I’ve recently run into a lot of people who have quit their job to travel around the world.
And most of the time, after talking with them, I end up feeling like they’ve made a big mistake.
You see, I haven’t met a single person who has used that time wisely to “figure out” their life. Does quitting their job solve the problem of work? of purpose? of meaning? long-term does it help? Does it make you feel like your time is worthwhile?
This may seem pretty interesting seeing as I’m on the tail-end of a 2 month travel trip, where I’m headed back to “reality” - but it upsets me that many travelers who had enough insight not to stay stuck in their life STILL ended up stuck in another life, just somewhere else.
Fantastic, you quit your job and are traveling the world.. Many of them (assuming they don’t go back home after a short period) go right back to the reality they left in the first place, just a few years later.
That’s great if you just want a few year break from the 9 to 5 lifestyle. But what about those of you who want a very different longterm lifestyle?
In the start, I envied these people. “Damn, escape your life for a bit, go off on an adventure and do something fresh and exciting.” Problem is, after covering about ¼ of the world myself and meeting hundreds of people on the way, I noticed that 90% did what they did for one of two reasons: They hated their job/life, or they just ended a long-term relationship and needed a fresh start.
Although there’s nothing wrong with that, we naively assume that these things are going to make us happier long term. The truth is they won’t.
The truth is that you’re avoiding reality and not solving any problems. The truth is that almost every single person I’ve met traveling long-term hasn’t figured shit out about life and how to have a more meaningful and enjoyable existence once they go back to “reality.”
I’m all for saying “fuck it” and quitting your job and traveling the world – don’t get me wrong. I’ve done it before - more than once.
The problem is that most of us don’t just want world travel or adventure – we want many other things like a job we love, the feeling that time spent has been worthwhile, and an exciting, not-at-all-mediocre life. Your problems or gripes with society aren’t magically going to disappear because you did.
Here are the biggest problems that the “quit your job and travel the world” thing doesn’t solve:
#1 Long-term thinking your life and time has been worthwhile
For a short time you’ll be thinking “Sweeeet! I’m using my time so wisely now, seeing the world, investing in experiences not stuff, and then it’ll slowly start to fade. You’ll be traveling just to be traveling and you may get listless. What at first was a beautiful escape and immensely wise use of time has now become drudgery. You want more. Something is still missing.
What was “missing” from your ordinary life is also going to still be missing from your travels because you’ve chosen to address symptoms and not the core discontent that bothers you.
When I first “quit my life” and started traveling, I didn’t like a lot of things. I hated my job (like everyone else), I wanted to find more purpose and meaning in life, I needed new friends, and I just didn’t want to be living a mediocre life anymore. I wanted stories to tell. I wanted adventures.
“Life is too short to be spent in a cubicle” I told myself.
… But guess what? When I traveled did I get any closer to figuring out what kind of job I liked? Nope.
Did I figure out how to create more meaning in my life? Nope.
That’s because you need to start trying things out – it doesn’t matter where you are. Sitting in an ashram in india meditating is not going to materialize your dream job in front of you.
Finally, after the second or third time “quitting my life” the travels were no longer very happy for me. The individual days were fun and exciting, seeing new stuff, meeting new people, going on adventures, but that listlessness was finding me again.
“I still really want to live a meaningful life,” I told myself. And that’s when I started thinking and testing.
#2 Purpose and meaning
One of the problems for me was that after traveling so much just for the sake of traveling I ended up not having a background story. Like in life, if there’s no plot to your story, events are just noise without a place.
Most of us quit our jobs in the first place coming from a purpose standpoint – our work sucked and felt meaningless. It felt like there were 532,234,123 other things I wanted to do than work just for the sake of existing and paying my rent.
But you don’t magically find purpose and meaning by traveling. You find it by doing shit. You find it by trying new things. You find it by cultivating relationships with friends and family or love with your spouse. You find it by creating some mission that is important to you and meaningful.
You find it by producing and not consuming.
If there’s one single trend I see more common than any other in long-term travelers, it’s this: their days seem to be used wisely and they have tons of stories and life experiences, but beyond all these events there is no undercurrent of meaning. They still feel just as lost as they did in their corporate jobs, just with new, fresh surroundings.
They’ve got stories to tell, but they still haven’t figured shit out about life. I’m not saying I have – but if you want purpose and meaning, start figuring out what gives your life meaning and purpose…. right now. If you want to do that on your travels, then do it there. You can do it sitting in your cubicle or sitting on a beach in Bali.
But you need to say to yourself “I want more meaning in my life, and I’m going to start sitting down, thinking, and testing, to see what things give my life meaning.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the hardest years of my life, it’s this: you sure as hell can’t go looking for happiness.
It’s just contrary to the nature of happiness. Like success, the more you pursue happiness, the madder you become and the futher you get. Rather, it’s a natural side effect of doing things right. Traveling will not bring you happiness long-term, nope, no way.
There are even myriad studies to show that although people’s happiness peaks before/during a trip, after the return it returns to the pre-trip levels. It’s fleeting. Days are more important than events.
Happiness does not come from single events.
Happiness does not come from leaving your ordinary life behind.
Happiness does not come from avoiding your problems.
You may lie to yourself and believe all of these things to be true, but I can tell you first hand: I’ve “ditched” reality many times, and every single time I came back to the same exact problems.
Take the trip for the sake of excitement and adventure – but don’t travel thinking that “quitting your job and traveling the world” magically makes you superior to cubicle dwellers or your back-home friends.
You’re on a temporary opiate high.
#4 Balancing adventure and reality
One of the finest arts in life is learning how to balance adventure and reality – in other words, how to incorporate adventure into your daily life. How not to come off the travel high and return back to reality. How to have your reality constantly leave you in such a state of excitement and adventure.
Unless you’re the rare couple who plans to globetrot nonstop for life, I assume most of us want a family and some sort of mostly-in-one-place existence.
…Which means that there is going to have to be some balancing of income (work) and adventure (to stay sane).
If your lifestyle requires you to be self employed, are you working on that while you’re traveling, or are you just saying you’ll get your shit together when the time comes?
Have you actually sat down to think about how to make your life awesome even though you’re living in one place?
It’s easy for us 20 somethings to say our life is awesome – many of us are untethered and can move across the world in search of freshness and excitement. And it’ll work. But most of us won’t end up doing that forever. So what happens when you go back. Have you thought about that?
The art is not in creating adventure and meaning while on an adventure. That’s easy, anyone can do it. The art is creating an insanely meaningful and exciting life while living your day to day life.
#5 Finding enjoyment in daily life and finding or creating work you love
Time and time again I meet people 5, 10, 15 years older than myself that have temporarily dipped out from American society while they figure their shit out.
And it’s immediately apparently after talking with them for 5 minutes that they haven’t figured anything out. And that’s pretty upsetting… I mean, great, you quit a job you hated. That’s definitely good. But what now? Do you guys really want to teach English or teach in an international school forever? If that’s what you truly love, fine. But if you’re doing it because the pay is good and you can travel and have a better lifestyle for a couple years, what’s next?
Wherever you are, have you actually thought about what makes life meaningful?
Have you actually thought about your “ideal” way to work and have fun?
Have you actually thought about your ideal lifestyle?
These things don’t just come as magical realizations while you’re meditating in some ashram in India.
And I hate to see so many people who start with good intentions – quit the job and find yourself – only to be lost in travel buzz drifting from place to place saying, “I’m taking it one day at a time” while failing to really meditate on life.
They fall in with the other hostelling people and mostly end up partying and lounging around, thinking they’ll go back with some great stories and a restored sense of purpose and understanding of the world. Uhhh…right.
Clearly that’s not the case, as I meet more and more people I am repeatedly reminded that many travelers seem to have a superiority complex, but in reality they haven’t figured out much.
The truth about quitting your job to travel the world
At first I truly envied these people.
I couldn’t wait to quit my job and travel.
I couldn’t wait to regain a life of excitement, full of stories and wise use of time.
And then in 2010 I started doing it, and I started getting bored. I got bored of just traveling just for traveling. There was always some reality I had to come back to that needed changing and fixing, regardless of the travels. It was putting a damper on my life.
Big questions for me like purpose and meaningful work never magically appeared upon my plate. And that’s when I realized these people were stuck in one phase just above (but not far above) seeing through the way most of us lead our lives.
They hadn’t figured out anything about the rat race. They had merely been avoiding it for the time being – but to truly see through it requires living it in a more evolved way.
The step they took wasn’t much better than what most of us fear the most – getting stuck working to pay the bills and just existing on our plot of land. They were also stuck in another reality.
It’s like meeting many location independent bloggers – Great, you’re the 400th person I’ve met who quit their job to travel. And when I ask “so what’re you up to, what have you figured out about life?” I rarely get an answer from someone who has truly sat down, thought, and produced a wise response.
So here’s my advice: take those trips, travel for a year, or two years, or three, or forever. Live abroad. But know that it will not solve a single problem in your life.
If you can honestly tell yourself you’re doing it in the spirit of adventure and excitement, you’ll get the most out of it.
Many of us delude ourselves into thinking quitting and traveling is a panacea, when in reality it’s just another pill for the symptoms. It won’t solve the problems of finding meaning, being happy, feeling your time has been worthwhile, balancing adventure and reality, or finding work you love.
In this era where quitting and traveling is the cool thing to do – ask yourself, are you doing it just to escape or will it actually bring you closer to where you want to be?
And then the most important question of all:
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” – Seth Godin
Update: The point in me writing this post is to illustrate that travel is not a panacea. I meet many many lost people on my travels and a very high percentage of them use travel as an opiate. They avoid asking themselves the hard questions in life, and would rather get fucked up 4 nights a week than confront the reality of what it would take to improve their life.
Travel won’t help you fix deep personality flaws, or learn how to find work you love, although it may help put some pieces together. It isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. 20 somethings, in particular, are experts at running away.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t travel. I’m not saying to stop taking vacation. I’m not saying to avoid long-term trips.Do all of those things. Travel as much as possible in your life, and if you can, create a lifestyle where you can travel whenever you want. But if you have big questions in life, god questions, questions about reality, happiness, purpose, meaning, finding work you love, being a better spouse — you can only answer them right now, wherever you are.
Image: Ben Beiske
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