often follow when we do.
Whether it’s moving to another country for the first time or embarking on a round-the-world trip, every adventure begins with a leap of faith into the unknown.
But the risks don’t end when we return home—in our professional pursuits and personal relationships alike, we are regularly called to journey beyond our comfort zones. I now find myself a little more willing to "jump" in life, just as I did while I was exploring the globe.
Travel can be an extraordinary catalyst for change. The leaps of faith we take and the differences we embrace, the paths we get lost on and the people we connect with—they all play a part in shaping the person we are and will be, wherever we happen to be.