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7 Life Lessons My 1-Year-Old Taught Me While Backpacking Abroad

14 months ago, my wife and I were destined for conformity. Courtney had just graduated college, and I was starting to see some early success in small business and real estate. We had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary and were looking forward to the birth of our first child. We had began looking for potential homes, complete with a wrap-around porch and a white picket fence. Soon we’d be just 1.5 kids, a minivan, and a over-sized mortgage away from true bliss.

I’m fairly sure the physical process of childbirth is God’s way of smacking us all across the face. Welcoming a sweaty bundle of joy into the world is nothing short of a miracle. For us, this event and the months that followed completely shattered even the most fundamental expectations for our lives.

We took a long hard look at our path and realized it wasn’t one that we had willingly signed up for. At least not yet. We realized that time was only going to be our friend for so long, and conformity was no longer desirable. Instead we cooked up the following plan:

Over the next twelve months, we’d aggressively eliminate our consumer debt, sell all of our possessions, and spend at least two years abroad.

How’s it working out? Pretty well, so far. We were able to take control of our financial life, sell all but two backpacks worth of crap, and recently wander through Australia and New Zealand looking for life. We knew we could use this adventure to help teach Milligan. However, neither of us realized the extent of what backpacking with our now 14-month-old daughter would end up teaching us:

1) Every Event In Life Is An Opportunity To Learn

Everyone knows that a young child’s mind is like a sponge. But you really don’t realize how quickly they are able to absorb, grow, and learn until you get to experience it first hand. The funny thing is you can actually see Milligan learning. If you watch closely, you literally see her mind putting the pieces together. I’d like to think that flying across the world, staying in hostels, riding buses, and strolling down beaches are all helping foster this sort of learning. Upon closer observation, though, I’ve noticed just these sort of things having the same effect on me.

2) Life Is More Fulfilling When You’re Constantly Testing Your Limits

Kids naturally test limits. It’s how they establish boundaries. In fact, usually this continues until somewhere between age 18-25. Milligan could care less about conforming to other people’s expectations right now. She takes great pleasure in pushing the envelope. I can often feel her little eyes, checking to see if I’m watching her, right before she commits to the action she knows could land her in hot water. For me it’s more important that she realizes that she’s not supposed to do something, than if she actually does it or not. Ironically, the whole process of selling our possessions and moving overseas felt eerily similar for us.

3) The Ability To Adapt Trumps All The Planning In The World

We planned for our trip for over a year. We researched where we’d like to go, the visa and job opportunities, and how we’d get there. We budgeted, paid down debt, and saved thousands. The end result? We ended up staying in our “destination” a grand total of 3 days before drastically changing plans. Don’t get me wrong, all the planning still saved us time, stress, and money. But it wasn’t nearly as valuable as the ability to adapt our situation. Milligan doesn’t plan, she just lives. Over 24 hours in the air? No problem. Staying over a week in a 10×10 hostel room? Sure thing. We haven’t been able to find anything Milligan hasn’t been able to easily adapt to yet. Honestly, it’s inspiring.

4) Modeling Others Is The Most Efficient Way To Learn A New Skill

I’m continually amazed at how quickly Milligan can learn something just by observing. I’ve derived great joy from watching her first attempt to put a sock on her foot, stick Q-tips in her ears, brush her teeth, or even throw away trash. Now that she’s a little older, it’s almost a daily occurrence that she’s tackling a new concept simply by watching us. I’ve had a lot of success with modeling in my adult life as well, and watching Milli is a constant reminder of the power of this process.

5) Don’t Be Afraid To Express Your Emotions

When Milli is happy, you can’t help but laugh with her. She’ll bounce around, smiling and giggling. She can’t skip yet, but I think it will soon be one of her favorite methods of getting around. On the other hand, when she’s angry or annoyed, she’s not afraid to clearly let you know. The same goes for feeling tired, excited, hungry, or sick. She’s not worried about what society will think of her or how she is supposed to act. At what point does it become acceptable for us to numb down all of our emotions? It feels much better to draw inspiration from Milligan.

6) Patience Is A Sign Of Strength, Not Weakness

I can admit it. I used to think patience was a sign of weakness. If you wanted to get a specific result, you needed to take immediate and massive action. You should take the bull by the horns, go out and kill it, drag it home, and eat it. I quickly learned that having a baby is a crash course in patience, whether you signed up for it or not.

This course rocked my world. No matter how proactive you are, there are going to be times where your child crosses the point of no return. They are going to scream for attention, no matter where you are in the world. You can fight, struggle, and stress all you want, but it’s not going to help. What will help? An over-sized portion of love and patience. The rest is out of your control.

7) Imagination Is More Valuable Than All The Possessions In The World

Before we sold everything, Milligan had a wide-variety of books, toys, whistles, lights, and other distractions. Not to mention her own bedroom, lots of different outfits, and plenty of room to get into trouble. Since the trip, she now has just one book, one stuffed animal, and one special blanket. What’s filled in the gaps? Whatever we have on hand– including cardboard boxes, kitchen spatulas, remote controls, and other exciting toys. Her brilliant imagination has turned out to be more valuable than anything money could buy. Once again, without realizing it Courtney and I have gone through the exact same process and realization with our own “toys.”

What The Future Holds

In the end, embarking on this journey has radically changed our lives. It would have been extremely easy for us to settle. We could have maintained a comfortable lifestyle surrounded with certainty. Instead, we chose to actively resist. We chose to blaze our own path in life, wherever it may lead us.

The most remarkable thing is that we assumed Milligan would be some sort of obstacle we’d have to overcome, but instead, she’s been an amazing source of empowerment throughout the trip.

I’m not sure what the next couple of years have in store for us. But I am looking forward to learning even more life lessons from the most effective teacher I’ve ever had, my 1-year-old daughter.


Biography: Adam Baker, or just Baker, is a father, husband, traveler, blogger, and overall personal finance freak. You can follow his traveling adventures and more over at Man Vs. Debt or on Twitter – @ManVsDebt.

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