When I tell people that I used to be a travel writer, they look at me with a combination of intrigue and disappointment. “That’s the ultimate dream job!” they often say, followed by “why would you give it up?”
That term – “dream job” – has messed with me for years. When I graduated from college, I had a vague sense of what it might mean. I knew I was going to go after my dreams, no matter how unlikely or how extreme they might be, but I still wasn’t quite sure what those dreams were. The term “dream job,” I would later discover, was misleading. It conveniently redirects one’s attention from the fact that it is “job” to the illusion that it is a constant “dream.” For better or for worse, choosing a career is a major investment in how we will spend most of our time in the future. Little by little, the term “dream job” became more and more ironic to me.
I am one of the lucky ones: I had a dream job, and I was able to make it come true. At first it seemed impossible that I would be able find a career that allowed me to travel to exotic places, eat constantly (oh how I love food), and write about it all for a salary. On paper it sounds amazing. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that sometimes a dream can feel like a nightmare.
Despite the illusions of grandeur, travel writing is one of the toughest jobs I have ever had. It is incredible in so many ways, but it is also a job — often a dangerous one — with few boundaries and little supervision. I spent many days and nights wandering solo through Central and South American towns knowing that nobody would know if I got home safely. I’ve been attempted robbed many times, often with razor blades or with a quick tug-of-war involved, which I’m proud to say I won every time. I spent weeks exploring Mexican beach resort towns, changing hostels or hotels every night. I spent my days exploring beaches where decapitated heads had been found the week before, eating meal after meal alone at restaurants filled with friends, families, and honeymooners, and living off of a suitcase-sized amount of possessions. I spent four months of my seven months living in Ecuador alternating between hiking up 16,000-foot volcanoes and curling up in the fetal position with stomach cramps from a pesky parasite that would not die (fondly – or not – known as “Juan the Amoeba”).
Ah, but it was also the most incredible adventure. You learn a lot about yourself and the world from solo travel. I often felt that being a travel writer was like being a photographer, only more 3-dimensional. I experienced so many different things when I was traveling — both sensory and emotional — that it was almost overwhelming. I wanted to capture everything in words so that I could transport my temporary world to whoever needed the escape.
I distinctly remember one moment when the dream ended. I had just moved to Ecuador, and spent two weeks waking up in a cold sweat from stomach cramps that prevented me from sleeping and depleted the little energy I had while living at altitude. I could barely walk, I was so weak. I kept telling myself to be strong, that I had the coolest job ever and that this was all part of the adventure, but there was an emptiness in my work day that said otherwise. As I lay in the hospital bed attached to an IV, with paper thin curtains surrounding me and my family as far away as ever, I realized that something (besides my clothing) was missing. This dream job wasn’t a dream for me anymore. In many ways, I woke up.
Despite my love of writing and a deep passion for exploring the intricacies of foreign places – the smells, the daily routines, the people, the colors, the way changing our environment affects how we feel and think – what ultimately mattered more to me than any of this was what my role in all of it could be. I loved the idea of being a travel writer, but the reality was gritty, lonely, often scary, and unsatisfying. I felt I was growing in so many ways by experiencing different parts of the world, but giving nothing back in return. A quiet interest in healthcare began to get louder and louder within me. I wanted to be the one helping others when they felt vulnerable or weak.
After all the adventures, the beautiful places, the amazing people, the enlightening conversations, the delicious food, the wild memories, the near-death experiences, the stomach aches, the tears of frustration, and — yes — the euphoria of realizing how grand and beautiful the world can be, I realized that what I was really looking for in all these exotic places was myself. I was exploring the world to figure out what mattered most to me, and what I had to give.
Over time, I realized that I needed to be more than an observer. I wanted to have some skill or expertise that I could offer back to people. My dream had changed. I quit my job working for a travel guidebook company in Quito, Ecuador to move back to NYC and pursue a degree in a whole new field: physical therapy. I gave up a salary and all my travel adventures to dedicate 5.5 years of my life to becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy. For me, this is the career I always wanted, but it took me years and several injuries of my own to realize it even existed.
I changed careers because, at some point, I woke up from my “dream” and realized it wasn’t enough. What happens while I’m awake every day is more important.
Changing careers from travel writer to physical therapist has been one of the most challenging, difficult, and humbling experiences of my life. But if you wake up every day feeling like you aren’t fully satisfied with your job and there is something more that you can do or give, then don’t fear the challenge of going after it. I have sacrificed more through this career change than I ever imagined I’d have to. It’s been the biggest mountain I’ve ever had to climb (and I’ve climbed some mountains) but I assure you that when you get to the top, the view is worth it.