THE BLOG

A Year of Lessons: What I Learned From Working and Traveling in Chile, Turkey and Myanmar

05/26/2015 12:01 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Cecily Mauran

By Cecily Mauran

This past year, eight friends and I traveled to Chile, Turkey, and Myanmar to work with entrepreneurs and organizations that support entrepreneurs.

Working, living, and generally spending all of our time together with these people, often in challenging environments, tested our patience and raised our threshold for stress and aptitude. It was simultaneously the most challenging and the most rewarding year of my life.

At the end of this year I returned home, exhausted and dirty, but matured and grateful. From this year, I gained a portfolio of innovative skills and experience, amazing networks, steadfast friendships, and probably a few bed bugs.

Here is what I learned...

Be Fully Present

I used to think: what's the point of getting to know people if I'll never see them again? Why bother?

In my head, I was always evaluating the interaction's potential, and calibrating my engagement accordingly. Wow. How dumb. Some of the most meaningful experiences I had this year were with complete strangers, most of whom I will never see again. What I learned was that this doesn't make those interactions any less real or meaningful, because they gave me memories and lessons and I carry that with me. Thinking too much about the future distracts you from the moment and the very things that shape what you're too busy worrying about. Also, ever heard of a little thing called Facebook? It's almost impossible to not stay in touch these days, even with the overly friendly tour guide who bought you dinner -- hola Papi.

Magic Exists

How else do you explain the fact that I ran into two students from my alma mater while trekking to Machu Picchu? Or that the backpacker who asked me for directions on the street in Yangon was a startup lawyer from Chile, the place where I started my journey. Or a day on a Mediterranean island with someone you love that is so perfect from start to finish that it makes you cry? Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean that magic isn't there.

It's a combination of destiny and free will

I have had many "how the f*ck did I get here?" moments this year. It happened when I danced salsa with old Peruvian men in a city 12,000 feet high. It happened on a sailboat in Chile, on stage in front of 300 Turkish investors and entrepreneurs, at the border of Bulgaria in the middle of the night, and watching the sunrise from the top of an ancient pagoda in Myanmar. These moments always made me feel staggeringly lucky and completely baffled at the same time. Was this something I was destined to do, or is it merely a sequence of yes's and no's that amount to nothing more than a coincidence? How do autonomy and luck fit into all this? Sometime in Turkey, I figured it out: it's both. I believe that higher powers conspire to create opportunities for you, but it's up to you to see them and grab them. Take THAT theology lesson, Puritan ancestors!

"Teni que sentarte en la piedra," or you have to sit on the rock

In Chile, the eight of us shared a two bedroom apartment, which meant the girls slept on two twin beds pushed together and alternated taking turns sleeping in the crack between the beds. In Turkey, we each got our own mattresses (score!), although I still shared the room with three other people. In Myanmar, we shared mattresses on the floor of an unfurnished apartment, like a group of charming and attractive junkies. To say we didn't have much "me" time is an understatement. This year I learned how many days I could go without washing my hair and how little sleep I needed to function on. I also learned that when I snap at someone for clearing their throat too loudly... I should probably take a break. These experiences tested my mental and physical limits and taught me to recognize when I needed to just "sit on my rock."

Oftentimes, there is a tendency to wear sleep deprivation and stress as a "badge of honor," so initially I felt guilty and selfish for stealing alone time for myself. Additionally, with eight other fun and interesting people, it's hard not to get sucked into the group's gravitational pull. Yet I realized, that when I forced myself to take a break, I was happier, energized, more appreciative, and better able to make better contributions to the team. I firmly believe that you have to take care of yourself so that you can take of others.

You are never too old to learn something new

When I graduated from college, I figured that unless I went to graduate school, my time for learning was over. First, I was really excited that I didn't have to have homework anymore (which is also untrue), but then I felt devastated and heartbroken by the fact that I was never again going to be in such an environment, surrounded by peers and role models that challenged me. Not only is this belief profoundly untrue, it's contrary to the way education is progressing. Technology is advancing at an exponential pace, creating unprecedented, and often free access to resources. It is now easier than ever to learn coding online, watch a YouTube video about quantum physics, or take a quiz to find out what flavor of hot sauce you are on BuzzFeed. This year, I learned FinalCut Pro, beginner level Spanish, and patience, amongst many other things. I believe that it's not only rewarding to learn new things, but vital to cultivate a sharp and adaptable mind in order to take on our constantly shifting world. Plus, the new skills you acquire will be a delightful bonus to help you defeat the robot millennials.

Just ask

This one pains me, because it goes against every instinct in my body to create an imposition or seem weak. When I was in second grade, instead of telling my best friend's mom that I felt like I was going to vomit, and maybe could she pull over, I just vomited. In her car, everywhere.

Probably creating a bigger imposition. If you need clarification on that vague email, ask for it. If you need help planning the logistics on an event, ask for it. What's the worst that can happen? Someone will say no, which is way better than a car full of half-digested pizza.

Say yes and show up

This one is credited to the tenacious Alfonso Tinoco, one of my teammates from this year who is a mustachioed energizer bunny. Not to be confused with winging it, which relies on assumptions and chance, saying yes and showing up means you don't have to be an expert or even understand what's going on, you just have to be willing to try. Aside from winning brownie points, "say yes and show up" is a mentality that taught me about commitment, dependability, and generosity. Saying yes and showing up doesn't give you time to analyze what's in it for you and it doesn't give a f*ck about your excuses. Saying yes and showing up is Patrick Swayze in Point Break pushing you out of a plane... except without the bank robberies and delusional idea of brotherhood.

The Law of "Fuck Yes"

Please read Mark Manson's genius essay, which basically says, if the answer is not "fuck yes," then it's no. From deciding whether or not to take another tequila shot, to going to grad school, The Law of Fuck Yes makes the decision-making process a whole lot easier. Also see "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck" -- Mark Mason is my spirit animal.

Surround yourself with people that challenge you to be better

Antonio Neves perfectly defines these people as your "Allies of Glory." Your allies are the people in your life who gently remind you to suck it up when you're being a baby, or the ones who set a standard for always delivering quality results. Whatever the method, when you are around them, they make you strive to be better, smarter, funnier, faster. Find people who challenge you because they care about you and want you to be better, and never let them go.

When we discovered several cockroaches in our sad, unfurnished apartment in Myanmar we named them, and then laughed about it. For me, people who name the cockroaches are the ones I want in my life. Because of this, their new unofficial nickname is the "cockroach-namers..." but they don't know about that yet.

Being vulnerable is the bravest thing you can do

It's easy to convince yourself it doesn't bother you. To not make the first move. To conceal what you don't know. It is the hardest and most courageous thing to tell someone exactly how you're feeling, to tell someone you have feelings for them, to say you need help. Making myself vulnerable to someone goes against every repressed WASP-y instinct in my body, but during this year of experimentation, I decided to try it. Although much easier said than done, it became obvious that vulnerability is the key to real connection, admiration and respect.

If you don't know about Brene Brown and her brilliant TEDtalk and book, Daring Greatly, make yourself familiar with them as soon as possible. She is a national treasure who should be dipped in gold and kept at the Pentagon where Nicholas Cage will try to steal her.

bolivia travel

About Cecily Muran:
Cecily is the Co-founder and Director of Content of GO (Global Opportunity), an agency that empowers young talent to cultivate and connect thriving entrepreneurship ecosystems worldwide. She is an outdoors enthusiast, photographer, and lover of dogs– especially the stray ones with fleas.