I just completed a nearly three-week global round-the-world trip for work, covering 4 different locations across Asia and Europe. I was able to fly business class from the US to Asia and stay in 5 star hotels. I had local hosts that arranged transportation and very nice dinners. It was a true VIP treatment. Glamorous right? Are you jealous?
But you know what, I would have been happier not going. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the experience and the ability to do this that my job affords. It’s a memorable experience that I am grateful for. But this isn’t my first such trip since I travel globally in my job several times a year (luckily mostly shorter trips). After a few of these, the novelty wears off.
For those that don’t have this opportunity in their jobs, especially those early in their careers, I understand if you’re offended by my comments. It comes across as someone with a wonderful privilege that is ungrateful. There is some truth to this. But what you might not think about is the large personal cost to travel for work, especially long trips or if you travel for work a large % of your time.
I have two small kids and a wife I like to spend time with. I like my exercise routine including two times a week at an indoor climbing gym. I like being able to eat healthier. I like my home and bed. I like driving myself around in my 15-year-old vehicle. I like a regular sleep schedule and not changing time zones every few days.
Despite staying in luxury accommodations and eating expensive meals, it’s difficult to take care of yourself on big trips like this. The time change wreaks havoc on sleep. I often eat too much. I get behind on work despite usually working 14-16 hours per day. It’s very difficult to find time to exercise.
And there is a lot of time wasted sitting on long flights, in airports, and in cars between the many meetings. And you have limited time to actually take advantage of the area you are in since it’s for work. A conference room and nice hotel in Shanghai is not much different from one in New York or Jakarta. For those that don’t have this opportunity, I can assure you that it sounds much more glamorous and fun than it really is. Any experienced business traveler would tell you the same, even those that enjoy travel a lot more than I do.
As I’ve learned more about happiness, I’m trying to be very conscious of being in the moment, and having more gratitude. On trips like this, there is a lot worth being in the moment for. I particularly like learning more about how other people live in different places and cultures. Despite all the visible differences, we are all much more similar than we are different. We all want to be happy. We all want our loved ones to be happy.
So I’ve appreciated a lot of great things about this trip and I’m actually happier taking trips like this than I used to be.
But I’ve also gotten much better at noticing and appreciating the “regular” days that, without being mindful, tend to blur together into a unmemorable passing of time. I’m better at being in the moment, even if there is nothing particularly novel going on. I’ve been a bit surprised how happy this makes me. I’m still getting better at this since I’m a typical “type A” driver. But this really seems to work.
Being more mindful and positive has helped me both enjoy my “regular” life much more as well as experiences like this business trip. There is really no downside. But I still have a preference. And that preference is my home life.
Similarly, using the same change in mindset, I actually enjoy workdays more now, but I also enjoy my weekends more. Again, I still have a preference. And I still greatly prefer the weekends!
Trips like this one help remind me of how great my regular days are. It also helps remind me of my priorities. What I miss the most is my family. It’s an obvious answer but in regular day-to-day life, it’s all too common to take this for granted. I try very hard not to do this, especially with young kids that are growing up fast.
So while I am appreciative of these types of travel opportunities my job affords me, I’m also quite certain that I won’t miss it very much when it ends. In fact, thanks to the power of being financially independent, I’m trying to minimize the travel demands while still doing well in my job. And I still want to do well in my job, mainly because what I do affects many other people in the organization and I want to help them.
So what’s the point of this article? Actually I have 2 points here.
If your goal is to be happy, and this is really everyone’s goal when you dig deep enough, think carefully about what will really make you happy. In your career, before climbing the ladder, make sure it’s leaning against the right wall and make sure you know what the view is on each rung of the ladder.
Sometimes the next rung involves a job you won’t actually like. Maybe it has more travel than you want. Maybe it involves too much company politics. Maybe the expectations and pressure are not worth it. Maybe it requires longer hours than you want to commit. Maybe your risk of being fired will be higher at the next level. I see many people pushing just to get a promotion without thinking this through and then not enjoying or doing well in the higher level job. It can be a disaster.
Just having an important job can be motivating to many people, but I don’t think this alone makes people happy. You have to really enjoy what you are doing.
It’s important to point out that this is often easier at higher levels since surveys do show people in higher level jobs enjoy their work more, despite the higher job demands. This doesn’t make the news much since most readers don’t have high level jobs and it’s more comforting to believe those that do are not happy.
But whether you personally will be happier really depends on your personality and values. For me personally, I think I can easily switch from an important person at work to being an unimportant retiree without any problem at all. In fact, the unimportant retiree role sounds quite nice.
Make sure you really reflect on your current life. It’s more common than not that we take the amazingly good things in our lives for granted and don’t appreciate them until they are gone. We always think happiness is in the future or somewhere other than where we are in life. But happiness is not going to come from that next trip, or promotion, or anything else. Happiness happens in the present and most of us have an incredible number of things in our lives that we should be happy about.
A good way to understand how we take things for granted is to reflect on happy times in our life. Many people will remember times as student where they studied long hours and were poor, but they were also very happy because of the friendship and activities they had. If you have kids, even if they make you very happy, you probably sometimes reflect on the freedom of your pre-child days and wish you had appreciated this more at the time. And when your kids are grown and gone, you’ll miss the time you had them and wish you had appreciated that time more.
If you think about your own life, I’m certain you will find there were great aspects of your life that you didn’t fully appreciate until later. Knowing this, I can guarantee that in the future, there will be parts of your current life that you’ll miss a lot.
Try to identify those things in your life now and appreciate them now. Otherwise in the future you will regret that you didn’t.
A long trip away easily provides this perspective, and that’s the part of this trip that I appreciate the most.