How Travel Can Improve Your Career Skills

Parlay Vacay spoke to professionals in various fields to discover the ways in which travel has helped them develop valuable career skills

By Chelsea La Near

The first time I left the country, I went to France for a university exchange program with no intention of returning until I completed the year. I attended college fairly close to my hometown, so this was going to be a big trip for me to say the least. Within my first week, my wallet, with over 200 Euros inside, was stolen out of my purse. In a phone call with my mother in an attempt to manage the situation, I was told to come home and that perhaps international travel was too much for me.

But I wasn't giving up so easily. With plenty of support, I solved the problem and stayed put. I made new local and international friends. I learned a language. I passed my classes (barely) lectured in that language. I traveled, often alone, to other European countries.

I had a million other mishaps before returning home a very different person: more confident, more aware of who I was and what I was capable of, and as a result, more courageous. I knew exponentially more than before about how the world worked. I was better able to manage complex situations. I was a far better listener and communicator. Many more travels later, I continue to build upon these skills in my professional life.

Travel has a way of quickly building the kinds of skills that often only experience can teach. Of course, there are plenty of other experiences that can contribute to such growth. But if you're an employer, you can be fairly certain that a candidate with extensive travel and international experience will have a solid grasp on the following skills:

1. Adaptability The ability to adapt to change may be the most advantageous quality a person can have in our fast-paced, dynamic world. Travel teaches adaptability by regularly placing us into unfamiliar and often unexpected situations to make sense of. We learn to be hyper-aware of our surroundings and to think quickly to resolve problems. Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh explains that when our brain reacts and devises solutions to novel challenges, it grows branch-like extensions, called dendrites, that play an important role in the transmission of information between different regions of the brain, increasing mental resilience.

2. Creativity - Closely related to adaptability, creativity is hard to define, and even harder to measure. Yet the skill is highly sought after for its potential to drive valuable innovations. One study found a significant correlation between the amount of time a fashion designer had spent abroad and their creative output, as defined and judged by a professional panel. In fact, multiple studies have proven that international and multicultural experiences facilitate our cognitive flexibility - or the ability to recognize multiple solutions to a problem. In broadening our horizons and exposing us to new perspectives, travel gives us the knowledge and capacity to think differently and approach tasks with a more creative outlook. Travel promotes curiosity, exploration, and playfulness, all of which benefit creativity.

3. Communication and Interpersonal Skills "People" skills are highly valued in the job market, and for good reason - they are absolutely crucial to success in so many professions. Travel requires that you communicate with multiple people from different backgrounds on a daily basis. With each interaction, you become better at embracing these differences, improving your empathy and understanding of others in the process. You learn to negotiate, whether with travel partners or locals. You learn to ask for help and trust in the help you receive. In navigating interactions in different languages, you hone not just your listening and clarifying skills, but also your patience.

4. Courage Forbes has labeled courage a defining characteristic of great leaders. There are multiple ways that travel develops this skill, the first being that travel builds confidence. Navigating the systems of a new country, communicating in a new language or environment, and defying cultural barriers to build meaningful connections are just some of the obstacles that feel empowering to overcome. The more obstacles we tackle, the more confident we are. And the more confident we are, the more likely we are to trust our decisions and take risks, to embrace the unfamiliar, and try. The second way travel develops our courage is that when we venture to new environments, we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, and as author Brené Brown would attest, "you can't get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability."

5. Compassion - Mark Twain said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” When we travel, we experience the kindness, the connections, and the struggles that makes us all human, from wherever we started in life to wherever we go. Observing and honoring this humanity in everyone is critical to the success of our increasingly globalized world.

Check out these first-person accounts of how travel has improved career skills to inspire your next trip abroad!

Sarah, Client Success Manager (Seattle)

"I traveled to Bangladesh for a service trip to an orphanage when I was in high school. The generosity, hospitality, and love I saw during that trip- to say it opened my eyes to the value of travel is an understatement. I went on to study abroad during college, live abroad in multiple countries, and gain life-changing experiences as a result. One of the key takeaways from my travels is the value of communication. In crossing language barriers and conveying/ understanding different viewpoints, travel has enhanced my empathy and understanding for others. As a client manager, my travel experiences have helped me better perceive clients’ needs and communicate strategies for a successful partnership."

Sydney, Yoga studio owner (Lyon, France)

"My first trip abroad was with a pal to London when I was 19. I drank too much at Heathrow (when in Rome right?) just before the train to London and upon arrival, it took me about 20 minutes for me to lose my wallet... my poor parents (who’ve never left the south) nearly died but gathered their wits and wired me money that I used to travel onto Italy for a summer where I worked on an organic farm (WWOOF). That first experience abroad taught me that I was a total idiot but it also taught me how to find a solution to problems. The whole ordeal is now laughable in hindsight thanks to strangers in London who helped me get to where I needed to be. People genuinely want to be helpful, it can be a very generous act to ask for help because it allows someone else to exercise their own humanity. I travel abroad at least twice yearly, and I learn something about the world and about myself on every single trip. You develop an ability to adapt to your surroundings which contributes to your neuroplasticity keeping your brain active and in learning mode. I’d say travel is the single biggest factor to my professional success. I’ve made a career abroad, completed an MBA abroad, and I currently manage a team of 10 fellow world travelers with the mantra 'adaptability.'"

Mikey, Director of Real Estate (Austin)

After I graduated from college, I moved to South Korea on a whim to become an English teacher. I had very little experience abroad at all, let alone an intimate knowledge of the Korean language and culture. The first week or two was incredibly daunting-- I knew no one, had no support system, and couldn’t even read the alphabet at the grocery store to figure out which package was “salt” and which was “sugar.” My confidence was temporarily bruised, but my predicament forced me to suck it up and learn the basics as quickly as possible. Within a few days I could read Korean characters and sound out basic words on a restaurant menu. And within a few weeks I was haggling in broken Korean at the night markets. It was thrilling to look back and consider how far I had come when I had no choice but to give it a shot. When I returned to the U.S. and pursued a new profession in real estate, there were plenty of moments when I felt like an imposter about to be exposed at any moment, because I couldn’t decipher the fancy jargon thrown around by my industry counterparts. But as I learned in South Korea, it’s important to give yourself the latitude to exist in an uncomfortable situation, stumble a few times, and just TRY."

Angela, Entrepreneur and owner at Parlay Vacay (Phoenix)

"At 16, I became an exchange student to Japan and grew so much from that experience that knew I would never stop traveling or learning languages. In the decades since, I went on to become an anthropologist and ESL teacher, conducting research, teaching, and studying languages in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. These experiences have shaped who I am and my daily life in how I value diversity and build relationships. I founded Parlay Vacay: Language Vacations & Retreats because I love sharing deeper travel experiences with others and helping them bridge gaps in communication."

Cybill, Medical Doctor (Baltimore)

"As a medical student on medical missions, observing the practice of medicine outside of an academic center, such as in rural Panama or in the mountains of Nepal, helped me better appreciate the benefits - and limitations - of Western medicine. In the US and other developed countries, we have a wealth of diagnostic tools at our disposal, which often benefits the patient. However, an over-reliance on sophisticated imaging, for example, can blunt your physical exam skills or at least make you less confident in making a diagnosis without ordering that CT scan. Now that I’ve completed my medical training, I have a little more time to think about work-life balance. Traveling and, more generally, investing in personal growth outside of medicine has become increasingly important in keeping up my mental health, so that I can take better care of my patients when I am working."

I.D., Office Principal (Cologne, Germany)

"I travel with the intention to learn. That means more listening than talking - treating countries like I'm a guest in someone's home, and taking in everything I can. Traveling with this intent has exposed me and my thinking to a much broader view of the world. Traveling with this humility has helped me see the world and its social issues through a much more faceted lens, and has elevated my thinking in many ways. Another thing I've learned through travel is that I'll never have it all figured out and I'll make plenty of mistakes along the way, so it's important for me to keep an open, adaptable mind. I think the biggest thing I continue to grow through my travels is empathy toward others. I work in a very international space, and empathy to understand what people are going through in shifting cultures has helped us all be more productive and happier."

Maddy, Teacher (Seattle)

"I first traveled abroad in 2008, across Europe from Poland to Spain. This trip was an incredible privilege to be able to do and changed my entire composition as a person. The challenges I faced by both being in foreign countries (do we tip here? What is this money? I need to communicate my needs to someone who speaks a different language, etc.) and by being with my two friends 24/7 (navigating each other’s moods, making alone time, cooperating about where to go, how to get there, where to stay, etc) caused a concentrated amount of growth in me. It also led me to a job teaching English as a foreign language in Korea. This in turn led to an affirmation that teaching was a profession I wanted to pursue beyond my time in Korea, and I am an educator in Seattle now. I can trace my biggest strengths as a teacher—communication and empathy—directly to my time traveling and living abroad."

Program manager builds her career skills traveling Vietnam

Dharma, Program Manager (Seattle)

"I first traveled abroad, to Egypt, my senior year of high school. I was lucky enough to spend a month there doing a dance exchange, and it proved to be the jumping off point for my love of  travel. I was instantly immersed in a country and culture so different than my own, each day being woken by the call to prayer echoing out over early morning Cairo. The experience was transformative and has since shaped almost every personal and professional decision. I chose to spend two of my four years of college living abroad, as well as applying for a Fulbright fellowship upon gradation. I have worked in the international arena my entire career, and have traveled frequently for both work and pleasure. I now work in global health and utilize many skills I learned traveling on a daily basis to inform my decision making in that realm. Travel has been my most important teacher - broadening my perspective on everything from foreign policy and global affairs, to language, culture, and that EVERY country has some form of a doughnut."

Diana, ESL Teacher (Phoenix)

"I have traveled many places starting with Australia when I was six years old. I think traveling has had a major impact in my life because I have experienced diverse lifestyles, different cultures, and languages. It has caused me to be much more culturally sensitive and appreciative of the the differences and similarities between us. I think most importantly it has helped me to connect in a deeper, more satisfying way with America‘s immigrants, refugees, and others from around the  world. As a community college ESL teacher, I can say my traveling experience has definitely helped me connect with my students and understand their challenges."

Brian, Social Worker (Phoenix)

"My time in other countries has helped me to develop a broader world knowledge and appreciation for cultural differences and other points of view. These are good to keep in mind as I work in my social devices jobs as I interact with my different people from many different places. I travel when I can, mainly during summer when it is so hot here in Phoenix. I loved visiting Costa Rica and Spain as I am very interested in the Spanish language. I like learning all I can about the places I visit and hope to continue traveling for many years to come."

Chelsea La Near, M. Ed., is a writer, wanderluster, and language education professional from Missouri who spent the past 9 years teaching abroad in East Asia and is currently based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @chelsealanear and Instagram @thenearsea for more.

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