Powell Berger on Travel Books and Changing One's Mind

Noodle Expert Powell Berger tells us what she wishes she could have asked her mother, what she learned about herself from a disastrous biology class, and about the importance of travel in her life.

Noodle Expert Powell Berger tells us what she wishes she could have asked her mother, what she learned about herself from a disastrous biology class, and about the importance of travel in her life.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

Whoa! That's a tough one. Lots of names race across my brain: Maya Angelou for wisdom, Steve Jobs for visionary thinking, Nellie Bly for fearless journalism in a world that was still largely dominated by men, FDR to understand the world at the brink and seemingly never lose sight of the end-game. But if I have to choose just one person, I think it has to be my mom.

She died when I was 33, and had suffered dementia for over ten years before that, so I never really had the benefit of an adult relationship with her. As a kid and teenager, I did what most kids do; I took her and her stories for granted. Now, as an adult, I am in awe of her. She left Mississippi right after high school graduation to rivet airplanes for the war, ending up at Pearl Harbor, on a tiny island 5,000 miles and a world away from everything she knew. After the war, she spent time making a life for herself as a single woman in California before a dying parent brought her home. She then spent the next forty years doing what she had to do — raising my brother and me, working for the railroad as a station master, and being a single mother to me after my father died when I was twelve. I wonder now about her dreams, what she thought her life would be, what it felt like to be so far from home with the world in the midst of chaos. She never talked much about all that, or if she did, I didn't listen. If she could be my teacher now, I'd want to learn how, as a woman, she continued to break boundaries in a male-dominated world, how she decried racism and bigotry in the rural south long before her peers followed suit, and how she managed (as a single mother) to allow me to pursue my dreams. I left home at 16 to be a page in the United States Senate, leaving her with an empty nest and no daughter to keep her company. I look at my daughter now, almost exactly that same age, and can't imagine being brave or strong enough to do it, yet I know I would, because that's what my mother did for me.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

A boss and mentor once said to me, "You know, in truth, all decisions are interim." Those words resonated — the notion that we make life decisions every day, and that every day we can make new ones. I watch graduating high school seniors struggle to choose their college and hear them say, repeatedly, that it's the biggest decision of their life and they can't afford to get it wrong. I disagree, and I tell them so. They will choose a school, and if it's not the right choice, they can transfer, or take a gap year, or follow a different course. They don't have to be stuck there; they can make new decisions. Those few words instilled in me the courage to trust myself and make new decisions when times demand them, to strike out in new directions and travel new paths. Life is about good decision making, and remembering that situations are fluid. Things change, and it takes courage to stay in front of it all and to make new decisions when it's time.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I believe travel is less about the destination and more about the personal journey that gets you there. It's not where you go, but how you experience it that shapes your views and opens your eyes to things not previously seen or understood. There's so much chatter in the travel world about tourists versus travelers, luxury travel versus backpacking, cruise ships versus chicken buses, and study abroad programs versus do-it-yourself gap years. I believe in all these options, but not necessarily for everybody all the time.

I encourage new travelers to align their travel dreams with their personal passions and curiosity, and to remember that "travel" isn't defined by the number of miles or hours it takes to get to a place. Not ready to take off to India just yet? No problem. What about a road-trip across country or a weekend away, alone, without the constant buzz of phones and laptops and distractions? Travel requires that we get comfortable in our own skin, that we embrace the unknown, that we laugh at ourselves when we mess up or get lost (which we all do, all the time), and that we disobey that childhood mandate about talking to strangers. I encourage travelers to read. The Steinbeck classic Travels With Charley and Rolf Potts' Vagabonding are the foundations on which my travel philosophies are based, but there are plenty other options. Kerouac's On the Road, Eat/Pray/Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer all tell stories of transformational travel and offer good kindling to stoke the travel bug and widen the lens of what is possible. Where should a student travel? That's up to them. What matters most is that they get outside their comfort zone and go.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

As a kid, I had this crazy dream of being a marine biologist one day. Jacques Cousteau was very cool in my day, and I wanted to be the first woman to do what he was doing. I collected shells and catalogued them. I read everything I could find about marine life and science. I think I even tried for a while to mimic his accent, or at least his cool vibe of explaining things so effortlessly. Then that glittery disco ball dream came shattering down in Bio 101 my freshman year in college. It didn't help that I'd chosen an intense pre-med university (see thoughts on decision making above), so Bio 101 was meant to weed out the doctors from the wannabes. I was a wannabe weed that got plucked. I passed, barely, but I knew then and there that I was never meant to wear a white lab coat and be a biologist. I loved the ocean and marine life, but I was not meant to be a scientist. It wasn't so much that I couldn't do it (despite that awful semester); it was that I didn't like it. So I simply changed my mind. It wasn't failure to me; it was clarity. While my bio grades weren't so stellar, I was flying high in history, political science, and language arts. I realized that's where I needed to be, and that one day, if I wanted, I could use those skills to fuel my passion for conservation and marine life. I learned that life isn't pass/fail. It's a moving, messy, complicated journey and that course corrections are sometimes exactly what's needed to keep us on track.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

What is my field? I'm currently a writer and communications consultant, writing everything from in-depth journalism to lifestyle pieces and fluffy profiles and consulting with clients trying to get their voices heard above the clatter and noise of a busy world. Prior to this, I spent close to a dozen years in a boutique real estate property management business that I founded and ran quite successfully. Before that, I spent a career in politics and public policy as a lobbyist, strategic planner, and advocacy communications director. And in the middle of it all, I managed to carve out a five-year window in which I traveled with and roadschooled my two younger kids, spending months in far-flung corners of the globe before returning home to Honolulu. Then I headed out and did it again.

Along that seemingly disjointed path, the common thread weaving it together is communication. I originally went into politics and public policy, but I came out a communicator. Through all those professional endeavors, I discovered that what's often lacking in our hurry-up, fast-paced, get-it-done-now world is a clear voice and open space to hear — truly hear — what others have to say. Just as I realized I was not a biologist, I came to understand that I could be a conduit to hear the voices in the world, and perhaps do my little part to share those voices with others. I thought I'd be a biologist. I became a lobbyist. But I discovered along the way that really, I'm a communicator.

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