It’s a popular notion. Almost a perfect fantasy. “Quit your job and travel the world!” I hear it all the time when travelling. There’s always that one guy who’s on a permanent trip and has been everywhere and laughs when you tell him you’re away for a month and then back to work. In the travel blogging community, the argument that one should quit one’s job and travel is almost de-rigueur. But what if I told you that you shouldn’t?
About ten years ago, I was burnt out at work and so took 3 months of leave without pay to go surfing in the Maldives followed by 3 months of backpacking in Europe. My job was pretty low-paying, so I didn’t have much in the way of savings. So I took out a personal loan to fund the trip.
I was about 3 weeks into the trip, when, one day in Norway, I got an email from my boss back home, telling me our division was closing down and we were all being made redundant. I spent some time staring despondently at the hostel ceiling in Bergen before making the choice to go out and drink some beer with some guy I’d met at the hostel.
At the bar, I asked the pretty bargirls in (very bad) Norwegian/Swedish if I could leave my bag behind the bar. They responded in (very good) English, wanting to know where I came from, what I did, and so on. I told them I was now an officially unemployed Australian surfer bum. I gave the bargirl 5 euros for a beer, and she gave me the beer plus 7 euros change, and smiled at me. I was somewhat dumbstruck, but when I ordered my next beer, the same thing happened. I began to feel a bit drunk and happy (and a bit richer), despite the bad news.
It was at this point I met “Jurgen from Bergen”. There was an open mic night happening in the bar, and Jurgen was the organiser. I mentioned I could play guitar, and he told me to get up and play a song. I declined, saying I was too drunk and depressed and didn’t want to embarrass myself. He slapped me on the back and said, “Man, stay in Bergen. I can get you gigs playing guitar in bars. The girls here love Aussies. You will be happy here.” The pretty bargirl gave me another negative-cost beer and suddenly the thought struck me.
“Man, screw this work shit! I am never going back home!”
Long story short, my glorious night was curtailed by that enemy of travel conquests, the evil hostel curfew. And when I woke up the next day with a hangover, I wasn’t so sure anymore about my plan of action. Surely there were better contributions I could make to the world than playing guitar in Norwegian bars? And could it be that last night’s decision had been made more by the beer and potentially also my nether regions, given the attractiveness of the females involved?
Checking my email, there was one from a research institute back home I had enquired at before my trip. There was a vacancy for a PhD research position and I could start whenever I wanted. Now I’m not a superstitious person, but the timing was so fortuitous as to leave me in little doubt as to the correct life path. The redundancy cheque from my old job gave me about 10,000 bucks, so the personal loan was paid off immediately, and I continued the trip as originally planned. The day after I arrived home, 2 months later, I began work at the new job.
Ten years later, I have made contributions to science, love Mondays, have investments, just got married in Brazil and have more travel than I could ever want. Rarely do I need to pay for a flight and it’s at the point now where I am actively looking for ways to avoid travelling to places I have already been many times before (eg, Singapore, even though it is awesome) because the jetlag and flying wears me out and if it’s not absolutely essential then I feel guilty about my carbon footprint.
Things can always be better and my life is not perfect but I am counting my blessings every day.
I wrote an article about getting a job that allows you to travel, but you shouldn’t worry too much if your job doesn’t involve it- as long as they let you take paid leave or leave without pay every so often, you can still see the world. I sometimes get emails from Americans saying “I only get 2 weeks of vacation time a year, not a day more” and if that is really true, you probably need to find a way to take some more time off, even if you really love your job, because you only get one life and smelling the roses is important. If you don’t really love your job, this is even more true.
However, one should not forget the honour in working, in contributing to society. Even if you’re only emptying trashcans, you’re doing a small but essential service that cleans up the planet and allows humankind to continue to progress. If you’re just travelling the world and taking 30 flights a year, just to see the sights, then you are not really making a contribution and in fact you’re most definitely polluting the world and contributing to climate change.
Travel can help you find yourself, open your eyes to things you never thought possible, and bring untold self-confidence. But here’s the other thing about “a life of travel”- it is a solitary one. It is unstable. It is tiring. Many of these people continue to deceive themselves, continent hopping, still trying to find themselves years later, kidding themselves with their regular Facegram (TM) posts that they are living the dream.
But I see these people in hotel bars and hostel dorms and they are lonely. They are frazzled. They exist on the fringes of society as aspirational ghosts. They are just vagabonds.
There is the argument that tourist dollars help developing (and developed) economies, and fair enough. But you could equally argue that western tourism results in cultural pollution. Neither of these positions are entirely wrong or right.
There’s also a host of intrepid travellers who write blogs and “inspire others to travel” or take beautiful photographs or just entertain with their anecdotes, and this post is not really aimed at them, even if I think their advice is sometimes a bit misguided and they might display some of the personality traits above. After all, they haven’t so much as quit working, they’re just doing something that suits them better and contributes in a different way.
So then, maybe the question you should be asking is not “Should I quit my job to travel?” but:
“Should I get a different job?”
Agree? Disagree? Want to tar and feather me? All bouquets and brickbats are welcome below.