#MeetPlanGo 2012

In the process of deciding to travel and laying the groundwork to make it happen, I have discovered that I am far from alone. In addition to talking to some incredibly kind and helpful bloggers, I recently had the opportunity to take a day trip to NYC for the 2012 edition of Meet Plan Go, a fantastic annual conference for anyone considering a career break centered on travel. Founded by Sherry Ott and a couple of friends, the idea is to make “career break” a household term and something that everyone does at some point in life. On that same night, at 10 sites across the country, hundreds of people came together to get energized about this idea. I’m thrilled I got to go to the NYC event because it’s the hub of the whole movement.

After attendees were settled in their seats with beer and snacks, the evening opened with a video interview with Andrew McCarthy. As a sidenote, I had no idea who he was when I first read his Traveler essay, which was the push I needed to get off my ass and make a big move. And suddenly his message is spreading far and wide. It’s almost identical to what I’ve read in his book and heard him say in interviews and at a live event, but I know that if it inspired me in such a big way, surely other people in the room had the same reaction.

If that doesn’t make you want to go straight to the airport, I don’t know how to help you.

Next up was a brief introduction from Sherry and a panel discussion with four career break veterans/bloggers/seasoned travelers who have all had very different experiences on the road — from a year of volunteering to traveling with a spouse and kids to backpacking solo. With every story or tip they shared, I got more antsy in my seat and more excited to set off on my own journey. I promise, the stupid grin on my face made my jaw hurt. The takeaways ranged from inspirational to practical to just downright funny, so here are some of the things that resonated most for me:

- There are two ways to jump off a cliff. You can approach it slowly, look over the edge, maybe kick a rock off, and then step back and reconsider. Or you can take a flying leap without thinking twice about to what you’re jumping into. Guess which one I’m doing?

- People are all the same no matter where we are in the world. Many of our deepest fears of others are unwarranted, and human connection can transcend language barriers. Related, even if you travel solo, you’re only alone when you want to be. Travelers are naturally drawn to each other.

- Travel teaches you how capable you really are. When you’re on the road and you need something, you can’t fall back on others or the familiarity of home to move you forward. CONFIDENCE. I learned this lesson in Russia, and I expect to learn it again and again in the months ahead.

- Less is more. Many travelers — myself included! — set off to fill up their passports with as many stamps as possible. But there’s much more value in slowing down, spending at least three nights in any given place, getting to know people, and “going local,” as it were. It’s OK not to have everything planned in advance, and because time is the one thing you can’t get back, you should use it wisely. Related, anyone who knows me will confirm that I really like planning (and scheduling, and color-coding), but for this I am incredibly excited to do very little work in advance. I would rather have the flexibility to stay longer, go deeper, learn from others, and come out at the end with a greater appreciation for the places I’ve been.

- Make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks. Anything you think you can’t overcome, you will.

- Ask yourself why you are doing this. Some questions may not be answered until you return. Others may never be answered. But you will come back with a new sense of purpose.

In addition to the warm, fuzzy, big-picture stuff, there were infinite opportunities to pick the brains of others in the room on the nitty-gritty details of travel. After the panel Q&A, we had an hour to jump around to different breakout groups on topics ranging from budgeting and packing to getting paid while on the road to safety while traveling solo. Nearly 20 session leaders were around to answer questions and lead discussions. And even though everyone’s experiences are different, hearing some of these details firsthand can make the prospect of serious travel a little less daunting. I’d already come across a lot of useful information in my research and blog reading frenzy, but I still had (have) a lot to learn.

For example: Set up a Western Union online account using a credit card you left at home as a backup in case your wallet is stolen. Take the train as much as possible — it’s the best way to observe people and places. Keep digital scans of all important documents in your e-mail and/or Google Drive so you can access them from anywhere. Turn off the technology every now and then. Try “going local” early in your trip so you don’t miss out on opportunities as time goes on. Use local publications to find interesting events or apartments or places to hang out that you wouldn’t find in the guidebooks.

I had to leave as the official program was wrapping up to catch my overnight bus back to D.C., but I got the sense that plenty of people were going to hang around to continue the conversation. If you’re thinking about a career break — no matter how old you are and whether you’ve booked a ticket or just vaguely considered the idea — find something like Meet Plan Go! It’s a valuable opportunity to learn, to network (I now have a whole travel community in D.C. I didn’t know existed), and to feed off the excitement of others.

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