Adrian Granzella Larssen was the first employee and editor-in-chief at major online career platform The Muse. Five years into the job, she took a month-long travel sabbatical with her husband Matt – an experience that inspired them to take an even longer break from work.
Before setting off on a year-long trip across 30 countries, Adrian founded Sweet Spot Content, which helps inspiring brands, publications and thought leaders create authentic, engaging content. She now runs the business full time after returning to the USA last year.
In this interview, Adrian talks about the challenges of adjusting to long-term travel, the biggest lessons from her journey, and how it has influenced her career path since.
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What was your career path before you took a break to travel?
My career path has always been a bit winding. In my early career, I had jobs in event planning, marketing, and communications. Ultimately, I combined my lessons from all of those various experiences and my love for writing and editing into my most recent job as editor-in-chief of career and job search website The Muse.
I was the first employee of the company, which meant that for several years of that time I was in full startup mode – 16-hour days, work on the weekends, constant change – and it was tough to take a break. The first real vacation I took during that job was a nine-day trip to Morocco, and I signed in online to work every single day.
With that said, it was the best and most fulfilling job experience I’ve ever had. I also occasionally got the opportunity to travel on the job, such as visiting Johannesburg, South Africa to report on the work being done in the country to support women entrepreneurs.
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Meet Gape, a 28-year-old woman who opened her tuck shop (the South African term for fast food joint—but it’s all homemade and nary a burger in sight) in Soweto township, Johannesburg, in February. She wakes up at 2am every morning, seven days a week, to bake 150 loaves of bread and prepare the day’s food for her regular customers, mainly men who work at a nearby steel plant during the week. “Their wives are at home, and I like feeding them so they don’t go out and find new wives,” she tells me with a smile. Her shop has grown so much in the past few months that she’s hired three employees and is contemplating a second location. Her recipe for business success? Listening to your customers, taking their feedback, and making them so happy they act as your word of mouth marketing. Oh, and having the best bread in town. That recipe, she wouldn’t give me. #5by20 #empowerwomen #endpoverty
Why did you and your husband decide to take some time out for an adventure?
We’ve always loved to travel, and since about 2010, we’ve made it a priority to take at least one international trip each year. But like most people, those trips were limited by our vacation time, so they were only one to two weeks long, max.
In 2017, after I had been at The Muse for five years, I had the opportunity to take a one-month-long paid sabbatical. My husband took the time off too, and we took a trip through Southeast Asia – Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos.
Before we left, we felt like taking a month off was so indulgent (how American of us!), but we met so many others who were travelling for longer periods of time – three months, six months, a year. That really got us thinking: could we do it, too? We also realised that we’d never be able to go all the places we wanted to if we were limited to one or two trips a year. That really shook us into action.
At the time, we were living in New York City but had always planned on moving back to the West Coast, where we are both from. So we decided that we’d start planning our move, and in between those two destinations, we’d take a year off.
“I decided that there was always time to work, but there wouldn’t always be time to explore the world.”
What preparations did you have to make in your work-life before you set off on the journey?
I’ve always wanted to start my own business but had never felt like it was the right time. But when we came back from Southeast Asia, I decided there was no time like the present, so that I could build up a base of clients and continue that work while we were travelling.
I transitioned my role at The Muse into a part-time role and started my company on the side. A year later, I left The Muse and we left to travel.
Truth be told, I had planned on working a lot when we were travelling. But once we were on the road, I cut that ambition back significantly! I did keep a few clients and took on a couple of projects, but I wasn’t working full-time, or even part-time. I decided that there was always time to work, but there wouldn’t always be time to explore the world.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting ready for such an adventure and a break from the norm?
Convincing my mom to watch the cat for a year (thanks again, Mom!). Aside from that, I found it unsettling to step into the unknown.
We had a rough plan for the first few months of the trip but didn’t know exactly how it would unfold, what we’d do or who we’d get to see along the way, when we’d come back, or what life would look like when we did. Plus, in a matter of weeks, I had left my job at The Muse, moved out of our apartment, sold the house we owned in Los Angeles, and said good-bye to friends and family.
I was excited, of course, but it also felt like every foundation I had was gone, without another one to step to.
Where did you go on your travels, and do you have any standout memories?
We visited 30 countries in total (though a few were just quick, few-day-long stopovers). We started in early April in Asia (Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia), moved on to Europe and the Middle East for most of the summer and fall, headed back to the Eastern Hemisphere (India, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand) until Christmas, spent a couple of weeks in the USA for the holidays, and finished up in South America (Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile).
One of my favourite times was a six-week-long road trip through the Balkans: Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bulgaria. This was one of those trips we’d been dying to go on for years but just never had the time to do it properly, so we were beyond excited when we actually did! During that time, we saw gorgeous scenery, explored beaches and wine country, hiked the Albanian alps, and attended a friend’s 400-person wedding in a tiny Bulgarian town where few people had ever met Americans.
But the biggest highlight of all was visiting my seventh continent, Antarctica, with sustainable travel company G Adventures. It’s been my dream to go for a long time, and while we debated it for a while because it’s so expensive, I’m so glad that we did. All the cliches you’ve heard are true: It’s mind-blowing, it’s otherworldly, the Drake Passage may destroy you. I’ve never been more humbled by how spectacular and dangerous nature is. It truly changed my life.
Did you find any aspect of adjusting to long-term travel difficult, and if so, how did you deal with it?
I definitely missed my friends and family and having a sense of community. Luckily, we had several occasions along the way to meet up with friends who lived abroad, and we had a few friends and family members who came to meet us along the way. We also met plenty of fellow travellers.
At one point towards the end of the trip, we spent a month in Buenos Aires taking Spanish classes at Vamos Spanish, and because of that experience we built a great community of friends quickly.
Another thing I didn’t fully appreciate before I left is that long-term travel is quite different from vacationing. Quickly, we learned that we weren’t going to see every tourist highlight in a particular destination and that we needed to build in time for “life maintenance” stuff: grocery shopping, getting haircuts, calling parents, and planning for our next destinations. None of that is difficult, but it’s important to be aware that long-term travel isn’t a year-long vacation!
Oh, and you’ve heard it before, but connectivity can be a pain. Our approach was to get local SIM cards wherever we went, but that was easier and more reliable in some destinations than it was in others. Lesson learned the hard way: don’t plan important work Zoom calls if you’re travelling in India or the Philippines.
What were the biggest life lessons you took away from your travel career break?
One big one is that I can live with less – and that actually, I love it! Spending a year of living out of one suitcase and making do with any efficiency apartment we found ourselves in was a good reset. I remember when we got back and were unpacking all of the clothes and belongings that were in storage. I kept thinking: Why did I ever need this?
How did you prepare for returning home afterwards, and did you encounter any particular challenges in resuming working life?
Returning home was a bit strange. We had planned on moving to California when we returned, but while travelling my husband received a job offer in Seattle, a place we’d been but never spent much time. So when we were preparing to return, we didn’t totally know what we were in for! With that said, long-term travel definitely made that transition easier. We were used to setting up in cities we’d never been and just figuring it out.
Work-wise, because I hadn’t been working full-time, I needed to scale up my client base when I came back. It took about six months to build the business back to where I wanted it to be. Talking to other friends who are in similar situations, I think that’s pretty normal, so it’s definitely something other freelancers or business owners should plan for.
“One of the things that travelling really reinforced for me was the importance of having a flexible job that I could take anywhere in the world.”
What has your career path been since returning from the adventure, and how had this been influenced by your travels?
Since returning, I’ve focused full-time on my business, Sweet Spot Content. One of the things that travelling really reinforced for me was the importance of having a flexible job that I could take anywhere in the world. That’s always been a goal of mine, but now it’s a non-negotiable.
Do you hope to travel more in future, and if so, how will you balance this with your work?
Absolutely – once it’s safe to travel, I can’t wait to do so. I’d love to spend another full year abroad, though I’d do it differently this time: picking fewer destinations, and spending a couple of months (or more) in each place so that I can explore places more deeply and so it’s easier to work.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Talk to other people who have done it! The concept of taking a year off once seemed really foreign (ha!) and overwhelming to me, but I started talking to people who had taken sabbaticals before, and it really normalised the experience and helped me prepare more thoughtfully.
It also got me really excited! Not one of them regretted it, and no matter what they ended up doing afterwards, their travel break was one of the most significant times in their life. I think people tend to worry about how a break will affect their career negatively (we did too!), but in reality, it will end up being an absolutely incredible chapter in your story.
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