13 Great Life Lessons I Learned Traveling and Living Abroad

It has been 10 years since I packed everything and left for North America to travel, study, work, and live. Here are the important life lessons that I learned along the way.

It started when I hopped on a 12-hour flight from Shanghai to Chicago, stepping excitedly and nervously into the unknown and leaving my comfortable life behind, while I embarked on an adventure to North America.

Life Lessons learned from living abroad
I still remember the excitement and the thrilling feeling when my flight touch down at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Five years later I returned to Chicago watching the city light up from Willis Tower. 

It has been a thrilling, wild, and a rough ride, and I have learned many life lessons since my first day in the USA. I have decided to share a collection of my best and most important life lessons that will help you to build an easy and happy life.

Feel free to share your life lessons in the comments section.

1. Experience and knowledge are more precious than material possessions

Invest in your experience and your brain, and let these become a part of your identity. Experience and knowledge will help you to deal with difficult situations. Having several houses and cars will not change you, but experience and knowledge will definitely alter you for the better.

Important Life lessons I learned from traveling and living abroad
Cape Breton National Park – the most enchanting place in the world for road trips. I don’t think I will forget such  a beautiful view like this. 

2. Open up to new opportunities

It is nerve-wracking to travel to a foreign country without knowing anyone. Rather than getting uncomfortable, be prepared for the journey and be happy that you have this opportunity to see other parts of the world. Do not afraid to face the rough situations alone. It will develop your independence and your problem-solving skills. Do not worry about being homesick. You will meet friends that are far more interesting than those in your homeland. You can always go home if you feel you cannot handle living in a foreign country on your own, but at least give it a try.

3. Get the most out of your time abroad

Living and working abroad gives you an extensive period to get to know a country. To make your time abroad count, seize the weekend and holiday opportunity to explore your city and your host country. If you have 4 months summer holidays like most American universities do, I recommend at least spending few weeks traveling around your host country, instead of just going back to your homeland. You may have concerns about your budget, or miss home like hell, but you will glad you did.

Important Life Lessons I learned from living and traveling abroad
Winter in Fairbanks Alaska: we flew to Fairbanks from Hawaii and embraced the shortest daylight of the year. It was really cold but we made long-lasting memories and fell in love with the last frontier.

Some of my favorite moments during my four years in the USA include exploring Alaska in winter, island hopping in Hawaii, and morning walks in a park in Minnesota. Even sunbathing on the beach after the class is a pure joy.

4. Having few friends is okay 

Only invest your time in people that are worth your time. There are hundreds of people from elementary and high school you run into years later, and dozens more that you meet at a party and decide to be friends for life, and then never talk to them again, or those who say they are your best friends, but offer a negative and careless attitude to your dream career pursuit. Why should they be in your inner-circle?

Those people who you keep in touch with after ten years, those who you dial an emergency call at 3:00am and can be there for you without complaints, those who support your dreams, and those who accept you for who you really are, they are your friends and your keeper. Unfortunately, this list of friends is very short. This is okay, because life will be more enjoyable if you have two to three friends who share your values, support you, and make you happy, rather than having thousands of those who don’t.

5. Abandon the idea of fitting in 

People will never validate you if you try to sacrifice yourself to please them, to live under their shadows at the expense of your wants and goals.

People are impressed by those who are not trying to impress them. Oftentimes to fit in, all you have to do is to be yourself and be a good listener.

6. Solo travel at least once in your lifetime

You will have a lot of fun traveling solo, and you will realize that you are more capable than you think you are.

Important Life lessons I learned from traveling and living abroad
Travel solo in Key West, FL and reached the southernmost point of the mainland USA

7. There is always a way out

If you have trouble dealing with a difficult situation, or if everything goes wrong at the same time, do not give up. It is not the end of the world. You have just not figured out the solution yet. Do not surrender to the hardship and discouragements.

The right moments will come and your perseverance will pay off. I cannot tell you how many times that I have been rejected by the Canadian universities and I have been told that I cannot make it to Canada, only to prove that I was right not to listen to the advice and continue to go against the flow anyway.

8. Learn to not give a damn

This is a hard life lesson, but it will make your life easy and light.

9. You cannot make everyone happy

Speak up and stand your ground.  Trying to please everyone is a gateway to failure. If you are being true to yourself and share your true opinion, you will make someone upset. That is their problem, not yours.

10. Visit developing countries

If you are born and raised in developed countries, give yourself a chance to visit developing countries, even countries in North Africa and West Asia. It will make you appreciate what you have and give you a different perspective on what life is all about.

Important life lessons I have learned from traveling and living abroad
Avenida de Maceo – one of the few nice-looking places I have been to in Havana. Most people in Cuba is still struggling with day-to-day living, lack of basic facilities, electricity and the food, not to say traveling to exotic places. Visiting places like this makes me feel lucky that I live in Canada.

11. Learn to let go

Your past, your frustrations, the things that are out of your control, your friends that you will never meet again, the date you swear you are in love with but  they are not with you anymore, let them go so you can have more space, time and energy to move forward.

12. People all around the world are the same

We all want the same thing: respect, love, and happiness. The way we work towards those three things may branch us off, and we cannot have what we want all the time. That is life.

13. Travel when you are young

Many people postpone traveling because they want to be responsible, find a career, get married and build up a life, and travel when they retire. In my experience, it is a mistake to wait for that perfect moment to come. While I am happy to travel over the next few decades, I will never know what will happen tomorrow. No one is guaranteed to live after they retire, so take every opportunity presented to you at this moment, and do not hold regrets.

There are so many life lessons I have learned during my travels, and with important life lessons in general, is that we learned it in a hard way and in retrospect. The great news is that other people can benefit from and inspired by the lessons we learned from our travels.

Do you have any important life lessons that you learned from your travels? Comment below. 

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Life Lessons

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

20 thoughts on “13 Great Life Lessons I Learned Traveling and Living Abroad

  • October 25, 2016 at 10:44 pm
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    Thanks for share this! I think all of us learn this lessons, or some of them, in our firsts travels. Congrats! hope you keep sharing your expieriences

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    • October 30, 2016 at 10:09 pm
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      Thanks Carlos!

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  • October 26, 2016 at 11:59 am
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    Very nice post and so true. Traveling while you’re young is great advice. Then go work and travel again when you’re older 🙂 OK, never stop traveling may be the best advice. But you are correct, there is never the perfect moment to travel, you just have to do it.

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    • October 30, 2016 at 10:12 pm
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      Haha I wish I would never stop traveling, but yeah it is never too early or too late to travel 🙂

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  • October 28, 2016 at 10:38 pm
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    Agree, agree, agree times 13! This list was not what I was expecting when you said you took a long term travel adventure to the USA. What an interesting articles to read from the opposite perspective from ours. That we left the USA to experience life abroad in a 3rd world country. But, still, how every point you made still related back to the ways we feel about travel, and the true purpose and meaning to be found in it! Bravo on your writing! My favorite read of the day.

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  • October 30, 2016 at 10:19 pm
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    Thanks Stephanie! I actually considering visiting Ecuador and take some Spanish classes there. Followed your blog so I can learn more about the expat life in Ecuador and prepare for my trip.

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  • November 1, 2016 at 2:38 am
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    I do agree that visiting developing countries helps you appreciate what you have. I went to India and was really amazed at how well many live and the amount of poverty in other areas. I loved making new friends as well. Travelling does help you grow.

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    • November 1, 2016 at 2:46 pm
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      Thanks Janine! I have never visited India but would love to visit there one day. I am also amazed at how many people live in the not so wealthy and poverty areas in developing countries and they are still happy.

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  • November 1, 2016 at 3:33 pm
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    OMG, I couldn’t agree more with the points you wrote down! I try to convince my friends constantly that e.g. there is always a way out and that travelling solo really does you good, but they never believe. I guess it works like that: if you don’t grow up and experience this yourself, you will just not be able to understand those things.

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    • November 22, 2016 at 5:03 pm
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      I totally agree with you Kinga. I also told my friends solo travel is super fun and it really is not that scary. I think people will never understand what we’ve learned and experienced unless they experience themselves.

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  • November 2, 2016 at 1:18 am
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    A lovely collection of thoughts, Julie. I think everyone should do no 10, as visiting a developing country helps put life in perspective. Those of us in developed countries often create problems when there aren’t any! No 11, letting go is something that is really hard to do!

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    • November 22, 2016 at 5:05 pm
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      Thanks Christina! Developed countries have their own problems too but I it amazes me that many people living in developing countries owe less but happier. Letting go is hard but time will heal…

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  • November 4, 2016 at 11:57 am
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    It’s wonderful to hear from a world traveler and all the lessons acquired along the way. 🙂

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    • November 22, 2016 at 5:05 pm
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      Thanks Elly!

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  • November 4, 2016 at 6:21 pm
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    I needed to hear this. I recently traveled to Europe solo for the first time and have had such a mixed energy in my mind when I came back. It was terrifying and beautiful..and I struggled with feeling shamed that I was of the same mind to embrace traveling solo as so many millennials feel.

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    • November 22, 2016 at 5:07 pm
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      I am glad you survived the first solo travel experience, it really not that scary isnt it? Hope you will do more solo travels!

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  • November 5, 2016 at 10:00 pm
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    YES to “travel when you’re young!” Do it while you can. I just got back from a 1 year grown up gap year. It was AMAZING and I’m so glad I didn’t wait for a proper retirement. I made new friends who I’ll get to grow old with now. 🙂

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    • November 22, 2016 at 5:08 pm
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      Not being able to do 1 gap year is my regrets, but I am so glad you did it and enjoyed it fully! The friends we made through travel is precious!

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  • November 22, 2016 at 11:08 pm
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    Another vote for traveling when young. At age 38 (not THAT young, but young enough) the hubby and I decided to travel full time with our then 10-year old. That was three years ago. The only regret I have is that we didn’t make this choice when our older, grown son was still little.

    Reply

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