Sixteen months ago, I quit my job to travel.
If this sounds like a great decision to you, it is. If this sounds like a poor decision to you, you are also right.
Like everything in life, there are trade-offs. Instead of living with financial and career stability in a comfortable home, I'm living off savings with a large resume gap in no-frills apartments.
Wait, didn't I just say quitting my job to travel was great?
It is, for me-- but it isn't for everyone. Like most people, I had many reasons not to do this. I had a great career making good money so why trade it for the challenging existence of a long-term traveler?
Partially because I wanted to, but mostly because, deep down, I needed to.
Last year, I articulated the reasons why I started this journey, but like most life lessons, it's tough to learn something without experiencing it first. What I thought I would learn on the road didn't really happen the way I had envisioned. And while it hasn't been non-stop rainbows and unicorns, the good has far outweighed the occasional anxiety induced freak-out along the way.
Like the time I got lost in Belgrade, Serbia and stumbled into an area best described as 'the wrong side of the tracks'. Or the time I had an anxiety attack in St. Petersburg, Russia after a horrible border crossing experience and one-too-many menacing looks on the street. Or the nights with less-than-ideal beds and dirty showers.
However, even during these 'low' moments, I knew I had made the right choice. Or, at least I knew they would make for great stories later.
This isn't an encouragement to quit your job and travel. I can attest that this decision is not for everyone, and contrary to the Hollywood treatment of life on the road, it isn't one big wisdom-bestowing experience after another. If you are looking for a life-changing epiphany, you probably won't find it out here. Mini-epiphanies, sure, but the secret to life? Nope.
I'm pretty much the same person I was before I left and traveling hasn't erased my deficiencies. I still get anxious over things I can't control. I can be quick to anger when things go wrong. I tend to be impatient when things are slow.
But it happens much less often than it used to.
So, besides developing a modicum of patience, what else have I learned during my year away from work?
No Fear: The Upside of Doing Without
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself all the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”
-Seneca, Letters to Lucillius
The biggest revelation has been how unafraid I am to have so little. I didn't realize how much 'stuff' was mentally weighing me down. My consumption lifestyle has now been replaced with the bare minimum.*
I say this while acknowledging what Maria Popova calls 'the reality check of privilege.' It is a luxury that I can look upon my experience of thrift as character-building. But my funds aren't limitless, and living on the road without the safety net of a regular paycheck means a spare existence isn't a 'nice to do'. It's mandatory.
It wasn't always this way. Before travel, I spent money extravagantly, yet unsurprisingly, was perpetually dissatisfied. Today, I must think carefully before I hand over that credit card, but rather than feeling stressed, have found the prudent spending of a long-term traveler to be empowering.
Again, this isn't for everyone and you certainly don't need to wear the same clothes out of a backpack for a year to check an overactive shopping habit! To be clear, I don't hate the comforts of life or beautiful things. I simply enjoy them less so I can travel more.
Besides, most of our best experiences cost next to nothing. Like the lovely $16/night guesthouse in China where we met our Swedish friends. Or the delicious $1.50 street food dinners we ate in Thailand. Or the life-changing and free (for volunteers) Diverbo language program in Spain. All reinforcing that meaningful travel need not be expensive.
There have certainly been a few splurges now and then (usually in the form of more comfortable accommodation!), but when we do, I feel a deep gratitude that I never had in my old life, when I used to refer to certain five star hotels as 'just ok'. [Cringe]
Beauty comes in unbeautiful ways.
-Bill Hayes, Insomniac City
There is much that I loved about working and I'm grateful to those companies and my colleagues for some wonderful experiences, but about a year before the trip, I was starting to lose my work mojo. I felt dull and subdued.
I was burned out.
I wanted to re-ignite my zest for life and I knew I needed a change. What I didn't know was how travel was about to unlock a wellspring of curiosity and creativity. Once I started discovering the world, I wanted to know more. The more I experienced new thoughts and ideas, they started flying out of my head, lifting me up with them.
I'm not saying you couldn't do this while working. But for me, completely switching up the scenery was necessary. I had to detach from being completely comfortable and feeling in control.
That meant embracing discomfort, but rather than causing anxiety, I found that this is the place where magic moments like to hide out.
Following my curiosity has brought a great deal of aliveness to my travels. It helps me meet people and attempt conversations in the local language, even when it feels awkward. It allows me to get lost in challenging new areas in addition to foreigner-friendly tourist sites. It helps me seek out local food instead of Western restaurants even though I usually have no idea what I'm doing. Like the first time I ordered Hot Pot in China.
That's not to say I don't indulge in the comfort of English speakers, American-style malls and Starbucks. But when I push myself beyond those initially uncomfortable encounters, I'm left energized and filled with feelings of warmth and appreciation.
Sixteen months ago, I didn't realize that travel would instill a sense of wonder that I haven't had in many years.
Travel Skills = Life Skills
Have you ever tried to read the train timetable in China? It's like trying to crack the Enigma code. How about facing less-than-friendly Hungarian authorities who are barking at you for your passport? Or finding safe, clean and reasonable accommodation in a city you have never been before?
Contrary to the idea that travel is one perpetual leisure-fest, it actually takes a lot of work to stay on the road. From understanding country entry requirements, to navigating the myriad of transportation options (not just deciding how to get there, but how to keep it low cost, too) to educating myself about cultural sensitivities and adding a few key phrases in the local language; all of this takes time and effort.
Of all the skills I've developed in my career, I'm most proud of the ones I've learned on the road.
- Tolerance and patience in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty
- Remaining positive and persevering in far-from-ideal circumstances
- Ability to adjust to changes and local customs, quickly
- Money management and adherence to a tight budget
- Ability to communicate across a wide variety of languages and cultures
All of these have helped me strengthen my emotional intelligence and inner fortitude in a way that will benefit my future endeavors as much as the hard skills I've learned in traditional corporate settings.
Does that sound like self-rationalized feel-good speak? Maybe, but I know I've truly learned more in the past year than I did in the previous ten. Which is certainly my own fault, but hey, better late than never.
Busy = Worthy?
The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living.
One of the goals I set out for myself during these travels was to become comfortable being, instead of always doing.
You see, I'm a recovering people-pleasing busy-body. My entire life, I have used busyness as a measure of my worth. The more I checked off my list, I thought, the better, but in reality it was never good enough.
That's the trap of productivity.
Sixteen months ago, the unrelenting achiever in me made a list of things I wanted to accomplish during my time out from work, because the actual travel wasn't 'enough'. Here is a sample for your amusement.
- Achieve conversational level Spanish
- Create and monetize a travel website
- Write everyday
- Publish a short story or essay
- Walk 10,000 steps per day
- Lose weight
I can't help but look at this and laugh. Nothing will kill the joy of travel faster than a list filled with self-created pressure and obligation.
Don't get me wrong, There is nothing wrong with making lists and setting goals. It's a great tool and seat-of-the-pants-kick that many of us need to get anything done.
But this list had nothing to do with that. A year ago, I was a person who couldn't stand the thought of this time not 'counting' for something. I feared if I didn't 'achieve' something, it would be a waste.
Over a year later, I know that giving myself permission to just 'be' has resulted in more happiness than crossing off my 'to-do' list. I haven't given up on lists and goals completely, but these days, they are far more simple and internally focused.
At the top of the list? Practicing presence and being in the moment.
Courage in the Face of Uncertainty
Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.
The biggest lesson I've learned is that just because you seek something, it doesn't mean it wants to be found. At least, not immediately. While I have unlinked myself from work-as-identity, I still haven't discovered some grand life purpose or even what I will do when I stop traveling.** I have had a lot of wonderful experiences and gained a great deal of knowledge, but that doesn't necessarily translate into wisdom. It's an ongoing and dynamic process, and it won't just happen overnight.
I've had trickles of wisdom after being exposed to so many different things. A drop here, a drop there and eventually they do add up. I'm more grateful, hopeful and joyful, but still working on patience and being judgmental. In the meantime, the best I can do is keep my eyes open to the surprises right in front of me.
I'd like to leave you with something that intuitively, we all know, but is a daily affirmation that has kept me moving forward many days.
Choose your path and be proud of it. It's your journey and no one else can walk it.
Thanks for reading!
*Minimalism has been much maligned lately as a rich hipster movement to buy fewer, yet relatively expensive things. I get where they are coming from and would like to stress that I'm not espousing a pretentious holier-than-thou attitude. I'm only pointing out that living with the bare minimum has helped open me up to new experiences in a deeper way.
**The answer to 'When will you be done?' is 'I don't know!' We expect to be on the road for at least another 10 months and perhaps longer if we start to earn income from a couple of web ventures.