It has been almost six years since I quit my job to travel the world, and in that time, I've learned a few things about the experience.
Quitting your job to travel around the world is a common aspiration. Many articles have been written about it. It comes up in advice columns plenty. And it is perhaps the staple narrative for travel bloggers, many of whom build entire careers around selling the fantasy of a nomad's life free from cubicles.
Every one of these sources treats the subject badly.
The thing about the quit-to-travel narrative is that it is the mainstay of the travel blog entire. As a result, most people who approach this subject have a pretty clear story to tell. Either they want to sell the dream or they'd like to pull everyone down to earth by poking holes in it. Neither of those positions is entirely correct.
Quitting your job to travel the world can be the best decision you've ever made, but only if you take it seriously and approach this issue with due consideration. A 35-year-old who's itching for adventure can do this wisely, professionally and well. But just loading up some travel blogs and buying a one way ticket? You'd be better off watching Rudy a bunch of times and counting on life as a walk on for the Irish.
Don't dismiss this idea out of hand. Don't fall in love with it either. Here's why.
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One of the very biggest reasons why this is a good idea is the most obvious: it's a terrific experience.
Quitting your job means that this will be more than just a brief vacation. You can visit more countries, see more cities and have more experiences than would ever be possible with a return ticket burning a hole in your pocket. Rent an apartment and spend a month somewhere to learn what day-to-day life is like, or race through a continent to pack as much in as possible. You'll have the freedom to define what this trip means for you.
That's not just a "fun" thing either. The personal satisfaction that comes from living your adventure will follow you home. Instead of sitting at a desk staring out a window and wondering, you'll have had that adventure you always wanted to take and might even be a little closer to the person you always wanted to be.
Contrary to the increasingly dominant narrative, one of the biggest employer complaints these days is that potential employees lack soft skills. This involves communication, languages, teamwork, cross-cultural engagement and many other interpersonal touchstones. Guess what you'll spend your time on the road doing?
Traveling the world puts you in constant contact with people from every walk of life. For most people who do this, money is generally very tight. You're sharing a bunk bed with students from Kenya or flashpackers from France. You get your dinners from the cheapest carts you can find on the streets of Bangkok or learn how to cook whatever the local grocer sells. It is a constant, intense experience of cultural immersion in potentially dozens of different cultures over the course of just a few months.
Meanwhile people who want to develop language skills can do so just by walking out the front door of their guesthouse. If you want to come home speaking Spanish, start your travels in South America. French language speakers can improve with a few months in West Africa. Not only does this not have to be a gap on your resume, it can actually help yours stand out.
Not long after leaving practice, I found myself in the mountains of Thailand advising the award-winning founder of an NGO on how better to handle finance and internal policy. Over that same trip, I met doctors in Indonesia, CEOs on their own travels and business owners around the world. I would never have met any of these people from my living room couch.
At first, your travels will stay relatively prescribed. You'll hang out at the guesthouse bar in the evenings and spend your days at the tourist sites. The first few weeks of most grand adventures look… well, they look like something pretty well scripted by Fodor's or Lonely Planet.
Then you get a little comfortable with what you're doing and the real sense of adventure starts to set in. You start having a drink at local bars or connecting with the expat crowd. You find towns that most people miss when they've only got seven days to spend. You meet people, and ultimately start to build relationships and connections.
Not every contact you meet will turn into an opportunity, but everyone you meet can help you learn something.
The best time to see the world is when your life is changing anyway.
When I bought my one-way ticket to Cambodia, I had plans to change careers. Leaving everything behind made sense.
Quitting your job to see the world isn't a cure-all for unhappiness, and it doesn't magically make your career aspirations clear. What it can do is give you time to slow down and actually ask yourself, "What do I really want?" For many of us, that's an all-too-rare question. It's easy to have followed a path of degrees and promotion and, if you don't slow down once in a while, that path can become a little bit of a trap.
That's where a few months off comes in. Just quitting your job and getting a new one doesn't always work because of the frantic nature of that project. You start looking for a new job immediately. Under that kind of pressure it's easy to repeat old patterns and look for things that are familiar.
Taking yourself out of your comfort zone and creating some real space can give you time to think. That's the real potential of this project. It's not the adventure or the time on a beach (although both are great). It's not even the people you'll meet. It's the chance to slow down and ask yourself the kinds of questions you might not have even considered back home.
There's much to be said for taking risks.
Quitting your job to travel the world is a big risk (about which more below). It's also a blank page. With proper planning, you can do more or less whatever you want.
This is your chance to indulge sides of yourself you may have always wanted to explore. Go on an eco-trip or see the great art museums of the world. Visit temples or just find a friendly bar and hear stories from all walks of life. Whether it's Indiana Jones or a teacher, this is a chance to become a little bit more of the person you've always imagined. Few things let you be more you than a life with no plans, no expectations and no schedule.
This can also truly help boost your career. Companies hire people, not resumes. Taking time to travel and have adventures can make you a much more interesting person, and that makes you a much more interesting candidate to a potential employer. Use this as an opportunity to become someone who has a few killer stories for the interview room, and someone who can talk about real, personal experience with risks and tough problem solving.
Whether it's dealing with spiders the size of a teacup or just the experience of leaving in the first place, you'll have a lot more to talk about than someone who spent another year doing the same thing.
This is the part all of those travel blogs don't like to talk about. Quitting your job to travel the world is an enormous risk.
To a certain extent you can mitigate that with good planning and proper care, but make no mistake: you're still leaving one job without another one on the other side. That's always dangerous.
People love to tell stories about taking big risks that pay off, and it's no different here. The travelers who have made a living at this post Instagram photos with a laptop and a beach chair, and they make it look great. But just like Mark Zuckerberg isn't a good example of life as a college dropout, Nomadic Matt is a lousy example of your future in financially sustainable travel.
Life as a nomad is wonderful during the parts that involve exploring new cities and trying different foods. It is absolutely terrifying during month 11 of that year off when you need to start looking for a new job.
It's incredibly easy to do nothing when you have nothing to do.
There really are plenty of ways to boost your resume while traveling. Someone who is dedicated to the project can come home with a whole new professional skillset and a great story about risks and triumphs over adversity. Whether it's language classes, active blogging or volunteer work, you can create a strong, creative set of professional accomplishments on the road.
On the other hand, it will be very easy to spend every night drinking beers and every morning sleeping them off.
Without a job, there'll be no consequences to not working, and there'll be a lot of people around you who aren't doing so. What's more, the longer your time off goes on, the harder it will be to open up your laptop. Never forget that you'll be looking for a job on the other end of your year off. Every interviewer will want to know what you did during that year, and "had fun" will not be a good answer.
Don't leave at the wrong time.
Quitting your job to travel the world can be an excellent opportunity for a career reboot. It can give you the time you need to think about your career from a distance, and the disorientation of living in a new environment can help you think about yourself in a new way.
It can just as easily derail a career already in motion.
In any career, seniority and skill development matter. You can take a few weeks off here and there, but disappearing for months at a time (no less a year) from a career in which you'd like to advance is disruptive. Future employers will want to know why you left. Instead of seeing someone who took risks, they're just as likely to see someone without the commitment of their peers and competition. Your skills might grow stale the longer you're away, and at the very least, they will not have developed.
Yes, over your time off, you can build creative and lateral skill sets. Those are excellent for someone looking to make a change. But a lawyer who wants to stay a lawyer? Well, she won't learn how to write a tighter brief in Cambodia.
In Krabi, Thailand there's a U.S. expat who runs a guesthouse called the Good Dream. A former diving instructor, he went to the islands after college to spend a little while before getting a "real" job. The diving instruction went well, though, and then he saw an opportunity to build his own hotel in the nearby port city.
You meet a lot of people like this traveling around the world.
Contrary to the story of many travel bloggers, life as a nomad on vacation is not real life. There's nothing real or grounded about life in a series of guesthouses with no responsibility. That's what will make it hard to work or study a language, why you'll have to focus to hold onto your money and why it will be so hard to come home.
Getting your head back into a job will be difficult after spending so much time living in a fantasy of waking up late and spending Wednesday on a beach. It will be even harder after meeting people who make that fantasy look just possible enough to be real.
Spend too much time around lottery winners and movie stars, and sooner or later working 9 - 5 starts to seem like a sucker's game. The same happens when you spend too much time on the road.
Need I say more? I'll say some more.
Quitting your job to travel the world is expensive, but often in ways you might not expect. It's a constant stream of expenses without any income. Although with careful budget and planning your trip won't have to be nearly as expensive as you'd expect. (My actualized budget for Southeast Asia amounted to $18 per day, including hotel and expenses.) Other parts of the world are much more ex-expensive, though, and either way, your trip will be a steady stream of expenses without any income.
Then there will be ancillary expenses. Without a job you'll have to pay for your own insurance and retirement contributions. You'll need to do something with your possessions back home, such as paying for a storage locker. Cell phone bills, subscriptions… the expenses add up.
You'll also need quite a lot of money to get re-established upon returning home.
All of it will have to happen without any income.