Giving Up Everything Gained Me the World

Three years ago I was living the classical “American dream”. I had a home stuffed with possessions in a gated community, new cars in the driveway, and a country club membership. I also had a long commute, friends I was too busy to see, a sailboat I was too tired to use, and other toys I no longer had time for.

Ready to give up<br />
everything to travel?
Ready to give up
everything to travel?

I was making good money but spending most of it maintaining my possessions or on trivial things designed to distract me from how tired and busy I was. I was what many people would call “comfortable,” but it was hollow and not very challenging. I had become what Henry David Thoreau called, “the tool of my tools.”

I was approaching a crossroads. I could continue on my present path anchored in place and continue pouring life’s efforts into the fraud of meaningless consumerism or take the (greatly reduced) early retirement that I would soon be eligible for. I had always dreamed of traveling more, but work and other obligations placed extreme limitations on that.

The plan

Jonathan Look-Being Attacked by a Baby Elephant

I would go on vacation and see happy people living great lives in fascinating places that I could only visit. Over my 25 years of work life, most of my vacations had been rushed, one or (occasionally) two week trips to faraway places that didn’t have time to refresh and left me frustrated and dreaming of more. Finally, I managed to connect the dots and realized that if I got rid of my stuff, and consequently, the money I used to maintain it, I could actually retire and live my travel dreams without restraints.

I didn’t exactly know the form my traveling would take, but I knew I didn’t want to simply go to a new place and settle. I knew that if I didn’t place a rough time limit on the amount of time I stayed in one place, I ran the risk of becoming as entrenched as I was before.

Finally, I managed to connect the dots and realized that if I got rid of my stuff, and consequently, the money I used to maintain it, I could actually retire and live my travel dreams without restraints.

On the other hand, I also wanted to be able to spend enough time in places to get to genuinely know them, experience the culture, and make real friendships with the people living there. I wanted to be based in new regions that were themselves interesting but also had enough infrastructures to travel further afield. I wanted to have a few amenities but not so many that I lived in a bubble. I wanted to be flexible and open to opportunity. I tentatively made a plan to live in one country, one year at a time, for the next decade. It was a pretty long list of requirements.

The more I thought about the possibilities of living my dream of becoming a traveler, the more excited I became. I had a goal, and it felt as if the world was finally going to become mine. About a year before retirement eligibility (which would be in the month of my 50th birthday), I put my plan into action.

Putting my plan into action

Jonathan Look-Hiking on the Great Wall of China

At first it was simple; quit buying stuff and start paying off bills. Because I had a goal in mind, that part felt pretty easy. The next step was cleaning out 25 years of accumulated possessions. Getting rid of boxes, unopened, from previous moves was easy. Getting rid of broken tools that I planned to fix “one day,” unused clothes, and sporting equipment wasn’t so bad either.

I could feel the burden easing, but soon things began to get a little more complicated; it was time to start getting rid of things I actively used. When a local family lost everything in a storm, I packed up the entire contents of my kitchen and took it to them. For the next few months I ate out or had microwaved meals on paper plates with plastic cutlery. Furniture went, televisions (four of them) went, stereos, appliances; everything had to go.

Why did I waste so much time and money on things I never needed or enjoyed?

Eventually I sold the house (at a substantial loss), and everything else was gone. Honestly, at the time it was a little painful to see everything I had accumulated over the years go out the door, but when I realized what the actual market value of everything I had gotten rid of was, I thought, “Why did I waste so much time and money on things I never needed or enjoyed?” It was liberating to know that I could now move everything I owned in one car trip.

What it all meant

Bicycling Around Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Fast forward three years to today. Even though I am a few years older, I am healthier and happier than I have been for 20 years. Every morning I wake up full of energy and ready to savor the day instead of wishing for more sleep. Afternoons may find me on a hike in the nearby mountains or practicing my photography. I feel as busy as I ever have, but from doing the things that I love, not drudgery. Entertainment comes from relationships and hobbies, not from buying more stuff I don’t need or some box on the wall. Now I also have time to be a real friend and give my time to people in need.

Every morning I wake up full of energy and ready to savor the day instead of wishing for more sleep.

I am writing this from the 15th floor of my apartment overlooking the ancient city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am about to go out to dinner with friends to “carb-load” on pasta because I am running in the first 10k race I have done in over 10 years. In just the last four months I have spent a month in Burma, visited China and Indonesia, and even spent two weeks in the Himalayan country of Bhutan. Next month I am going to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days before I go to Bail for a month to get a break from the heat of Thailand.

At the beginning of my continuing journey, I moved to a house on a quiet Caribbean, white sand beach in southern Mexico. There was a beautiful lagoon out front to kayak in and snorkeling out back.

When I longed for more culture and human contact, I moved from there and rented an apartment in an old colonial mansion in San Cristobal de las Casas in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. I loved it there, but there was an itch to keep moving. I had planned to move straight from Mexico to Thailand but a last minute unexpected opportunity arose, and I spent nine wonderful months in Cambodia with Angkor Wat as my playground.

Freeing myself from the burdens of ownership and possessions has vastly increased my options.

I often get asked, “When are you coming home?”

The short answer is that the world is my home, and I want to get to know it a little better. I haven’t firmed up my plans yet (a benefit of living the life I now live), but from Thailand I am planning to stay in Asia for another year, moving to Laos. There is still much to explore around here. After that I am contemplating a move to Ecuador, Colombia, maybe even France for a year. Who knows?

Freeing myself from the burdens of ownership and possessions has vastly increased my options. After years of holding back, I want to drink the water of life from a fire hose instead of sipping it from a straw.

To read more about author Jonathan Look, check out his author bio.

Check out more stories about how travel has tranformed someone’s life:

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Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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