Can you pinpoint the pivotal time in your life when you became an adult? For me, it was when I finally left my home to go traveling.

I took a working holiday in New Zealand for six months and while I was there I met my English boyfriend and lived in England with him for 14 months. During these 20 months of travel I grew more than I ever could have if I had stayed in Canada.

When I left Canada at the age of 22 I was confused and conflicted. I wondered what my future would bring and I had only a slight inkling that there was so much more to see and do in the great big world out there. When I returned to Canada at age 24 after having worked and lived abroad in New Zealand and England for two years I was a strong and confident adult with a plan for my future. Here are five of the ways that working abroad helped me to grow up:

1. I learned to trust my future self

Before I went to work abroad, I used to get panicked when I thought about my future. I was worried that I would make a wrong choice and I would never be able to accomplish all of the things that I dreamed of doing.

Luckily, I found myself working as a tour guide at a creepy old haunted prison by the sea in New Zealand and met a confident, irreverent, hilarious and completely fearless English guy who taught me one of the most important lessons of my life; how to trust my future self.

He showed me that I didn’t have to have it all figured out. I needed to focus on the here and now. Lee gave me a huge gift, the confidence to trust myself to make the right choice when the time comes for that decision to be made. Now I still don’t know what I will do with my life, but I don’t worry about it anymore because I trust myself to make it awesome.

2. I learned when to quit

When I was in Christchurch New Zealand on a working holiday New Zealand visa I struggled to find a job for a while and finally got a position fundraising for Green Peace.

I wanted to do my part to help the environment but what I didn’t realize was that “chugging” (or “charity mugging” as they call it in the UK) was completely wrong for me. I hated approaching people who were simply trying to walk down the street and guilt-tripping them about melting ice caps and polar bears. Yes, the issues were important, but I felt uncomfortable using the pushy salesperson techniques that we had been taught to sway people into donating. I cracked under the pressure of making a quota every week.

One Tuesday afternoon only a few weeks into the job, I realized that I simply could not approach one more stranger. I quit. You might say that was a stupid decision because I really needed the money. However, I think it’s important to learn when to quit something if it is completely making you feel miserable every second of the day.

3. I gained a work ethic

Of course, since I had quit my job at Greenpeace and decided to go to England with Lee on a UK work permit I had absolutely no money and I was due to learn another important lesson.

When I arrived in Accrington, a small working class town in Northern England, I needed a job desperately and I took anything I could find. I ended up working at a nursery and I was immediately thrown into 45 hours per week of changing dirty nappies, calming down crying babies, entertaining restless three year olds and wiping up never ending spills. I enjoyed it because I love kids, but it was hard work.

Up until then, I had been a high achieving Canadian honour student who had studied Fine Arts at University. I had never had a full time job that had been more than a summer gig and those don’t really count because I always knew I would be taking it easy back at school in a few months. I worked in that job for 10 months and finally learned what a full work week is like.

4. I used that work ethic to create my dream job

The experience of working at the nursery in Accrington taught me two things. First of all, it was like endurance training which made me better at working hard for long hours. Second of all, it made me realize that if I had the potential to work this hard I wanted to be working for myself doing something I love, not for minimum wage for someone else.

Writing is my passion so I began building up a name for myself as a freelance writer on evenings and weekends. My writing portfolio slowly grew and I took on more assignments. After a while I reduced my hours to part time at the nursery because my writing had grown so much.

Eventually after about a year I was able to quit my “day job” and earn more money from writing full time. These days I make my own hours, work from anywhere in the world and have total control over the writing projects that I do. However, there was no way that I could have logged the hours to build the freelance career that I have now with a lazy university student sense of entitlement, I needed to have the work ethic that I learned in Accrington.

5. I made a life of my own design, not anyone else’s

Perhaps part of the reason why I had been so confused and conflicted before I went traveling was because I was so worried about making my life fit in with everyone else’s expectations. I was putting too much weight on what others would think.

Working abroad in another country gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean of all other previous constructs you have made of yourself. If you have been following a life path that is even a little bit designed to please others, it will never make you truly happy.

During those two years abroad I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life right now in my 20s. The answer was easy, I wanted to write and I wanted to travel. So what did I do? I worked as hard as I could to set up a career as a freelance writer so that I could making a living remotely and then took off to travel the world. Right now I am sitting in a hotel room in the Cameron Highlands region of Malaysia, looking out the window at the lush green jungle hills.

I have learned that trying to make your life fit into someone else’s expectations simply doesn’t work. What you will realize is that it is an impossible goal, because someone will always chime in with their two cents about what you “should” be doing. You can’t please anyone, so stop trying. Simply decide what it is you love to do and then direct all of your energy into making it your reality, even if it is unconventional.

Working abroad changed my life in so many ways and I have never been happier and more confident than I am now. I am so grateful for the things that my travels have taught me and as I continue to travel I look forward to learning more.

Have you worked abroad? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Photo by Paulo Brandão

Kelly Dunning

Kelly Dunning is a writer for Global Visas, the world’s leading authority on immigration and working holiday visas. In Sept 2009 she left Canada for a 6 month working holiday in New Zealand and ended up coming back almost two years later after meeting her English boyfriend and taking a detour through the UK. Working abroad was just the experience she needed to help her make sense of life and achieve her dreams.

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