It all began on a tired weeknight in the East Village. My roommate Melanie and I were indulging our perpetual wanderlust and dreaming about traveling the world without being restricted by our work schedules and allotted vacation days.
Mel hadn't studied abroad in college, and I was still talking about my semester in Rome as if it were yesterday. We both loved New York, but we felt an itch to try something new. And then it occurred to us: What if we just... left for a while?
We'd followed the year-round backpackers on Instagram. We'd read about the bloggers who quit their jobs and somehow made traveling a career. We knew this would be a stretch for us.
We had worked hard to build pretty solid New York lives for ourselves in the near half-decade since college. We didn't want to give up altogether on our current careers or live in dirty hostels and see our families once a year.
But could we find an in-between?
Our 25th birthdays were quickly approaching. In typical millennial fashion, we spiraled into a black hole of mostly unjustified panic -- probably better described as a quarter-life crisis -- and told ourselves it was "now or never."
We didn't want to blink and wake up in five or 10 years feeling trapped or bored.
The weeks after that night are kind of a blur: acceptance to a three-month program at an Italian school for foreigners I had been eyeing in Sicily, late-night research into my company's leave of absence policies, pep talks from my mom, anxiety over telling my boyfriend, even more anxiety over talking to my boss.
But when I did finally get myself to confront my boss and boyfriend, something amazing happened -- twice. They both simply said, "You have to go."
Melanie and I arranged our leaves from work and moved from Manhattan to a breathtaking little town on Sicily's eastern coast called Taormina for three months. And in that time, we saw as much of the world as we possibly could.
It's been almost exactly a year since we took off. And even though I wanted this so much back then, it wasn't until the trip ended that I understood how much I needed it. Here's why.
It gave me a fresh perspective.
Picture this: It's my first day in Italy. I've swapped my morning commute (packed like sardines on the grimy L train, spilling Starbucks on myself on the way to urine-scented Midtown) for a stroll down ancient cobblestone streets with sweeping views of the Ionian Sea to my school -- a cluster of classrooms surrounding a garden of citrus trees and friendly locals serving cappuccini with smiley faces artfully drawn on top.
I walked into class.
"Feels a bit like rehab, don't you think?" a British classmate quipped, breaking the silence on our first morning. In a way, it was.
All the pressures I'd come to accept as part of daily adult life were thousands of miles away. The biggest decision I had to make each week was where to take my next budget flight.
Suddenly, I could think more clearly. I was coming up with all sorts of creative ideas. I was a more vibrant version of myself.
From Taormina to Santorini to Reykjavik to Marrakesh, meeting inspiring people from all walks of life became the norm.
I realized the priorities we value in the United States -- and particularly in New York City -- are not the same priorities valued elsewhere. At 25, I was able to process this experience in a way my 19-year-old study abroad self couldn't.
I dropped the heavy package of guilt that had snuck into my carry-on luggage. I knew I wasn't doing the responsible thing for my savings account, but I could feel without a doubt that I was doing the responsible thing for my soul.
Just like that, the values I had ingested for years at competitive American schools and in corporate American workplaces started shifting.
It pushed me out of my comfort zone.
There's something to be said for rocking the boat when everything is going right. That takes guts, if I say so myself.
I actually loved my job. I was in a happy, four-year relationship. I was successfully paying my rent on time in a city I had always wanted to live in and sharing an apartment with two of my best friends.
But proving to myself that I had the guts to take this risk -- to leave something good, even temporarily, for something potentially better -- has continued to affect the way I operate in my current everyday life.
From navigating through dark Moroccan alleyways to watching the floor in our Sicilian apartment cave in after a rainstorm to trekking through the Sahara Desert with nothing but the clothes on our backs (thanks for losing all of our bags and literally giving zero f*cks, Alitalia Airlines), Mel and I were often reminded that traveling comes with unique struggles.
But nothing boosts your self-confidence and makes you feel like a badass more than solving problems without familiar faces around to help (Hi, Mom) or the modern comforts of home (Hi, Stuy Town maintenance crew).
It taught me how to make new friends as an adult.
In the years after college, I moved to Manhattan along with almost all of my closest friends. Being from the area makes this situation happen. My family and friends mean everything to me, so I always felt like I lucked out in that department.
Ubiquitous photo captions like #NoNewFriends and #SquadGoals make it seem cool to spend time exclusively with people who grew up with you and know every detail of the ups and downs of your pre-teen years.
The truth is, we're lazy. We're busy. We're awkward. It takes effort to make new friends. We feel like we hardly have time to squeeze in the people who are already on our social rosters.
We don't want to worry about some stranger judging us for what's in our Netflix queue or how much pizza we consume in one sitting.
But when you put yourself in the situation of being the outsider in a new city, you have no choice but to branch out and put your vulnerability on display.
You start to notice yourself initiating conversations at the food market or making plans with the guy you met on the bus.
You push yourself to check out that new bar, even though you feel like staying in for the night. You might even take up a hobby in hopes of meeting like-minded people.
This experience will show you that there are all sorts of weird, crazy, awesome people out there who are worth your friendship. They might even add something to your life that was missing before.
My Sicilian friends embraced me with open arms from the moment I met them. It was a lesson in friendship that I brought home with me.
It reintroduced me to myself.
My adventure went from a dream to a reality very quickly, and this made me feel -- for the first time -- like my life really was in my own hands. I was lucky in many ways, I know. But the effort I put into this was one of the most empowering things I've ever done.
Stepping off the traditional path will teach you a lot about yourself: what you really want vs. what you thought you wanted; what you truly value vs. what society taught you to value; how you react to things in the moment vs. how you imagined you'd react.
It also lets you honestly answer the question of "If I didn't have to work to survive, how would I spend my time?"
All of us daydream about what we'd rather be doing instead of working. But when you force yourself to take a real, email-free, off-the-grid break, you're forced to face yourself for real.
You finally have time to accomplish the non-work things you always talked about but never made time for. You might even find that these accomplishments are more fulfilling than reaching your professional goals.
It reminded me what (and who) is important.
From the moment I started planning my journey, I was learning about the people in my life who I believed I already knew.
In the most unselfish way, those closest to me supported my desire to be selfish for a few months, in spite of how inconvenient or difficult it would be for them.
I realized whatever my age, my mom will always be the first to support my crazy whims. I realized my boyfriend is capable of respecting goals of mine he might not understand. And I realized my then-boss is a friend who has my best interests in mind outside of the office, too.
I thought this might get the travel bug out of my system, but it did the opposite. It taught me that living a life filled with adventure is something I never want to stop striving for, and that there is so much to see, do and learn outside my own little bubble.
While I know I'll always be career-driven (I took on a huge promotion less than a month after returning to New York), I did learn that work isn't everything.
Our culture does not appreciate taking time off the way so many others do, and now I see that this is one of our greatest downfalls. (Studies have shown that people who use their vacation time get better performance reviews, anyway.)
And when you look back on your life in 10, 20 or 50 years, are you going to remember those late nights in the office or that epic hike along the sun-soaked cliffs of Santorini with your best friend?
Yeah, that's what I thought.