Traveling adds tremendous value to our career psyche, not just in terms of relieving stress and recharging but boosting our career game. Years ago I made a pact to travel outside of the U.S. at least once a year, This year, my wanderlust bug led to South Africa and the experience exceeded my expectations. There were a few mouth gaping moments seeing Table Top Mountain, Zulu Nation and Camps Bay, but the win was the lessons I learned from my experiences in South Africa.
Conquer that Big Scary Thing
I swam with sharks in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and it wasn’t even on my bucket list. Nevertheless, I found myself on a platoon jumping high waves in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by sharks. Prior to jumping into the cage, I had ample opportunity to back out. There was that opportunity when land was no longer in sight, and only gray skies and blue waters could be seen for miles or when the guide began to slowly dump buckets of fish blood into the water to bait sharks or when the sharks arrived immediately like clockwork surrounding our platoon. Although my heart was beating at my running pace, I was determined to conquer this big scary thing in front of me. I got into the cage, and found myself face to face with several sharks who could’ve easily gnawed off my toes and fingers, but here I was experiencing this amazing high under the Indian Ocean. It was beautiful, terrifying, mind blowing and it felt so good (and my grandmother in Ghana called to tell me I was a complete idiot in our native language).
I walked away from the experience with a superhero high, beating my chest and all. But more importantly, I learned that the reward on the other side of your fear is far greater than standing still or taking a pass.
Build an Expansive Worldview
Over the years each of my travel experiences has stuck with me and has informed my outlook at work and my personal life. I spend a lot of time watching people in new countries, talking to uber/taxi drivers and local waiters to understand their conditions, daily life, work life, politics, and culture. These conversations helps me to expand my perspectives on ideas and frameworks that I’ve been holding on to or have never considered. In Cape Town, I rented an uber driver/car for the day and spent a post card-esque day with a driver from Zimbabwe who grew up in Cape Town. On long drives with mountain and ocean views at each turn, we talked about South Africa’s political structure, he broke down the historical context of being considered colored and black, racism, economy, working in the country and the power structures in workplaces. I learned that he didn’t even own the car he was driving. I was shocked because every uber driver I’ve ever spoken with in the U.S. owned their cars. In his case, a wealthy business owner invested in a fleet of cars and hired people like him to drive and he was then paid by the owner. We talked about what it would take for him to own a car and it seemed like a pipe dream. Although this may seem extraneous, it clearly highlighted the working class differences between people of color in the U.S. and Cape Town. I walked away from that day with seeds planted and a more expansive outlook.
On a different day, I spent the day strolling through Bo Kaap, a picturesque town lined with colorful homes. It is home to descendants of freed slaves. I happened upon an older white gentlemen who initiated a conversation while I was taking selfies. He invited me to sit on his porch which was in a very open area so I obliged. He proudly told me he had converted to Islam over thirty years ago and it was very rare for white South Africans to convert but it was the best thing he had ever done. He moved to Bo Kaap which is a predominantly Muslim community to be closer to the Mosque. He told me that I looked like a very smart and important person back home. I laughed and told him I was just a human resources director. He laughed and told me he had retired as an HR Director for a European company operating in South Africa. We talked shop for a while and told me to always use my HR powers for good. He was a charming man and the entire interaction seemed surreal, like a scene out of an independent movie.
There were so many teachable moments and nuggets of information that I encountered in South Africa that will continue to shape my worldview and career psyche for years to come. You heard it here – traveling is just as bit of a professional development as attending that week-long business conference.