One year ago today we set out on a grand adventure. At the time we had no idea how things would turn out. Whether we’d take to the road or return home with our tails between our legs was a complete mystery. Well, a year later we’re still going and have no plans of stopping anytime soon. But as much as we’re enjoying ourselves, no life altering change can happen without learning a few things along the way. Here is my list of the seven biggest lessons from a year on the road:
7) Less is more. Soon after the alarm clock rang for the first time to wake me for a job I didn’t like I realized that every dollar I spent was a claim on my time. Everything we consume, every monthly payment we make, every gadget we need to repair or replace in the future, is an obligation we need to work to support. In that sense, every purchase is a minute, an hour, or month out of our lives. And although each obligation may be small, they can accumulate into Lilliputian bonds that tether us to a job and a place.
Last year we reduced our living space by two-thirds and needed to get rid of more than two-thirds of our things to do so. Are we two-thirds less happy now? Absolutely not. In fact, we’re far happier with fewer items cluttering our life and more time to devote to the things we truly enjoy. Clearly there is no positive correlation between things, and happiness, at least not for us. So why on earth would we spend an hour working at something we don’t want to do to pay for something that doesn’t ultimately increase our happiness? We wouldn’t. I’m not sure why anyone would.
6) Realistic expectations and flexibility are keys to happy travel.The surest way to spoil a trip is to expect too much from it; or to expect it to be something that it is not. We tend to be pretty good travelers in this regard. We try to take destinations for what they are,
rather than what we think they should be. But nobody is perfect. All of our bad experiences basically boil down to our own bad attitudes. We were frustrated with Naples because it wasn’t the Everglades. I was cranky about Boston because I’d traveled there dozens of times for work and wanted our trip to be completely different from that.
After a year on the road, we’ve yet to encounter a ‘bad’ destination. But we have come across many fellow travelers who ‘hated’ this place and warned us not to go to that place. Whenever we probed deeper, the problem was almost never the destination, but a disconnect between what the destination is, and what the traveler wanted it to be.
To get the most out of our experiences, we really need to be open minded and flexible. If something isn’t to our liking, or exactly how we’re accustomed to it, maybe we need to change our likings and our customs. After all, if we want everything to be the way we’re used to, or how we imagined, why bother leaving home? The whole point of traveling is to see and experience new things. To do that, you have to be open to them and appreciate them for what they are, rather than trying to force them to conform to preconceived notions of what they should be.
5) There is never enough time. Before I left my 7 to 7 job, I thought the 70 or more hours I’d gain each week by not working and commuting would be all the additional time I’d ever need. Some folks even cautioned me that I’d get bored with the wealth of free time I’d soon inherit. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I don’t know how I managed to fit all of those working hours into my life before. Where did they come from? More importantly, where did they go?
Shannon and I have had zero problems filling our days. At times we even feel frantic. We have hobbies, and sightseeing, and trip planning, and yes, chores. When all of that is done, we have a back log of things we’d like to do, but never seem to have enough time. The trick is to accept that we are each responsible for our own happiness. If I’m ever bored, I have nobody to blame but myself. Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem. I don’t expect it ever will be.
4) It’s not a vacation. It’s a lifestyle. The frenetic pace of a typical vacation isn’t sustainable week after week. In our previous life, we often came back from a whirlwind trip more tired and worn out than when we left. On vacation, we felt the need to see and do everything because we didn’t know when, or if, we’d ever return. But as full-time travelers we have to be more discerning, with both our time, and our dollars. We simply don’t have the time, energy or money to live every single day like it’s a vacation.
But more to the point, every day is not a vacation. It’s normal life for us. We don’t have hotel maid service to clean up after us. We rarely dine out. So cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills and all the other nuts and bolts activities of living a traditional life are still very much a part of our daily routine. Whereas a vacationer puts all of this stuff on hold and steps out of their normal day-to-day activities to go somewhere else, we’ve simply incorporated the ‘somewhere else’ into our normal day-to-day activities. It’s not uncommon for me to go grocery shopping in the morning, and sightseeing in the afternoon. After all, this is not a vacation. This is our life.
3) Spontaneity is overrated. When we first set out, we thought we’d travel as free spirits, venturing here or there on a whim; staying and going as we please. But it turns out, that isn’t a very practical way to travel. We learned very quickly that scrambling for second-best alternatives after being shutout of our first choice isn’t a particularly desirable aspect of spontaneous travel. There are places we simply had to book far in advance if we had any hope of seeing them. If you think you’re going to roll into Key West in January on a whim and find an empty campsite, you’re going to be disappointed. And it’s a long drive back to the mainland.
But needing reservations isn’t the only reason we plan ahead, or even the major one. We’ve also found that the seasons are relentless task masters, continually forcing us North or South whether we’re ready to go there or not. If we spend the summer wandering aimlessly and don’t get as far north as we’d like before the weather turns, then we’ll either have to skip that northern destination, or backtrack as much as 1,500 miles the following year. Neither of those options is appealing to us. Far better, in our view, is to plan a logical route that takes us to as many great destinations as the calendar will permit in a single season. That kind of planning is a chore, but there is a whole big world to see and we don’t want to waste our valuable time covering the same ground repeatedly.
2) The path is beaten for a reason: It is possible to take good advice to such an extreme that it becomes counterproductive. I see that happening with the admonishment to ‘get off the beaten path’ when traveling. So much so that a false distinction has become conventional wisdom in some circles: that there is a difference between ‘travelers’ and ‘tourists.’ Supposedly the traveler cuts new trails and finds ‘authentic’ experiences that the guidebook-bound tourist misses. Perhaps. But my experience has been different. While it is certainly good to go your own way at times, it is also important to recognize that the path is well-worn for a reason: because it leads to places that are actually worth going. Our backcountry treks in the Everglades were great, but we saw far more wildlife on the most popular trail. Why would we skip one experience in favor of the other when we can do both?
You can diminish an enormous swatch of the globe by looking down on popular tourist destinations and attractions. After all, there is very little in this world that hasn’t already been discovered. It’s as foolish, in my mind, for someone to ignore guidebook destinations as it is for someone else to visit them exclusively. Close-mindedness is never a path to wisdom. And that’s true regardless of whether you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler.
1) How easy it is to not follow your dreams. Inertia is an incredibly powerful force. It’s far easier to follow a routine, even a hated one, than it is to do something risky, unfamiliar, and meaningfully different.
We started planning in earnest for our journey at least five years before we disembarked. We talked weekly, if not daily, about ‘the plan.’ We changed our lifestyle to accelerate our savings and basically pulled all the levers at our disposal to get in a position to do what we talked so frequently about. That was the easy part, though. Actually putting ‘the plan’ into practice was terribly hard.
Part of the difficulty arose from the simple logistics of doing everything that needed to be done. We were surprised to learn just how complicated it is to walk away from your life (more here and here). But the greater challenge was simply letting go; to take the risk. So many questions could only be answered in retrospect: Will we like it? Can we afford it? How will so much togetherness affect our relationship? What happens to a career I spent a lifetime building? What happens if we fail? The only way to find out was to do it. The only alternative was to forget about doing it altogether.
Harder still was the fact that there wasn’t a single point of no return in our decision making process. Instead we faced a series of steps that gradually increased our level of commitment. It felt like jumping out of an airplane in stages.
Stage 1: Tell our friends and families about our plan.
Stage 2: Fly to Texas to establish a domicile.
Stage 3: Commit a large sum of money to buying an RV.
Stage 4: Resign from a very good job.
Before each decision, we’d ask ourselves, and each other, ‘are we really doing this?’ After each decision, the consequences of backing out grew more severe.
A year latter we can confidently say we made the right choice. But that was never a foregone conclusion. We experienced a fair amount of angst and second guessing along the way that needed to be overcome to make our dream a reality. And even after we pulled the trigger, we still worked hard every day to make our experience a good one (see item six above).
So what advice do I have for someone looking to make a major life change? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not ‘Just do It,’ at least not straight away. While that may be a great product slogan, it’s a fairly reckless way to approach life altering decisions. Instead, I advise reverse engineering the process. Ask the question ‘Where do I want to be? or ‘What do I want to achieve’ and then think very hard about all of the steps needed to get from where you are now to where you hope to go; keeping in mind that not all of those steps are necessarily forward, some may take you sideways or even backwards. This is true regardless of whether your objective is to change careers or change continents.
If you’re realistic about this initial process, you’ll develop an appreciation for the kinds of sacrifices you’ll have to make to achieve your goal. And there will be sacrifices. Everything worth doing requires them. Identifying those sacrifices, and accepting them early, is a pretty important determinant of success. But once you’ve done that, then all it takes is the discipline to walk the path you’ve planned for yourself. If you do it consistently, you’ll eventually arrive at a place where you can make the change you want to in a responsible way.
And the great thing about knowing the path, and the destination, is that there won’t really be any question once you’ve arrived. You’ll know. That won’t stop the second guessing entirely, but it should give you the confidence to look past the inevitable fears and uncertainties. After all, you’ve done a lot of hard work to get prepared. Now just do it.