Photo: Skype Nomad
I turn 26 this month and have been to nearly 50 countries, worked professionally in over a dozen of those over a period of 3 years, and gone backpacking solo in South America (4.5 months), Northeast Asia (2 months), Southeast Asia (1 month), the Middle East (1 month), and a sprinkling of East Africa (1 month). So how do I actually go about it?
Key #1: I built a solid career foundation.
I value my career as much as my free spirit, and keeping the two in balance and never putting one at the expense of the other has been both challenging and rewarding. I took a US-based job in management consulting straight out of undergrad, which was the best decision I ever made. It helped me develop tangible skills, provided access to a great network, and put a brand-name institution on my resume. It was two years of professional polishing and learning the ins and outs of a huge corporation, and those years (a sacrifice for my wanderlusting heart) continue to pay out dividends. I was then able to leverage my consulting experience to get a job in international business development that required travel. I didn’t walk away from growing my professional skill set just to “go travel,” I found a company that let me do both at the same time.
Key #2: I started accumulating international experience early.
The main reason I was qualified for this global dream job was because I had a foundation of Fortune 500 experience straight out of school and had worked, lived, and studied abroad pretty extensively during college. As I always say, international experience begets international experience, so you have to get your foot in the door and take an early opportunity to work overseas. That first opportunity may not be the ideal fit for your long-term career (I had a marketing internship at an NGO even though I ultimately wanted to be in the private sector), so focus on finding something that provides a wide breadth of experience and transferable skills so you can work towards something closer to your heart as you progress down your career path.
Key #3: I take time off during every job transition.
Transitioning between jobs is the ideal time to travel for a longer period of time. If the company is really excited to hire you, you have bargaining power. Don’t be afraid to ask for a couple months off or negotiate a deferred offer for next year’s starting class if you’re coming straight out of school. It’s also great because you know when (and from where) you’ll be getting your next paycheck. Before I started working at IBM after college, I specifically negotiated the latest start date with my recruiter and spent those months backpacking South America. In between IBM and my next job, I took 2 months to travel through Japan and Taiwan. During my previous job, which was project-based, I would take time between country assignments to travel in the region. Now that I’ve left that job, I’m traveling indefinitely before finding my next opportunity, thanks to Key #5.
Key #4: I spent years growing a side business.
I’ve been blogging for over 3 years, and it has taken at least that long to grow a following and gain the credibility to charge a living wage for the pieces I write for other websites. I also have a coaching and travel-planning business that has recently taken off, but it was slow when it began and required many years of nurturing it on nights and weekends. Luckily, I love writing, coaching, and doing customized trip planning, so it never felt like work. Although this side business is not a “career move” for me, it’s extremely helpful to know I can financially support myself when I travel and/or take breaks between jobs.
Key #5: I have a (self-funded) financial safety net, and I manage my money like a boss.
I always live well beneath my means and put a priority on saving money. A savings cushion gives me the freedom to leave a job or go back to school or settle down or travel more at any time. That ability means much more to me than a fancy apartment or a huge wardrobe or the latest iGadget. (I share my thoughts on taking control of your relationship with money in this article.) I don’t come from a rich family or have another kind of safety net, so I have to rely on myself to keep my finances on point so I can continuously manage my lifestyle on my terms.
Key #6: I work hard and maintain an open-door policy by being a valuable employee.
Every time I resigned from a job, I left on very good terms. I loved both of my previous jobs, and could probably go back if I really wanted. I was valuable to them and performed well, and both times my managers made me offers to stay or return. I strongly encourage you to spend a minimum of two years in every job you have and work your absolute hardest, so if and when it comes time to leave or negotiate a sabbatical, they’ll be on your side. Then you have the best of both worlds: the freedom to travel and the security to have a place to go back to.
Key #7: I live with a light material footprint.
I don’t have furniture, sign contractual leases, or own anything that can’t be packed into a couple suitcases or shipped home to my parents in a pinch. Essentially, my financial compromises and material possessions are minimal, which allow me to easily pack up and go when the opportunities arise. There will always be inconvenient logistics of some kind (“life administration” as I call it), but I never get to the point where I’m weighed down by stuff. In my opinion, dreams, beliefs, relationships, opportunities, and knowledge should impact decision-making, not stuff.
Key #8: I just do it.
And finally the most important key of all: I don’t over-think, I don’t let fear dictate, I don’t worry about “what ifs,” I just know what I want to do and I go for it. Most of all, I understand my values and I actively prioritize them. I value self-reliance, minimalism, freedom, and taking action. I want my twenties to be a decade of exploration, of getting used to taking risks so I won’t be afraid to continue living adventurously throughout my life. I know that I eventually do want to settle down, but I also know that by living the way I’ve lived so far, I will deeply appreciate and look forward to being a bit more “normal” when the time comes. Until then, I keep my suitcases packed, my bank account cushioned, and my priorities crystallized as I head into my third consecutive year on the road.
This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at Life Before 30.