Wouldn't it be great to travel the world for a living? Unfortunately, not many of us have that luxury, so we have to use what little vacation time we have to squeeze in an international trip -- if we're lucky. The average American gets 3 weeks off a year (same for the Go Overseas team, with the added benefit of a 5-day paid paid vacation). Those days easily get eaten up between the holidays, weddings, and generally trying to have a life outside of work.
Last year was the first time in six years I didn't spend any time abroad -- and I felt it. Not just in that "I've-been-craving-a-good-adventure" sort of way, but also in the sense of professional development. That's not to say conferences and networking events don't have value, rather that there is greater value in getting outside your office bubble.
Here's an argument for how, instead of spending time spewing business cards and listening to Ted Talk ripoffs, you can develop professional skills abroad. Specifically, going overseas can help you generate new ideas, diversify your network, become more independent and make you a better teammate.
A Little Background on Paid Paid Vacation
A perk of working at a travel company is that our co-founders see the value in encouraging international experience. As our CEO Mitch put it, "our mission, as an organization, is to inspire and encourage others to embrace a more meaningful type of travel. It's only appropriate that each individual member of our team go on a meaningful travel adventure every year."
That's why once a year we get to spend a week on a volunteer, language, or adventure program run by one of our partners, anywhere in the world. This year I decided to volunteer with IVHQ in Vietnam, working at a local soup kitchen.
While volunteering at a soup kitchen doesn't sound like your typical professional development, just the act of going outside my comfort zone and traveling alone to a new country helped me to grow in a way no conference can. So in November I headed solo to a part of the world I had never been -- and it was 10x more valuable than any professional development event I've attended. Here's why:
I find the idea that traveling abroad leads to more innovative thinking to be self-evident. But in case you (or your boss) isn't convinced, the British Council published a report on the benefits of world experience (unfortunately, the report has been removed from their site since the initial publication of this article).
The report found that nearly half of those surveyed who had international experience were involved in innovation at work, compared with only a quarter who haven't. Additionally, almost twice as many people with international experience were involved in creating new or improved goods or services.
So if your team values fresh, new ideas (and what company doesn't?), there's nothing like time away from the desk, immersed in a different culture, to get your inspiration flowing.
Broaden Your Network
You know what I hate the most about conferences? Networking. Biding my time to try and get five minutes with the most influential person in the room, only to have it never come to fruition. Exchanging business cards with hundreds of people whose faces I can hardly remember. Giving my elevator pitch until my vocal cords give out.
When you travel, you can't control who you're meeting or under what circumstances. This leads to unique, genuine friendships with people from vastly different worlds than your own. I've bonded with some of the most extraordinary people while traveling, many of whom have been extremely helpful to me both personally and professionally.
Not to mention, since you aren't being tossed into a room with a bunch of people with the same job title as you, you're more likely to branch out from your typical work conversations and meet people with totally different backgrounds. Who knows -- maybe that Australian chef can teach you a thing or two about customer loyalty?
Sense of Independence
One of the most obvious perks of traveling is the greater sense of independence it fosters. Troubleshooting issues is a whole different ball game when you're in a new country, with your support system, and cell reception, a thousand miles away.
On my trip to Vietnam, I was detained in China because my visa papers had an additional number that didn't match my passport. Without access to g-mail or a working cell phone, it was up to me to problem solve. In a day and age where decisions typically have to be run through a number of people, and Google is always at our fingertips, having to rely only on yourself in a difficult situation is not something we have to deal with often.
The feeling of independence and empowerment derived from my trip is difficult to recreate in the comfort of my office in Berkeley. From crossing the Pacific to crossing the street, Vietnam was riddled with obstacles that I had to figure out, alone.
A New Perspective
A new perspective is essentially what you gain from all of the skills listed above. The chance to think innovatively, meet new people, and be more independent, all while immersed in a new culture enables you to broaden your horizon.
Taking part in another culture and getting a peek into a different way of life breeds a level of tolerance and understanding that's impossible to hone from inside your home country-- and those "soft skills" matter in an office setting. The most valuable team members are the ones who can relate to everyone, mediate discussions, and bring people together towards a common goal. They also tend to be people who have a strong sense of empathy.
Our slogan, "a new perspective is the best souvenir" represents a belief that the best thing you can take away from a program abroad is a new view on life and other people. When's the last time you got that from a conference?
Back to the Grind
Since returning from Vietnam I've hit new creative and productive highs. Granted, the professional parallels here are much more obvious for me since I work in international education. However, the ability to grow your network, generate new ideas, become more independent and develop better people skills are valuable no matter where you work.
So next time your boss asks what professional development opportunities you are looking into this year, tell them you want to volunteer abroad.