Reading about my dad’s experience—getting inside his 25-year-old head, which seemed to be in a very similar space to my 27-year-old brain, 40 years later—made me realize there’s nothing aimless or indulgent about doing something you believe in for yourself.

It took reading through his journal twice for me to hand in my own resignation. The first time, I raced through the pages, desperate to know how it all ended. Then I read it more slowly, realizing how relatable his feelings in the 1970s were to mine now—and if he could quit to follow a wild dream for a few months, why shouldn’t I?

The bike group in front of a liquor store, 1977.

Courtesy Ashley Mateo

So I quit, then boarded a flight to Thailand with my best friend. After 10 days of Chang beers, $6 massages, and island hopping, I said goodbye to her at the Bangkok airport and left for another six weeks alone in Europe.

I had an arrival and departure date from France and a list of cities I wanted to visit, but that was it. Traveling without an itinerary was just as scary to me as traveling alone for the first time. Both of those things reminded me that this wasn’t a vacation—I was in Europe to learn something about myself so I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

It was an adventure, though. I climbed the steps of the Sacre Coeur for a bird’s eye view of Paris, and ventured below ground to taste the the port caves of Porto, Portugal. I survived on gelato and prosciutto in Barcelona while walking nearly 10 miles a day. I hiked Cinque Terre in a rainstorm, and drank too much of my favorite Italian wine in Venice.

The author, Ashley Mateo, in Lisbon.

Courtesy of Ashley Mateo

But it was also work. I struggled to get used to eating meals all alone, and had to force myself to make small talk with strangers, something I admittedly suck at. I missed my friends, and worried that I was missing out on life back home. I didn’t always feel like sightseeing 24/7, and I occasionally felt lost without the structure of a daily routine—and then I felt guilty for being bored during what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

On the good days and bad, though, I saw the world (a part of it at least), and in doing so, I realized that I wanted to go home.

Sometimes it takes distance—not just a day off here and there, but the kind of distance that comes with completely stepping away from everything you know—to gain that kind of perspective.

My dad ended up going back home, too, at the end of his trip. He still wasn’t sure exactly what would come next, but over those 5,000 miles, he realized it was OK to feel that way, because uncertainty is what keeps us from ever truly settling into total stagnation.

The author and her father.

Courtesy Ashley Mateo

Almost 40 years later, that epiphany held true for me, too. I came home to a job offer I couldn’t refuse, but I didn’t take it because I was scared of being unemployed or because I was looking for a way out of my previous situation. I took it because it made sense at the time, and I knew that if it stopped making sense, I had enough trust in myself enough to leave. Quitting no longer scared me, because I had learned that doing what’s right for you—not your résumé, your bank account, or anyone else—is really the only way anyone can figure out what they’re “supposed” to do.

Everyone wonders what comes next. My dad taught me that it’s OK to be unsure of that—the search for an answer is what really matters.

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