How A 7-Month Journey Around the World Changed My Life
On August 2nd, 2016, I jumped on a plane to fulfill a dream: a long trip around the world. This Magellanesque adventure led me and my wife Jenn to on a literal trip around the globe, taking us across 15 countries on 4 continents in 220 days. We witnessed spectacular sights, met unforgettable people, ate unbelievable food. But it wasn’t easy. It took months — or, in some ways, years — of preparation, sacrifice, planning. It took tough choices, difficult conversations, plus loads of courage to overcome mountains of discomfort and self-doubt.
It was wholly and entirely worth it.
I am now safely back home, and have been thinking about how the journey changed my life in some expected — and unexpected — ways. Even though I suspect I haven’t fully understood the extent of the change, I very much feel like a different person than I was before I left. The clarity of mind afforded by an extended time off is a priceless gain that I would recommend anyone to try at some point in their life if they can.
Quick Disclaimer: This is a pretty personal piece. Its main objective is for me to untangle and make sense of what has been going on in my brain, to bring clarity to my current worldview, not to pass judgement onto others. That said, I will remain eternally grateful for this journey and the lessons it taught me, so I also hope that in sharing some of these learnings they can have a compounding effect on those who care to read and absorb them. I hope this helps inspire others to go on their own journey, whatever that may be, and find their own lessons.
So, here are a few ways a trip around the world changed my life:
[BEFORE WE START: Don’t have time/desire to read the whole post? Scroll down to the very bottom for the one-sentence summary of each lesson! Then save the article and read it later, you lazy bum 😉]
#1: I LEARNED FEAR AND LACK OF COMMITMENT ARE ALL THAT STANDS BETWEEN ME AND MY DREAMS
“Once you make a decision, the Universe conspires to make it happen.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
A while ago I read the book “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone, which tells the story of Jeff Bezos founding and growing the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.com. One particular anecdote in the book stuck with me: Bezos had to decide whether or not he should quit his safe, lucrative Wall Street job and risk starting Amazon.com. “When I’m 80,” he asked himself, “am I going to regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the Internet? Yes.”
And the rest is history.
Inspired, I started using what I called the “Jeff Bezos Rule” to make more decisions in my life. I realized that applying that filter to choices in my life added clarity when deciding how I spent my time, attention, money and effort.
Would I regret… not trading my car in for a new, shinier model? Probably not.
Would I regret… not spending more time in the office? Unlikely, I already did a lot of that.
Would I regret… not putting more money aside for retirement? Maybe, but I was already maxing out a few IRAs, and I’m still relatively young.
Would I regret… not taking an extended trip around the world? Most definitely. So would Jenn. And neither of us wanted to end up like the guy from UP, forever postponing our heart’s desires. Life is now or never. So, we decided to just do it.
Cut to 2016. When we told friends and family about our crazy idea of taking an extended trip around the world, the most common phrase we heard was “I will live vicariously through you.” I realized that many people wanted to do something similar, but for a number of reasons couldn’t — or wouldn’t. In many cases, these were perfectly reasonable motives: money, fear to lose jobs, fear for safety, lack of time, kids in the household. But in almost all cases — should the desire to travel be strong enough—, these fears and reasons could be overcome given the right amount of effort, planning, commitment, mental framing, sacrifice or time. There are plenty of people who have faced the same obstacles, yet have somehow overcome them.
In our case, we treated this project responsibly. For years, we lived well below our means, saving or investing 30–50% of our income. Among others, we had an earmarked “travel bucket” savings account, which along with some freelancing work helped pay for the trip. We left our savings and investment accounts untouched, and saved up a “cushion” for when we got back. We wanted the assurance that this was a safe move, that we weren’t jeopardizing our future to make this dream come true. It took some planning and a little sacrifice, but it bought us the freedom to make it happen.
So what’s stopping us?
So after making one crazy dream come true, it dawned on me: The only thing that stood between me and any of my other crazy dreams was a lack of commitment. It was a failure to make choices. You see, when we say we “can’t” do something, it often just means we won’t. It means we aren’t willing to make choices that will inconvenience or risk other parts of our life. One person I knew, for instance, told me he wished he could afford to take a trip around the world, and then showed me pictures of his brand new Mercedes. “Man,” I thought, “it’s not that he can’t. It’s he won’t.” His new luxury ride, presumably, brought him higher satisfaction than a trip around the world would. And that’s OK! But if he really wanted to travel, he totally could. It’s just a life choice.
The same goes for 99% of those reading this right now. You, reader, are likely living in a free country, are unlikely to be suffering from starvation, unlikely to be in a major conflict zone. If you are literate and relatively healthy, you have more choice than you realize. Almost any dream you have is realistically attainable if you make the right choices over a long enough period of time. It’s not easy, but it’s realistic.
This was a critical breakthrough for me. After going this trip, I understood that the only thing that was holding me back was a lack of commitment, a failure to make certain choices. And I understood that underneath that was fear. Fear I would ruin my career. Fear I would lose friends. Fear of what my family might say. Fear something might happen to me or Jenn on the road. Needless to say, none of these fears materialized.
I now know that with the proper planning — along with massive courage and an unflinching desire — I can make almost any dream come true. Not only do I feel my mind has been open to the “anything is possible” truth of the Universe, I also now feel much more confident in my abilities to make my dreams happen.
The single most critical, most important step you can take to make your dreams come true is to fully commit to them. Decide to make your dreams true. Choose what truly matters to you, and pursue it. Screw fear. Be courageous. Don’t settle. Commit. It will likely take time, effort and sacrifice. But it is SO worth it.
Don’t call it a dream. Call it a plan. Write it down. Take a breath.
Now, get to work.
#2: I REFINED MY METRICS OF SUCCESS
“I now have a very simple metric I use: Are you working on something that can change the world? Yes or no? The answer for 99.99999% of people is ‘no.’ I think we need to be training people on how to change the world.” —Larry Page, Google Co-Founder and Alphabet CEO
There’s one thing travel does better than almost anything: it shows you your place in the world. You see your luck in the draw. When you travel, you’re quickly exposed to multiple points of view, lifestyles, socioeconomic levels, religions, housing situations, food preferences… and this makes you realize we all live in a bubble, that the richness and variety of the human experience is broader than you can possibly imagine. Moreover, you can’t help but realize how truly lucky you are.
How so? Consider the following:
- If you earned $1,500 or more last year, you are at the top 50% of global income.
- If you earned $25,000 or more last year, you are at the top 15% of global income.
- If you earned $50,000 or more last year, you are at the top 1% of global income.
These numbers, by the way, are purchasing parity-adjusted, which means that it doesn’t matter if the cost of living is higher where you are — if you have running water, electricity, a TV and indoor plumbing, and sufficient food to survive, you are among the world’s elite. You are one of the lucky ones. You are lucky enough to be outside the 20 million people at risk of starvation today, RIGHT NOW, in what might be the largest hunger crisis since 1945.
“Yeah, yeah, there are terrible things happening in the world”
“Yeah, we all know there are big problems in the world,” you might say. “What else is new?” My intent here is not to preach. I’m not here to be a grandma going all “eat your food, child, there are hungry kids in Africa.”
Here’s why I bring this up: I used to think that success was achieved through a high status, a fair amount of money, a roomy house, a shiny new car every 2–3 years, the newest phone on the market, admiration and a pat on the back from friends and family. But then I achieved some of that. Then I had to get some more. And some more. And at some point the chase left me with the inevitable “Is this all there is?” feeling. This trip helped me realize the answer to that question was “no.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things. Not at all — most are in fact good things to strive for. But I believe there’s an even higher level to achieve: Giving. Impact. A “Dent in the Universe.”
As I saw rural life across South America and wandered through small villages in South East Asia, I thought about how I wanted to measure my life’s success. And it hit me like a ton of bricks: I am one of the few lucky ones, one of the privileged. This means that for me, success can be much broader, much more impactful than previously thought. I was quickly reminded of two things:
- There are so many insane problems in the world. I say ‘insane’ because there are no rational reasons why these things should be happening. The only reason they exist is because too many of us have accepted them as a sad fact of reality: Famine at the same time as obesity and 1/3 of the world’s food going to waste. 800 million people not having clean water — that’s 12% of humanity. Continuing climate change at the same time as the existence of sustainable energy sources. 21st -century schools teaching 19th century skills. Or even worse, smart children not going to school at all. None of these things make any sense. Freedom, education, health, basic comfort and dignity are still out of reach for a wide swath of humanity.
- Thanks to technology and communications, anyone can change the world more than ever. There has never been a time in the history of humanity in which a single individual can have so much impact. Be it telling stories on YouTube, getting crowdfunded on Kickstarter, accumulating venture capital, learning new skills on edX… anyone with access to these tools has the chance to literally change the world. And that includes more people than ever before.
So what would I do with this information? Well, did I really have a choice?
A new metric of success
I then decided that my metrics of success would be two things: 1) Impact and 2) Freedom. I’ll speak more to the latter (Freedom) in #3 below, as it deserves its own topic. But here’s my take on #1, Impact:
I believe that we all have a common life purpose: 1) to achieve happiness and 2) to leave the world better after we’re gone. The startling discovery is that once your basic needs are met, happiness is relatively easy to achieve. It’s something that, while unique to each individual, has basic levers and principles that can be learned and applied.
Now, the latter, the ‘make the world a better place’ piece… that’s trickier. Making the world better can mean many things, at many scales, for many people. For me, it’s not enough to “do just a little good” throughout your life. I think it’s morally correct for me to do as much good as I possibly can.And that means that at the end of my life, when I look back, this is the question I’ll ask myself: “Did I do as much good as I possibly could?”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I have a gift. It’s called education. It’s called skills. It’s called health. It’s called disposable income. It’s called a brain. It’s called hands. What was I going to do with that gift? Live in the rat race, get the next promotion, have more fun, buy a shinier car, nicer toys ad infinitum until I die? Or try to MAKE A FREAKING DIFFERENCE? Change the world? Would I be, as Larry Page asks, a part of the 0.00001%? CAN YOU IMAGINE how the world would be if ALL of us lucky ones helped the least fortunate among us? How much suffering we could prevent, how quickly we could end disease?
What about you? If you are a college graduate, or someone who has achieved great professional success, or someone who lives in relative comfort — congratulations! You are one of the brightest, most fortunate, most capable, most gifted people on the planet.
*PS: Here’s a fantastic resource to answer this question.
#3: I REALIZED FREEDOM COMES FROM NEEDING LESS, NOT HAVING MORE
“Freedom isn’t attained by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.” — Epictetus
Jenn and I took off for our world trip with nothing but a backpack and the clothes on our back. This means that for the past 7 months, all my worldly possessions fit into one 40-liter bag (this one). It was big enough to carry a week’s worth of clothes and an extra pair of shoes, but small enough to carry and fit into airplane overheads.
I was a little nervous at first… would it suck? Would I miss the rest of my stuff at home? Or would I like the simplicity of it?
The verdict? It was freaking glorious! I LOVED living out of a backpack, not having to think about what I was going to wear, not having to clean up a cluttered room, not having to clean a house or apartment every weekend. It was just surprising to realize how few material things I needed in order to be happy. Turned out the simplicity gained far outweighed the feeling of lacking.
Instead, happiness was found in the doing, the experiencing, the creating, the conversing, the giving. And strangely enough, all of these seemed to be inversely correlated with the amount of stuff in my life. It appeared that the less I had, the more I could do, experience, create or give.
Most importantly though, this realization gave me freedom. I saw that when you need little to be happy, you don’t need to kill yourself to make as much money. What you do with your money becomes less important than what you do with your time. Money is a renewable, almost infinite resource. Time, however, is extremely limited and non-renewable. You can always make another dollar, but you can’t “make” another minute. If anything, you want to accumulate wealth so you can more wisely spend your time.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t care about money. Au contraire, it’s commendable to seek to earn as much as you can (without sacrificing your health, happiness or relationships over the long term). But then, place your focus on saving, investing, or giving more than on spending. Most financially independent people became that way because they lived well below their means, worrying more about their long-term freedom than about impressing the neighbors.
Doing what you want, being where you want to be at all times, hanging out with the people you want to hang out with, not having to be beholden to a job or place you don’t like… that’s true freedom, and I decided that from now on I will be making decisions that lead to more freedom, not less.
More than one type of clutter
I also found another way getting rid of clutter could make me happier. That’s because clutter doesn’t have to be physical.
It can also be mental clutter: frequent distraction, negative emotions, lack of self-control.
It can be time clutter: constant busyness, lack of priorities, a chaotic schedule.
It can be bodily clutter: unhealthy eating, excessive vices, lack of movement.
One life-changing realization came to me when I went to a retreat at Hariharalaya, a paradise enclosed in a small Cambodian village, where we spent an entire week practicing yoga and meditation. As part of the retreat, we were encouraged to do a “digital detox” for the duration of the retreat, staying completely off our phones (GULP!), laptops, tablets, and even cameras.
I was pretty nervous before we went. I couldn’t bear the thought of not having my phone for one day, much less a whole week?! But despite some initial anxiousness in the first couple of days, the week went by without a hitch. In fact, I quickly found myself having a much clearer head and a much more limber body (no doubt helped by the vegan meals and twice-daily yoga and meditation). Moreover, I realized these devices were literally zapping my creativity. I saw that the permanent distraction created by constantly checking email, news and social media was nothing more than a form of mental clutter. Even worse, it was a way for me to kill off the endless supply of creative energy I have inside of me. I had TOO MUCH energy, and I had to let it out somehow. So I stupidly liked cat videos and scrolled Twitter for hours on end.
During my time in Hariharalaya, I started doing something I always enjoyed but hadn’t done in years: I started drawing. Not only that: I learned to walk the tightrope, read six books, wrote several pages on my journal, and every night I played guitar while jamming with a super fun group of people. In other words, not being constantly distracted by technology “uncluttered” my mind, and created an explosion of creativity.
In summary, what did I learn? I learned that in this world of choice and abundance, there is such a thing as “too much” of something making for “not enough” of something else. Too much desire, not enough gratefulness. Too much stuff, not enough experiences. Too much distraction, not enough mindfulness. Too much consumption, not enough creation. Too much selfishness, not enough connection. And that, ultimately, freedom comes from removing the “too much’s” and embracing the “not enough’s.”
#4: I REALIZED THE WORLD IS HUGE, SAFE AND PROVIDING
“As the long-term traveler moves further and further along his planned timeline and creates more distance in Time from his ordinary life, the new life begins to assert itself. His old world begins to fade away both physically and psychologically. He feels free to roam the world without constraints of upbringing, culture, or education. […] Although many realizations occur during a long-term journey, there are a few that are almost certain to arise and become central.” — Nicos Hadjicostis, author of ‘Destination Earth’
Along our journey we met Nicos Hadjicostis, a Cyprian traveler who spent 6.5 years traveling around the world. We met him and his lovely partner Jane at the Airbnb Open in LA, where he moderated the panel I took a part of. Nicos recently published a book called Destination Earth, which lays out his philosophy and ideas on world travel. It was a fascinating read, and an appropriate one for us while on the road. One my favorite ideas of the book was the “Realizations of the World-Traveler”, which says that any long-term traveler eventually discovers a few truths about the world. Among those, one sees that the world is 1) huge, 2) providing, and 3) safe.
I found all of these to be entirely true. Taking a trip around the world is scary at first. So I did what I usually do when I’m scared of doing something, I’ll ask myself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “How likely is it that that will happen?” Often, the answers will be “not much” and “pretty unlikely” — maybe a scraped knee or a bruised ego, if anything.
So when I started getting nervous about going on this trip, I asked myself the same question. My mind quickly started going to dark places… What if we get lost? What if we get hurt? What if we get kidnapped? OMG, what if we DIE??
Needless to say (seeing as that I am not currently a ghost), none of these things actually happened.
In fact, it’s crazy, but the trip couldn’t have gone smoother. We took over 30 flights, and only one (our last flight, no less) was delayed. We visited 15 countries, stayed in 60+ Airbnbs/hotels and took 100+ buses/planes/trains/taxis/tuk-tuks. Not once did we feel unsafe or that we were risking our lives. In fact, 98% of our interactions were perfectly comfortable, safe and pleasant. Sure, there was the one time a Lao cockroach popped up in the room, or the one time a Vietnamese bus left us in the wrong town at 4AM, or the one time we left an Airbnb because it smelled like moist cigarettes. But those were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most lodging and transport was perfectly clean, comfortable and timely. For changing locations on average once every three days for seven months, we were sure lucky to find that most places and rides were awesome.
“Seeing The World As It Really Is”
In this journey I learned that how people act towards you is most often a reflection of how you act towards them. If I smile, they smile back. If I’m rude, they will be rude to me. Overall, this trip made me much more trusting, empathetic, and courageous, as well as less judgmental, fearful and selfish.
Buddha often claimed that one key to happiness was being able to SEE. See reality for what it truly is. See the world in its true form, not letting your own fears, judgements, cognitive biases, or preconceived notions lead your mind astray. Going on this journey allowed me to fight against my preconceived notions that the world is fundamentally unsafe, that in order to stay safe one must stay guarded, closed, untrusting of others. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s crazy when we consider that most of what we know about other countries or people comes from the media — show and news broadcasts that are designed to scare, capture attention, and get ratings. Nothing sells like fear. In fact, here’s a helpful reminder: by definition, if something is “news,” it means it’s infrequent, rare, outside the norm. It means that if you see, for instance, a terrorist attack, it’s in your Twitter feed or your TV screen because it doesn’t happen very frequently at all! Most hours of most days in most places go by without a hitch.
The world is much safer, benign, friendly — and frankly, much more boring — than these news would suggest. 99% of world citizens want the exact same things you and I do: to develop themselves, to support their families, to make their communities better.
So it really becomes a question of probabilities. To reap the 100% chance that traveling will change your life, are you willing to take the risk of 0.0000000001% of anything bad happening to you? The rational answer, in my opinion, is YES. We take much bigger risks when we get in our cars to drive to work, eat a sugary pastry for breakfast or ride a bike in our city. Any of those things are much more likely to kill you than traveling to most countries, and they will—in all likelihood—be far less rewarding.
So don’t believe the hype. Get out there. Experience the world for yourself. Talk to strangers. Take risks. You’ll quickly notice the world is indeed huge, safe and providing.
#5: I WAS REMINDED WHAT’S CLOSEST MATTERS MOST
“Distance is not for the fearful, it is for the bold. It’s for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the ones they love. It’s for those knowing a good thing when they see it, even if they don’t see it nearly enough.” — Meghan Daum
There’s not much to complain about when you’re traveling around the world. That said, by far the hardest part of the trip was being away from friends and family during the Holidays. We were in Koh Lanta, Thailand, and it was the first time I had ever been away from home for Christmas. There was something about being on a remote island, in a completely different time zone, that made for a feeling of true distance between us and the other side of the world — everything and everyone we knew and loved. This marked the first time I felt true homesickness during the trip.
This experience reminded me that no matter where life takes you, no matter what you achieve, no matter who you become, no matter where you travel… there is nothing more important than the people closest to you. Your parents, your siblings, your partner, your cousins, your grandparents, your friends. Never forget where you came from. No man is an island. Your own life journey only goes so far as long as you can bring others with you. Your journey is only complete once it is shared.
A relationship litmus test
Speaking of closeness, Jenn and I were a little scared before we left… How would we feel about being together 24/7 for almost 8 months? Even though we’d been together for 5+ years, we’d never really spent that much time together. Even more, we would be staying in single rooms at Airbnbs and hotels everywhere. There would be almost no private time or space. Would we drive each other crazy? Would we get tired or — worst of all — bored of being around each other??
Turns out, this trip was the best possible thing we could’ve done. Not only did we not get tired of each other, but today we feel closer and more in love than we’ve ever been. We even feel a tinge of separation anxiety when we’re apart :). That’s how I know I married the right woman — I don’t think I could’ve traveled so far and for so long with anyone else in the entire world.
Going back to Lesson #1 (“dreams are made of commitment”), I also learned about the importance of being aligned in goals, values and a life vision when it comes to a marriage or relationship. We both wanted this, it took both of us to make it happen. If one of us had bailed, the whole thing would’ve gone by the wayside.
Travel is the perfect litmus test for a relationship. If you can travel together, you might be able to handle the challenges and uncertainties that any long-term relationship will likely bring. This journey helped us better learn each other — we understood our quirks, we found ways to make each other happy, we strived to make the relationship balanced. It was a constant give-and-take. In a way, it was a way to squeeze a number of lessons from a multi-decade relationship into this short, 7-month period.
I’m incredibly grateful for her patience, wisdom, love and — let’s be honest — travel planning skills. Now, we can’t wait to start the exciting new stage of our lives together.
#6: I REDISCOVERED THE JOY OF THE CLIMB
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” —Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
“A musician must make music, a painter must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we call ‘self-actualization’. It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely for a man’s need to become ‘actually’ what he is potentially. To become everything that he is capable of becoming.” —Abraham Maslow
An interesting phenomenon happened while we were traveling: Time seemed to go by sloooowly. A week felt like a month. A month felt like a year. Everything simply stretched out. It feels like we left forever ago. And in that slowness, I was alive, I was present.
That feeling, I think, leaves something with you. Makes you think. It had been a while since I felt time going by so slowly. In fact, as I thought about it, I remembered the last time that was: when I was young, around 12 years old. Back then, each year seemed to last FOR-EV-ER (*cue The Sandlot reference*).
Why? And what did it have in common with what I was currently experiencing?
I discovered the reason time seemed to slow down is because I was in a mode of FAST GROWTH. When you’re 10 or 11 years old (or younger), you are growing fast. Most things you learn, most experiences you have, most languages you hear, most concepts you discover are entirely new to you. Therefore, you become an entirely different person from year to year. But then your teens come crashing in. You figure out how the world works. You start to see patterns. All of a sudden, things are a little less exciting. Your growth plateaus, and stays that way during most of your adult life, inching upwards, one small growth spurt at a time.
This trip was a way of hacking my brain to achieve the same feeling. The struggle, the adventure, the newness… they all produce one thing: growth. So time slowed down. I said to myself, “this is peak living.” And once I felt it, I decided that for the rest of my life I wanted to live in a peak state as frequently and for as long as I can.
Struggling for the peak
Of course, travel is not by any means the only way to achieve peak state. It’s just a relatively fast and reliable way to do so. Extreme sports, a job you absolutely love, or an exceptional romantic relationship are others I have experienced. And there are many more, I’m sure. But traveling around the world helped me acquire more of the mental, physical and financial tools to live each day in a peak state. It also does NOT mean every day should be — or even can be — total and complete bliss. Bliss ≠ Peak State.
Here’s what I am saying, though: I should work my damn hardest to put myself each and every day in a struggle, an adventure, a mountain — as Frankl would say — worthy of myself. It means that peak states require fast and massive growth, and the only way to get there is by risking, challenging myself, being in a constant state of discomfort. It’s not about happiness and comfort, it’s about meaning and growth.
So, I decided to leave a relatively comfortable life and career to try to climb new mountains, take new risks, play in higher leagues, have more impact, reach for more freedom. And that’s what I will be doing, writing about and—no doubt—failing at for the next few months. If you’d like to stay updated, feel free to sign up here.
In the meantime, thank you for reading! I would love to hear from you — thoughts, questions, challenges to the above. Drop me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)
#1: I learned fear and commitment are all that stands between myself and my dreams. When you do something crazy, you realize most “crazy” goals are actually not that crazy.
#2: I refined my metrics of success. Travel let me see I am one of the lucky ones, so success broadened to “How much good can I do?”
#3: I realized freedom comes from needing less, not having more. Be happy with what you have, and you’ll never find yourself wanting.
#4: I saw the world is huge, safe and providing. Don’t believe the hype. Most human beings want the same as you — happiness and opportunity.
#5: I was reminded what is closest matters most. My family, friends and marriage are my everything. Life is only complete when shared.
#6: I rediscovered the joy of the climb. I won’t be happy unless I’m climbing the next mountain worthy of myself.