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

This is the second place entry from the Unconventional Writing Contest. It was written by Adam Baker live on location from New Zealand.

Adam and Milligan

You can learn more about Adam at the end of the post… or just by reading about his adventure in this article.


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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  • Sean says:

    Fantastic story, and very worthy of the second place prize! I really thought your point saying “Imagination is more valuable than all the possessions in the world” was particularly valid. Having a story about backpacking for two years with your wife and daughter seems innumerably more fulfilling than a mortgage and a brand new plasma tv. Keep it up; I won’t be far behind.


  • Tyler says:

    Adaptability is just as if not more important than ability to plan. Absolutely.

    I ran into a similar situation when traveling in Europe last summer. After spending months planning the trip, I realized the “plan” just wasn’t the best option after arriving. What’s more worthwhile – sticking to the plan and feeling comfortable without ever stretching the horizons, or stepping outside the box you create for yourself and capitalizing on opportunities as they arrive?

    The answer wasn’t so obvious before leaving, but once there, it was clear as day.

  • MoneyEnergy says:

    An inspiring article in and of itself! I can’t imagine a better attitude to have regarding traveling with a newborn and taking the road less traveled, and doing it all at the same time. What’s great is that you did it consciously, too, not just taking off for “merely” escapist reasons, but for purposes and reasons you had planned for ahead of time, but all the while allowing it to be an adventure, not a rigid “vacation” where everything is planned (even though those are necessary sometimes too!). These are all great lessons to learn.

  • Jonathan Frei says:

    What an inspiring story. I have a 4 month old, and I’ve been pondering the ways to introduce him to the world. It seems like he’ll miss out on so much of his early education just by watching me. But I think if I could experience the world afresh the way he does we’ll both grow up to be non-conformists.

  • Audrey says:

    This is article and the concepts expressed are awesome and inspiring. I love how you took many of the conventional assumptions about having a baby and what you need to do to provide for a baby – stability, routine, toys to entertain, etc – and turned them on their head. Although Milligan may not remember everything she’s experiencing now, they will shape who she is and the approach towards learning and adapting will be invaluable. And, it sounds like you’ve grown exponentially.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s made my day.

  • Kevin M says:

    Baker, you’re turning up everywhere? First GRS, now here. Obviously that is a statement of the power of your voice and your story. This was a great essay. I especially identify with this since I have a son nearly the same age as your daughter. #6 and 7 definitely make sense to me – he has taught me the value of patience time and time again.

  • Susan Young says:

    Beautifully written with touching and timeless wisdom and insights. You have written from the heart. Your daughter is fortunate to have such smart parents, and vice-versa. The points that especially hit home with me (my kids are 16 and 14) are about watching Milligan show emotion without caring if it’s “right or wrong”, limited toys open up doors of creativity and of course…how patience is a blessing in life.
    Thank you Adam for sharing your journey.
    Blessings~ Susan

  • Shannon says:

    Hey there Adam, Milli, and Courtney, I have been keeping up on your travels. It really sounds like you guys have made a go at it. Lots of people back here in Indy have been asking about you guys and how you are doing. Courtney, many of the teachers are always inquiring as to where you have ended up and so on. I havn’t heard much lately on the living situation, jobs and actually where you are. Take care and be safe.

    Shannon McMahon

  • Deborah Powell says:

    I loved being part of your journey- experiencing through your eyes and interactions.

    Learning from small children is an art, one you have obviously mastered and related to in life – kudos to you.

    Being a grandmother has now allowed me to “re-visit” those ever evolving days of childhood with new eyes.

    I think that leaders should learn the art of negotiation from a 1 year old, the wisdom learned is more than any life experience I have ever encountered.

    Thank you for sharing.



  • giulietta nardone says:

    Sweet piece Adam! I love that you let go enough to learn from you daughter. Super adventure.

    Lesson #7 — Imagination Is More Valuable Than All The Possessions In The World — speaks to me the most. When I grew up we didn’t have all these gadgets, we played in the woods where we dreamed things up all day long. My imagination has help me more than anything else.

    I wish you and your family the best!

    Giulietta, Inspirational Rebel

  • soultravelers3 says:

    Loved it! Children are our greatest teachers and there is no better education than travel!

    We have just started our 4th year of an open ended world tour & my greatest passion is to let others know that extended travel (even as a family) is easier, cheaper & more fulfilling than most people realize!

    Thanks Adam (and Chris!) for adding your voice and insight!

    Enjoy every moment with your child as the years pass like a flash and we love how extended travel allows dad’s to experience deeply and bond with their families… that few get today.

  • NZ Nonconformist In The Making says:

    A brilliant read. Although not having children of my own – and most likely a few years off yet – I find your philosophy to life inspiring, and judging by the other comments here, a lot of others do too.

    Well done. I hope our country and fellow citizens treat you well and provide the adventure and experiences that NZ is renowned for.

    All the best!

  • Tyler McCann says:

    How inspiring and motivating. I agree with you when you say your daughter is the best teacher you have had. Kids just tend to know the great mysteries of the world somehow! Especially drawings that children do I find fascinating, my brother even thinks he was an existential painter as a child.

    Great to hear your story Adam.

  • Annabel Candy says:

    Thanks heavens you did it! Well done. I wish everyone would instead of just sitting around talking about it or saying how they’d like to travel when they can afford it/the kids are older/their career is safe/whatever.

    We also sold everything and moved from New Zealand to Panama with three kids. We ended up traveling round Central America for six months and living in Costa Rica for a year. The kids went to local schools, learnt Spanish and aced their school exams.

    We ended up moving again – this time to Australia but I would do it all over again in a heart beat. Maybe to Africa next time where we left our hearts about 15 years ago:)

    Life has so much to be excited about when you take chances and step outside your comfort zone. To anyone who is shilly shallying with the question I would say go for it – you’ll never know how it will all end out if you don’t try it and fortune really does favor the brave.

  • David Turnbull says:

    Great article Adam. It makes me even more excited to finally start backpacking in a few months. Definitely a worthy winner.

  • John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says:

    Great article Adam!

    It takes a lot of courage to restart on the other side of the world even if you travel alone, but you did it with a baby! Amazing.

    Number 7 is a great point. Children now have a million toys and electronics and this has inversely affected their attention spans. It is great that you can find creative ways to keep Milligan happy.

    When traveling in poor countries I often see children play for hours with a rock and a stick or some other improvised toy. Yet in richer countries kids wine and complain until they get they 20th game for their Nintendo DS.

    You are doing a great thing for your daughter.

  • Gordie Rogers says:

    I totally agree that the ability to adapt supersedes planning. Things a re never what we imagined once you get there. This is especially true in traveling to developing nations.

    I’m glad to hear you traveled to New Zealand. I’m from there. I haven’t been back for 8 years, but will move back next year. Hope you enjoyed yourself there.

  • Metroknow says:

    Excellent story, and such a great inspiration. My wife and I traveled to New Zealand with our 9 month old son (and Paris before that, at 7 months old), and found that New Zealand was one of the easiest places to adapt that we’ve ever visited. We had the first night’s stay planned, but beyond that we just wandered for 2 weeks with no preset accommodations or plans. We had a few landmark places we needed to see (Kauri trees mostly), but beyond that we just talked to the locals and let our path appear beneath our feet.

    We loved it!

    Thank you for the inspiration – I really enjoyed it.

  • Steve says:

    adam, thank you for this. i like the way you seem to be approaching life since your big change: you’re in the present, not worried so much about your future plans.

    you wrote that you don’t know what life will include over the next few years. this is something i’ve been coming to terms with, also–sometimes wildly embracing it, sometimes cowering in fear of it. your story is a little inspiration anyway–thanks!

  • Cliff Perry says:

    Inspiring and joyfully surprising. Jesus said ‘ accept me as little child ‘ – I’ve always took that as following the unbridalled curiousity and imagination that we too often leave behind in growing up and being responsible. I’ve always leaned towards childhood, but at 54 people often call me immature. that pleases me ! I spent 11 years traveling 22 countries on my own and adaptation is the #1 word.

  • IsabellesTravel says:

    Great article! Very inspiring. It’s amazing how much we can learn from the little ones in this world. I admire you for doing this with your family and I will definitely keep following your adventures. I wish you an amazing trip further down the road. Thanks for sharing!

  • Brooke Thomas says:

    Great piece Adam! And you’ve inspired me to let my travel fantasies merge with my “but I have a 2 year old” life. I’ll keep you posted on the adventures…

  • alternaview says:

    Great post. We think it is always about what we teach our children because we are so much older and have had so many more life experiences. The reality is that children have mastered the formula of living life simply, being happy, living in the moment, loving life and so many other things. It is amazing the lessons we can learn just by paying attention to children and how they live. Thanks for the post and the message.

  • Robert says:

    Modeling others is the best way to learn a new skill. I couldn’t agree more and resounded this on thelifedesignproject. Relationships are fuel, find people doing what you want to do, and say hello. Just do it. You’ll take notice on how they succeed, and you in turn will adapt, improve, learn and also succeed! It’s like reading about history, it will only get more useful. People have been screwing up way before us, learn from them!

  • Anil says:

    It’s funny how adults look back and find it amazing when children do things well like play piano or pick up languages. What we fail to see often is how miraculous and numerous their accomplishments are in such a short time. Their ability to adapt, passion for learning, and creativity without hindrance from preconceptions is something that we could all stand to learn from.

  • J.N. Urbanski says:

    That was incredibly insightful and just downright lovely. I read it twice. What a talent!

  • Karen says:

    Hey Adam,

    This essay is awesome!! I love how you say that you thought that having your daughter along for the journey would be an obstacle to overcome, but instead she is a source of empowerment. So inspirational. I think it is so incredible that you and your wife had the courage to leave conformity behind and just take off to travel the world. Thank you for inspiring me today, and opening my mind thru the lessons of you daughter.

  • Bea (Baya) says:

    Thanks Adam (and Chris for sharing). Your daughter is very lucky to have you and Courtney as parents. Your thoughts are a “great opportunity to learn”. Hmmmmmmm now where did I read that? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Angela J. Mattson says:

    I loved reading #2 — sometimes I still push the envelope and do things people would never expect me to do just to see their reaction (and I’m 36). But more importantly, yes, testing my OWN limits, to see how brave I can be, is just crucial to me growing and learning and being more the person I want to be. Great thoughts and thanks for sharing!

  • Kimberly Ann says:

    love the journey! What a truly great gift your giving your daughter which in turn gives you the greater gift!

    Peace, Light and Joy~
    Kimberly Ann

  • jessiev says:

    VERY cool article. i think that traveling with kids is one of the best things you can do to learn about the world. it might be a bit more challenging, but it is SO worth it, in so many ways. loved reading this!

  • Wyman says:

    Great article.

    My wife and I lived in Saudi Arabia and Beruit, Lebanon in our teen years. They were great experiences we wanted our three boys to have.

    I took a teaching position in American Samoa for a year. It is a source of enjoyment when we get together. For years we sang church hymns in Samoan to the delight of church members. It was the best thing we could have ever done.

    Left a good teaching job and a half finished house, but we survived. Now 72 and not a single regret.

  • Stefan Petersen says:

    Amazing story and great write up. It’s amazing how teaches you lessons through the most unexpected sources.

    Glad to have Stumbled Upon your site.

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