I recently received an email asking the following question:
Have you noticed a particular set of skills that come in handy abroad? What should I learn to best prepare myself for living, working, and traveling overseas?
It’s a great question because travel, especially solo travel, requires you to have many skills. But, out of all of them, I think the key to travel success — the one skill that matters more than anything else — is adaptability. There is no skill or trait more important. You can suck at reading a map, have dietary restrictions that keep you eating only lettuce, and have the ability of a dog to learn a language, but if you cannot adapt to new situations, you won’t make it.
Many people fear they’ll be unable to adjust to the unknowns of the road. So while they might dream of spending their days roaming the world, exploring ancient ruins, and lounging on the beach, they don’t actually do it.
Sure, the road is long and bumpy. It twists and turns. It stops suddenly. Nothing is perfect on the road. You get lost in a jungle, lose your camera, miss a flight, get sick, or get stuck somewhere where no one speaks English — it doesn’t matter: something will happen to you. Falling into the ocean with my camera wasn’t on my list of travel goals. Neither was breaking down in Australia.
The longer you are on the road, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. Let’s call that “Matt’s Law of Travel.”
Without the ability to deal with the unexpected, you’ll fail.
Adapt or die as they say.
And, while not everyone is good at it, luckily, adaptability is a skill you can learn.
In fact, the longer you are gone, the more you learn to deal with unexpected situations.
When I first set off on the road, I was rigid. I wasn’t good at dealing with sudden changes and mishaps. I grew up in a strict environment and love things to be done on time and accordingly to schedule. We budgeted X days in Paris and, gosh darnit, we will stay that many days!
But the more I traveled and the more unexpected things that happened, the more comfortable I had to learn to adapt.
I found that I didn’t want to stay in a place as long as I had planned – or I wanted to stay longer in other places. I found there was nothing I could do about missed buses or delayed flights or canceled tours or transit strikes.
I just had to deal with them.
Soon I was going with the flow and found beauty in the happy accidents of travel.
Know thyself though. It’s OK to start at your comfort level. Maybe jumping in headfirst isn’t the best idea. There are a lot of alternatives that will allow you to dip slowly into the pool of travel. Maybe a tour group is good for you, or maybe you should travel with friends. But whatever it is, you need to get out on the road first!
Many things will happen to you while you travel — some good, some bad, some in between. No matter what, though, if you aren’t open to the experience, you will always be longing for home. You’ll have a miserable time and won’t be able to enjoy the cultures you are in.
And then, as you adapt, you learn the ying to adaptability’s yang: patience. After a life in Boston, I developed a lack of patience. It’s a fast-moving city, and we have no time for distractions. So when I first started traveling, I was frequently annoyed. I wanted people to get out of my way — I had things to do and see.
As a traveler, it’s important to develop patience. Buses run late, trains get delayed, hotels get overbooked, flights get canceled.
But you didn’t come this far to get frustrated and turn around. You came to see the world, relax, and escape the high-pressure life back home. When you find yourself getting impatient and irritated, think: “I’m on holiday. Every day is Saturday. What’s the rush?” Take a deep breath and put things in perspective — you’re a nomad. You have nothing but time.
One of the things I’ve learned on the road is that things always resolve themselves. Just relax, smile, and wait — your problem will work itself out. My hostel last weekend was overbooked, but I simply asked if they had any other beds in a different type of room. They did, and the problem was solved. I got stuck on the runway in London for one hour. I could have been really annoyed and irritated, but what’s the rush? I’ll get there eventually.
So relax. Adapt. Breathe.
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Note: This article was originally published in 2008.