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

by Alexander Heyne · 18 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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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

adele March 25, 2013 at 5:05 am

My heart skipped a beat when I read the title of this blog, I felt it was going to sum up what I was meant to be doing, I’ve already bailed once and done the fuck it option and adventured more but I don’t feel you’ve given any real advice on how to return to reality, I understand that Im going to have to do it, but are you telling me I just have to settle down become a 9-5er hater, but make no commitments so I can have 5 or 6 ‘retirement’ years during my life or I just have to work for myself so I can still travel. Im not trying to be a negative nancy, but Id love, if you have been able to feel content about returning back to your life -how did you actually do it? Apologies Im not a hater Im enjoying your blogging and am very pro most of it, I just got excited by the name and let down by the blog, you write well and truthful..but this was just ramble to me and its the one blog I thought could save my day. Help?


Alexander Heyne March 28, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Hey Adele —

For me, the last one I listed, running your own business, has so far worked the best for me. I do both remote work ( I can work anywhere), and am building my own business. Both give me freedom and money right now, and permit me to travel as much as I want, when I want, and where I want.

Thus far, I haven’t found a better system. People are often polarized – just travel without working, or work for a lot of years, then stop working and just travel. I’m saying you can have both — in the ways I listed in this post, but ultimately your EVERY DAY has to become a lifestyle you enjoy. Ultimately you have to not want to escape from your life because it’s so enjoyable.

And again, entrepreneurship has been that way for me (And many others). Does that help at all?

— Alex


Charles October 23, 2013 at 2:07 am

Hi Alex,

Thanks for great, inspiring post!

Working remotely and “having both” at the same time is something I’m thinking about since a few months and getting more and more convinced that’s really what I want to do.

You’ve written you are currently working remotely and building your own business while traveling. Could you please elaborate on what kind of remote work you do and how did you land it? Programming/Writing? Any recommendations on best way of looking for one as a software developer?


Amanda September 11, 2013 at 9:40 pm

I think one huge key to finding that middle path is having someone along side you who has this same desire/goal fueling them. It’s not easy to find like-minded dreamers out there these days, but very essential to finding the middle path.

Your stories, advice and writing is amazing. I’m incredibly inspired by you. Safe to say your words have changed me.


Alexander Heyne September 13, 2013 at 9:24 am


Awesome, I’m glad I inspired you –

You are 100% right, it is not easy finding similar minded people. That’s crucial to success. I personally have my own mastermind group, highly suggest getting one yourself!

– Alex


Autumn October 23, 2013 at 7:13 am

One way I’ve found to help find a middle ground is to get a job that requires/allows international business trips. I’m in Israel right now, a country I never thought I would come to, and I love it. It’s just as good, if not better, than coming here alone. It’s paid for and the people I meet are required to be nice to be in order to conduct business.

Admittedly, I’m still dreading going home. I love my life but it’s not as intense or exciting on a daily basis. To your point about change, I’ve already written down a few observations and action items for my return.

I like the part about your ideas during travel supporting your success during your non-retirement years. It’s hard to come off the high of travel but also encouraging to know that each trip has the ability to make the everyday life better. That way when visitors come to visit you, they maybe become inspired and have their own “ah-ha” moment.

It also helps to look at your area as you would during travel. While I’m here, I have no agenda. I’m simply exploring and experiencing as much as possible. Back home, I have to have a reason to go out. Taking the same mentality and using it back home helps.

Thank you for your blog. :)


Alexander Heyne October 24, 2013 at 4:27 pm


I love the idea of having no agenda and just exploring and experiencing. I think I need a lot more of that in my life :)


Guill May 21, 2014 at 12:23 am

Ah, relocation…
That reminds me the story of this guy. He was born in France, studied there and felt like the place was too small for him and he had to learn a lot and see a lot by traveling around the world. So he was planning to work for 2 years and take off. He slowly worked for 3 years, then 4, then 5… to the point he couldn’t take it anymore. He quit, and he traveled for a year. He came back home for summer, and decided to get relocated somewhere in Asia. He found a job within 2 months, and that was a lucky shot because he only had 600 euros left. That was it! He made it! He was in a middle of a place where no one would speak French nor English, where food looked weird, where nothing made sense. He learned Cantonese in 5 months, he made friends with locals, he’d learned a lot, he’d seen a lot, he got girls, he found one, he got married. Now he’s been there for 6 years, working at a nicely paid and not stressful job, working for someone else, in a cubicle, and dreaming about… taking off again. But he definitely knows the truth, the real one, the one inside of him. What he wants is freedom. What he wants is being able to sustain himself. What he wants is building his own life, according to his own rules. What he wants is providing values to people, and getting paid for it. It’s not a job, it’s not money, it’s not a house, it’s not escaping, it’s not going to the other side of the world again. He is unhappy. He needs to do something about it. What is he waiting for?


Alexander Heyne May 21, 2014 at 10:28 am

Powerful story Guill. Very powerful and eerie, and all too true. So how does it end?

It seems like “This guy” is searching for meaning.


Guill May 22, 2014 at 5:56 am

3 years ago this guy was in a really bad state. He felt like shooting himself. But instead of dying, he picked up a book. Then a second, and a third. He started seeing that he was being unhealthy in man ways, and that he had the power to do something about it. He read more, he wrote about what he learnt, he applied. He started moving, moving things around, moving himself. He composed music, he performed around Asia. He painted. It was good, he learned about himself a lot, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what he’s ready to bear, to purse, and what he’s not valuing. He learnt to trust his heart instead of trusting the mouth of others. He learned to get rid of the useless, to do more of the things he liked and less of the things he didn’t. Now he travels the world to climb rocks, he reads a lot, writes a lot, cooks, enjoy his friends, but he’s still making his living doing something he doesn’t believe in. This is the last piece, and it doesn’t fit the whole puzzle. But he has some ideas. He’s hard working. He’s hopeful. Will he have the courage? Let’s see.

AVeS February 5, 2015 at 10:56 pm

I was wondering what happened until now with this guy..


anna gaudia October 27, 2015 at 9:35 am

I have really enjoy your article! thank you! it might be one thing that keeps me hopeful for now. We have come back from traveling for 6 months and can’t find our place back. Kind of don’t want to. People say don’t worry after few weeks back at work you will forget, it will be like you have never left. That’s a last thing I want. I don’t want to be back to my 9-6. I actually want to have a life and time to live. We haven’t yet figure out how we can do it, we’ve thought about relocation, we are both starting freelancing and both are trying to do as many things as possible from the list ‘love doing it but can’t do it yet’… so we are learning new language, playing new instruments, etc. That helps for the time being but we still want to just drop everything and run back to the life where the live part was more important. Never been so confused in my life!!!


Justin January 16, 2016 at 2:29 am

This is such pretentious bullshit. I work in latin american sales. I speak 3 languages and travel the world selling an outstanding product that quite frankly your enterprise would be lucky to have. I fucking LOVE my routine “boring” life. I have a stable job, a hot brilliant VERY gainfully employed wife, a gorgeous old farmhouse that is so fucking cool it makes a hipster blush in a suburb right outside the major city where I work. My wife and I have FIVE degrees between the 2 of us. The pissant who wrote this horrible “eat pray love” knock off is pretty much unable to tolerate his or her own existence so the “writer” (if you can be that dishonest with yourself to call this person that) shits on people like me and my friends to justify their erratic wanderlust shenanigans. Let me tell you something you whiny little slug: for every tapa and beer you have in spain, there’s 3 out of 5 people who would murder each other to be the one to serve you that little piece of goat cheese on bread. Do the world a favor…. There’s enough 23 year old douchbags whining about how they need to “escape” their reality. Im close to 40 with a mortgage and kids in one of the most expensive areas on earth and I didn’t get it by trying to escape. So dont tell me what fucking category you think people fall in. You’ve seen about 1% of life. They said your generation would save the planet but all I read in this blog is the same drab, soul crushing self serving bullshit yout parents taught you when you were 9. Trophies for 6th place? Really? Look…. I travel all the time…. sometimes for MONTHS. Before you put pen to paper and put a piece out there for the world to read (and freely criticize), you should do some research into american foreign policy over the last 50 years. Shit… maybe you know some and just didn’t put it in. You werent ALL bad…. just like whiny, pretentious blocking of people off into categories…. the world is more nuanced and grey. Live a year in the shoes of a guy like me. Its 2:30 am and I cant sleep next to my darling wife because I am so buzzed from 15 hours of traveling. Talk about the pain. People want to hear about that. Not that you learned a language and met cool people. I can use rosetta stone at starbucks and do both those things in an afternoon. Anyways, i suppose i needed someone to pick on after all that time crammed into a steel tube hurtling through space. Last comment: work on your vocabulary. You need more and better words. You repeat a lot. Overall grade: C-.


Alexander Heyne January 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm

The irony: you opened your diatribe with “such pretentious bullshit” and then gave yourself one long ego plug:

– I speak 3 languages
– I travel the world selling an outstanding product you’d be lucky to have
– My wife is hot, brilliant
– We have 5 degrees

…Sweet. Do you feel better about yourself now that you justified your self worth to a complete stranger? :-) Adding more degrees won’t help you seek that feeling of self worth, unfortunately. Good points, nonetheless.



Chris March 27, 2017 at 4:04 am

Hi Alex, great article. I wonder if you have made any more progress on this since writing, or feel it still applies? I was reading that 3 revenue streams is the magic number!


Alexander Heyne March 27, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Hi Chris,

Yep I have a full time internet business.


Alexander Heyne October 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Hey Charles,

I actually do online marketing. No tech expertise here haha. The trick is to either A. Look for “remote work agreements” or to ask your employer if they have a deal like that. One thing you can do is really over-deliver for a month or a few, and then ask to get 1 remote day at home to experiment. Then expand it to 3,4,5, if it goes well. Many many companies now offer them, you just need to ask or demonstrate that you’ll still be able to deliver.


Charles October 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Thanks for your input Alex!
All the best!


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