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I moved around a lot growing up. My father was always getting promoted, fired, hired away or starting a new venture, and so, on a regular basis, off the family would go to a new zip code and a new life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perpetual motion would leave me addicted to change. There’s a certain restlessness hard-wired in my character — a need to alter the scenery to keep things interesting.
Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s a quality that served me well over my life. It gave me a deep sense of curiosity and creativity. Buoyed by having to make new friends and attend new schools regularly, I grew up seeing the world as one big adventure waiting to be had. I learned to relish being “the new kid,” with the opportunity to reinvent myself again and again. I took a year abroad to explore Europe while in graduate school. And I think it was this same craving for change that led me to start a company called TASER International, which is now a publicly traded, billion-dollar company.
A few years ago, the same itch for change struck again. But this time, instead of being a graduate student with a backpack and a passport, or an entrepreneur with a garage and a good idea, I was a father of 3 children and a boss of hundreds of employees.
But then, there was that itch. Was it possible to have another adventure, kids and all? I had to try.
Making The Case
I had a solid business rationale: Our International sales at TASER have been a disappointment, never breaking above 20 percent of our total revenue, even though the international market opportunities are much larger. So I hatched a plan: I would pull my kids out of school and do another year abroad, helping the business all the while by growing our international footprint.
Then the real work began: Convincing my wife. We had an 11 year old daughter and 5 year old twins. We used to travel a lot when our older daughter was young, but the twins were, well, difficult. On one trip, when they were 18 months old, they both threw simultaneous ear-splitting tantrums on the plane. If there are two hours I could erase from the film reel of my life, those two hours would be the ones. It’s a good thing you can’t open the doors mid-flight, or our fellow passengers may have tried to evict us all mid air. After that flight, my wife said, “Never again.”
Then the real work began: Convincing my wife.
When pitching this latest international adventure, I banked on her forgetting that trip. No such luck. The twins had grown up quite a bit, but, as she was quick to point out, they were, “sensitive to change.” That phrase was to me like red must be to a bull. As an entrepreneur, you learn to embrace change, even need it, as a necessary fuel for business. Why? Because the world is changing in manifold ways, all the time. New technologies, new industries, new markets—it’s all new, and if my kids couldn’t adapt to change in their early years, when they have less on the line and more capacity to learn, what hope would there be for them when they grew up?
Telling me that my kids were “sensitive to change” was like telling me they were “allergic to success.” This was a problem that needed fixing, not an excuse. So, I doubled down and convinced her to give it a shot. The TASER board came next. The planning and logistics took years to put in place. I had to convince them of the value of the international market, explain how I could be a CEO abroad, persuade them that the team on the home-front would rise to the challenge, and make them believe that I hadn’t lost my marbles. After much convincing and groundwork, they came around.
I figured this would either be the smartest or the stupidest thing I’d ever done, but knowing that it was going to end up wildly one way or the other was reason enough to do it. Like founding my company itself, we were either going to soar or crash — nothing in between.
You never know how much you can pack into airline travel until you do a trip like this. We had 8 — yes, 8 — bags, filed to the brim, all staying at 69.9 pounds a piece. Why? Because the absolute limit of 70 pounds would have put us over the edge of what airlines will accept. And the luggage was the least of the logistical hurdles. We split the year into 4 segments of about 3 months each. We would return home for about a month between each segment so we could catch our breath, repack, say “hi” to family and friends before launching again.
My wife was right: The kids did not adapt well to change, at least not at the beginning. Jet-lag combined with packing and re-packing mixed with missing their friends and routine — all of it was a lot for them to handle. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t handle it. Something magical happened about 2 months into the trip: They adjusted. The moment when it all fell into place was at a park in Pamplona, Spain. My 5-year-old son came up to me and said, “Daddy — what country are we in, and how do you say ‘hello’?”
I told him we were in Spain, and Hello was “Ola.” Without missing a step, he turned around and walked up to a group of Spanish kids about his age and said “Ola. Uno Dos Tres!” Those were the only words he knew in Spanish, but it was enough to make friends. We had to pry him and his sister from the playground and their new found friends an hour later.
Since setting off, we’ve traveled over 30 thousand miles, stayed in 10 different countries, and listened to 8 different languages. We’ve taken glass-blowing classes and oil painting in Venice, studied drawing and hip hop in Paris, and swam with dolphins in Dubai. My daughter is currently taking fencing lessons in Rome, and the twins have gotten over their fears and warmed to new cultures and locales.
Here’s a few words to the wise for those who decide to do this:
- Put your kids in local schools. We put our youngest twins in local kindergartens wherever we go. To really learn the culture and have a shot at the language, they need to be immersed with local kids. And, without the outlet, they will drive you nuts.
- Hire a local administrative assistant. Go to Elance.com or a similar freelancing website and hire a local administrative assistant in each country where you will live. You pay about $20 per hour, and for around $120 you can have someone who really knows the country and speaks the language help you figure out schools, activities, etc. We had signed up for a boutique travel agency, which was a waste of money in comparison.
- Use technology to cure separation anxiety. Our 12-year-old girl is at an age where most of her friends are consolidating their friend groups, which is why she initially put up a fight when we proposed the international tour. Once I conceded to get her an iPhone to keep in touch, she accepted it. I’m as sensitive as any parent to the over-reliance on technology, but in this case, it can help her keep her friendships warm while we travel.
- Go home periodically if you can. It gave everyone a chance to get grounded again, and to connect with friends. You can imagine that my children’s friends were curious to hear about their adventures, and my children were only too happy to boast about the many and varied things they’d seen and done. Sharing those tales made them excited for the next leg of the journey. Around the world tickets can help keep your costs down, and keep the adventure of a lifetime going.
Above all, embrace the uncertainty. Parenting books will tell you that kids need routine, a predictable schedule and a predictable life. Humbug. Teaching your kids to adapt to change is one of the most critical life skills you can impart, and the only way to do it is to change. Not just because they are exposed to unfamiliar things, but because seeing mom and dad exposed to difficulty, stress, the new, the different is a chance for them to see how adults handle such things. Scratch the itch for yourself — and it’ll be some of the best wisdom you can give your children.
Rick Smith is a father, world-traveler, and the founder & CEO of TASER International.