…and what I wish I’d known before.
When I was 19 I was fresh-faced, incredibly earnest and very keen to see the world. I applied through a charitable organisation to teach English in China for seven months and then worked three jobs to earn the money to get there. My family doesn’t have a history of travelling (at this point, my parents had never been on a plane), but I was very convinced that being Far Away would make me a better person.
While I was over there, I learnt some things about myself and other people. I learnt that I can be lonely and survive. I learnt that people are often very kind in unexpected ways. I learnt that if you adopt a dying rabbit, it will still die no matter how much you love it.
I also picked up some skills which would make me a better employee in the future and, when I’ve been the hirer, have made stand out colleagues.
- Independence: travelling to China, living in an unfamiliar place while also crawling out of my teenage years into my adult shell, accelerated my ability to be independent. This means many things to many people but, for me, it’s being where the buck stops. If something needs to be done, and I can do it, I should. NB: this also led to be a chronic overworker, but another post about getting in control of that another day…
- Organisation: I was a fairly chaotic teenager. Prime example: when flying home from China I turned up at the airport without my passport. It was in a drawer, in a room five hours away. Travelling since then has taught me how much easier life is when you know where all your crap is. For the first part of my career, I thought organisation was a magical skill, which only real grown-ups knew. Turns out, it’s having super simple systems so you know where all your crap is. Ticket holders, folders on your work computer, versions of your UX design…it’s all the same principle of taking a moment to put things in the right place before you scramble onto the next thing.
- Budgeting: Part of the making the first two points happen, is learning how to manage a budget. Early travelling adventures often involved spending way too much in the first few days and then sleeping in stations for the last week. As soon as you learn how much money you have, how much the essentials cost and therefore how much fun money you have per day…ta da! You can budget!
- Empathy: I have a theory that everyone who wants to manage a work team should, at some point, spend time alone in another country. And when I say ‘everyone’ I really mean privileged white kids. Bosses should know what it feels to feel like a stranger, an outsider (and yes, I know, privileged white kids will always be shielded in many ways) and how to communicate in territory which isn’t yours.
There are, of course, things which I wish I knew. I wish I’d been able to talk to anyone who’d travelled beforehand to know that it was ok to not enjoy every second. I wrote earlier this week about the constant embarrassment of travelling, which was something I wish I’d been steeled against. I wish I’d known that the tiny interactions would become the big things and I wish, I WISH, someone had taught me to do some research about the place I was going before I got there.
And I wish I’d known at the time that things which seemed insignificant would spark a curiosity which would shape my career and my friendships.
If you’re starting out in your career and feel like you don’t have much on your CV at the moment, don’t be afraid to articulate the practical skills you’ve developed in unconventional ways. Ethical volunteering or work away from home show employees that you’re brave, ambitious and ready to take on new challenges. Blog about how you manage the budget for your vacation, or share information about your experiences when you get home with younger people who might be worried about trying the same.
If volunteering, or being away from home, isn’t something which your circumstances will allow, then think of all the ways you’re project managing at the moment. You know where all your crap is? Congrats: you’re doing better than 19 year old me in a Chinese airport, and you’re doing great.
But, for the love of everything, be careful about adopting dying rabbits.