Adventure Travel and a Professional Pivot

When I worked in Corporate America, I had a legitimately crazy boss.

I will never forget the day she walked out of her office, her eyes wide and her voice just barely above a whisper: “I think the marketing department bugged our department.” I can’t speak for my colleagues at the time, but this was one of the most bizarre things I ever heard anyone say. She made my co-worker get up on a chair and examine each light fixture to ensure our conversations weren’t being overheard.

You know, because working in creative services is a real secretive schtick.

corporate america burning man

Unsurprisingly, my co-worker found no bugs.

But this kind of outburst defines the atmosphere in which I worked for nearly two years. I’m just now beginning to realize the lasting effects of working for someone who swung wildly on the emotional pendulum, lifting people up as her mood improved and knocking them down hard when she hit her lows.

I was hired as a communications assistant — a job where I had a list of duties to complete. I did my job well. Within six months of being hired, my boss unexpectedly gave me a $10,000/year raise and told me she was grooming me to take her position when she eventually left. Like I said, when she had her “high” moments, they were impressively generous.

Over the course of the next year, I rode a roller coaster through my job. I took initiative and made suggestions — and was punished for doing so. I stepped back and did only what I was asked to do — and was punished for doing the bare minimum.

My professional file collected written warnings. I wasn’t a “team player.” I was not being “friendly enough” when my emails came off as “harsh” (though my boss wouldn’t “reveal her sources” when I received this warning). My boss’s words were often a personal attack, calling out my character instead of professional abilities.

For weeks on end, I came home crying, convinced I was a bad person. I clearly remember these days. How could I, a high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude with a communications degree in college, be so bad at what I was hired to do? No one ever told me reading my boss’s mind would be a job requirement.

Ultimately, I was laid off from the creative services department for insubordination, though my employer caged the firing as if it was a personal benefit. I was moved to the IT department, where I received my own cubicle instead of a desk and a $2,000/year raise.

I was, without question, completely unqualified to work in IT.

backpackingThe Turning Point

Serendipity is powerful.

I am not religious. But somehow, at various points in my life, energy in the universe seems to align in the right way at the right time to deliver important insights when I’ve needed them most.

Perhaps that’s why I ended up at Burning Man on my own in a dust storm in 2009, about the same I was trying to figure out how to escape the IT department. You all probably know by now that attending Burning Man changed my life. Living on the playa for a week allowed me to find my voice, my courage and myself.

Within weeks of returning home, I found myself walking out the Corporate America door on my own accord, never to look back.

Today marks eight years since I went to work for myself.

I often joke that I’m the best boss I’ve ever had. I let myself wear sweatpants to work and take walk breaks in the middle of the day. I give myself time off when I need it and rarely turn down a coffee date with a friend at 10:00 a.m.

But don’t get me wrong: Any successful freelancer will tell you being self-employed requires an immense amount of willpower, discipline, confidence, courage and grit. As my own boss, I have to challenge, forgive, push, evaluate, reevaluate, question and celebrate my work and myself on nearly a daily basis.

No one gives me a quarterly review, and no one commends me for a job well done when I finish an assignment.

At times, it’s been a lonely road. There is a lot of frustration. I’ve parted ways with clients, and I’ve fought with editors for paychecks that were never forthcoming. Every day I’m appreciative of the fact that I get to write for a living, but many times it feels like work and not art. I wear many hats: accountant, marketing and social media manager, human resources representative, web designer, researcher, interviewer, photographer, fake-it-until-I-make it extraordinaire.

I have been relentless. My days have been long, my nights longer — especially when working on guidebooks. I’ve learned new skills and hustled to stay ahead. I’ve encountered so many closed doors, but I’ve jammed my foot in those that were open even a crack.

As I sit here writing these words, I don’t see myself ever turning my back on the self-employed life.

Cook Islands

The Day-To-Day

When I first went to work for myself, I dove head first into life as a travel writer, and I was successful. I traveled all over the world, collecting passport stamps and airline miles like they were candy.

And it was nothing short of incredible. I had so many amazing experiences and met so many inspiring people, but it wasn’t sustainable. I cut back on traveling a few years ago while maintaining a stable of Las Vegas-related travel assignments and took on several contract clients, many of whom I still work for today.

Moving to Ukraine has changed this dynamic even more. 

I struggle to get behind generic travel content that mindlessly lists the most beautiful beaches and extravagant meals and “must-see” sites in the world. I am privileged (a white person holding an American passport) while also being a minority (a woman in a country where I don’t speak the local language).

But now I live in a nation where privilege isn’t as generous. Our living situation doesn’t allow for easy accessibility: It’s hard to conduct interviews and time differences make it difficult to coordinate phone calls. And the travel writing landscape in general is fairly bleak, with a more saturated market of (often untalented) writers and fewer publications with decreasing pay rates.

Plus we live at a time where there are more pressing issues than compiling top five lists illustrated with pretty pictures.

With this in mind, I’ve cut back significantly on one-off article assignments.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Trade-Off

Many of my freelance colleagues work exclusively in consumer-facing content — that is, those lovely glossy spreads with photographs in magazines anyone can buy at a bookstore or airport.

Early on in my freelance career, I began moving to the business-to-business aka trade aka industry side of things.

Some might argue that trade is not nearly as romantic as the consumer-facing stuff. And don’t misunderstand me: Every time I see my byline on one of those glossy articles, my heartstrings pull toward the open road.

Nonetheless, I find writing for trade to be very satisfying and important.

I have always had trade-related clients and contracts spanning a very wide range of industries. And I have always felt fortunate for having the opportunity to learn about the challenges they face. Scratching beneath the surface of what the average person knows and sees has opened my eyes to the bigger picture of why things are as they are in the industries within which I’ve worked.

Now more than ever, I feel a calling to lean toward trade.

Unsurprisingly, serendipity is by my side.

john muir trail

The Intersection of Travel and Trade

Last January, I accepted a job as the managing editor for AdventureTravelNews, the trade publication for the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

If there was a match made in heaven, I’m pretty convinced this is it.

You know I love adventure travel. Whether it’s trekking the John Muir Trail, rafting the Colorado River or crawling through burial caves in the Cook Islands, I find travel most gratifying when it’s slightly inconvenient, a bit challenging and not handed to me on an all-inclusive platter.

But beyond the fun and exhilarating activities adventure travel represents, the people and issues involved in this industry make my heart soar.

I just returned from our annual Adventure Travel World Summit in Argentina, and I am beyond inspired by the work being done in the adventure travel industry. Trust me when I say we aren’t just talking about great places to ski and snorkel.

We are tackling the hard issues head on: Environmental conservation. Sustainability. Protecting indigenous populations. Cultural preservation. Women’s empowerment. Climate change. Overtourism. Exploitation. Wildlife and sex trafficking.

This is not lip service. This is the real thing.

I am absolutely convinced those working in adventure travel will change this world for the better.

They will lead the way.

And I am so incredibly proud to be working for an organization and in a position where I can help amplify their voices.

I’ve been empowered to think creatively and voice my ideas on how to use this platform to its fullest extent. Coming full circle from a boss who reacted instinctively on personal emotion to an organization that actively pursues research, asks hard questions and works even harder to find the right people to answer them is refreshing.

I am doing important work, and that means more to me right now than any around-the-world trip I could take.

For a long time, people have told me I’m lucky and they wish they could live my life. The truth is, we are all given opportunities. Yes, we are born into some of those opportunities — those positions of privilege I noted earlier — and I do not deny how helpful my privilege has been as I’ve carved out this life for myself.

But so many other opportunities have been a matter of choice.

When it came time to take a calculated risk, I took it. When the great unknown hid itself behind one of those nearly closed doors, I yanked the door open and forced the unknown to reveal itself.

I am the person I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.

And eight years ago, when I ventured out on my own, I made the very best choice of all.

6 Responses to “Adventure Travel and a Professional Pivot”

  1. Beth Parkinson

    Such a good (& long) read to help me get to know you better and the travel industry you are now in. I’m very impressed with the deeper issues you are exploring and facing together.

    • JoAnna

      Thanks for your comment, Beth. I think we all take long journeys that end up building the stories of who we are. I’m so excited about where my journey has taken me.

  2. Jill

    As always, I’m impressed with your willingness to go for something that seems to hold the promise of making a difference. So many people live with regrets that they never “took the chance” when opportunity arose. Will be interested in reading about your continuing adventures!

    • JoAnna

      I never want to live with regrets. Occasionally I am burned for the chances I take, but I think they make me a stronger person and eventually I end up in the place I’m supposed to be.

  3. Alanna

    I’ve always been very inspired and uplifted by you, JoAnna, and am happy to see your new venture as something that feels important and fulfilling to you. I can’t believe it’s been 8 years! Onward to the next challenge, which you will conquer.

    • JoAnna

      Eight very unpredictable and exciting years! Thank you for inspiring me on the playa all those years ago!


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