Grasp by Nathan Sawaya. Art of Bricks Exhibit at the Art/Science Museum, Singapore. November 2012.
No doubt there are those resolving that this is the year to start saving to (or actually) quit the job and travel. For those who have been working and are on some sort of career path, the decision takes more thought than being on a break from school. Aside from personal ties, there are 401Ks and resume gaps to consider. I found that the planning and saving were relatively easy compared to making the actual decision to leave. So for anyone at that junction seriously thinking of quitting their jobs to travel, I offer the anatomy of my decision in the hope that the skeleton will help you figure out yours.
1) Why do you want to quit your job to travel? Is it about the job or it is about travel? Or is it both?
I know thinking about this isn’t as much fun as practicing your samba for the Carnaval in Rio, but a reality check at this stage is important so that you have a working compass. Unless you are independently wealthy or retiring, a vast majority of those who take the break do come back to society and work. So begin by asking why you are quitting your job to travel in the first place. If you can answer this with conviction before you go, you are one step closer to providing the interview-appropriate answer when you get back.
For me the answer goes back to when I was 6 years old, and was given a book about the seven wonders of the ancient world. I didn’t know then that each time I read about the Pyramids at Giza, the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the images of these structures and the societies that built them would bear the desire to experience them deeper into my heart.
As I grew up, I started mindlessly following the American 7-point life plan: go to school, start a career, get married, buy a house, have kids, move up in career, and retire. Satisfying the desire to travel extensively was exiled to an elusive island called Later, But Not Now. At 30-something, my life’s trajectory untangled me from the plan. I was no longer married, and had no mortgage or kids. I was ready to leave the job I had, but did not have a clear direction on where I wanted to go next. What I had was some money for emergencies and retirement, and a relative who had recently passed away and never had a chance to get old and retire. While I’m almost positive I do not have the temperament to fully retire, I had no amount of certainty that I would have a chance to get to old.
Later had become now and I made a choice. Not between job and travel, but in turning an impasse in my life and career into an opportunity. With my emergency money and diligently saving for what seemed like forever, I bought a chance to stop, think, and be. I decided I would take the time to think about the next career step, recalibrate the direction of my life, and live out a dream of seeing more of the world all at the same time. (Yes, I’m a recovering super-multi-tasker.) So, when I questioned my decision multitudes of times before I left and when things got difficult during the trip, I always went back to this reason. It never failed to guided me to the right attitude so I could make the right decisions.
2.) Is it really necessary to quit your job to travel the way you want? Why not try to travel when you have vacation days or holidays? Or why not try to work it out so you can have a leave of absence?
I would urge giving these questions fair consideration. Whether or not this path will work for you hinges on what type of travel you want to do and why you are going in the first place.
Unfortunately, short vacations weren’t cutting it for me. After each vacation buzz wore off, I had the same feelings nagging me that I had to go. I went back to my answers to question 1, and I knew that what I had to sort out needed longer than two weeks. I also knew that the type of travel I wanted, the slow, get-to-know-people, flexible itinerary kind was fit for a longer time frame.
Some people have jobs and companies where a leave of absence can be a reality, some do not. The truth is, if you work for an American company, you would be in the minority. Let’s say yours does, but before you commit to coming back, ask yourself if you would even want to. I would recommend this route for people who are at least undecided about their job or who have every cell in their being telling them they have to hit the road despite their love (or at least lukewarm feelings) for their jobs. If you really want to quit your job because you are looking for a different opportunity, why consider holding on to your position?
Practically speaking, there is a huge difference in comfort between going at it for a few weeks at a time versus months/years. Living out of a bag becomes your lifestyle. It can be costly to travel vacation-style over months or years at a time. It’s helpful to know what you are getting into and what standards you are willing to put up with to travel longer. This means shifting the way you think about travel. Think about it. Would you be able to sustain living in a hotel in your city daily? It would be excessive to live in that level of luxury at home, why would you expect to live in it for months on end?
In addition, being on the road longer than a few weeks has its own set of challenges that wears down even the most seasoned long term travelers. These include not only practical concerns like culture shock, illness, chronically getting lost, but emotional ones like loneliness, exhaustion, and desensitization. I understood what they were talking about within the first six weeks. However, the desire to experience the world outside of resorts, itineraries and “must-sees” is a stronger force that keeps people going.
Are these challenges you are willing to face to really travel or do you want a vacation? There is no wrong answer, but is your reason enough to quit your job to travel?
3.) What are you willing to give up to get what you want?
Prior to the trip, there was a time when I had too many days feeling like I would have been happier being a barista at Starbucks. I eventually started calculating what I needed to do without if I had to live with that salary. Unknowingly, it became a ritual on Sunday nights. Of course, I knew I would need more challenges in my work to be happy long term, but that’s not the point. Thinking in that mode helped me simplify. There is a point when the next purchase – clothes, fancy food, technology, car, etc. – provides diminishing returns. I was there. An exercise to cut them out of my life that started on paper was surprisingly doable in real life. Eventually, it made me realize that the happiness I was seeking, while amorphous at the time, was worth sacrificing all the things I thought I needed.
Aside from material things, there are also relationships and obligations to consider. As people’s obligations and commitments are different, I won’t say much about my particular decision. During the planning and travel stage, I found that there are couples who travel together, stay apart or break up. There are families who travel with small kids, big kids or leave them in their country to stay in school and the parents come back to visit. I had read about a family of four with small two kids who biked from North America to the tip of South America. In this case, they wanted the family to travel together, and gave up the idea that the kids had to be in a fixed environment to grow and learn. The options are there, and the choice is yours.
4.) “You’re quitting? In this economy?” <Looks at you as if you were the spawn of an alien who has just overdosed on a bottle of crazy pills>
Ah, the Naysayers! They are aplenty, and their voices loud. They can be strangers or the people closest to you. Thank them for their concern, but know that you are the sole beneficiary of your decision and the responsibility and privilege of making it is yours alone.
Do research on your industry, sector, and line of work and see for yourself how scarce the jobs really are. Don’t let the aggregate fear that naysayers will throw at you about the shitty economy substitute for your own research. If they say that even lawyers can’t get jobs these days, ask how it relates to your industry/sector/line of work. Even after researching, I had to make peace with the fact that there are no guarantees that the economy will treat me favorably when I got back, and I may just end up as a barista after all. But I tried to remember the corollary - there would be no guarantees either if I stayed.
5.) Here are some websites that helped me during the decision process:
www.meetplango.com – Advice and inspiration on how to make career breaks happen, one step at a time.
www.careerbreaksecrets.com – Plenty of stories from people who have done it and lived to tell about it.
www.lonelyplanet.com – Aside from practical information on where to go, their ThornTree Forum is an active community of people who have been forever bitten by the travel bug. It’s great place to go if you need to drown out the voices of the Naysayers and find like-minded people.
Lastly, remember that the best any of us can do at any moment is to make educated decisions based on the information we have. So, do your due diligence with a little navel-gazing and research, make a choice and toss up a Hail Mary. Who is to say you’ll choose to pick up where you left off anyway?