Can young, career-oriented Americans benefit from the European custom of extended travel before entering the workforce?
Is Extended Travel Career Suicide?
Our global counterparts don't think so
Young, career-oriented Americans don’t travel. Sure, we enjoy hard-earned one to two week vacations, short respites from our work, but do we really see the world? As exciting as a vacation to some wonder of the world like Machu Picchu or as relaxing as a stint in the Caribbean can be, we’re here to advocate another kind of travel.
Our European counterparts have a different perspective. In some of the most advanced, industrialized nations in the world, from Germany to Israel to Sweden to Australia, traveling in one’s early 20s is a rite of passage. It is viewed as an essential component of personal growth that readies him or her for whatever career lies ahead. Toss aside your material possessions for six months or a year and go explore that big old world with just a backpack and an open mind, they say.
Driving a car from NYC to Argentina, we three New Yorkers have decided to join the rest of the world, trading in our comfy career trajectories and consistent paychecks for future uncertainty and barely enough money to get by. On the road, we’ve met waves of other gringos traveling alongside us; it just so happens that very few of them are Americans. Why?
Because sacrificing a year that could have been spent in the workforce is often seen as career suicide. At the very least, we Americans view it as a setback to our careers with little to no advantages. That just so happens not always to be true.
Can travel actually help your career?
We’ve spoken to a number of successful people in the American workforce about the effect travel has on one’s career. As travelers in our mid-20s, we have been anxious about this ourselves; therefore, we’re looking for answers on what potential impact this may have in our long-term careers.
When we began research on this article, we had the singular intention of proving that travel for anyone, at any point in time, is the right thing to do. Our findings paint a much more intricate picture.
The reality is, travel can greatly improve your career if you do it right, or it can hold you back if you don’t. But if you travel with intent, you can find that there is an abundance of career-oriented benefits beyond the pleasures of the experience itself.
Points of view from successful professionals
Added confidence and focus
“You will have a much higher level of confidence and focus, Rob Gifford, 59 years old, CEO of AIG Global Real Estate Investment
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1979, Gifford traveled throughout Latin America by bus and hitch-hiking for 6 months.
“You will have a much higher level of confidence and focus. After a six month journey, the ‘ants were out of my pants’ and I was much more ready to focus on my career. Having dealt with many challenging and unexpected situations — which are inevitable when you take this kind of a trip — I had an innate sense of confidence in my ability to handle situations that I had previously lacked. You learn to stop, look and listen, to read clues and follow the most compelling path. This is a daily skill that you need to bring to bear in your walkabout, and it is a critical life skill. I think the most important aspect of successful career development (i.e., finding work that you love, work that is compelling to you) is reading clues, being open to unexpected forks in the road, listening to how you are really responding to an experience or an idea. This will serve you well in life.”
For Gifford, his extended travels were life-altering and career-enhancing. It helped him to define who he is and what he wants. He began his trip not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, and only through the clarity and confidence with which travel provided him was he ready to follow a career path that was right for him.
The reality is, Gifford entered the workforce in a different era. Maybe this type of career “side-track” was more conventional 35 years ago. Now, we live in a hyper-competitive job market. Perhaps what was true for Gifford is not the case for post-college graduates in 2015. We need to get started on our careers right away and there is just no time for self-exploration. After all, that’s what college is for, right?
Learning and authentic connection
“I learned more than I had in any semester of school,” Parker Spielman, 25 years old, Software Engineer at Uber
Spielman traveled before, during and after college. His longest trip was after college graduation, once he had a job lined up to work as a software engineer with Google.
“The next seven months were a wild adventure. Learning how to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam, getting stranded in the jungle overnight, I was attacked by wild elephants, twice, climbed the tallest mountain pass in the world in the Himalayas, overcame a parasite, bribed police officers… When you put yourself into a place in which you have no idea anything of the rules, with an attitude to be present, the experience is overwhelmingly rewarding. There is this magical feeling of being able to connect with someone, despite a complete language barrier, and nothing in common, except the fact that you are both human. What they don’t teach you in school is that work, really all of life, is about people. It is incredibly important to be able to connect with people from any and all backgrounds. You will never acquire this skill if you stay in your comfort zone.”
Spielman again reaffirms what we learned from Gifford: that there is some level of personal growth only obtainable by thrusting yourself out of your comfort zone and into a strange and foreign environment.
In his case, he learned to connect with people better, which has sharpened an interpersonal skill he has taken with him into his career. In general, on the road, you learns to survive by making the best of your own faculties and resources. We would be remiss not to note that, unlike Gifford, Spielman had a job lined up and ready to go for when his trip was over. This piece of mind must have provided him with a certain level of comfort not afforded to travelers with an unclear career direction.
Creative problem solving
“The logistical challenges you face when traveling in less developed countries require quick, creative problem solving,” Sean Fischer, 26 years old, Medical Student at Duke University School of Medicine
Fischer deferred his admission into medical school for one year and opted to live and travel throughout Southeast Asia.
“I believe that the purest knowledge is experiential, and I knew that in order to know more about myself, I needed to travel with myself and gain new experiences, both internally and externally. I had no idea going into medical school what specific specialty I would pursue, but I knew a career as a physician is filled with constant learning and challenges. The logistical hurdles one faces when traveling in less developed countries require quick, creative problem solving akin to surgical challenges. Interestingly, I am pursuing a career in Urology, a surgical subspecialty, but that was not necessarily something that was consciously, concretely or definitively determined in my mind during my travels. However, appreciating individuals as amalgamations of their unique life experiences and not forgetting the human aspects of healthcare was something I vowed to hold onto as I began my career. Medical training, often for valid reasons and with good intentions, requires a sort of diagnostic profiling to help generate differentials and hone in on precise treatments — and it’s often too easy as we go through training to lose sight of the fact that we are treating people and not just textbook diseases.”
Sensing a trend? Fischer is another example of a millennial who only set out to see the world once he had worked out what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a doctor. But his travel experience gave him another layer of insight and perspective that he intends to carry with him throughout his career.
But, how can you best utilize your travel experience if you don’t already have a job or grad school lined up? What are employers going to think of your travel experience and how should you best leverage that new wealth of personal growth you’ve amassed and use it to direct your own job search or career path?
Purpose, direction and conviction
“Defining what is truly important in life is foundational to a successful career, ”Christopher Marlett, 51 years old, CEO and Founder of MDB Capital Group
“Unfortunately, unless the job is in the travel industry, I’m not sure most folks [job recruiters] will appreciate the experience. But I think that who you become as a human is definitely improved so that has positive implications. Defining what is truly important in life is foundational to a successful career. Traveling the world helps you to define what you want in life and gives you the confidence to do anything. It gives you real perspective; life is about connecting dots. If you stay in a cocoon, you have limited data points or dots you can connect. I think it is really valuable for the individual to guide himself or herself to something where he or she can add the most value and be happiest, which always leads to a more successful career. If you come to me and say, ‘Hey, I have given this a lot of thought and study and think I’m the best person you could hire to do this specific job for the following reasons,’ you are hired as long as you can back it up, even if you don’t have specific experience. Backing it up means you have really thought about what you want to accomplish and have a clear path to get there and know what it takes to get there and being determined to get there. That is a potent package for an employer. Just showing up and saying, ‘I need a job,’ I say, ‘get in line, there are plenty of you out there.’ I have learned it is about aptitude and drive for key positions, not domain expertise.”
Marlett makes clear that employers may not view your travel experiences as something that might directly benefit you in an interview, but he acutely recognizes that travel helps you define and prioritize what is important in your life, which is foundational to any successful career and demonstrates a real advantage over other job applicants. He also drives home the point that has so far been uncovered: an individual with a unique background and an even more fierce level of focus and determination about what he or she wants with his or her career will shine in any job interview. The unique experience elicits curiosity in an interviewer and gets your foot in the door, but the presence and confidence a travel-enlightened job seeker brings to an interview is what will earn you that position. There is no better way to really get to know yourself and your strengths than to thrust yourself into an unknown part of the world.
How to pull off extended travel
Timing is key
Travel can help you access unique areas of personal growth and provide you with the confidence and clarity necessary to stand out among job candidates. But when is the right time to travel? Will “wasting time” traveling have a negative effect, casting doubts on your reliability as a potential employee?
“Timing is everything,” Keith Geller, 41 years old, COO of JBC Holdings
JBC Holdings is a multinational recruiting firm headquartered in New York City, which provides Mr. Geller with a macro-perspective on the impact travel experiences can have with respect to securing employment.
“Not only do I have my finger on the pulse of the hiring market and what makes employers tick, I took 18 months off to travel before hitting the job market myself. Timing is everything: typically an employer sees nontraditional experiences (travel abroad after graduating from school, for example) through a lens that considers the stage in one’s career/life. Ideal times are those that make sense based on cultural norms — doing it after school or because a business opportunity arose and you went with it is very different from just picking up and moving. I think that employers appreciate people that have gotten things out of their system (so to speak) at an earlier stage and then have shown a track record of consistency. I personally love to hire people that are traveled and knowledgeable in other cultures. Culturally fulfilling life experiences that are done at intelligent times in a person’s life and are not an indication of someone looking to run away from reality are often considered a great asset of an employee. It will both make them more interesting and often indicate an elevated level of maturity and perspective that might not be found in people following a more traditional path.”
Geller confirms that employers won’t hire you just because you have done something “different” from other candidates. Building a resume today is a delicate process and your travels should fit like a puzzle piece within the larger scheme of your career development.
For career-driven world explorers like Fischer and Spielman, traveling fit into their own trajectories in an ideal way: after college and before the next pre-planned stage. But, admittedly, it is just not that easy for everyone. Most employers won’t grant you that much time between college graduation and getting started at work.
It needs to fit with your story and the stage of your career
It takes a degree of courage to defer graduate school for a year or to delay entrance into the workforce for some time, and this decision comes with benefits and detractions.
The fact of the matter is, it is hard for the career-driven young professional to find time to travel. It is not a cultural institution like in many other industrialized nations across the world and that makes it hard to take the plunge.
Employers don’t necessarily view your travel experience as a plus. It comes down to you, as an individual. Don’t take this as a recommendation to quit your job and travel for a year if you are already 3 or 4 years deep into your careers, with plans to “figure it out when I get home.” In reality, this might be an unwise move considering the current culture against long-term travel.
If you are at this stage of your career, you must find an employer who grants you some time off, get accepted into graduate school and defer, or make sure it otherwise fits into your long term plans. Tread lightly and consider your individual circumstance. Directly after college is the most appropriate and acceptable time to travel, based on modern trends. Having said that, travel is possible for anyone.
It is possible to turn your travel into a career asset
For us, we spent three years at our corporate jobs before we took time off to embark on the Mongol Rally, which we also filmed to make a TV show with a corporate sponsor. It was only after we’d returned to our regular day jobs that this same production company asked us to officially quit and dedicate ourselves full-time to traveling and filming our adventures for TV.
In the context of our careers, we view this trip as a business decision as much as an incredibly fortuitous travel opportunity. We were approached with the idea of embarking on this journey with the plan of filming and producing our own TV show. The benefits that travel has provided us just so happen to bean incredible side-effect.
Throughout our journey we have grown in so many ways. Our perspectives have broadened beyond the confines of our upbringing in the suburbs of New York City; on the road, we’ve struggled and adapted to challenges; we’ve been exposed to so many different cultures, learned so many others’ stories and have grown to have a better understanding of our place in the world. We’ve become much more in tune with our own strengths and weaknesses. These are qualities that we will carry with us through life, no matter what we end up doing.
All things considered, we can say, unequivocally, that fleeing your comfort zone and dropping yourself into a completely foreign place will lead to short term growth and long term clarity and confidence. It is not the norm in America, so turn that into an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
Be the candidate who did something different and show your prospective employer that you are the right person for the job. The ball is in your court. Don’t take too long to think about it. Set the time aside in a responsible manner, find a place you want to go, set a legitimate purpose for your trip and make it happen. You won’t regret it.