See the World & Work: How to Be Productive While Travelling

2017 has been a beautiful year for me so far regarding travel. In January, I got on a flight to Bangkok, for my first ever South East Asian adventure. I’ve spent a month gallivanting around Thailand, a little over three weeks exploring and falling in head over heels love with Laos, 2 weeks in Vietnam, a little bit in Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat, a few days enjoying Kuala Lumpur and a whole month on and around beautiful Bali. My ambitions were super high: of course, I’m going to see all the interesting things and find my own adventures – most of the 3,5 months I travelled alone – but I wanted to get so much work done. I wanted to write a whole marketing strategy book. I wanted to connect with startup hubs wherever possible. I wanted to volunteer maybe, run a few workshops here and there. Yeah, sounds realistic, I know.*

The mind-bending heat and humidity, as well as the excitement of a completely new culture, put plans on the back burner pretty quickly.

After a rather stressful year, all I could think of was beach afternoons and waterfalls, dragon fruit mojitos and naps in hammocks. Three weeks in and not a word written – but feeling fairly rested – I realised travel and work don’t mesh as well as the myriad of digital nomad blogs would have you believe. I needed to seriously think through how can I achieve the most important things on my list. I realised spontaneity will have to suffer a little and plans will have to be made.

By the end of the trip, I had 23 000 words, dozens of illustrated diary pages. and a boatload of fantastic memories. Here is how to explore the world, and get shit done as well.

Prioritise

I’d consider this good practice for travelling without wanting to create as well. You won’t be able to see and do everything – the world is simply too big and wonderful – so know what you really care about, or you’ll end up burned out and exhausted.

Similarly, pick the work projects that are seriously important to you. Maybe it is the most meaningful, maybe it is the thing that will have the longest term effect or maybe it’s something you’ve never found the time for and always wanted to do. There is no right or wrong answer here, the reasons are so personal but making a conscientious choice is important.

In my case, the book had a clear priority: it is personally very meaningful to me to complete and will have the most permanent influence in my life beyond the sabbatical year. I was definitely there to experience, see and connect but travel and planning had to mould around my writing and volunteering I sadly had to let go of.

Travel slowly

When you get busy with a meaningful project it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the travel itself. To stay productive and still experience things, travelling slowly is the answer. If I could start over again, I may have chosen a completely different tactic, picking cities as a base for a month at a time. But even if you wouldn’t want to be quite so extreme, not rushing from place to place and moving every day saves you strength as well as money and grants important grounding. Staying longer offers a deeper insight into the location you are staying at and allows time to explore when you are done with your weekly goals.

Perhaps this sounds like a hard bargain to make, but it boils down to a whole lot of self-awareness and a bit of planning.
Choose locations and experiences mindfully. Know what are the things you get really enthusiastic about and be okay with turning down the rest. Choose an area to explore instead of a whole country. Build in buffer days and occasionally stay somewhere there is not a whole lot of stuff to do but still ticking some of your boxes for an adventure.

I had some of my most productive days in Lao villages and in a seaside hostel in Hoi An. The unbelievable scenery inspired and relaxed me. Dipping into the South China Sea every afternoon or hanging out with the local kids was still as far as my London normal as it could be. I wasn’t doing something thrilling every day per se, but in every fibre of my body, I truly felt that I’m travelling.

an adventure I didn’t say no to: hiking up to the Silver Cliffs above Vang Vieng in Laos, at 5 am, to see the sunrise

Learn to say no

That said, there will be distractions. Roommates inviting you for drinks, hikes, beaches every day. Some of them will think you are downright ridiculous with your laptop and dreams.** There will be massive FOMO. Hell, part of the real joy while travelling is being able to jump on opportunities and hang out with fun people. But you made up your mind about your project. You actually enjoy working on it. You know that on the long run completing it will give you more profound contentment. Learn to be okay with turning down lovely new friends for a few hours and get on with your own business.

There will inevitably be occasions where you’ll wish you’d joined that kayak trip instead of holing up in a cafe, but truthfully, it will become easier as you progress. Hopefully you are working on something you enjoy or find meaningful. Seeing it come together and a sense of achievement will provide the strength to put up going to the beach just a little bit longer.

Whatever your project, plan it out in advance

…or better yet, work on an established idea or business. Starting a completely new project from the ground up is extremely hard between hunting for accommodation, figuring out timetables, dealing with cultural differences and constantly making decisions. Travelling – as in backpacking, making your own itinerary, especially alone – while beautiful and fulfilling, is also exhausting. The energy you need to conceptualise, set up the project and make big decisions may not be available.

The best thing you can do for the sake of your project is to kick it off while you are still at home. If you plan to actually work on the road and make money, I’d suggest to only set sail after you’ve nailed a few clients or set up your website and figured out the basic workings of your company, so what remains is mostly operative.

If the need to make money is not that pressing, you’ll still immensely benefit from making a project plan complete with timing and think through how can you best combine it with the travels.
Consider which times of the day are you at your most productive. Think about how you like to travel. Do you need every spot booked in advance or do you prefer to be able to be spontaneous? Do you love the research or just want someone to suggest a spot and be done with it? Will you need working wifi? Reasonable comfortable chairs at a cafe? With a basic awareness of your habits and baseline productivity, you can zone in on locations that will be better suited and what kind of rhythm will be comfortable for moving between places.

What worked best for me was to set a weekly word count goal – it was the first draft, so it didn’t have to be perfect. Weekly***, because it gave me the flexibility to alter plans a bit if the circumstances changed – like a 2-day hiking trip up to a Laos nature reserve sleeping in a treehouse or the occasional food poisoning. I always considered the daily amount needed, but some days the bare minimum will happen only and in others, much, much more than that.
I planned my itinerary two weeks ahead, simply because I’m aware that making travel decisions depletes my energies significantly but procrastinating those decisions leaves me with an annoying nagging voice in the back of my head. Too much stress for having the time of my life. However, if I do it in one big chunk every two weeks, I free up my focus for bigger and better things. It is also flexible enough to follow recommendations or accommodate my mood and changing interests.

Do a little every day

Work, especially when it comes to creative or very independent pursuits, is a daily practice to me. You won’t have genius output every day. I have thrown out entire chapters written on those days. Sometimes all I could muster was a couple of rambling handwritten pages, looking for structure and ideas. What is important however that you keep doing it. First of all, so much of achieving results is about practice and showing up. Secondly, it is incredibly easy to fall out of the rhythm you’ve finally found, whether you are trying to stick to early morning hours or afternoon ones, to keep every other day working or the half of every week. I should know, I’ve barely put a word to page in the final month on Bali, after meeting up with family and friends and planning to relax my schedule for only a week.

Doing a little every day, even if it’s a slightly different creative muscle, even on the bad days, will help you practice.  You’ll feel accomplished and hence more motivated simply because you stuck to what you wanted to do. You’ll build stamina and discipline, and without those, crossing the finish line would be nearly impossible.

See you on the road somewhere!

 

*The funny thing? I’m not a rookie traveller or remote worker and I still thought I’ll be able to do all this and not go mad.

** One of my favourite comments must have been an “Oh, so you are one of those people who enjoy what they do?” delivered in such a clearly condescending way I almost felt ashamed about it for a second.

***Slightly unrelated, but I found weekly budgeting the best for the same reasons. You don’t go crazy and spend all your money then panic. You can still spend a little more on a more expensive, but worthwhile experience that would be harder to justify with daily spending limits. Importantly, this is also how I saved money for this trip.

9+1 lessons for life and work I’ve learned from RuPaul’s Drag Race

I’ve watched 5 seasons – that is 70 episodes –  of RuPaul’s Drag Race basically back to back. AND I can’t wait to put my little hands on season 7. (Not available on Netflix for some reason, how sad.)

It is probably the best TV shows of all times to watch in times you need a healthy butt kick and tons of inspiration. First of all, of course, watching these incredibly talented entertainers apply all their creativity and deliver a sequin-studded, extravagantly hilarious show every episode makes your brain happy. But even more importantly, it teaches endless lessons about how to handle failure and let it fuel your growth.

Wrestling with the realisation that I need to find a new job and all that this implies, it has been an immense help to me and maybe you will find it helpful too. So here are some of the things I’ve learned from these fabulous queens and RuPaul’s advice.

fail gracefully

There is no such thing as never failing. The question is what do you get out of it? Are you able to take feedback, lick your wounds for the shortest possible time and apply what you’ve learned in the next round? If so even being in the bottom two won’t stop you from rising to the top.

Sometimes all else fails, and you are out. But it’s okay, if you gave your all and tried with all your might. On to the next adventure!

always be growing

That being said, try to not make the same mistakes.  You can’t fail gracefully blaming everyone and everything or refusing to put in the extra work to acquire new skills. Crying is okay, just don’t get stuck in feeling sorry for yourself instead of applying the learnings.

always be selling

There is hope even in the last moments and an intelligent banter to critique can turn the tide completely. (So as lip-syncing for your life!) So do not give up until the very end, stay sharp, stay focused. Even how you leave the situation after all matters, builds your personal brand and paves the road for the next career move.

Of course selling is important all through the game. We need to learn how to shine light at the things we are really good at as well as getting teams and colleagues on our sides and buying our ideas. The best idea is not better then trash if you are unable to inspire people to buy and believe them so you can make it a reality. (So I’ve learned that on my own skin recently.)

Now don’t be shy,

be true to yourself

Even the most beautiful and smartest queens get this criticism often on the show: we don’t see your personality, we don’t connect to your true self. You have to be able to show vulnerability and open up, in personal relationships and I believe to certain extent in professional context as well.

When I don’t have my whole heart in something that project has very low chances of breaking through, no matter how hard I try. But passion and confidence shines through and it also help you realise if a situation is not really for you. No one needs to fit into every work environment or social group, you are allowed find what suits you best as well.

know your strengths

It’s okay to not excel at everything and it pays off to know where your strengths lie. But knowing what your extra special talents are will allow you to have more control over your life. First of all, you will be able to make real choices and shape your work, targeting and finding companies interested in exactly what you have to offer. Secondly, the biggest part of every skill is willingness and practice. If you understand the roots of your talent, your motivations and the thought processes, you will be able to apply them to new challenges.

And if all else fails, you are allowed to delegate where you know you lack expertise or ask for specific help.

don’t be afraid to try new things

That being said, don’t be a one-trick pony! Often when we are good at something, it is very difficult to get out of that box and try something new, scary and potentially hard. But the thing is, none of the queens who were falling back on the same crutches (be it body, comedy, shock value or beauty) made it past top six.

I struggle with this every time something new comes at me. Will I make a good enough job of it? Will I stumble and let the people involved down? The only way I overcome it is to be honest just getting excited about things and make big decisions – like jumping countries to live with someone after 3 dates – without thinking too much and following the siren song of adventures ahead. Rushed decisions and following your heart can be useful. They create circumstances where you have no choice but do that scary thing – call that potential client and get that sales, sing even if you have no voice – or go home.

The only way to be the best however is to be well rounded and learn how to apply your spirit and attitude to these new and unknown things. It is scary to anticipate potentially fucking up so everyone has my utmost respect who is not too afraid to try. I think ultimately life is more entertaining when you are not stuck. I’m grateful for every new leap I took, every new city and challenging opportunity that came my way. It didn’t always work out but I’m immensely richer by them.

success is simple: determination and brains

I’m in awe every season watching these people create incredible pieces of fashion and performances to laugh out loud at in extremely short amounts of time. And I’d throw in even more superlatives if I could. And ultimately it is always the smartest, most creative queen who wins the season. The one who can interpret each and every challenge to show off her uniqueness and personality.

It takes perseverance and determination to shine under such high pressure and turn out three outfits in a day while choreographing an opening dance piece too. It takes time to get to know your strength and internalise good strategies for overcoming unfamiliar challenges. Allow yourself the time to succeed and to the task at hand, give all you have.

water off the duck’s back

Seaason 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon‘s mantra is a great one for daily use. And she has a great explanation of the phrase, so I’ll let her speak, from and interview with Village Voice:

A friend of mine was dropping me off at the airport when I was going to film Drag Race. Of course I couldn’t tell her exactly what I was doing, but I told her I was really nervous and that I was going to go up for a big role. I think I told her I was auditioning for something but that it was really competitive. She said “water off a duck’s back,” but it was my drag friend Robbie Turner, one of my sisters in Seattle, that would say “water off a duck’s back” meaning other people’s negativity doesn’t affect you.

It was already a mentality I had after art school, and “water off a duck’s back” is an easier way of saying that it’s not about you as a human being. It’s not a personal attack on you, but it’s a critique of your work. To be an effective artist, you have to be able to hear critiques and take the notes there but let go of the negativity or any personal attack feelings that you feel were there in the way a person was critiquing you. You gotta let that go.[…]

don’t take yourself too seriously

All this hard work…but what does it really matter if you don’t have fun while you are doing it? It transforms the whole experience magically when you can tell the performer is completely in her element and has at least as much fun as you do watching her act.

And being able to laugh at yourself makes you more relatable. That makes a real person’s story, not flawless sashaying from success to success.  It is your real personality that shines through and makes you relatable and reaching goals ultimately easier.

Oh, and you know:

stop telling us to never give up

Someone really smart told me about the Stockdale paradox from the business and leadership  book, Good to Great[1] and I keep thinking about the story, especially in my current situation which is not exactly rosy. It’s main point is that we need to find the third mindset for living in between optimism and pessimism. We need realism – combined with a certain, okay, it sucks but I’m going to get over it attitude – to be able to not only deal with a given situation, barely surviving really, head stuck in sand, but make it better.

Pure optimism cuts your ability to assess reality. It stops you from being able to take a step back, change course, to admit defeat if necessary. When you keep humming “everything’s gonna be alright” and advance blindly, with a spring in your steps, you are more likely to run into walls and situations you can’t handle due to lack of preparedness.

Sometimes these walls are actually there and things just crash and burn. I came to believe that in these times it’s more destructive to preach perseverance and encourage our friends and acquaintances to keep on going in the same direction regardless. There are times when it doesn’t matter how many more hours you are prepared to pour into your business, too many important factors – like founding partners, goals, business models – are screwed and no amount of starting over or even money will actually amount to a result. And there are times when your heart will break and no amount of talking will reach your partner anymore, or make things the slightest bit better.

These are exactly the times to give up, let go and practice brutal honesty with ourselves. To sit down in a quiet place and face fears, mistakes, shortcomings. There has to be space to count and label all the monsters. There has to be an opportunity to admit you are imperfect and your strength is not endless. To curl up on the floor and cry to your heart’s content until a tiredness so great arrives that suddenly everything becomes simple.

True desperation can actually clear the air, and give new directions that actually make sense. Like Pandora’s box: you are free to let out all that gnaws at you from the inside and finally look at what is left. I believe you find hope and new dreams underneath all the rubble and this is what perseverance is about really, to be able to look for them. Because when you have nothing more to lose, you are suddenly free to choose the path that in reality suits you best.

freedom [1] I haven’t read it, so can only paraphrase

Lifestyle design from the ground up

I’m sitting on an article I’m not sure any more I want to write. After two posts on startups, the new business structuring ideas and the fervent self education they bring – there will be translations next week – I want to talk about what I think, without being backed by precise data. And this is hard to do without being personal – which currently feels infinitely riskier than anything I published before.

During the last 6 days – or rather 9 months, to be honest – I was on an insane, insomniac research of career options ranging from the totally conventional to relatively outrageous ones. I’m reading until my eyes bleed then meet people and try out different stuff, because you don’t really know until you are actually doing it. A principle that I’ve always assumed to be true for my personal life, but somehow didn’t really realize it applies for work too.

Strangely this is a discovery that links personal and professional development together very well. In life, I tend to make big decisions easily and be willing to try out something just for the fun of it. Both my moving to Milan and Barcelona were somewhat abrupt. I learned incredibly lot – compared to my expat level zero anyways – and was very willing to admit and accept that my approach to building up a life was immature and not very efficient in Italy. (Which of course also led to a better, though nowhere near perfect start in Spain.) It also helped me to understand my priorities better and finally, today, to discover how setting foot in a new city – or a new relationship for that matter – is like setting up a new business. A wonderful opportunity to build yourself up from the ground again.

This is not one of those posts idolizing entrepreneurship. In my experience that is a hilariously interesting ride, but very often also excruciating and heart-crushing. I don’t believe it is a suitable path for everyone the same way I wouldn’t recommend a relationship style or diet to all of you. What I’m looking for is a structure that helps me to make sense of the world around me. My partner recently pointed out that I obviously derive a big chunk of my sense of self-worth from work which is a correct observation and also means that I can’t find integrity without building my professional self and decisions into this structure.

It helps me to look at entrepreneurship from a different semantic angle. In Hungarian, vállalkozni (that is, “entrepreneuring”) also means volunteering for something, taking matters in your own hand. I like this angle because it highlights that you have a choice and are free to experiment. That it’s completely okay to not know all the answers as long as you are ready to ask questions. So this is what I’m doing next.

silver for red, blue for yellow