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What I Learned Backpacking Around the World

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Young woman pausing while backpacking in rolling hills

by Ida Abdalkhani

It’s interesting how of my varied journeys and adventures in life—getting my MBA right after my undergraduate degrees (with no full-time work experience), going from corporate employee to entrepreneur, becoming a laughter yoga instructor, and even bungee jumping in Victoria Falls—the one thing that people most want to talk about is my backpacking trip around the world.


I’m not sure what drives this curiosity in others. I’ve come to believe that it’s a mixture of multiple emotions and thoughts that prompt others to be interested in my travels. I think it’s one-part inspiration (“Whoa, I dream of doing that….one day!”), one-part incredulousness/bewilderment, (“You backpacked alone…as a single woman…around the world? Really?!), and one-part knowledge-seeking (“So how exactly did you pay for this, if you don’t mind me asking?”).


I have shared my personal story with various organizations, college classes, and friends over the years, and as the questions keep piquing interest, I felt it was time I codify and share it with others.


Let’s start at the beginning, as the adventure started much before I took the step to purchase my one-way ticket abroad.


I was in my late 20’s and working as a global brand manager. I had a great career, social life, and loved the work that I did, and the people that I worked with. However, I was missing important milestones in my family and friends’ lives and I felt like there was more to life than working long hours and being fulfilled primarily by achieving work goals. I found myself waking up every day feeling unsatisfied. I felt like I wanted to do more with my life, but had no idea what that meant or where to start. These thoughts started in 2010.


Fortunately, I had a vacation planned in the summer of 2010. I decided to use this vacation, far away from day-to-day life, to evaluate what was important to me and what my next move(s) should be. On my vacation I started to feel more like “me.” I started to shed my negative tone that had been bringing me down in the months leading up to the trip and realized that, for me, no amount of money was worth waking up and not feeling great each day. I didn’t know what the answer was, but I knew what it was not. It was not continuing to wake up unhappy. I decided to push myself outside my comfort zone on my trip to prove to myself that I could do new and different things and be okay. I ended up bungee jumping at Victoria Falls on the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia. It showed me that I could literally and figuratively take a leap of faith—do something that scared me—and be okay. When I returned from this break, I turned in my two week notice when, without having a plan—which may not work for others. However, I had decided I didn’t want to live another day not realizing my potential.


I took some time to rest and embarked upon some heavy self-reflection. Never having formally meditated, I went to a Buddhist temple to calm the chatter in my mind of “what’s next?” questions. As a meditation student I lived with the practicing community, alternating several hours of silent meditation with cleaning throughout the day. Meditation provided me with an avenue to let subconscious thoughts surface, acknowledge, and accept them. This experience also led me to find laughter yoga (and eventually to become a certified instructor). The “self-love” I learned via meditation is a life lesson that I will always incorporate into my life. Over time, I have experimented with various forms of meditation and have expanded my approach to incorporate self-reflective moments into my daily life.


After my decompression and self-reflection, I still did not feel ready to jump back into work. This was mostly driven by a lack of knowing what work, field or profession I wanted to pursue. I looked at my bucket list and saw that I had “backpack around the world” on my list –albeit the timeline I had associated with this item was “before 60 years old.” I embraced the notion of carpé diem and purchased a one-way ticket to Europe. I traveled across eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and South America for about 8 months and visited 50 countries. I cannot say that I “found myself” on the trip, as I believe that is an on-going process that has no definitive end point. However, the journey enabled me to significantly evolve myself. I learned to listen to my thoughts, to ask myself difficult questions about what types of things made me sad, angry, or happy, and to set my goals for what I wanted to do with my life. I realized through my trip that I love the field of business and brand management, but I wanted to focus on my passion areas within the field (e.g. innovation, strategy and consumer behavior).

Importantly, my trip gave me an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction and confidence in myself simply by pursuing something that I truly wanted. I had always done what I thought was the right next step in life (go to college, get an advanced degree, work at a great company). I enjoyed these things but didn’t stop to ask myself if I was doing them because I truly wanted to or because society, my parents, and/or friends thought it was the right thing to do. Backpacking satisfied me deep within because I had taken my own dream and made it a reality. It gave me confidence to know I could take a leap of faith, not have a definitive objective or course of action, and end up okay. It taught me that it’s okay to love yourself and put your own needs above others at times if it helps you be a more whole, balanced, individual. I truly believe that you cannot love another until you love yourself.


Looking back at it now, I felt like I was floating in life, unsure of where I would land. I felt like I was a bird ready to fly and explore the world, but was caged. Society’s thoughts on how life should unfold at specific ages or milestones in one’s life, held me back. I think the lessons I learned in my journey can help anyone feeling lost or seeking a re-direct to getting back on track to a life that is fulfilling.

Key Lessons I Learned Through My Journey:

1) Remove external noise. We need time with our own minds and emotions to hone our gut instincts, and discern between what we think we should do based on societal norms vs what we want to do based on our own needs and desires.

2) Do something that scares you. Through our experiences (more responsibility at work, the golden handcuffs, family considerations, etc.) we tend to become more risk averse. Think about it…how many scared kids do you encounter? My nephew jumps off the highest points he can find at the playground with a huge smile on his face. No fear. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone will help you learn more about yourself than you will ever learn in a classroom, reading books, or talking to friends and family.

3) Follow a dream to build confidence in yourself. Pick one dream you have and go for it! It doesn’t matter how “big” or “small” the endeavor may be. Going after something you personally believe in will help satisfy your heart & help equip you to weather the storms of life. You will fondly remember those heart-felt experiences and smile.

4) Take small steps. I didn’t quit my job knowing I would backpack around the world or that I would start my own business. It all came to me in pieces. I put one foot in front of the other, and over time, the small pieces became a mosaic.


So what are you waiting for? Put your dreams into action. Take one small step today to make yourself happy. Take another step tomorrow. Before you know it, you’ll be leading a more self-directed, more satisfying, life.


If there’s one thing I learned from all my adventures in life, it’s not to let life pass you by living with unrealized potential.


Ida Abdalkhani is the Founder & Chief Catalyzer of Ability to Engage. Ability to Engage helps brands develop marketing communications, product ideas, brand strategies (brand personality, equity, and architecture), and consumer segmentations. The A2E team also develops and facilitates innovation sessions, strategic meetings, and team effectiveness workshops. Clients include start-up companies, international government groups, and some of the world’s largest and most respected companies in brand and marketing such as Clorox, ConAgra Foods, McGraw Hill, PepsiCo, Pfizer, and Procter & Gamble.

Ida holds three degrees from The Ohio State University (MBA, BSBA, and BA) and now teaches a course at the school’s Fisher College of Business in Creativity & Innovation. She also serves as a Brand & Consumer Behavior Advisor at TechArb at the University of Michigan and as a guest speaker at universities, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies. Ida holds six patents with the USPTO and has been published in Prentice Hall, YOUNG MONEY® magazine, and several blogs. She serves as an Advisory Board Member to several start-ups and is a certified Laughter Yoga instructor.