A Little Adrift

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 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.

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.”

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