“Quitting, for me, means not giving up, but moving on; changing direction not because something doesn’t agree with you, but because you don’t agree with something. It’s not a complaint, in other words, but a positive choice, and not a stop in one’s journey, but a step in a better direction. Quitting—whether a job or a habit—means taking a turn so as to be sure you’re still moving in the direction of your dreams.”
In August, I was able to finally pull the trigger on something I had been dreaming about for the past three years: quitting my office job in order to travel and write.
I am now drafting this post on a bus ride through the Panamanian countryside, the first week of about 12 I will spend outside “the States” (as I am learning to say); also my first time outside of my mother country, period.
So far, it’s been everything I hoped, and I have zero regrets about the decision. As of now I don’t really have any sort of concrete plan on what I will do upon my return to the U.S. in January. While I hope freelancing can continue to support me full time, it’s entirely possible I could be a 27-year old living back in my parents’ basement, but already I have made some memories and friends that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
The Hardest Part
Yet despite of what many in the “blindly follow your passion crowd” will tell you, this wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. Worth it? Definitely. Easy? Not the word I would use.
For every blog post (hell, book) written about how to “just quit and follow your dreams already”, an equal amount of words could be written for the burdens that come along with such an act. The planning (admittedly exciting, but also a pain at times), the logistics, the shopping, the packing and re-packing, the saying bye…and trying to explain to people “why”.
Even though I consider myself to be an extremely independent (some might even say bullheaded) person, the hardest part of this process was not quitting my great job, saying bye to my girlfriend, friends, and family, getting rid of a large chunk of my possessions, or moving to a country where I barely spoke the language (though all tough in their own right).
Instead, it was simply a fear of how others would respond.
Thick Skin Is Still Permeable
And I don’t mean this necessarily in an approval-, permission-seeking kind of way; great books like The Art of Non-Conformity and The Happiness of Pursuit have conditioned me enough to know that usually (definitely not always), if you are getting shallow opposition to a big idea or life change, then it’s usually a sign that you are on the right course.
But with everything that must be done for an endeavor like this, receiving opposition (rational or not) from friends and family that you feel like should be supporting you unconditionally can make for an exhausting experience.
In the months leading up to buying my ticket or even deciding what country I wanted to go to first, I was an almost daily visitor to reddit’s r/solotravel board. There I was finding answers to any question I could possibly have about backpacking abroad and alone, what gear I needed, what to look for in a hostel, how to go to Thailand as a single male and not be accused of sex tourism, and most importantly, affirmation and inspiration that I too could go on a trip like this.
Despite building up (what I thought) was pretty thick skin, I kept my plans close to my chest for a long time. I simulated scenarios in my head about what I would say in response to reactions I anticipated hearing such as:
“You’re throwing your career away.”
“You’re going to be so lonely, there’s no way you’ll make it three months.”
“You really don’t like living here that much?”
“What are you going to do about the gap on your resume?”
“You’re going to say the wrong thing and get locked up abroad.”
Eventually though, it came time to do the uncomfortable in revealing my plans (awkward is turning down an invite to go to an event in three months because you are going to be busy with something you can’t talk about) and facing the peer jury.
What People Actually Said
I will say I am extremely fortunate in that I have a very strong support group of friends and family (aside from anything to do with this trip), many of whom are well-traveled themselves. However, drastic life changes can be a hard thing for those close to you to understand. And as irrational as it sounds, there were times it felt like I was abandoning people and things that had been great for me—there was absolutely nothing “wrong” with my life in Colorado.
But by writing down the reactions that stuck out the most, it allowed me to distance myself from the less-supportive comments, look at them more objectively, and identify what kind paradigm they were coming from. Additionally, I hoped that I’d have a list of responses I could someday share with anyone that might have the same fears I did about doing a long solo trip like this.
What I hope you’ll see is that the “worst” of the bunch usually had rational concern behind their comments (or just were innocently naive):
1. The Logistical
But you don’t speak Spanish.
Did you just spend a million dollars?
But you have a job.
Where are you going to live?
To do what?
Is Panama safe?
What are you going to do about money?
You’re going alone?
Far and away, these responses were the overwhelming majority. And why wouldn’t they be? Even though I had gained intimate familiarity with the plan in my own head, it’s still quite the bomb to drop on someone in casual conversation. And some of these undoubtedly have been the first things out my mouth when I have (enviously) discussed with others their own travel plans.
For the career-concerned ones, it’s important to know that many of my friends are young-twenty somethings, either fresh into the “real” career pool or obsessed with getting into it. Their concern about what was going to happen to my job makes complete sense, as it goes against the grain of what their brain has been conditioned to focus on for years and years.
And for the safety-concerned, the only thing many (myself included before planning this trip) know about Panama (besides that whole Canal thing) is the reign of dictator/FBI informant Manuel Noriega in the 1980s. Once I realized these types of questions were coming from a place of naivete and not an assumption that I just threw a dart on a map when deciding where to go, they were zero skin off my back and also took zero effort to field graciously.
And to be fair, many of the “Why” questions weren’t so much in the existential sense, but more just asking if I had fallen into some sort of volunteer, Workaway, or other job opportunity.
2. The Extremely Positive
You are an incredible person, Andrew! You are intelligent and focused, with a seemingly unflappable outlook on life and it’s joys and challenges! You are loved, and supported! We are all cheering for you! (via text, my friends aren’t that quite that hokey)
Sounds like an adventure!
Travel while you’re young, man. Good for you.
You should teach yoga!
You’ll become a more aware and deep person by an order of magnitude. Rip away all of your circumstantial habits and rituals and find out exactly who you are really are. Fucking metal.
Ah yes, the people that “get it”, with no explanation needed. Most of these people have traveled a fair amount themselves, understand the benefit in doing so, and why it was important for me to go (even if we would miss each other immensely).
Not acting like they were a dime a dozen, but these people were definitely a breath of fresh air and a nice, affirming change of pace from the same eight or so responses above.
And I could teach yoga, I suppose. I’ve done more random things.
3. The Envious
Aw man, I would totally take a trip like that if I wasn’t married with kids/didn’t have a mortgage/both.
…can I come.
I’m extremely jealous.
Every time I received an envious reaction, it was just more positive affirmation that yes, while scary, I was doing the right thing in taking advantage/control of my life situation in a way that many others wish they had or never could. I was also quick to extend an invite for these people to come visit if they so desired.
4. The “Negative”/Innocently Ignorant
That’s awesome—but you should go someplace different.
Don’t get kidnapped.
Where is that?
That’s awesome! But why Florida?
Here they are—the “worst” of the bunch, none of which were remotely related to responses I feared receiving the most. While the first one admittedly got under my skin for a day or two, I faced no personal attacks or point-blank interrogations about my motives like I was sure I would. Like I said before, the country I chose (for many well thought-out reasons) isn’t the most well known other than the Canal, and the list of things I knew about Panama was probably just as short before I began researching it.
And the fourth one I’m a little surprised that it didn’t happen more often.
I could write all sorts of cliches here about not caring what others think, but in reality, when you are trying to create a major life change for yourself, what others think can matter. A whole lot, in fact.
It can take months if not years of confidence building and positive self-talk just to convince yourself that you are capable of throwing yourself into a drastically new and unknown situation—and for every doubter you encounter during this volatile stage, this fortress of self-confidence you are trying to construct gets another chunk of bricks taken out of it.
However, there’s also an important distinction to be made between not caring what others think and recklessly not heeding their advice. And in the beginning, at least for me, it was very hard to differentiate between the two.
Advice that could possibly make your trip more enjoyable by adjusting your itinerary to avoid a rainy season or a hectic (and perhaps unsafe) time in the city, for instance, is probably worth listening to. Some of the sillier responses above, while ridiculous now, probably aren’t, though in the early stages they can all unfortunately carry equal weight.
Parents for the most part want their children to have secure lives and be “fat and happy”. Friends like your Friday bar nights just the way they are. And employers don’t want to go through the grind of hiring someone to replace you.
Ultimately, It’s important to remember that in the end, 99% of people have your best interest in mind.
But it’s also important to remember that 99% of people don’t necessarily know what that is.