Growing up in a middle-class working household, I rarely had the chance to go on vacation — and when I did, it was camping or a road trip with my family. So when my best friend, Rose, invited me to backpack around Europe with her during my junior year summer break from college, I jumped at the chance.
I’d never been on an airplane before. I couldn’t wait, and it was an adventure: Rose forgot our guidebook on the plane, so we had no map, no itinerary, nothing to fall back on.
It was fantastic.
We spent most of our trip traveling from city to city and country to country, wanting to see as much as we could. We started in London and ended in Brussels, making a loop around Europe with Prague as the farthest eastern point and Nice the farthest southern point. Visiting eight countries, five cities, two mountain villages and one beach town kept us on the move.
After a few hours in Paris, we decided to stay three days. We spent the entire last day picnicking at the Eiffel Tower. Over amazing bread and college-student-worthy wine, we had one of the most meaningful conversations I have ever had — the kind of conversation that changes you.
We talked about the future: not just what we wanted to do but the impact we wanted to have and how we wanted to live our lives. Something about that city and that perfect day with my best friend made it possible to dream about what was to come without placing limits on myself.
That day shaped me in more ways than one. Paris, with its art and architecture and its flowing sea of people, touched something in my soul. It’s never really let go.
The city has become a place of contemplation and inspiration for me, a place to go to and my center. I’ve gone back before most of the major decisions of my life: changing companies, getting married, advancing my career and, most recently, before accepting a position as practice director for Point B.
When I go, I like to relax on my own time. Every morning includes a cup of coffee and a run along the river to the Eiffel Tower, and each evening includes good food and wine — but the rest of the time, instead of scheduling my day, I choose what to do when I get up each morning.
I always rent an apartment, and I often go to the local markets to buy fresh food and cook for myself. I’ll pick up a new dessert to try each night at a different patisserie. During the day, I walk the city and explore off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, visiting my favorite museums, gazing at the architecture and finding beauty and peace in the old churches.
Sometimes if I’m missing home, I’ll stop at a Parisian pet store and visit the adorable puppies and kittens.
I always spend a few hours at the Eiffel Tower taking a step back, like Rose and I did during that visit in college. I work hard, so making time to travel is my way of taking a break, slowing down and envisioning my future without limits. It allows me the time and space to think big. There is no day-to-day to manage through, and there is room to explore possibilities.
Travel, with others and on my own (I typically travel solo once a year, whether that be back to Paris, locally or traveling to meet a friend for an adventure), has also been a very effective way to learn many of the foundational attributes of life in business. Whether it’s navigating an unknown situation, adapting to a new culture, making it to the airport on time when the Metro is surprisingly on strike, or meeting someone who becomes a dear lifelong friend, you never know what’s going to happen.
In fact, my latest international experience included guring out how to hire a locksmith. Building entries and door locks in France are different than ours, so I always take note of the check-in instructions and do a test before I leave the building.
What I didn’t realize is that if you leave a key in the lock on the inside, you can’t unlock the door from the outside. Shortly after arriving in the country and checking in, tired and jet-lagged, I headed to the market to get some nice cheese and wine, planning on an early bedtime, only to nd that I was locked out. Multiple neighbors tried to help me without luck, and the apartment rental agency was unreachable.
Thankfully I’d taken along my phone and a print-out of emergency numbers, because I needed them. Although I went to a language school in France years ago, my French is awful. Luckily, I know enough to ask for help, and a very nice neighbor helped me make some phone calls. I was back in my apartment a few hours later.
Travel gives you a healthy respect for the unknown, and that has allowed me to navigate unfamiliar and challenging situations without missing a beat, both abroad and in my professional life.
That day in Paris opened my eyes to possibilities. If a girl who’d never been on a plane before could navigate so many di erent countries and experiences in such a short period of time, it seemed to me that anything was possible.
I had no idea how much that trip would shape me, but at any age, international travel can have a profound impact. You head out into the world, and into many situations in life, with a set of expectations about what you’re going to experience, and often things don’t go as planned. That’s why I can’t think of a better runway for success in business, or for life, than personal travel.
It’s led me to a leadership position with a company that I love, and it has taught me the importance of giving myself and my teams the permission and freedom to take the time away to refuel and recharge.
Because when you take time to explore the possibilities, you’re at your best.
Sicely Donaldson is practice director at Point B, Inc. in Portland.