“Should I go on a trip around the world or keep saving up to buy a house?”. This was the question I had to answer in 2009 after I’ve just heard the temporary contract I was so happy with couldn’t be extended or turned into a full contract. I found myself in a work environment where hiring people was the last thing on the employers’ minds: crisis time. Eventually, I would consider this to be a blessing more than anything else. As Steve Jobs once said: “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from *insert company name here* was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”. So how did I change from being a career-focussed suit-and-tie corporate banker to being the happiness (or better: excitement) focused round-the-world vagabond I am today? Read on to find out (and try to embrace the cheesy stock photos).
The toxic office
It’s easy to get lost in the office life. Work can be addictive, especially for the goal orientated. I was working in a globally focussed bank, where I had to deal with bureaucracy, inefficiency and general office toxicity. Don’t get me wrong: I had a great time working there and I have met some great people, but I’m happy that I have successfully escaped the office floor.
In 2009, after coming back from an amazing all-included internship in London, I got an offer to work on a temporary contract at the headquarters of the Group Staff department in Amsterdam. The intention was to work there for a year, get another temporary contract and hopefully get a full contract in the third year. At this time one could start planning their life: get a mortgage (employees would get a good interest rate), find yourself a wife, create some kids and live happily ever after.
The upside of crisis
A regular economic conjuncture period lasts about 5 years, meaning that it’s normal to have 5 years of economic growth followed by 5 years of recession (or stabilization). 2009 was the year that had it coming according to this theory, but as we all know the collapse of the housing market made things worse.
You gotta love crisis time. Why? Companies need to reorganize and will lay off a lot of people. If you’re amongst them and are young enough to flip things upside down (I feel truly sorry for the people around the age of 55 who got laid off after having worked at the same company for 25 years) it’s the universe’s way of telling you it’s time to re-evaluate your life. This may sound heavy, but I know too many people that never had this chance.
The treadmill of routine and going to the same office day after day to play along with the corporate game numbs creativity and focuses all of a person’s energy on an aspect of life that I find should have a much smaller role.
Why I decided to pack my bags and go
So here I am: laid off looking for other jobs in my field (online communication). Despite my decent CV the uncertainty about the effect of the crisis makes clients as well as agencies refrain from hiring anyone until the figures show the upcoming economical trend.
I was lucky to have saved up some money which I now needed to use to fund my spending habits until I would find a new job. The free time I gain leaves me time to think about my next move. Several consulting sessions with my friends and ex-co-workers point towards buying a backpack, stuffing it with stuff and heading off into the land of the unknown. “But I’m not a backpacker type at all”, I pondered. I had never really traveled, and had just visited a few countries in Europe with my parents when I was little.
I looked around online and saw some testimonials from other travelers. It seemed like they spoke a different language, but they seemed happy. After doing some research I decide to travel for 6 months through Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, a classic backpackers route.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Below are a couple of factors which completely broadened my horizon on my first trip.
One thousand first impressions
Traveling gave me the opportunity to observe my feelings and behavior in thousands of situations within a short timespan. I was recommended to try a thing called Couchsurfing: an online travel community where you have a profile and through which you can host or “surf” at other travelers’ couches (or beds, rooms, complete bungalows or sometimes a mat on the floor) all around the world. Because you end up staying at a local most of the time, you get introduced to the “real” life in a city or village pretty quickly.
Normally I would socialize with the host on the first day, get invited to a dinner with his/her friends the next day and party at one of the local (non-touristic) bars or clubs on the weekend. I fell in love with the openness and the trust of almost all of the people on this website, and I started meeting a lot of amazing people day after day.
An interesting observation was that while you had been on the road for months the person you have just met will ask you exactly the same opening questions: “where are you from?”, “where did you come from?” and “where are you going next?”. Answering these in the same way every time got boring after a while so I started to improvise (Q: Where are you from? A: Yes), keep my introduction short and ask “what’s your story?” to focus the attention away from myself.
I have read a good set of self-help books in my life, but the ones I read during my first trip had the most impact overall. When you’re traveling there is plenty of time to reflect and you will absorb new information much more than your those 10 minutes of reading you allow yourself before going to bed after a long day of working. These are the books that changed my life:
The 4-hour workweek
I consider this book my lifestyle bible. Timothy Ferris describes the way of the New Rich, the people who have successfully escaped the office life and now have filled their lives with exciting activities while making enough money to survive and being free of location. The book provides a very handy how-to guide after busting common myths and fears about this “extravagant” way of life.
I bought this book 5 times and have given away every single copy, making the friends in need see things a little bit clearer. I now own an e-book version in which I have made notes of the most important paragraphs. Highly recommended, you can buy the hard-cover or e-book version of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Expanded and Updated) through Amazon.
7 habits of highly effective people
The main lesson that I learnt from this book is to actually take some time to (re)consider your life. Be realistic about the things that make you happy and the ones that don’t. Stephen R. Covey talks about different focus points such as money, family or work from which you make decisions. He explains that the best way is to live from a principle-centered perspective. Stephen also thought me to stop caring about things outside my circle of influence. This alone gave me a much more relaxed mindset.
Last but not least, I’ve created a personal mission statement which I review annually. This statement holds a list of things I find important in life, the principles I want to live by. You can get your own copy of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on Amazon.
Here is an example of a personal mission statement. In fact, it’s the one I’ve written after my first mini-retirement in 2010:
Doing it again..
As many non-traveler friends will tell you, taking a 6 month period off to travel is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Except for it’s not. After being back in my “normal” life for about 3 months I start to get bored. It feels like the “real” life is out there, anywhere except for the city I grew up in. The decision to go traveling again is made, despite society’s protests.
This time has to be better, bigger, crazier though, I decide. Two ideas make the shortlist: hitchhiking to the moon on one of the tourist vessels, or traveling from the North Pole to the South Pole. The second idea wins on feasibility (don’t think I won’t make it to the moon though) and I decide to add to it by raising money and create awareness for a charity on the road. Pole2pole4charity is born. I don’t like to repeat myself, so if you’re interested in knowing how that trip went, you can read all about it in one of my previous articles. By the way, it’s 2011 now.
Help, I cannot stop traveling! The habit of working for a year in The Netherlands, saving up money and then heading off for a 6-8 month world trip starts to form. After the Pole2Pole4Charity adventure a serious question pops up. Am I traveling to escape from something or has it really become a passion and an important part of my life? I decide to re-read The 4-Hour Workweek again and discover a powerful quote: “excitement is the more practical term for happiness, it’s the cure-all”. This calms my mind, and I happily start making new travel plans. This time the route is a collection of bucket list locations, cheap flight routes and allegedly memorable experiences (like heading down the Trans-Mongolia Express).
The trip is filled with plenty of excitement, and I truly feel confident about traveling being a large part of my life. After coming back to The Netherlands yet again I (partially forced) start sculpting my life as a full-time freelancer. I notice that my childhood-skill of programming websites comes in handy, and I soon find a couple of assignments to earn some much-needed cash with. A tax-bill had just come in, eating into nearly all my savings.
As we speak, I’m about to fly to Stockholm to live for two months, while working for a Dutch agency as a programmer. Again, I feel confident. Traveling and working (or at least, working abroad) is the way to go for me.
Update: I’ve recently written an article on the pros and cons of full-time travel, which is a follow-up on this article. Check it out 🙂