It took me a long time to realize money would never make me happy. A trip around the world finally drilled this truth into my brain, and it has dramatically changed my life.
A Life Spent Seeking Success
I spent my early years on a high-achievement track. I’d always been a go-getter: earning good grades in school, graduating at the top of my class, and moving rapidly up the career ladder. After my wife and I graduated from Harvard, I thought we had it made.
I found a high-powered job. I worked for a major consulting firm, flying around the world to solve tough problems with top executives.
Still, something was missing.
I visited a friend at his beautiful, custom-designed home. I noticed he didn’t have a study. When I asked where he worked, he said, “Why do I need a home office? I’ve decided I’m not going to live that way. I work at the office, and I don’t bring it home.” His ability to set boundaries astounded me.
After mulling over our own blurred boundaries, my wife and I decided to leave our busy lives and “waste” our time traveling until we ran out of money. We sold everything and bought two round-the-world tickets. I’d never done something so “irresponsible” in my life.
Getting More than We Bargained For
We’d planned to visit Asia, Australia, Africa, and Europe if our money could stretch that far. But within weeks, we realized this trip was a journey. It wasn’t about ticking off countries on a map. We needed to “be” more than “be moving.”
That was just the first of many realizations. The things I learned during that short period of time have impacted the past 17 years of my life:
1. Rip up the plan.
I was a consummate planner — a worst-case scenario guy. But one of the first things we did was throw out our plans. We decided to go where our experiences took us, rather than stick to an itinerary.
Through this, I realized my idea of a career path was wrong. For years, I’d been telling myself, “If I do this, it will lead to that, which will get me to that position. Then I’ll be happy.” No one can predict what life will throw at you. It’s best to make each decision as it comes, following your heart at every turn.
2. Remain open to serendipity.
Too many good things have happened in my life to chalk them up to luck. This hit home in Thailand. I’d been reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. One morning, the book asked, “Who is someone you admire or a friend you wish you had kept in better touch with?” Later that day, we bumped into the woman I’d written about on the streets of Bangkok — a city of more than 8 million people! Life is filled with these moments. You just have to crank your mind open to see them.
3. Slow down.
During our visits to Cambodia, Nepal, and Sumatra, what struck me most was the happiness of the people we encountered. They weren’t rushing around trying to check things off their to-do lists. Whether fishing, working in a shop, weaving a blanket, or simply playing with their kids, they were deliberate, patient, and fully immersed in the moment. I realized that slowing down, while beneficial to your well-being and performance, also speeds up your most valuable insights — for yourself and your work.
4. Seek richness.
If leaving everything you know teaches you anything, it’s to wake up every morning with hope. I begin each day excited about the possibility to create something worthwhile in my relationships and my company.
We wouldn’t enjoy movies, video games, or rollercoasters without the twists or nail-biting moments, yet we somehow think our lives would be more enjoyable without surprise twists and the occasional freefall. Seeking richness means embracing the uncertainty of life with gratitude for each moment, opportunity, and mystery.
The thought of coming back and reengaging in a career made me nauseous at first. But I realized that with a little faith in myself, I could offer clients even more value than I’d offered at my old job. I decided to start my own company upon our return. It would be a consulting firm as well as an incubator for startup ideas. It wasn’t long before it was serving clients like AOL, MasterCard, Rosetta Stone, NPR, and Bertelsmann.
It quickly became clear I hadn’t wasted anything by traveling. Yet there was still something missing — a piece I’ve only discovered in the past few years. The companies I’d founded were primarily established to make money. Making money is important as an entrepreneur, but it’s really an outcome, a byproduct of creating something wonderful that customers will pay for.
The real magic happens when you combine a big idea with purpose and passion, so I built a new company called Glimpulse to do just that. The process of creating something from nothing is so gratifying, like creating a magnificent work of art. And that’s the real point of it all: the joy of the journey, not the relief of the destination.
Step Away to Gain Perspective
Traveling the world may seem like an extreme way to battle day-to-day drudgery. However, there’s nothing like getting away from the familiar to teach you about the richness of life. We derive meaning and understanding of how we fit into the world through people, context, and environment.
Over time, familiar environments (and people) create ingrained patterns of thinking. These entrenched patterns limit who we are, how we see ourselves, and what’s possible for us. In unfamiliar terrain, we see our own patterns and realize there are broader possibilities than we’d previously believed. For true growth, success, and fulfillment, we need to step out of our comfort zone.
If you can’t take a year off, first, ask yourself, “Why not?” Be honest with yourself. In many countries, you can live on $10 a day. If travel isn’t an option, make a shift locally. Find new people to associate with, take on new interests, or locate a new house or apartment a few miles away. Breaking patterns can create a whole new outlook, a whole new world.
By stepping away from the day-to-day, you can gain real insights into your life and what will truly make you happy. It may sound counterintuitive, but don’t settle for a high-powered job doing what everyone else thinks you should do — or the “perfect” home — if you can put your heart into something you love doing and see where it takes you. It’s like a worldwide trip — but with a lot less to carry around than a backpack with all your belongings! — and it provides an equally gratifying journey.
Photo by Kara Harms