How not to “return to reality” after coming off the travel high

by Alexander Heyne · 12 comments

Tell me how familiar this story is.

You’re a student or working. Then you go on a vacation somewhere awesome. 2 weeks later you come back to “reality.” For the next 3 months you dream about how to escape your “reality” daily. Then you forget about the trip.

A year later, you travel again, and come back totally dissatisfied with “the real world.”  For another few weeks or months you talk about your escape and hang out on when you get bored or depressed.  Rinse and repeat.

After my last trip, it took me almost a year to “come back to reality.” My last “trip” was living in China for a year, and I had the best year of my life.

I traveled, I learned another language, I made chinese speaking-only friends, I ate new and exotic foods, I learned about a new culture, and spent an enormous percentage of my days there learning something new.

Naturally, when I came back to a predictable routine I had an impossible time adjusting.

The same exact schedule from 7 am to about 10 pm? Yep.

The same 5 foods every day? Yep.

Drinking as the only “fun” activity on the weekend? Yep.

Technically you’re supposed to slowly adjust back to reality, with the memories and discontent fading further and further into the background noise every day, but that wasn’t happening for me. So I did what I always do.

I went out and grabbed an espresso and tried to figure out how most people deal with this dilemma, and here’s what I found:

Most of us do one of two things

The first — The vast majority of us re-settle back  into “reality” (anyone else hate that word?) and rejoin our 9-5s and our daily schedule, talk about the trip and brag for a couple weeks, then promptly forget about what happened and continue our way along.

We return to what situation we were in before – and again, for most of us that means bitching about our jobs and general situation, and then planning our next vacation to get us through the year.

In other words, we pretty much resign in our attempt to cope with “reality.”

The second – Some of us go the backpacker route, also known as the “fuck it” route.

We skip out on “reality” for a a little while. A month, three months, a year. Maybe a few years. Maybe indefinitely. More and more people are indefinitely putting off the “real world” because it’s scary and to them it means being locked in a job, an apartment, stuff, and a routine.

The backpacker may take off to do an around the world trip, or teach English abroad, or go enroll at a foreign university abroad for high education, or kind of bounce around for a while and put off the real world.

They either have the intention to “just see what happens,” or they are just doing something cool/crazy/different while they are young before they come back home to settle into “reality.”

The first person does the typical “vacation every time I get days off.”

The second person puts off reality for a period of time before planning to come back.

Here’s the problem. Both of these entail “coming back to reality” whatever that actually means.

They’re both short term fixes. They’re just another upper to keep you going while you’re sleep deprived. No matter how much coffee you drink, unless you sleep more it won’t have any effect after a certain point.

The first is giving up. The second is avoiding reality. Neither, in my mind, are acceptable or even real substitutes for really thriving, and loving life.

They’re both shitty substitutes for living the real thing. 

The first group sacrifices pretty much everything they want to do because they value the stability of having an apartment and their job.

The second group sacrifices things like serious relationships/marriage, consistent income, a viable “career”, and really are mostly avoiding reality to enjoy themselves and their bucket lists for the current time.

Sagmeisters, mini retirements, and other awesomeness

After sitting down in the coffee shop and having my napkin look like I was writing the next Harry Potter, I tried to find a middle way .

I didn’t want to become like a lot of my friends who were totally stuck as far as I was concerned – they went to good colleges, got good jobs, and now are living comfortable but extremely boring lives.

I also didn’t want to be like a lot of the long-term travelers I met in my travels. They sacrificed quality relationships, their long-term potential for making money (by putting off a career), friendships, and made it way harder for themselves to feel “at home” somewhere in the future.

I wanted to find some path that blends the best of both worlds – travel, freedom, and adventure, along with a career or job I could keep improving at and earning more money. I wanted a mix of location dependence and potential location independence for a short period of time.

For example, Corbett lives a pretty sweet lifestyle in my opinion – spending 6 months in San Francisco, another 3 in Mexico, and up to another 3 traveling.

To me that is a pretty solid blend of both ditching the real world but also being able to have a sustainable business that can grow despite your bouncing around.

Other people have made a couple paths immensely popular:

#1 Take a sagmeister 

A sagmeister is basically adding several years onto your planned “working years” and then scattering some years for “retirements” into your normal working years.

Stefan Sagmeister apparently closes up shop and takes a year off every 6 or 7 years for a retirement. Daniel pink talked about it a little more:

One of the talks that really stuck with me came from the amazing designer Stefan Sagmeister. He described a typical life timeline: The first 25 or so years are devoted to learning, the next 40 or so to working, and the final 25 to retirement.

Then he asked: Why not cut off 5 years from retirement and intersperse them into your working years?

So every seven years, Sagmeister closes his design shop, tells his clients he won’t be back for a year, and then goes off on a 365-day sabbatical.It sounds costly, I know. But he says the ideas he comes up with during the year “off” are often what provide the income for next seven years.

So the first middle road I’ve considered would be taking some yearly retirements.

The most obvious problem is that most of us work for other people. Taking a year off is pretty much a no-deal especially if you have a family and kids.

That leaves this one for the self employed folks.

#2 The classic mini retirement

The classic Tim Ferriss mini retirement involves taking a couple months or more off to recharge the batteries and learn some new skills.

It’s essentially like a sagmeister — you re-distribute your retirements within your life for a more balanced life that prevents fatigue and burnout.

Tim mentioned a programmer friend who would get burned out from working so much and would just roll a die and fly to a random country to recharge for a little while.  That’s a pretty typical example of a mini retirement. Like a sagmeister it’s not a one-time sabbatical. It becomes a lifestyle.

I guess my year in China was a pretty typical mini retirement – I spent 9 hours of my day learning chinese and studying martial arts, I traveled, tried new foods, and recharged as much as possible. The only problem?

Like a sagmeister, taking a mini retirement for more than a few weeks assumes that you are working for yourself or have some kind of remote work agreement.

#3 Living abroad / relocation

The third thing I considered was relocation.

Remember my criteria: I didn’t want to be stuck in one place with one job, the classic rat race with 2 weeks of vacation. I also didn’t want to be a backpacker who sacrifices long-term earning potential, getting married, etc.

I wanted a blend of both.

I considered living abroad for periods of time.  China was one of those experiments (which turned out to be awesome), however it highly depends on the person and their circumstances. Living abroad is obviously going to be harder for a family than it is for a single person.

Some jobs have the potential for travel and relocation, like lots of American businessmen getting relocated to China.

Traveling nurses, people in the military, english teachers, diplomats and others are jobs that also can potentially involve tons of traveling.

#4 Self Employment

As someone who is slowly (but surely…) on the path to self employment I’ve realized that most of us are in it for  a couple reasons. For many of us young people? Freedom.

Being the boss (done right…) means I can be wherever the hell I want. Beyond the startup phase, I can work 10 hours a week or 80. I can settle and be comfortable or increase my income potential. There’s no ceiling. I can find more ways to earn more money. I can wake up without an alarm. I can travel as much as I want.

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows but it does provide some major benefits freedom-wise.

So for those of who you are still trying to find a middle path – consider self employment. It may give you the freedom and potential to blend both worlds.

 On reality and returning to “the real world”

For those of you who are off the beaten path — don’t you just love it when someone asks you “so, when are you returning to the real world?”

It’s as if the real world is the shitty existence that most of us live, full of routine, monotony, boredom. The way people so often ask me “so when are you returning to the real world?” Is as if being in the real world is a prison sentence. Wait, I’m supposed to want to come back to that? Who the hell decided that was going to be the “default” existence?

And even worse – the people who often ask you are the most miserable themselves. Remember the lives of the mediocre? They can’t stand anyone living the life they wish they had the balls to go for.

I’m not quite sure what the “real world” is, but for most people I sure as fuck don’t want their “reality.”

The only important thing here is to remember this: reality is exactly what you make it. Nothing less.

“Deservedness” doesn’t exist in the universe. Just because you hold the door open for an old lady doesn’t mean some asshole won’t slam one in your face. You don’t just magically fix your karma and then get a pay raise, a free trip to thailand, and an Audi R8 by Friday.

The reason most people come back to shitty realities is because those are the ones they’ve settled for. They’ve decided not to haul ass and push for something better or improve their situation.

So if coming back to your “reality” sucks and you can’t wait to leave again, that should be a pretty good warning sign that things need to change.

On my initial trips outside the country that lasted > 6 months I felt that insane discontent when I came home. I complained and bitched and whined about my existence.

“Why do I have to go back to my job and my routine and my alarm clock and blah blah blah”.  I hadn’t yet discovered the secret power of channeling whiny-bitch-ness into take-action-and-change-shit-ness.

If your reality sucks, it’s no one’s fault but your own. 

What about you? Does a middle path exist?

Here’s where I’m curious. Do you think a middle way exists? Is there really a middle path where you won’t be stuck in the rat race living a meaningless existence, but you also won’t be stuck traveling long-term and putting off reality?

Is there way to blend “reality” with the travel and freedom dream? Is there a way to have the best of both worlds?



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