In January 2010, I quit the job I had been working towards for the previous six years.
I had wanted to be a SEAL since high school. I read all the literature available about Navy SEALs. I still wanted to go to college so I applied for and received a Navy ROTC scholarship to The George Washington University. During college, I trained myself physically and mentally. We even had an enlisted SEAL in NROTC who mentored us. The fall semester of my senior year in college I applied for and was accepted into the SEAL training program called BUD/s. I was happy. What I didn’t know was that the previous semester I spent living in Marseille, France would later make me quit something I had wanted to do for over six years.
Understanding Sunk Costs
The most important thing I realized while abroad was that there are many awesome careers in the world that did not involve joining the military. I knew this intellectually, of course, but most of my friends in college were in NROTC, so I didn’t really pay attention to careers that didn’t involve jumping out of planes or driving ships.
At a hostel in Istanbul, I met an American who had recently left his job as a management consultant. He and a few of his friends bought a sailboat and had been sailing around the world, writing stories and taking photos of the places they visited. They would then visit schools and teach classes to young students about the places they visited.
I was amazed. That seemed even more adventurous than the career I thought I wanted for myself.
Though most travelers probably aren’t planning on joining the military, being abroad helps you discover the enormity of the world. You get a glimpse of the vast number of opportunities just waiting for you.
Linear Life Plans are Stressful.
I’d had a fairly linear life path until I quit BUD/s. The plans I’d set in high school had not changed. I thought all motivated and intelligent people had a plan for what they wanted to do and the will to do what is necessary to achieve their goals. But this isn’t the case.
When you’re on a linear life plan, any deviation from the plan makes you worry. You’ll start ignoring the little signs that say maybe you could try something else. You also start looking for evidence that you are cut out for whatever it is you’re trying to do. I read a book about SEAL training that mentioned most SEALs are around 5’9” and 160 pounds. In college I was 5’9” and 160 pounds. Of course I was meant to be a SEAL!
If the evidence you’re gathering is relevant, then that’s ok. If you are fascinated by diseases and love helping people, maybe you are meant to be a doctor. Just don’t let it get in the way of acknowledging other pieces of evidence that suggest you may be happier doing other things.
After I was accepted into SEAL training, I started ignoring the little clues that indicated the SEALs were not the right career choice for me. I’d occasionally find myself fantasizing about traveling the world and thinking about how great it would be if I didn’t have to worry about doing a billion pushups. I dismissed these thoughts as forms of weakness that I would just have to push myself through. It worked for a while, but it eventually caught up to me.
Traveling abroad will increase those little voices in your head that may lead you astray from your linear life plan, but don’t ignore them; they’re worth exploring.
Discovery + Reflection = Insight
Living abroad helped me discover a number of new things about the world around me. However, discovering new things is meaningless unless you take the time to reflect and process your experiences.
It’s difficult to force reflection. It’s primarily a function of time and exposure to new and different experiences. If you were to ask me to write about the significance of my time abroad a month after I came back, I would have said “It was a lot of fun, it made me really want to travel, but I’m happy to get back to my real life.”
But the combination of discovery and reflection led to insight and self-knowledge.
I learned that I am not an “intense” person. I really liked the idea of becoming a SEAL, so I believed that I should be intense. I’m not. What I really enjoy is to be unhurried. This particular insight is incredibly useful to me because it helps me guide the choices I make about jobs, hobbies, and people. Living abroad was a major factor in helping me figure this out. Travel doesn’t have a monopoly on “experiences that lead to insights.” It is an excellent one though, and one that is attainable for most students. Any experience that has a high probability of leading to insight and self-knowledge is worth it.
- Expose yourself to different experiences and world views. This is a cliché, but it’s an excellent piece of advice. Travel and study abroad are ways to have diverse experiences quickly.
- Be prepared for subtle changes in your thinking. You may not think that travel or study abroad has had a noticeable effect on you. It did. It’ll creep up on you after you get back and before you know it, you’ll be entertaining all sorts of crazy ideas in your head.
- Don’t ignore the crazy thoughts in you head. Sometimes these thoughts are just noise. Many times they’re not. Investigate these thoughts thoroughly. You may learn something important about yourself.
- Insights take time and experience. After you travel or study abroad reflect on your experiences periodically and allow your time overseas to “settle” in your head. This will take at least six months after the time you come back.
How has travel or study abroad changed your life path?
If you’d like to learn more about using travel to develop self-knowledge and insight, sign up for our Travel as Mastery Newsletter!Photos courtesy of Dale Davidson and Phil Roeder.