Shannon O.

Shannon O’Donnell: 2013 National Geographic Traveler Of The Year

This week’s interview is with Shannon O’Donnell, a traveling writer and speaker. Since 2008, she has traveled to more than 40 countries and is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. Shannon is an incredible Goal Achiever who was named The National Geographic Traveler Of The Year in 2013.


Shannon’s photography, writing, and speaking have been featured in print and online publications all over the world. Some of the highlights include: Yahoo, CNN, and Daily Mail.

The Achievers Story

Tell us who you are, where you’re from and something that people would find interesting about you?


My name is Shannon O’Donnell and I grew up in St. Petersburg Florida. Something interesting about me is that in 2006, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the acting and entertainment industry after college.


Give us a brief overview about the goal you achieved and why it was so important?


I always had this overarching goal of being a traveler. I traveled a little bit in college but it seemed like something that might be too big for me. So instead, I went to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.


While in LA, I had an agent and was finding some of the more traditional benchmarks of success in acting but – I still felt pulled to travel.  After spending about a year and a half there, I decided to buy a one way ticket to Sydney, Australia which was the beginning of a one year trip. I bought it in a frenzy of “I think I need to leave – I’ve always wanted to travel, so I know I need to leave.” I was later recognized as the 2013 National Geographic traveler of the year for my work promoting grass roots tourism.


Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end; where we’ve been, where we’re going, and everything in between. Give us an example of what your life was like before achieving this goal?


In college, I did a lot of volunteer work. Helping other people was something I found really important. After college, living in an apartment in LA with a friend, I realized I had lost some of my focus on volunteering.  I was hemorrhaging money in an attempt to make my lifestyle actually work.


I was doing content writing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for small businesses online. Additionally, I was pursuing a career in the entertainment industry by going on acting auditions.


Help us understand what caused you to move in a different direction?


In May 2008, my lease in LA was coming to an end. I was on the phone with my dad and started naming a bunch of random cities that I wanted to explore.


My dad helped me understand that I could pursue my dream because I had online work. After that conversation, I started to realize the possibilities of being able to work from anywhere in the world.


A week later, I called my dad back and said “you won’t believe what I just did. I spent $700 on a one way ticket to Sydney, Australia.”


My situation was unique, since I had online work. For a lot of people, traveling the world is a 2 to 6 year goal. For me, I knew I just needed enough money to buffer the online income that I could make every month. In a crazy moment of “I hope this works! I can always come home if it doesn’t.”, I booked my ticket for 5 months from that day.


Two of my best friends from college were getting married about 20 days apart. I booked the trip for right after their weddings which gave me enough time to finish the lease on my apartment in LA, sell my car, all of my possessions and move back across the country.


I drove back to Florida, attended the 2 weddings and then got on an airplane all within 5 months. It was a lot to squeeze into that short amount of time but I managed to accomplish it! I could have given myself a year to do all of the tasks but I did it in 5 months because I set a deadline. I think deadlines are really important when it comes to achieving your goal!


Give us an example of what your life is like today, since achieving the goal?


I’ve always wanted to travel. I think that’s something a lot of people set as a benchmark. For me, once on the road volunteering and working with developing communities, I found a deeper meaning for what I wanted to be doing with my work. I still loved acting but I found a different way of channeling it. I started speaking with college students and working the volunteering space again. I was named the National Geographic traveler of the year in 2013 for my work promoting grass roots tourism. I would have never discovered this style of travel had I not followed through on that 1 year trip around the world. For those interested, grass roots travel is about spending more than just a day or two in one place. It’s about going for longer periods of time and digging deeper into the communities.


After the National Geographic honor, I was propelled into more speaking engagements. I really looked for ways to help other people use the transformative power of travel and journey in their own lives.

Overcoming The Obstacles

If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that obstacles like fear, time and money among other things can prevent us from or motivate us towards achieving goals. What are the top 3 obstacles you faced, why were they obstacles to begin with, and how were they conquered?


Fear and self doubt were the largest obstacles.


The first obstacle was fear. I was afraid of traveling alone and being lonely for a year.  It was something I had never done before. I always had roommates and was with other people. However, once I got out there, I realized I was surrounded by a world full of amazing people.


The second obstacle was my own self doubt.


– I thought about quitting before I even started

– I thought I might not be able to do it

– I thought I might be a failure


We’ve all got unique obstacles. I grew up in a poorer family and part of my self doubt stemmed from that environment. To overcome this obstacle, I had to realize that all of this stuff was in my head and not reality.


The third obstacle was money. Blogging was fairly new in 2008 and there were very few namable travel blogs in existence. Of the few I found, none of them clearly outlined budgets. All of them said “it’s really affordable – trust us. It’s cheaper than you think.”


To overcome this obstacle, I had to have faith in the advice of other people who had gone before me. I told myself, I could find hostels and guest houses in Asia for $10 a night. I built a rough budget based on the information I was able to find. I realized, with my client income, I really could do this.

The Triumph

The next part of the interview is the Triumph. The triumph is all about taking the success of achievement to the next level of personal greatness. The idea of greatness can be different for everyone. For me, greatness is all about the pursuit rather than the destination. What does greatness mean to you and how has achieving this goal contributed to that idea?


For me, greatness is about comfort zones. I had an idea of how I needed to live my life but fear was boxing me in. It was keeping me in what I thought was a safe and comfortable situation. It’s about thinking positively and saying “here’s what I want for myself and here’s the story I wish I could have. A story that pushes me past the edges of my own personal comfort zone.” In achieving this goal, I think I pushed outside a lot of my comfort zones. Many of the obstacles were holding me back from my own personal greatness and the story I now have as the 2013 National Geographic traveler of the year, a speaker and someone who is able to help other people all across the world.

Roadmap To Goal Achievement

What is the best advice you ever received that helped you clarify and/or achieve this goal?


My parents split when I was 8 and my dad raised me. He has always been a fountain of wisdom for me. When I was 16, I remember being at a dance competition in Tennessee. I was in a confrontation with another girl and trying to solve the situation on my own. I was really upset and called my dad. He said, “you need to ask for help and let other people help you find a solution.”  I took his advice and it stuck with me. While traveling, It gave me the confidence to introduce myself to strangers and ask for help. It has gotten me out of all kinds of jams, helped me meet some incredible people and allows others into my journey.


What are some of the resources or tools that helped you achieve this goal?


Bootsnall – This is where I asked for initial advice. I put my timeline, budget and plan out to seasoned travelers on the forums and they ripped it to shreds. I had 21 countries on my list and got comments like: “Why are you trying to go to so many countries? You are insane to think you can go to Scandinavia without more money.”  These comments helped me check my sanity and understand where I could do better.


On my resource page, at A Little Adrift, I accumulated everything from budgeting to websites that I’ve used for every aspect of travel. It’s a list of everything I wish I had in that first year and would encourage anyone to check it out.


What did you do to stay motivated throughout the process?


My biggest motivator was setting a deadline. After buying the ticket, I immediately burst into tears. I called my friend in LA and said, “do you think I should ask for my money back? This is a terrible idea. It’s only 5 months away – what am I going to do?”  If I hadn’t bought the ticket which set a deadline, I could have been in the planning stage for much longer. I probably wouldn’t have left!


Another motivator was having accountability with my friends. At a party, my friend announced to everyone “you won’t believe what Shannon is going to do. She’s going to travel the world.”  All of a sudden, I was accountable. Everybody thought it was amazing and wanted to hear the details. Being accountable meant, I owned the goal to travel a lot faster than I would have otherwise.


A quote I’ve always loved, that really motivated me to book my ticket, is by John A. Shed. He said “a ship in harbor is safe but that’s not what ships are built for.” What I really love about this quote is that fear, no matter what the goal, is natural. I am meant to follow my goals and move outside the harbor. All of us have different fears but we are that ship that needs to sail away, toward that goal outside the harbor. This quote resonates with me on everything I work towards. It reminds me to look at what I’m allowing myself to be ‘boxed into’ or what harbor I am hiding in, and then move beyond it.


Is there a book that helped you achieve this goal? If so, how?


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail


One of the reasons I love this book is because its written by a woman rather than a man. So much of the travel narrative is written by men and focused on men.


In the book, she reveals a very personal journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon. The story is about how such an intense and long journey parallels a problem she is trying to overcome.


I read a couple of books a week, so picking one is really difficult. However, that’s my pick for a book I think everybody should read!  It’s beautifully written and she’s a fantastic author.


What blogs and podcasts do you recommend?


Radio Lab

American Life


If you were advising someone on how to achieve the same goal or something similar, what specific steps would you have them follow?


The #1 thing I could have done differently to achieve my goal sooner is believing it was possible. I allowed self doubt to play into my thoughts and that delayed me from moving forward.


When I get emails from people, I respond to their similar thoughts by saying “all you have to do is believe it’s possible and your mind will fill in the gaps.” Instead of saying “I don’t have enough money or I can’t do it or my family would never let me do it” say “there is a way and it is going to be possible.” It may not be immediately apparent but if you keep looking for it, you’re going to find an avenue to reach your goal.


In my opinion, it’s important for you to create a reasonable timeline and set a deadline.


Start a gratitude journal. If I find myself getting negative, I go back to writing 5 things every day that I am grateful for. It’s a process that keeps me positive and helps me to move forward. It’s something that I have used to help stave off depression and it keeps me focused on my long term goals.


I would also advise the following steps:


Step #1: Start with a plan.


If you were going to plan your dream trip, write down things like:


– How long is it going to be?

– where do I want to travel to?

– What does this trip look like for me?


For me, I wanted an around the world trip but it didn’t need to include South America or Africa. I outlined where I wanted to go. I wanted to be in places like Europe. Where you decide to go determines specifics related to things like:


– money

– transportation

– activity


Jot it all down and don’t judge or edit any of it – you are just showing what it “could” look like.


Step #2: Make a list of all the obstacles.


These are things you need to solve before you can leave as well as things that will come up while traveling.


Step #3: Outline your money situation and set a budget.


What’s the best way for people to connect with you?




A Little Adrift on Facebook

A Little Adrift Website