A Little Choice… or a Big One? Reflections Making Choices & Seven Years of Travel

Seven years ago, I boarded a flight that forever changed the direction of my life. The flight took me from Los Angeles, my home for the previous two years, to Sydney, Australia. Sydney was the first stop on a largely unplanned year of traveling around the world. The route would take me home by way of Asia and Europe. I was scared.

The morning of my flight, I called my bestie with breathy hiccuping sobs. I implored her to convince me that leaving LA to travel was the right decision. Tied up within those desperate and confused sobs were a myriad of fears. Fears related to the journey. Fears related to derailing my career as an actress. Fears hitting me as an abstract pain in knowing that I would see neither friends nor family for an entire year. In the 24 years I had been alive, I had never been alone for that long.

I have the best readers; one of them included this meme from Indiana Jones in his email. It really can feel like that big of a choice.

I have the best readers. One emailed me this meme when he wrote for advice. (And it’s thanks to a Portland-based reader, who tied me to a chair a year ago, that I watched Indiana Jones and understood the reference!)

I asked myself over and over in those final hours before I headed to the airport: What if this is the wrong choice?

That moment of struggle is one we all face at various points in our lives. Over the years, my readers email with a frequent and heartfelt email refrain of “how did you know you should go?”

They want to know what click of certainty happened to tell me this was the right decision. How did I know that the desire to travel long-term was the impulse I should follow, rather than other impulses. Impulses like staying to build a career, staying to solidify friendships and relationships. Should you take that fantastic job across country? Should you go to college? Should you pack up your life and travel for a year?

Deciding to travel involves a litany hard choices. It requires answering “no” to everything except travel. Each decision and answer the course of your life. No matter how you answer, you’ve now made a big decision. And alongside those hard choices are other struggles too. Some readers have unsupportive families, or fears of traveling solo, some fear leaving fabulous jobs, or are on the cusp of deciding to have kids, and many are struggling with eh lack of autonomy stemming from being a minor.

Readers email me in the throes of their own tough decisions. I email back with reassurances and advice. And to them, and here, I acknowledge that I hardly feel qualified to dole out pearls of life wisdom. Having taken that year-long trip, however, I will share my thought-process in making the big decision for an abrupt change.

Readers ask: “How did you know that taking a year to travel was the right choice?”

Quite simply, I didn’t know. Selling my things and getting on that plane seven years ago filled me with complete uncertainty and left few guarantees. In my obsession to label that trip as “the right direction for my life,” I missed the fact that using the terms “good choice” and “bad choice” is a fallacy in our language. You can choose wrong on a science test, you can’t chose wrong in constructing your life. A choices is a single decision; what comes next is a series of outcomes, reactions, and a trajectory that you continue to steer. Ensure that you’re not making the choice because of abstract fears and the status quo. These decisions construct the life you will lead for years to come. In that moment of choice, look at your priorities and assemble the pieces that build the life you want to live. Then, in a year — or many years from now — accept that you, with all your functioning capacity, chose the route.

how to decide to travel

Two pivotal decisions in my life. On the left, I drove across the country in 2006 with my dad on my move to LA We stopped at the Grand Canyon en route and everything I owned was in the trunk of my car. On the right is my final day as a Los Angeleno; I owned almost nothing and I hiked Runyon Canyon with friends hours before I boarded my flight to Sydney. Both shaped who I am and how I got here. I wouldn’t take back either decision.

The choice readers face is usually between long-term travel and a more prescriptive life, like taking a job, staying the course, etc. I had that moment of choice too, and I chose to travel. That choice set in motion a series of events that have me at a place in my life that I often love. I travel, I speak to college students, and I have this amazing community of like-minded people on A Little Adrift. How could that have been wrong?

The thing is, staying in Los Angeles would have likely been just as right. We are adaptable creatures. If we keep the comparison game in check and live with gratitude, like moths to the flame of positivity, we thrive in our environments. It’s not that LA would have been a wrong choice for me, but instead it’s my ghost life. Cheryl Strayed used a beautiful analogy that has stuck with me for years. When looking at our lives from afar, we can see a ghost ship floating along beside us. It’s the life we would have led had we made different decisions at pivotal moments. Leaving LA was a pivotal moment. I could have had a great life there, but I’ll never know what waited on that ghost ship.

For anyone facing this choice, know that you can stay put and build an amazing life and have no regrets. You can travel for a time and build an amazing life and also have no regrets. You can combine and mix them. It’s your decision and nothing is wrong. You can switch up any plan mid-stream, too. When I left to travel, I had this overwhelming fear of “what if I hate traveling and I want to come home but I’ve already told everyone my big plan and they will think I failed and it will be shameful to not be able to do it.”

And that was total bullshit. I did want to come home at points on my trip. After eight months, I desparately wanted to come home. I stayed the course for the rest of my year, but I decided to travel in six months stints going forward. That’s the balance that worked for me. I found my balance by testing the reaches of my comfort zones. To know the limits of my ideal life, I had to act on that initial idea of “hmm, what if I work and travel and see what that kind of life is like.”

decision to travel

The enormity of picking up your life and leaving, especially solo, can seem huge. It is huge. Travel is expensive. It’s doable — it’s comparable to a year of living in the U.S. — but saving that much money is a considerable feat for many. When I left, my income was a smidge above poverty level. My online job allowed me to work every single week of these past seven years. Without that job, I would have spent years saving the funds. But I could have saved. Saving was within the realm of possible. Even more, the U.S. dollar is a strong currency, and I live in a country with work opportunities and a social safety net.

There is privilege in even having this choice. Recognizing this privilege snaps it into perspective for me when I get angsty. It’s a big decision, but there is only relative risk in either choice, to go or to stay. I carry around the world one of the most powerful passports. It gains me entrance — often for free — to a myriad of fascinating cultures and people and lands that generations before me could only see in the pages of their National Geographic magazine. In the depths of feeling like I was charting a course for self-destruction, it helps to remember that this is a privileged choice. It’s an honor to have this choice. If you have the means to travel the world — by way of having enough money and a strong passport — it’s a gift. I say this not to sway you to travel long-term, but to take the angst from the choice. Travel should never be a burden, travel is a gift. How long you travel, whether it’s on weekend trips meshed into your work-kids-home life, or whether it’s an epic journey to circumnavigate the globe — it’s going to be great either way.

I have a ghost life in Los Angeles. It floats next to me when I visit the city and walk the streets of my old neighborhood. This ghost life punches with nostalgia when I sit across from my ex eating lunch at what was once my favorite café. This life hovers just beyond my reach. It was an option; it was a path I could have taken. The path wasn’t more right or wrong, but it was drastically different from what I have now.

If I had ridden that other ghost ship, I would have given up all the highs and lows of these past seven years on the road. And, to be sure, moments on that other path might have been just as sweet and transformative. I would have held tight to LA-based memories shimmering with goodness and happiness. As I have written many times in the past, though, travel was my bootcamp for life. Having made this choice, and the past seven years of people, places, and stories form the bedrock of who I am today.

I looked at the possible ships my life could take that day. With all the unknowns, uncertainties, and fears, I picked up my suitcase and boarded that plane seven years ago. There were no guarantees and no promises. I stood with no more than the power and privilege of making my own life choices. I am so glad I chose travel.

~Shannon


35 Responses to A Little Choice… or a Big One? Reflections Making Choices & Seven Years of Travel

  1. Ahmed Fuad February 8, 2017 at 8:15 am #

    You are a true warrior…thats all nothing else to say..

  2. Carly Jo Porter May 19, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

    My husband and I are hoping to sell everything and travel long term in about 18 months. I love reading stories like yours that reassure me that this is completely possibly! Currently I teach piano lessons on skype so I’m hoping that I’d be able to do this as we travel. We also want to continue traveling after we have kids someday. It’s a completely new way of experiencing life. I love it so much! I’ve been to 26 countries for service and photography and never wanted to come back to the US haha. Thanks again!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 19, 2016 at 10:36 pm #

      Hi Carly. What a big change you have coming! And yes, it’s a big enormous decision and chain of events to get on the road, but it’s so very possible. And the big relief is that once you start setting things in motion, it starts to pick up speed. It was far harder to *think* about the traveling and to make the decision than to execute the plan once i had done it. I hope you have a wonderful time planning your RTW trip — 18 months is a fantastic amount of time to see a lot! :)

  3. Ella - Wide-Eyed Wanderer March 13, 2016 at 5:22 am #

    What a powerful piece! I love how you say that there is no good or bad choice and that to even have a choice is a massive privilege. It definitely puts things into perspective and takes off the pressure of making ‘the right choice’. Loved this!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 13, 2016 at 10:07 am #

      Hi Ella, so glad this piece resonated. It’s so difficult sometimes to figure out which direction is the “right” one, but when we acknowledge privilege and think of how it moves us toward are larger goals of health and happiness, sometimes that helps relieve the pressure. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. :)

  4. Sophie Nadeau | solosophie February 22, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    Hi: I loved reading your story! There’s the old saying that says ‘hindsight is 20:20’ and it’s definitely not wrong. You can never know 100% if you’re making the right choice at the time but I’m glad it’s all worked out for you :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 23, 2016 at 12:04 am #

      Thank you Sophie! So true, there is never a way to tell when you’re in the middle of the choice, only in retrospect. Thanks for reading! :)

  5. Rahul Shah November 27, 2015 at 3:36 am #

    Thank you for making site sharing travel experience.I salute you :) Google led me here on query How much it takes to travel whole world..long story short i got answer avg $20 to $150 per day depending on various things and 3 yrs or more time .so approx 20K to 70K dollars .
    I saw you have youtube channel too ; Why not have daily short videos logs.It be cool to video document places u visit and share with World Wide Web…it;s just an suggestion Think over it :) God bless you and Good luck for your Future Travels.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 27, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

      Hi Rahul! So glad you found your way here, and that you’re planning some round the world travels. Your estimations are spot on for the costs. As for the videos — it’s a great idea but a lot of work. I have hours of video from these past years, I just have never cut it together. But you give me a good reminder that I need to get on that! Safe and happy travels, let me know if I can ever help with anything. :)

  6. Shelby Vogl (This Wild Romance November 25, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    What a great post. I really enjoyed the idea of the ghost ship. There’s always going to be what if’s in life but I think the most important thing is to not let those what if’s control you. This post really resonated with me so thank you.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 25, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

      So glad the piece resonated Shelby. Finding peace with whichever path you took is definitely an important part of it. It can be bitter-sweet to think of the untaken path, but important to live in the now as well. :)

  7. Jaime Becktel November 22, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Gary Arndt led me to your blog without his knowing it and I am thrilled to be here. I am in the process of a giant life pivot and reading this post was so validating. Travel on sister!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 22, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

      I am so glad you found your way here Jamie, and that this piece resonated. It can seem so huge to make these big decisions, but it’s single steps moving forward to the lives we want to create. Good luck on your own journey to the bigger and better. Let me know if I can ever help you with anything. :)

  8. Mallory Fay November 8, 2015 at 10:30 pm #

    I just happened upon your blog and I am so glad I did. I am in the midst of finding that courage to shift directions – or more so finding the ‘right’ next direction but you are correct in stating there is no right or wrong direction or decision. Placing so much pressure on finding the ‘right’ direction to go from the crossroads I am in is paralyzing, making me feel even more ‘stuck’. Thanks for unsticking me a bit!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 8, 2015 at 10:55 pm #

      I am so happy that the piece resonated right when you needed Mallory. It can seem overwhelming and like there is a single move in these hard decisions, especially when the choices on each side are so incomparable — I am sure all your directions have their own positives. Good luck. Let me know if I can ever help with anything.

  9. Joanne November 5, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    Seven years?! I cannot believe it has been that long since we said Arriba Dierchi to you! This was beautifully written as always. Your thoughts and insight are so clear, so concise, so you…you change the world for the better with every trip you take, and the world at large would be a much sadder place had you chosen to not travel (even though we miss you so!) I am proud of you and all that you have accomplished and I am proud to call you my sista from another mista! Big hugs and congrats on 7 years!!!! WHOA!!!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

      It is so hard to fathom how seven years has passed. Thank you for the support these years Jojo, can’t imagine my life without you guys in it. Big love back atcha and miss you heaps!!! xoxo

  10. Kandy November 5, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Shannon, I happened upon this blog from someone sharing it on FB and found it quite intriguing, thank you for writing about your choices so beautifully! I love to travel, am ready to do so much more, and would love to do this, but my hubby isn’t quite ready yet (job restraints). We did move to So. Calif from the NW area, 3yrs ago, so things are good for now =) You know, when we make the choices in life from love, we can never go wrong in the choice, and life will be so much more amazing than one lead by fear. As another poster said, will we regret having not made the choice, is the true question. I look forward to perusing your other writings, now that I’ve come across you.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

      I am so glad you happened upon it and that the post resonated Kandy! A move to SoCal is a good adventure to start — there is so much beauty in the nearby National Parks for mini adventures until you can do other trips. If there is anything I can ever do to help, please don’t hesitate to reach out! :)

      • Kandy November 6, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

        You are right, Shannon, and we’ve certainly enjoyed getting out in this wonderful weather for mini trips here and there. Thank you so much for your kind offer of help, I was just reading your blog about working nationally =) I may need your assistance, as I’m still looking for work (that’s a longer topic, lol), one of these days =) Thank you, again!! =)

  11. Katherine Wright November 5, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    Starting to feel like I have a ghost life in Oregon as well. So strange coming home after being in Europe for 9 months, but it’s good to see family and friends. Already looking forward to traveling again soon. Great post. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

      So happy to hear the post resonated Katherine. It can be so odd to come back home and see the place and people so much the same after you’ve been on such a journey. I hope you enjoy time with friends and family! :)

  12. Jodi E. November 4, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

    I enjoyed this point and also the dichotomies you spoke of, ones that I’ve faced in my own travels. I think you do owe yourself some sincere credit too, not just for the acknowledgement of your own privilege and decision to travel in a way that maintains awareness of it (and the perspective others might have), but also because you not only chose travel, but you CHOSE to make it a bootcamp for life. Lots of people visit new countries but don’t sink into the people and the places as you do. I’m always inspired to hear your perspective, and I am grateful to call you a friend. <3

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

      Thank you lady, I am so grateful these past years helped me find you, can’t imagine life without calling you my friend. And you’re right about the choice to sink into travel too. Facing the edge of comfort zones and abandoning ego long enough to see and learn is often as uncomfortable and challenging as the decision to leave in the first place. Your own travels and journeys to constantly go deeper and understand each new place’s food history has, and continues, to inspire me to be ever more curious. <3

  13. Drew Meyers November 4, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    “You can travel for a time and build an amazing life and also have no regrets. You can combine and mix them. It’s your decision and nothing is wrong. You can switch up any plan mid-stream, too. ”
    reminds me of –>
    From “Curious Case of Benjamin Button – “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

      Oh I love that movie quote. I saw the film ages ago and don’t remember that line at all. It’s the strength to change when you find you’re not in the right spot — that’s the trickiest part about making hard choices and charting a new course for your life. Thanks Drew. :)

  14. House To Laos November 4, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Beautifully written. I sometimes struggle with the guilt of having the luxury of choice to travel. Not from my peers in the US – for most of whom the life of travel is an option they could elect to take – but from the locals we meet out there in the great big world. That guilt crystalized when we spent a few days on Rabbit Island, off the coast of Kep, Cambodia. There we met so many locals who came to relax, many of them sweet and welcoming and very chatty – not unusual for that part of the world. We were talking on the beach, and a group of teenagers kept asking us about where we’ve been and what we liked about their country and other places. Finally, they admitted that they would love to travel like we do, but it’s simply not a possibility for them. They asked us to tell others about how wonderful Cambodia is and how it welcomes visits — which we do often. But I also often reflect on this humbling incident to remind myself that I am quite lucky to chose to travel, or not to travel.

    Congratulations on 7 years of travel, and so many wonderful stories — both highs and lows!

    • Drew Meyers November 4, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

      The life we live is a fairy tale to the vast majority of the world. I wish more people would truly realize that fact…that’s is at the core of my personal (and my startups) long term mission in life.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

      Like you, there are people behind so many parts of this post and the ideas I’ve formed. I met a guy hiking in Tbilisi last month, a Syrian living and working in Dubai. 20s, enthusiastic about life and a dream to travel. But his Syrian passport is a no-go, he spent a long time talking about how he had contented himself with exploring that region, while waiting for years it will take for a new situation in that region of the world. We were given such privilege by nothing more than birth. Thank you for sharing your story of the boys in Kep, I hope you have wonderful continued travels as well (and let me know if you pass through St. Pete, FL — I saw you were in the area for TBEX and I am home for the holidays). :)

  15. Mary B November 4, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    Yes yes and yes! Life has so many possibilities, and sometimes none of them are bad – you just have to go with what feels right in the moment. There are no guarantees that it will be perfect, but there are no guarantees that the ghost life would have been either! My biggest deciding factor: will I regret it if I DON’T do this?

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

      That is a fantastic metric too, it’s often when asking ourselves which option we might regret no taking that we really understand what is at risk for who we are and the lives we are building. So happy that the post resonated Mary, thank you for reading!

  16. Brave Teachers November 4, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    This hit me right where I needed it today. I’m not going around the world, but I made a similar decision to walk away from a super stable job that was sucking me dry to create an amazing life for myself and my young son. In my mid-forties this was even scarier and with a child. I do worry how the bills will get paid, but I love our life and the work I do as an artist, writer, yogi, and freelance teacher of many things! Sometimes I’m held hostage by the lack of security that I perceived in my other life, but I am so much more delighted with the trajectory of our life today than I was a year ago! Thanks for reminding me of this today.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 5, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

      I am so glad to hear the post resonated, and right when you needed it. And congrats on finding the courage to make such a huge life change! Freelancing is a scary world, particularly with another life dependent on you, but it does get smoother as you build more contacts over the years and build a solid reputation. Cheers and best of luck on this trajectory. :)