Live the Life You Want to Live

I woke up in a tiny apartment on a small island off the coast of Croatia.  I strapped on my shoes and went for a run.  I am not a runner, but I pretend to be one once in a while.  It’s something I am testing out in my new life.

I left the apartment overlooking the ferry dock and a gas station and kept the water to my right.  I wandered along the coast, through the town, watching mothers strolling with their children and shopkeepers just starting their day.   Across the bay I could just make out the red rooftops of Zadar.

At the end of town there was a small beach and a playground.  I turned around to make my way back to the apartment, noticing fishermen just coming in from an early morning at sea.  I am not on vacation, so I ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

Tax talk

In the summer of 2008, I had a wholly different experience.  In the basement of a Ramada at the edge of the Milwaukee airport a group of 100 or so tax professionals gathered to hear me and my colleagues talk tax.

It was not the glamorous life I had hoped for.  More than that, this was not me, not the authentic me.

The topic was electronic discovery in IRS tax audits.  I delivered a few of my usual tax nerd jokes and got the minimum number of chuckles from the audience to know the jokes did not fall flat.  I returned to my seat near the podium and thought to myself , “What am I doing here?”

When I was young, did I dream that I would have earned myself a seat at that table, in the basement of the Milwaukee airport Ramada?  It was not the glamorous life I had hoped for.  More than that, this was not me, not the authentic me.

What changed

The year leading up to that tax talk was a difficult one.  I worked through tendonitis in my right wrist for over a year, all caused by work.  The orthopedic surgeon told me there was nothing structurally wrong with my wrist, so surgery was not an option.  I needed to change my behavior, change how I used the computer, slow down, give the wrist time to relax.  If I could not do these things, then, he joked, I should quit my job.

It got me thinking.  The paychecks were good, and were getting better, and partnership was only two years away.  But at what price?  I worked through pain on a daily basis.  Partners made me cry.  I was exhausted.  Most of all, I was bored.

When your bad days at work outnumber your good days by a good margin, it’s time to reconsider your options.

I could have moved to a different firm, possibly in a new city, but that would have delayed the inevitable.  And I actually liked some of the people I worked with.  Most firms and most practice groups are similar.  In the grand scheme of things, I knew I had landed at one of the better practice groups, but it still was not enough.

I could have gone “in-house” and worked in the tax department of a corporation, but that seemed even more boring than what I was doing at the firm.   Working for the government was an even more unrealistic option.

I was not bred to be a tax attorney; I fell into it.  I was even pretty good at it, but it just was not a satisfying life.

Career break

I knew I needed a change but did not know how to define it.  The decision to take a year off evolved over time.  Really, I had no idea what I wanted.  I enjoyed travel, especially after my first trip to Southeast Asia.  I also knew that two weeks of vacation each year was just not cutting it.

I recognized I needed a break but did not want to walk away from my career.  Six figures of student loan debt and a mortgage on a 3-bed condo in Chicago weighed on me.  It had to be a one-way trip.

But, how could I make this happen for me?

It took almost two years to decide to take the break, to plan, to save money, and a whole lot of nerve to ask for the time off.

The negotiation

Shortly after that fateful tax conference, I told my boss that I wanted to take a year off to travel.

At first, he tried to talk me out of it.  Then he seemed to be in denial; ignoring my request and pretending the conversation did not happen.

There was a bit of precedent for what I was doing.  But this was big law, not a consulting firm.  I was not working at Google or Zappos.  I was messing with tradition.  The path was set: you are an associate for 8 years, then you make partner, then you work until you die at your desk.

One associate took a year off to have a baby.  A partner took a year off to help Afghanistan write a new tax code.  I did not fit into either bucket.  What I was doing was different.  I wanted to explore for a year.  I wanted to enjoy my life.

It took almost two years to decide to take the break, to plan, to save money, and a whole lot of nerve to ask for the time off.

One of my friends warned me they would never “let” me do it because I was not going to have a baby.  Another friend suggested I tell the firm I needed time off to try to have a baby, even if I came home without one.  These did not seem like realistic possibilities.  So I told them what I wanted to do.  I was honest.

In the end, there was no sabbatical.  I had to quit.  A reapplication process would welcome me when I returned.  I had to accept the risk that they might not bring me back – there might not be enough work, the economy might tank.  I had to trust that I worked my butt off for them for 3 and a half years.  I needed to rest on my laurels based on the good work that I did and the contributions I made to the firm.

The initial escape

In January 2009, my husband and I flew one-way to Sydney.  At first, it felt like a three-week holiday, until we flew to New Zealand instead of flying home, then to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia . . .

We survived traveling as a couple – spending 14 months together, nonstop, 24/7.  It was never like that at home.  It brought us closer as we confirmed we actually enjoy spending time together.

People we met on the trip told us to relish it – it was a once in a lifetime experience.   We knew deep down inside that was not the case.  In fact, it was not that deep a feeling.  There needed to be a lifestyle change.  But the real world called us back to the States.

Return to the predictable life

At the end of 14 months and 18 countries, we returned to the US, perhaps reluctantly.  We had to return.  I still had those student loans looming and a condo in a depressed real estate market.

More importantly I felt risk adverse.  Fear drove me back to the US – the need for security, a job, my career.  I was a lawyer for crying out loud.

Once we settled down, I quickly fell into a rut.  At first, time sped by.  We found an apartment, set things up, moved our car and belongings from Chicago to DC and got back to business.  My tax knowledge seeped back into the front of my brain so quickly it frightened me.  Business travel, conference calls, team meetings, and client servicing were the new norm.

Fear drove me back to the US – the need for security, a job, my career.

It did not take long until boredom set in once again.  We had itchy feet.  We tried to satiate our travel desires by short-term trips – a week in Hanoi, Thanksgiving in Istanbul, Christmas in Hong Kong, a wedding in Mendoza, a Scandinavian 10 year wedding anniversary.  These trips were an oasis – a Band-Aid.  Brief breaks from the monotonous life I lived.

I needed to break free from my rut.  My faux urban, metro DC suburb satisfied me for awhile, but I am not the type of person who is happy doing the same thing each weekend, eating the same food, going to the same restaurants, or doing the same commute.


What was the solution to this dilemma?  I could not stay a DC-based tax attorney for the next 30 years, but what would we do?

During our RTW, we met so many people who packed up and moved some place new and just figured it out when they got there.  They found some way to cover their expenses.

We had a decent nest egg and some retirement savings for the future.  If all of these people could move to exotic locales and live wonderful lives, why couldn’t we?  Many of them had a lot less in the bank than we did.

Soft retirement

I looked for legal jobs overseas.  I even had phone interviews for tax jobs in Jakarta, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  As much as expat living appealed to me, I knew it would be the same job in a different, albeit more exotic, locale.

We started to plan for a different life, one that was not clearly defined.  I took up yoga and loved it.  I even got a tattoo.  I did everything that was the opposite of being a tax lawyer – the typical straight-laced, black suit and heels, tax attorney that I was.

In July 2012, I found myself at another tax conference at the presenters’ platform in front of another 100 tax professionals, this time in Atlantic City.  I was all buttoned up in my black suit, power point presentation and notes in hand.  Again, I received some chuckles from the audience in response to my tax jokes.  This time, though, I knew it was the last.  It was my final tax speech.  I felt liberated.  I felt lighter.  I felt free.

Who thinks of “retiring” at 36, at the apex of their career, with law school loans still looming?  This is my “soft” retirement, my retirement from my professional career.  I will still need to figure out a way to make money in the future, but for now, my husband and I will embrace our wanderlust and travel.

The escape plan

Originally, the plan was to travel Europe for a bit to see friends and family in Ireland, Budapest, and Slovenia, and then we would settle in Asia. Then we decided to train from the Baltics to the Balkans before Asia.  Then we decided to see some friends in South America before Asia.  Then we thought about beach hopping in Central America before South America and then Asia.  Now we might consider a lay over in South Africa, before seeing a friend in Doha, before landing in Asia.

This time, though, I knew it was the last.  It was my final tax speech.  I felt liberated.  I felt lighter.  I felt free.

The common theme here is Asia.  It is our passion.  We plan to “settle” there, but it is unclear what settle really means.  I would love to live in one country, at least for a while, but how long is that – a year, two, five?  Perhaps we will pick six countries and live 6-12 months in each.  Who knows?  It is the curse of Life ADD and incurable itchy feet.  In the mean time, we plan as we go, with nothing more certain than the next island to visit in the Dalmatian archipelago.

Most of all, I am free to be who I am; no longer needing to play the role of ambitious tax attorney.  When I talk with people, I can be honest about what I want and who I am.  I can live a more authentic me.

Where we live

We have an inside joke when we meet somebody new.  They invariably ask where we live and we reply with whatever city we are in.  It is even funnier when we are staying with a friend and inform them we are living with “Steve” or “Irena.” Right now, it’s Croatia until we decide where is next – Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, Greece?  Off to Central America?

With all of its faults, I would not trade this apartment for a seat at another tax conference.  Not for all the money in the world.

The Croatian apartment was not perfect – it had a sea view that was crowded by a gas station with bright, glowing lights 24 hours a day.  The tiny bathroom had a strange smell.  But for a brief time this budget place was home.  Until we move onto the next beach down the coast and continue through southeastern Europe, then to Latin America, Africa, Asia…

With all of its faults, I would not trade this apartment for a seat at another tax conference.  Not for all the money in the world.

To read more about and from Amber Hoffman, check out her author bio page.

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