Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lessons from Abroad

It's been 13 days since I've been back, and in this time, the most common request I've had from family and friends has been to summarize my most memorable moments. It's a difficult task at best, because the entire experience has been such a learning process. It's hard to pinpoint the defining moments of growth, fun or change but I am going to try to share the more overarching lessons I've learned from spending almost 3 months living in Europe.

1. On Humility and Dignity 
This is a lesson I learned from working at Thames Reach. Being on the streets and talking to people who were homeless taught me about humility and dignity. One of my most memorable experiences occurred during a friend-raising event I helped coordinate with the fundraiser on staff. We held an open evening where we invited a small group of long-term donors to come visit our offices, see what our outreach team does and chat with a previous service user (rough sleeper) turned employee of Thames Reach as well as our chief executive.

Quite often, the service user's story would be thought of as a "success story." But I do not like to think of it like that, because as much as it is about someone's success, it is at the heart of it, someone's story. A story about having the courage to change their life and to classify it into a box does not do it justice. He shared how low he felt, how little faith he had in himself, even when he found himself off the streets and into housing. He talked about the lack of motivation, lack of social skills and the fear of not knowing how to move forward or find the strength to actually do something. And so much of it resonated with me because while I do not share his experiences, at times, I have experienced some of those feelings. Listening to his story was quite humbling. I learned about dignity, of learning to value yourself and your ability to not change, but grow and that is a lesson I can say changed how I view the world. 

2. On Learning to Enjoy Your Own Company 
I had set aside two weeks following my internship to explore London on my own. While it was something I had really wanted to do, I feared it. I was afraid of feeling alone, especially in such a big city. I wanted to love it but I never expected to feel so liberated. I saw the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace alone, and it was pretty great. I was able to see things the way I wanted to, spend time on what I wanted to do without considering anyone else. I ate three course lunches alone, something I worried I would feel embarrassed to do but it was quite nice. This is not to say I do not love spending time with others, but I do recommend spending time alone and not just indoors. For me, it built confidence to know that I can enjoy my own company.

3. On Letting Go 
I am a person of lists and plans, and I hang onto security very tightly. However, my trip taught me to let go and not be so rigid. I sometimes left the house without a plan and it was great! Of course, it's not something we always have the luxury of doing when we're at home and have things to do and places to go to. However, the experience of not knowing where I was going or how to get there taught me relax, adapt and enjoy. Once you're not gripping onto something, everything feels a lot easier.

4. On Travelling
Lessons in travelling? Less is more. Don't panic. Trust yourself. Explore. Eat. Always carry cash. Talk to people. Adapt. Buy tickets online for whatever you can and google when the best times to go are to avoid waiting. Google everything. Try things you've never tried. Try to speak the language. Ask for directions. In London, always carry an umbrella. Buy good shoes. Take lots of pictures. Have fun!

5. On European Work/Life Balance
In London, the culture was not as uptight as I was expecting. If anything, working there was much more relaxed. As important as it is to work hard, having a life (so to speak) was equally important. I appreciated this at my organization, where I felt my life was so much more than just work. And that is not to say work is not important at all, but there is such an emphasis and value placed on your own time and this I truly loved. I found that it made me more productive at work because I felt content. I hope that as I start my career here, that is something I am able to maintain because one thing cannot define anyone (i.e. your job), nor should it.

6. On Independence 
Lesson #2 was about learning to enjoy your own company, but this is about being responsible for yourself and learning to trust yourself. This is perhaps my biggest take-away, knowing that I am able to take care of myself, find my way around and rely on myself. Mind you, coming home and finding my support system here again was wonderful. Because as much as you can take care of yourself, sometimes it's nice having someone else do it!