About a year ago I took a trip around the world, alone, visiting 28 countries starting in Japan and wandering all the way around to England, bouncing several times over the equator. The timing was one of those perfect storm things – empty nester, healthy and confident, sufficient funds in the bank, a career as a professor that was kind of ending, and a profound curiosity for how other fellow astronauts on Spaceship Earth live. I just couldn’t get anyone to go with me, so rather than wait, I just went.
This wasn’t one of those “Eat Pray Love” things, I just wanted to drop myself into the world and see what happened. At the beginning, I knew that I wanted to do more than just look at old buildings and sip fancy drinks on beaches. So I decided to work my way around, offering my services as a pro bono business consultant to small social enterprises, those organizations – for profit and non profit – that support lower income communities with valuable products and services. Working on my own, I did projects for 7 organizations in 7 countries.
Have you ever snorkeled? You look out across the smooth surface of the ocean, seeing just clouds and waves and sky. But when you get under the surface, an entirely new and vastly different world opens up to you. That’s what working as an international volunteer did for me. By working alongside people towards a common goal, I noticed behaviors, I learned motivations, I saw the world through eyes that were, literally, foreign to me. And I bonded with people in friendship. I got under the “tourist layer” and the resulting view of my world was astonishing.
I was transformed as anyone who has traveled internationally for a long time can describe. You stop thinking of yourself as just a citizen of your country, and start seeing that you really are connected to every other human in this world. When you visit
- spots of historical tragedy (killing fields in Cambodia, villages ravaged by Joseph Kony in Uganda, and Auschwitz),
- spots of timeless beauty (Taj Mahal, beaches of Vietnam, and the sandstone cliffs in Guilin), and
- spots of deep spirituality (Doi Suthep Buddhist monastery in Thailand, Shinto shrines in Kyoto, and mosques in Morocco)…
you can’t help but connect to the sacred in yourself. You will find that no matter how a new friend looks, or which language they speak, or what their culture compels them to do, they want what you want – an opportunity to make choices, a spark of hope that their families will be safe, a desire to make an impact on this earth that we all inhabit.
If you’ve ever thought about traveling, but have found reasons not to, I want you to know that if you do travel, you will be transformed in ways that you can’t predict, and will value profoundly. The challenges you’ll face, the doubts, even the loneliness, will be more than balanced out by the power, joy and dignity that you’ll get from the people you meet and work with. I no longer have any interest in just being a tourist when I travel. Every trip, from now on, will include some pro bono volunteering project that lets me connect with amazing people. I encourage you to follow your adventurous calling and figure out a way to travel, experience, and connect.
Dave Meader has been a professor and business consultant in Arizona and the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently he is writing a book called “The Lean Volunteer: How To Travel The World and Do Good With Your Business Expertise”. At the same time, he is creating a series of online and in person workshops for people who want to support small social enterprises around the world as part of their personal adventure in this life. He also offers training workshops for companies who want to support their staff in making contributions in the same way. You can sign up for news about the book and upcoming courses at leanvolunteer.com