Everyday working life is limiting when it comes to developing general career skills. Fixed on the task at hand, with no space to reflect, we are rarely challenged in new and different ways. Taking a step back to travel provides a completely different environment and headspace for developing career skills that can otherwise pass you by. Here, we take a look at the life and career skills that travel can help you to develop, why they are important, and strategies for improving them.
As we outline in our guide to maximising your professional development on a travel career break, taking a travel sabbatical does not guarantee you will develop these skills. As with anything in life, the more you put into it, the more you are likely to get out. So, for each one we explore below, we suggest ways you can shape your journey to give yourself the best chance of honing that particular career skill.
In this article:
What are career skills?
Career skills are a set of personal qualities, attributes and competencies that enable you to thrive in a variety of working environments. For example, the ability to communicate well is a skill that is applicable to a huge range of professions.
Career skills are distinct from specific knowledge applied to a particular profession, for example medicine or engineering. Moreover, career skills are in most cases highly transferrable and will make you a more attractive proposition to employers on top of the sector-specific knowledge required for a role.
Life and career skills
Many of the skills we outline here will not only be advantageous for your career prospects, but can also make a tremendous difference to your life outside of work. So, let’s take a look at how travel – with the right approach – can give you the confidence to thrive in both your personal life and professional life…
Career skills you can develop while travelling
Why is empathy a useful career skill?
Empathy empowers you to be more understanding of other people’s behaviours and viewpoints. This gives you a better feel for group dynamics and makes you a more effective team-worker, an invaluable skill in almost any working environment. Being empathetic also gives you a deeper understanding of how you affect people around you, enabling you to adjust and adapt.
How will travel help you become more empathetic?
Travel encourages empathy in two significant ways. First, it brings you into contact with people from a multitude of backgrounds, in many cases lesser privileged than your own. Secondly, the more you explore new places, it is also more likely you will meet personal challenges you are unfamiliar with. This combination of eye-opening experiences gives you a deeper appreciation for alternative perspectives in life.
How you can build empathy skills when travelling
Make an active effort to immerse yourself in the places you visit, have conversations with people and learn about the way of life. Try to put yourself in other people’s position, and then reflect on how that might impact your point of view. This short TED talk explores what travel can teach you about empathy:
Why is resilience a useful career skill?
Resilience is invaluable in your working life for many reasons. It equips you to deal with conflict, and makes you more open to constructive criticism. It also gives the composure to stay calm in crises, and the strength to get over past mistakes. Ultimately, resilience allows you to stay engaged and focused during difficult times.
How will travel help you become more resilient?
When travelling, things do not always go according to plan. There are always bumps in the road, and so you become accustomed to managing difficult situations and dealing with harsh behaviour towards you. You learn to manage things that are out of your control, and to recover quickly from difficulty.
How you can build resilience when travelling
Travelling innately makes you resilient, and the more you travel, the more it will build. But the best way to develop resilience from travel is to take an independent pathway. Instead of booking organised and catered tours, be the master of your own destiny and go self-guided. This will inevitably bring about challenges and put you into situations that will force you to act under pressure.
3. Cultural competence
Why is cultural competence a useful career skill?
Cultural competence is a vital skill in the modern world, in which populations are becoming ever-more diverse. Employers today do not only require an understanding of diversity issues, but a deeper ability to communicate across cultural divides. Being attuned to a variety of backgrounds and cultures allows you to operate well among different groups of people and to communicate with different audiences. Furthermore, cultural competence can unlock new career opportunities to work at an international level.
How will travel help you become more culturally competent?
Travel exposes you to a variety of cultures, and thus builds your understanding and enhances your ability to communicate across boundaries. It teaches you to appreciate that being different isn’t wrong, and to recognise your privileges in life. The journey to cultural competence is one that never ends, and we can always learn more – but travel is one of the best pathways towards improvement.
How you can build cultural competence when travelling
The process of building cultural competence through travel is similar to empathy. The more you go out of your way to learn about local cultures, the more you will benefit. Consider visiting countries where the cultures might seem strange or alien to your own, and take the time to reflect on what is different about the culture. For example, when we first travelled in Vietnam, we felt as though people were being rude to us; but the more we explored and learned, we realised that most people were communicating in a way deemed to be socially acceptable, and we were just experiencing some culture shock.
Read more: Susan writes about how travel enables you to value differences in the workplace.
Why is communication a useful career skill?
Communication is probably the most important and transferrable of all career skills. It transcends all job types and sectors, and extends into many other aspects of life, bringing benefits that reach far beyond work. If you can communicate well, you are more likely to be understood clearly, and to convince others of your point of view. Communication skills also help you to network more effectively and build fruitful working relationships.
How will travel help you become a better communicator?
When travelling, you constantly need to break down communication barriers. You regularly encounter difficulties with getting a message across or understanding what someone is trying to say to you. You learn to be savvy, to read body language better, and to communicate complex problems in a simple way. And you become accustomed to different communication styles and learn to adapt to them.
How you can build communication skills when travelling
Make a conscious effort to put yourself in situations that require communication skills to navigate. For example, take local transport. I remember when we arrived at a bus station in rural Laos early one morning to take a journey across the country. The departure system seemed chaotic and nobody at the terminal spoke English, so we needed to improvise a little in order to get onto the right service. Experiences like this help you to be patient and think imaginatively when it comes to communicating.
Why is planning a useful career skill?
A good planner can identify their goals and map out what needs to be done in order to succeed. They can evaluate alternative methods to achieve those goals and identify the resources that will be needed to implement them. And once the plan is in motion, the best planners will track progress, evaluate how things are going and take steps to change course if needed. Good planning skills are essential for organising your working life and managing projects of any kind.
How will travel help you become a better planner?
Just like projects in the workplace, travel requires careful planning and the ability to evaluate new information. Every journey has a structure, and once it is in motion, things will change and your plans will need to be adapted. Even if you’re the kind of traveller who goes wherever the wind takes you, you will still need to evaluate and understand your current environment before you can move on, a process that develops your situation analysis skills – the first step of the planning cycle.
How you can build planning skills when travelling
Travel plans rarely turn out perfectly, so take stock and learn from your mistakes. Could that difficult situation have been avoided if you had been better prepared, and if so, what will you do differently next time? For example, after the first few weeks of our round-the-world trip, we were exhausted and realised that we had over-planned our travel schedule. We took a break for a few days and then adjusted our approach, making our itinerary more flexible.
Our guide to planning a round-the-world trip provides a framework to apply to your travel planning.
Why is goal-setting a useful career skill?
Goal-setting is an essential ingredient of the planning process; it gives you a framework for achieving milestones in your work and career. It gives you the time and headspace to allow you to think about the goals you want to set, and to spend time performing and measuring them. The ability to set goals effectively makes you efficient, gives you momentum, and will later enable you to visualise the processes that have led to your results.
How will travel help you become better at goal-setting?
Travel provides a flexible testing environment to experiment with goal-setting outside of your professional setting. As you are only accountable to yourself, you can test out the techniques that will work for you without any external pressures.
How you can build goal-setting skills when travelling
Use the opportunity to experiment with goal-setting and challenge yourself in a safe environment. You could tie this in with other areas of professional development, for example by setting a goal to make at least two new connections or try a new cultural activity each week. Alternatively, your goal might simply be to let go, or to enjoy life; exploring what that means to you and then seeking to achieve it will help you to succeed. But you also need to be active in order to get positive results. This means recognising your behaviours and thought processes so that you can improve or change them.
7. Budget management
Why is budget management a useful career skill?
Budget management is an invaluable skill to build for your career, especially if you have aspirations of advancing up the management ladder. Having a sound grasp of budgeting will equip you to understand and plan finances for a business or a department, however big or small.
How will travel help you become more astute with finances?
Long-term travel typically happens on a challenging budget. When you’re watching the pennies over a long period of time, you learn a lot about financial prioritisation and how to manage your money sustainably. You also learn to become savvy with spending and make small amounts go a long way.
How you can build budget management skills when travelling
Incorporate budgeting into your travel planning, even if it’s just making a rough spending plan and breakdown for each place you will visit. Keeping a spreadsheet for finances is helpful, as you can then use it to track what you’ve spent, compare actual costs with what you estimated, and then use that information to budget more accurately in future.
Why is creativity a useful career skill?
Every job requires at least a degree of creativity – not just traditionally creative jobs like design or marketing. And as our economies continue to be driven by innovation and technological advances, creativity has never been more important as a career skill. Unlike many skills, it is not something that can be replicated by machine automation. A study by Adobe showed that businesses that look for creativity in employees benefit from higher productivity levels, more satisfied customers and greater financial success.
How will travel help you become more creative?
Travel engages your senses in many new ways, exposing you to unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and stimulating the creative parts of your brain. And this is backed up by research: an oft-cited study by New York’s Columbia Business School demonstrates that cross-cultural experiences increase cognitive flexibility and thus enhance creativity and innovation. Just think about how much great art and literature has been inspired by travel, from Twain to Tolkien.
How you can improve your creativity when travelling
The findings of the Columbia study show that you will only enjoy a creativity boost from travel if you actively engage in the local culture and environment. According to Professor Adam Galinsky, “the key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation”.
9. Language skills (not just learning a language)
Why are language skills useful for your career?
Learning a language has obvious career benefits in terms of opening new doors, but there is also a lot to be gained from developing a broader aptitude for languages. The ability to recognise the linguistic roots of names and words from distinct patterns, and to identify languages based on accents and other vocal mannerisms, can be highly useful in a work setting, especially if you operate in an international environment. It adds to your cultural competence and can improve your efficiency with research and data analysis.
How will travel help you improve your language skills?
Travel exposes you to a different languages and provides an opportunity to learn about them and how to speak them. Even if you do not learn to speak a language while in a place that speaks it natively, you can still gain aptitude for it by building trait recognition from street signs, menus, advertising and other text displays.
How you can build your language skills when travelling
Be adventurous with your travel itinerary and try to incorporate countries that speak different native languages to your own. Learn some basic vocabulary before you visit, practice it while you are there, and also pay attention to the nature of the language in public signage and the way people speak.
Why is problem-solving a useful career skill?
Problem-solving is applicable to any kind of work and is highly valued by employers. It gives you the ability to navigate the barriers that prevent you from achieving your goals, which ultimately gives you more control over your environment. Problem-solving is useful in so many situations. It’s a skill helps you navigate the tiniest everyday tasks right through to much bigger challenges, like investigating shortcomings in a company’s performance.
How will travel make you a better problem-solver?
Every journey is different, but travel always involves getting from A to B, and things always get in the way. You meet a plethora of challenges and become much more attuned to thinking on your feet to navigate them. We often cite BBC’s Race Across the World on this blog, and this is another area where the show resonates. We saw many examples in action when contestants learned to be better problem-solvers as they voyaged overland through Latin America. Down to their last few pennies, Sam and Jo didn’t have enough money left to travel to Mendoza; thinking on her feet, Jo negotiated with the operator to work on the bus in return for discounted tickets.
How you can improve your problem-solving when travelling
Don’t always stick to the familiar; try heading off the beaten track, and you will naturally encounter more challenges and venture further out of your comfort zone. As with resilience, you are more likely to build problem-solving skills if you travel independently. If you are nervous about navigating cultural differences, then you could first try travelling in a country that shares cultural similarities. For example, before we travelled extensively in South America, we spent some time in Miami, USA, to get used to the challenges of travelling while in a place that shared our language.
11. Self-awareness and introspection
Why is self-awareness a useful career skill?
The more self-aware you are, the better you will understand how others see you, and be able to identify problems that arise from negative perception. Once you recognise your flaws, you can do something about them. Self-awareness is the perfect counterbalance to empathy, and greatly improves your ability to operate effectively in a team.
How will travel make you more introspective?
Travel makes you more self-aware by giving you space to reflect on your values and behaviours, and to compare them with those displayed in other cultures. A study by three US universities found that living abroad leads to a clearer sense of self. The outcomes showed that when people are able to contrast the differing values and norms between the cultures of their home environment and elsewhere, it triggers a juncture of self-reflection.
How you can build your self-awareness when travelling
The scientists behind the study into travel and self-reflection are the same whose worked showed a link between travel and creativity, and their advice is consistent. Immerse yourself in local cultures, give yourself space to reflect, and be mindful of the contrasts between your own cultural values and those you encounter. You may find it useful to keep a travel journal and make regular notes on your self-reflection.
Why is curiosity a useful career skill?
Careers are about constantly learning and improving, and curiosity empowers you to do this. Curious people ask the right questions and are less likely to get stuck in old habits. It’s a skill that makes you less assumptive and thus more likely to identify problems and overcome them. In essence, curiosity drives innovation and advancement.
How will travel make you more curious?
Travel and curiosity have a kind of chicken-and-egg relationship where one feeds into the other; the more curious you are, the more you want to travel, and the more you travel, the more curious you become. Travel broadens your mind and makes you more curious to find out more about the world around you. A study commissioned by Hilton revealed insights into the way we channel our curiosity through travel; it shows that 90% of people travel to learn something new.
How you can heighten your curiosity when travelling
While travelling, seek activities that expand your mind. Try new tastes, visit museums, ask people questions and learn about the places you visit. After you return home from somewhere, don’t stop learning about it; harness the momentum and continue digesting new information from books, films and more. Keep stoking the curious mind.
Read more: Sam writes about how learning about rice farming in Laos heightened her curiosity skills.
Why is adaptability a useful career skill?
The way we work is ever-evolving, and the most adaptable people are those who will thrive. Adaptability empowers you to shift gears onto a different path, or to cope effectively with changes to the path you are on. It equips you to deal with new information and bumps in the road, and thus also makes you a better leader as you have the aptitude to steer the ship in the necessary direction. Adaptability keeps you relevant in a changing world.
How will travel make you more adaptable?
You will constantly face changing situations when travelling. Every place you visit presents a different environment and a fresh set of challenges. The more you move from place to place, the better you become at adjusting to new circumstances. Every day a new curveball will present itself, and so you learn to let things go and move on. Nobody is better equipped to ditch ‘plan A’ than a seasoned traveller.
How you can improve your adaptability when travelling
Slow travel (spending longer periods of time in a destination to explore it thoroughly soak in the environment) is the most conducive to building cultural competence and self-awareness. But to build adaptability, moving more quickly from place to place can be a lot more effective. To get the most out of a long-term trip, build a varied itinerary that incorporates both these styles of travel.
Read more: Mikaela writes about how travel taught her adaptability skills and strengthened her career.
14. Analytical thinking
Why is analytical thinking a useful career skill?
Analytical thinking enables you to assess situations effectively and prioritise better. Analysing a situation helps you to recognise when something isn’t working out, whether in a particular project or in your overall career, and take action to change course. A good analytical thinker has the ability to step back from a situation and assess, seeing it through different lenses, and considering all aspects rather than just their individual area of work.
How will travel make you a better analytical thinker?
Travel forces you to take a step back and reassess your life from an outside view. This bigger-picture lens helps you to consider different aspects of your life that have become lost among the tunnel vision of your regular routine. Through travel, you come to see the long-term benefits of slowing down and taking stock. You also come to understand how your actions have an impact on the environment around you.
How you can improve your analytical thinking when travelling
Allow space in your travel plans to pause and reflect, even if it’s just an hour or two each day. Use the opportunity to analyse how you have designed your lifestyle at home, or how you approach your work, and then consider you could make adjustments to change it for the better. Ask ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions about the knock-on effects of your actions; exploring this will enable you to make better-informed decisions.
Why is confidence a useful career skill?
You might be full of amazing ideas, but they will only ever bear fruit if you can emanate them to other people. Confidence is the ingredient that empowers you to influence and communicate. It is also invaluable for your personal wellbeing and happiness, which in turn make you more effective in your career. Confidence gives you the assertiveness to take decisive action when it is needed, and thus equips you to deal with crises and become a leader.
How will travel make you more confident?
There’s a reason why post-university gap years are considered so valuable for young people, as it helps them to find their independent spirit. But the same qualities can be built at any stage of life. Travel takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to think on your toes. It gives you freedom to express who you really are and to become comfortable with that.
How you can build your confidence when travelling
Travel provides you with a testing environment to come out of your shell and find comfort in who you are. Most of the people you meet while travelling you are never going to see again, so make the most of it! Sign up for social events or group tours where you can meet people and make connections. Your confidence will grow naturally the more you put yourself into new social situations.
I would never have had the confidence to start my own business if I hadn’t connected with people while travelling who had successfully done it, and realised that I wasn’t really that different to them. Harness your progress and keep moving forward.
For more on this topic, read our complementary article about how travel can benefit your career.
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