Networking: Not Just A Career Buzzword, But A Travel Necessity Too

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

I am currently in the midst of the job application period (which is all the time for me now, as I have very little else that I really must do), and find myself repeatedly thinking: “I am so thankful for the opportunity to have taken a year off.”

Not just because I delayed this horrendous task, for which I have to outline precisely who I am in 2-4 pages and then risk rejection time and time again (I still stand by this article I wrote a year ago, but I do have more empathy for my fellow job-seekers). Not just because I got to spend literally weeks on tropical islands, in magical forests, and generally amongst astounding beauty. And not just because I had complete freedom to do whatever I want, and now am focused and clear about how I want my time to be spent (a critical component many young people mistakenly overlook, dooming them to years of unsatisfying work). Those are important features of my gratefulness, for sure, but not necessarily the most critical; I’d argue that one of the best long-term benefits of the Voyage was the growth and strengthening of uniquely marketable skills in uniquely marketable ways.

Traveling the world, particularly by oneself, encourages the development of language, directional, planning, and social skills. It teaches cultural sensitivity and self-reliance and foresight, and then how to reconcile prior mistakes with 20/20 hindsight. The world imparts upon us hundreds of life-paths and thousands of little lessons of kindness, and through every experience, we become closer to the vision of a perfect self – not realizing this, ever, but sliding and shifting and paring away at the idea. And inevitably, the acceleration of self – that results from having our identities constantly reconstituted and our perspectives continually challenged – yields a more logical but compassionate, critical but pragmatic, wise but not without faults person. A person, in other words, who should be in the global economy, for this person seeks to do everything – including their jobs – with meaning and purpose, and a more defined sense of how their actions impact others. As George Saunders said:

Err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Perugia, Italy - Look closely for a happy surprise.

Perugia, Italy – Look closely for a happy surprise.

So yeah, I’m happy to have taken a year off, as I was beginning to reach the point where the sheer exhaustion of 17 years of academia plus two jobs (simultaneously) made me want to anchor myself to the bottom of an ocean, if for no other reason than so people would eventually leave me alone. But in this year, I realized that I can’t make people leave me alone, nor do I want to. And anyway, it wasn’t so much the people who were bothering me, but rather the divided and rather scattered nature of my work. So I Voyaged around, I met people from all sorts of backgrounds and all walks of life, and I tried to discover what it was about their lives that made them happiest. And in return, they taught me what I loved most: bringing people together, organizing people into activities, finding solutions to peoples’ problems, and simply sharing my life with new and resonating people.

Because of this, my friend called me an ambassador, and I felt that this was a solid enough description of my personality. I don’t think I’d want to go into politics, at least not at the level that an ambassador might, since those positions are always tainted with PR and PC and irrelevant side issues that don’t get to the heart of making positive change. But I do like the idea of working with others to bring them on board with an idea, a project, or a partnership. I like getting excited about something, and getting others into it as well. And I know that I’m good at it – just ask any of the hundreds of people I met this year, many of whom instantly pegged me as the social center, the organizer, and for some, the unexpected party planner.

Luang Prabang, Laos - Sabaidee PeeMai (Lao New Year)

Luang Prabang, Laos – Sabaidee PeeMai (Lao New Year)

On the traveler-side, being a gypsy who inherently loves to network is a huge benefit – financially, as well as culturally. In the first three and a half months, I stayed in a hostel once …and I ended up getting offered a job there, for so many people mistook me as the hostel’s tour guide. In the last two months in Europe, I again stayed in a strange combination of old friends’ houses, new friends’ apartments, hotels with people I met on the internet, and hostels where I felt I could live forever, so friendly were the staff. I learned how to make massaman curry from a perky Thai woman and how to tell someone “I’m sticky! Fuck off!” in Italian and how to conjugate the French “aller” into three almost identical words and how to barter someone down to less than half the listed price. I didn’t necessarily want to learn these things, but once I had, I was glad to find that they only added to the body of knowledge I had on each subject, and added a certain degree of closeness I felt to the teacher and to their culture.

Aside from the locals, there were hundreds of travelers who flowed past me every day. Each of them left their imprint on me, and several are people I’d love to visit in their homelands. Considering how I travel, it’s not out of the question that I might, even as soon as in the next five years. These people enriched my Voyage with their own takes on everyday situations and their comparisons to the things they’re accustomed to. I learned not only about the land I currently stood on, but the stories of lands far away on which I have yet to set foot. A global education, in other words, was mine for the taking, and I am a natural academic.

Perugia, Italy - Two wonderful people, met serendipitously in Italy

Perugia, Italy – Two wonderful people, met serendipitously in Italy

When friends ask me how I possibly could know so many internationals, scattered around every corner of the world, I do have to admit that I have Berkeley and Cambridge to thank for much of it. But I also have to give myself credit for being tenacious and persistent enough to keep up with several of these people – some of my closest friends from the trip live in Estonia, or Norway, or Thailand or Germany or Australia or England, and had I not thought to message them periodically or make more of an effort in person to include them in my plans, I don’t know how close we’d be now. On top of that, several of these people are in positions I’d be interested in pursuing myself, or who know people who know people or who directly might be sources for advice or consultation regarding jobs. While I don’t think of career advancement as a primary motivation for meeting people, it’s definitely a perk, and I’ve luckily run across enough seasoned writers and government workers and non-profit angels to give me an idea of what the professional world in my interested fields might be like. Some have expanded my boundaries, made me aware that there were different routes to getting somewhere, and even offered their hand to take me with them.

So now I’m back, filled to the brim with useful and useless information (I doubt I’ll be cursing anyone in Italian or making someone a quiche, but who knows), and it’s the people I’ve met who I remember the fondest. And that’s because it’s the people who made my trips the most meaningful, who picked me up when I was down and who grounded me when my plans got too lofty. Networking might be a career buzzword, but I think for extroverts like me or for anyone interested in exploring the world like (in my opinion) it should be explored, networking is a necessary skill to develop for life in general. The elder generation might view long-term travel as, at best, supplementing work experience. But the way I see it, why can’t it go both ways?