Continuing our exploration of the career skills that travel can help develop, Susan Gleissner of This Big Wild World writes about how her experiences overseas have translated to valuing differences in the workplace, and how this has been greatly beneficial when applied in her career.

When I was 36 I walked away from a decade-long, well-paying, successful career as an engineering leader for a large food manufacturing company. I can’t pinpoint a moment when I made the decision, it was more of a gradual realisation that I wasn’t fulfilling my purpose. Two years later, after much travel while completing an online Master’s degree, I was ready to start my career in organisation development. It was, in so many ways, quite literally the opposite of my first career.

As I sat down to update my resume and write my first cover letters for this new career, my stomach dropped. What in the world did I have to offer any organisation aside from my degree? So I did what I do in times of stress and uncertainty; I made a list – of experiences and skills I had built preparing me for this moment.

And let me tell you, that list was long.

As it turned out, I had quite a story to tell prospective employers, and my confidence was growing. I scanned the list to see if there were themes I could highlight, and one that was glaringly obvious was growing my self-awareness through travel. But, self-awareness doesn’t necessarily just arise organically from travelling; it often requires intentional introspection.

Why self-awareness and introspection are valuable career skills

As globalisation continues, there is not a single organisation or industry that doesn’t need employees who value and understand differences in the workplace. Whether you are selling a product, serving a customer, designing a system, or like me, consulting on what does or does not engage employees in the workplace, differences in people and experiences matter.

However, to understand and value differences, we must first become more self-aware of our own identity, how our life experiences have shaped who we are, and how these experiences may translate into our work.

Travel creates endless opportunities to raise our self-awareness and appreciation for the life experiences, voices and perspectives of others through intentional introspection.

5 ways travel increases your self-awareness

Here are five ways in which my self-awareness has increased through travel and, for each, how that translates into valuing differences in the workplace.

1.  Being present in the moment.

Often it feels like I am rushing from one thing to the next, with little time to take a breath or have a coherent thought in between. My travel experiences have helped me become more aware of how that rapid pace prevents me from being present. In my new career as an organisation development consultant, I need to be fully present in order to truly hear and understand the barriers employees are experiencing in their work.

It’s easy to not even recognise when you’re rushing through interactions with others unless you disrupt this pattern in some way. For me, travel was that disruption. I was suddenly able to see how my pace was not allowing the space that others I interact with needed to feel heard and valued.

While volunteering in a remote area of northern Vietnam, I took a break to walk around and observe life in the village. As I walked towards the edge of the village I heard a muffled voice over my shoulder. I turned to look, and an older woman was standing in her doorway gesturing urgently for me to come towards her.

Curious, I followed her into her home to find that she had laid out a bamboo mat and wanted me to join her for tea. She did not speak English and I did not speak Vietnamese, but I knew that she had little to share and this kind gesture was not to be dismissed. So, we sat together in silence smiling at each other for the entire duration of a cup of hot tea on a hot day.

Sharing tea in Vietnam
Sharing tea in silence with a woman I encountered while volunteering in northern Vietnam

How this translates to valuing differences in the workplace

Now that I’ve disrupted the pace at which I engage and interact with others, my eyes have been opened to how people of different cultures and identities move and communicate in distinct ways. Silence in meetings and conversations is no longer uncomfortable for me because I understand that just holding the space together may be what the other person needs and that is my sole focus in that moment.

2.  Every culture experiences tragedies and triumphs.

More than ever, I am aware of how much I wasn’t taught about my own country’s history in school. If that can be true about our own culture or country, then it’s most certainly true about others. Travel allows us to discover these untold stories and to have a deeper understanding of the experiences, both good and bad, of those that live in these destinations.

One experience in particular that sticks out to me was during my time in Myanmar. I had the unique opportunity to hear a young woman, Khin, talk about her first time voting in Myanmar’s presidential election. Her eyes lit up as she explained this would be the first elected civilian president in 50 years!

As we sat together in her small bamboo home, sharing a meal on the floor, it struck me how different her life experience is from mine, and how we share similar hopes and dreams for what our futures may hold.

How this translates to valuing differences in the workplace

One aspect of my new career is to support efforts to increase diversity through hiring practices and create a culture of inclusion, where all employees can feel valued and respected for their differences. To do this work, I’ve had to recognise my whiteness and privilege, including how both shape my worldview.

Each person, country, and group that shares an identity has experienced tragedies and triumphs that shape their view of the world. As I engage with employees to understand how they experience working in the organisation, I need to listen to their unique stories to identify solutions that will honor these differences in a meaningful way.

What does this look like in action? It can be facilitating discussions that centre the voices of those most impacted by the decision at hand. It can be talking less and listening more. It can be as simple as the artwork in your office or on your website, communication methods, food selection at meetings or events, and choices of company holidays. Each of these can be intentionally designed to include or exclude people.

3.  Being the “other”.

As a white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied woman, it’s quite common for me to find myself in spaces surrounded by people like me. It’s rare for me to feel like an outsider or an “other”. This allows me incredible privilege and comfort in my day-to-day life. Solo and off-the-beaten path travel has allowed me the humbling experience of being the “other”.

In some cases this has been a humorous experience, like having an endless line of people in Beijing asking to have their photo with me. In other cases, these experiences have caused me to feel very alone and, at times, concerned for my safety. For instance, while I was alone in Granada, Nicaragua, I found my way to the local market and was wandering the stalls looking at all the local fruits, vegetables, meats and spices. It was wonderful! Then I noticed I was the only tourist there, and the sun was setting. As I made my way out, two men started whistling at me. My chest tightened. I barely speak Spanish, so I smiled and started walking in the direction towards my hotel. In the end, the man wanted to offer me a taste of his homemade cheese, which was delicious. But, I had that moment of feeling totally alone and afraid.

Being the "other" in Beijing helped me to appreciate valuing differences in the workplace
While travelling in Beijing it was common for people to ask for photos with me

How this translates to valuing differences in the workplace

While I will never know the daily experience of being “othered”, these travel experiences have allowed me to empathise and work to include those who are underrepresented in a group, team or organisation. Want to make a difference beyond the workplace? Think about how you can work to include those who are underrepresented or marginalised in other aspects of your life! For me, this meant creating a weekly learning guide for white allies to support diversifying the outdoors industry.

4.  Holding gratitude and finding happiness within my circumstances.

After returning from my two weeks in a remote area of Vietnam, I walked into my condo and immediately felt the weight of the “stuff” I own. It was an overwhelming heaviness in my chest. Thanks to jetlag, I stayed up all night and emerged at dawn with ten bags and several boxes of stuff to donate. I envisioned the floors of the condo literally lifting as the weight of those things was removed.

To this day, that vision and heaviness revisits me often.

During my time in Vietnam, I saw how incredibly happy some people were with very little, and how willing they were to share the little that they had with strangers. Small exchanges, such as seeing the family’s faces light up as they presented us with a fish for our last meal together – something I would normally take for granted – were endearing.

Since that experience in Vietnam, I’ve seen this same theme time and again in my travels. I return from each of my travel experiences with a deep sense of gratitude for simple things like electricity, a refrigerator, a car and access to healthcare.

How this translates to valuing differences in the workplace

These travel experiences have helped me see that everyone I work with comes with different experiences. They may not have access to the things I’m grateful for. For instance, many of our employees take public transit and don’t have access to a car, so when choosing locations for meetings I need to consider the bus routes nearby not the size of the parking lot.

Also, importantly, not everyone is motivated by money or things. This means I need to dig deeper to understand an employee’s intrinsic motivation, the things that inherently get them out of bed in the morning, and tap into that. For many, this can be as simple as recognising their work with a thank you card or kind words.

5.  Knowing my strengths and weaknesses.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a better way to learn about your own strengths and weaknesses than solo travel. Every single decision is yours to make, and every barrier you face is yours to overcome. Pretty quickly, you’ll discover your limits.

For instance, when I travel, I love to rent a car or bicycle so that I can have the freedom of exploring at my own pace. After living in England for three years, I’ve mastered driving on both sides of the road. Thanks to my parents forcing me to take Driver’s Ed in a manual car, I’m quite comfortable driving automatic or manual. But, if I’m going to be solo, I know I need navigation. So, I often rent a portable wifi hotspot or purchase a local SIM card for my phone to ensure I’ll be connected the entire time. This is one of my limits and now that I know that, I can plan to accommodate it.

How this translates to valuing differences in the workplace

As a past manager, I know that employees who are aware of their strengths and weaknesses are highly valuable. They know when to ask for help and they know when to step forward and offer their strengths. This is why it’s common in job interviews to be asked “tell me about your weaknesses” or “tell me about a time when you’ve made a mistake”. The interviewer isn’t asking for a fluffy answer or even that there is one right answer, they want to know that you are self-aware of your limitations.

Self-awareness and introspection
The self-awareness and introspection provided by travel has been an invaluable asset in my career

Using introspection to build self-awareness

So, you’ve done a ton of traveling – great! You must be self-aware, right? Nope, not necessarily. Before you update your resume, apply for that promotion, or ask for that raise, take some time to reflect. No matter what field you work in, here are some helpful prompts for you to use introspection to build self-awareness related to your travel experiences:

  • Create a “nectar list” of the impactful moments you’ve had in your travels or in life. Pick 5–10 of those and reflect on what you learned about yourself from those experiences.
  • Think about recent or particularly memorable travel experiences. What did you discover about your strengths and weaknesses through those experiences?
  • Think back to who you were before your first major travel experience or career break. In what ways have you changed since then?
  • How have your travel experiences shaped how you interact with people different from you? In what ways can you apply this in your career?

Introspection and building your self-awareness is a lifelong journey, and travel is an incredible mechanism for growth in both areas. The more aware you are of how your life experiences have shaped your worldview, the more prepared you will be to value the voices, perspectives and ideas of those with different life experiences. Every single industry and organisation benefits from employees who know themselves and value differences in the workplace.

Looking for more ideas on how to talk about travel on your resume? Find out how travel makes you a better leader.

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Susan writes about how travel is a powerful tool in valuing differences in the workplace, and how this has translated to personal growth in her career. #workplaceculture #careerskills #benefitsoftravel #valuingdifferences #understandingcultures

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