Seven Words That Changed My Life

changed my life

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.

– Gail Sheehy

“How would you feel about living here?”

Skip tossed this question to me in our hotel room in Chiang Mai. Surprised and a little bit shocked I replied, “Sounds good to me”.

And so our next journey began. One which started in a guesthouse in Thailand during our honeymoon in Thailand in 2007 and ended (or began) three years later when we boarded a plane to Cambodia with a one-way ticket and no plans for returning home.

Something about the magic of Southeast Asia compelled us to make this move. But there was also something about the timing and our readiness to step away from our existing lifestyles to dive headlong into a new, unknown adventure. We weren’t unhappy, unemployed, or dissatisfied. We had a beautiful home, wonderful friends, and a full calendar of events. We just longed for something more.

It took three years and hundreds of hours of online research, discussion, contemplation, and planning before we hugged our friends and family goodbye. It took a couple of weeks once we landed in Cambodia (less for Skip), to know we’d made the right decision.

“You’re so brave,” said some of our friends.

“You’re crazy,” said others.

“Aren’t you afraid?” asked one.

But – to quote a dear friend who left a high-paying job at the age of 55 to move to China and teach English for a fraction of her former salary – ‘’I was more afraid of staying in the same place and remaining stuck than stepping into a new world.”

We arrived in Phnom Penh with no idea of what to expect. All we felt was exhilaration for what lay ahead. The volunteer agency we’d signed up with (Volunteers in Asia) took us by the hand for the first couple of weeks, introduced us to the NGO posts where we’d be working, showed us around the city, and put us into language classes to learn Khmer.  After that, it was up to us to design our new lives.

At first, our social circle consisted of fellow volunteers and we’d spend our days struggling over the alien sounds of the language, and nights huddled in small restaurants, downing cold beers and spicy noodles as we dripped with sweat in the searing heat of the early summer months. We bonded over our common situation even though there were decades between us: Skip and I were in our 50s and the others were almost 30 years younger.

Every day tossed something new in our direction. One moment we’d be dumbfounded, watching tiny brown-eyed children scrabble in the dirt for food; the next we’d be moved to tears by the kindness of a tuk-tuk driver who returned money when we overpaid him. One day we’d be laughed at (and with) when we struggled to buy vegetables at an open-air local market; the next we’d watch in awe as Phnom Penh’s resident elephant lumbered along the riverside on her way home from the park.

Everything was different and new. Everything evoked emotions in us we’d never felt before. Not all were good, but every experience made us feel involved, engaged, and oh-so-very alive.

Days, weeks, and months flowed by as we became more and more immersed in life in Cambodia and we knew with every passing moment that we could never go back.

We became friends with our tuk-tuk drivers, SomOn and Tony, and were invited to their tiny one-room homes for dinner. Seated on straw mats on the floor, spooning mounds of rice onto our place, and chewing on scrawny roast chicken, we couldn’t have been happier if we’d been sipping champagne in an elegant nightspot. There was something about the quality of life, the embracing warmth of people who had nothing, and the joy which permeated our days that was infectious and we knew we didn’t want to give it up.

As one more layer of gratification, living in Cambodia cost a fraction of life in the Western world. Our lifestyles improved and our expenses plummeted.

We learned from people who had no education and no money about how to accept, how to love, and how to give. We learned there was a better life than staying on the proverbial treadmill, working 9 to 5, and remaining stationary.

After three and a half years in Cambodia, we decided to pack our bags again and explore magic in other parts of the world. We are now house-sitting throughout Europe, soaking up the pristine beauty of Italian lakes, quaint villages in the English countryside, and rugged coastlines on the Croatian shores.

However, a large piece of our hearts remains in Cambodia. We miss the rubbish-strewn streets where smiling motorbike drivers reach out and shake your hand. We miss the musical sound of the street vendor calling out to sell grilled eggs from his bicycle cart and the chanting of monks from distant temples. We miss our tuktuk driver slapping us on the back and laughing when we try to learn a new word in Khmer. We miss the gentleness, the quirkiness, and the warmth.

Here’s some of what we’ve learned during the past five years:

1. Don’t wait.

When change is calling to you, just do it! In our book, we interviewed many people (all ages, married, single, with or without kids, with money and with no money) and they all said the same thing: If you want something different in your life, do it now.

2. Go slow.

When you take your time, you see more, learn more and encounter people you’d probably not find if you moved fast. We’ve met some extraordinary people around the world while sitting in coffee shops, interacting with customers at markets, or striking up conversations with shop owners and people on buses and trains.

3. Give.

Living in Cambodia taught us how people who have nothing often give the most. It humbled us greatly to see our tuktuk driver (who earns less than $10 a day) give to a beggar or hand money to a street musician.

4. Accept help.

Don’t think you know it all or try to do it all. Sometimes you meet the most interesting people when you ask for help. And almost everyone loves to reach out and be a helper, so give them the chance to be a giver.

5. Keep an open mind and your sense of humor.

Things go wrong. Buses break down. Schedules change. You’ll find weird food, strange characters, and uncomfortable situations along the way. Embrace them. Every one of them teaches a lesson or opens your world to a new adventure.

I changed my life by taking a leap of faith. What holds you back? I’d love to hear about your obstacles and how you’d like help to overcome them. Please share in the comments section and I’m happy to lend a hand to assist you moving through them.

28 thoughts on “Seven Words That Changed My Life”

  1. Agreed, any change in life takes a great leap of faith. I would say that the biggest fear that I encountered is uncertainty. It’s always going to be there, and you never know what is going to happen until you do it. Yeah, so just do it.

    1. Rather like stage-fright, isn’t it, Augustus? The fear may be there but it often makes the performer sparkle more.
      Uncertainty is certainly a challenge. So is analysis paralysis….sometimes we spend too much time analyzing what to do instead of just doing it.
      As we entitled our book: Just Go!

      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  2. Gabrielle – what a lovely story of the courageous embracing of life in all it’s variety!

    #4 and #5 say it all for me and are true of life, whether changing your geographical location – or just your mindset and beliefs :-)

    1. Too true, Pamina. And I have experienced that people around the world are only to keen to help and lend a helping hand when it’s required.
      And, when you’re on a bus in the middle of Vietnam and it breaks down in a rainstorm so you need to get pushed out…it helps to have your sense of humour (and a sandwich or two!)

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

  3. This is a great story. I would also add to the list to question things. We’ve turned a lot of “wants” into “needs” here in the US. It just shows you that you really don’t need to have the huge flat screen and 200 channels (among other things) to be happy and content.

    1. Too true, Don. And thanks for the nice words.

      When we moved to Cambodia, it took five months for us to break down and buy a toaster as we didn’t want to own anything! We now travel with two suitcases, two backpacks and two laptops and discover we really don’t need anything else.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

    1. Thank you. We were in Cambodia for three years and fell in love with the country. It truly did change my life as I learned so much about myself and what made me happy. Living with less (stuff) makes life much easier and frees up a big space so you can live with more (experiences, travel, magic and a multitude of special moments).

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      1. Three years and a half! Wow. But your words say it all, Gabrielle. You had a wonderful experience.

        I’ve been traveling and living with few things too; always thinking that I need to be ready for any next possible trip or house moving :) many of my most valuable material possessions are digital (writings, books, pictures, etc.)

  4. Thank you Gabrielle,

    A truly adventurous story! I must say that I really enjoyed your writing style. It has a captivating quality. The lessons that you learned along the way are beautiful. All five of them play an important role in helping us live happier and more meaningful lives.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write and for your nice comments, Wanda.

      As I mentioned in the article, Skip and I recenty published our book so here’s the shameless plug: It’s a bit of our story, a bit about how to step off the proverbial treadmill and make changes in your life and a bit of stories from dozens of other brave and inspiring individuals we met along the way who decided it was time to “just go” (there’s more about it here if you are at all interested:

      If we can inspire or help just one person to make a change in their life, we’ll feel we’ve been successful.

  5. What a brave move, Gabrielle! I felt my heart surge reading this. My nemesis is always number one–taking the leap! But I’ve recently done it and my, what an energy boost!
    Thank you for this. Very inspiring!

      1. I’m an author (traditionally published), and book editor, and found the last decade of my life so focused on the latter that my own writing suffered. But it was safer, you know? So the message kept bubbling up last year that I HAD to get back to writing more and editing less. Once I committed to it, doors opened everywhere.
        And a big one was blogging, which I had only done sporadically. A blogging coach opened my eyes to what it would take to be successful. And to work with her I had to commit to writing 5 blogs a week for 6 mos. In a rare moment of inspiration meeting impulse (at least for me! LOL), I took the leap!
        Did my toes ever curl! But I knew it was the right thing.
        And the journey has just been amazing.
        A new publisher is publishing my novel in September. My head is still spinning but now in a wondrous way!

        1. How very special for you, Susan. Congratulations. On all of it!

          As I mentioned in the article, Skip and I recently published our book so here’s the shameless plug: It’s a bit of our story, a bit about how to step off the proverbial treadmill and make changes in your life and a bit of stories from dozens of other brave and inspiring individuals we met along the way who decided it was time to “just go” (there’s more about it here if you are interested:

          We feel if we can inspire or help just one person to make a change in their life, we’ll feel we’ve been successful. It would mean a lot if you’re able to share it with your network.

          Keep up the great work. September will be a magical month for you!

  6. Hi Gabrielle,

    This is a wonderful and inspiring story of taking a risk and having the time of your life! Literally, it sounds. Travel is such a wonderful catalyst for changes, and taking yourself physically out of your ordinary life seems to have taught you some valuable life lessons, and made you wise.
    I do believe that travel can change us if we give it a chance, and you definitely have!
    Thank you for a great post.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Heather. I completely agree with you about travel as it dispels so many myths once you rub shoulders with someone in Vietnam, Bosnia or India and discover we are truly all alike. People everywhere are kind, helpful and embracing if you just give them the chance. Travel breaks down emotional and mental barriers and teaches us there really is nothing to fear if you take the leap.

      Our book, “”Just Go!” tells the stories not just of our journey but of dozens of others who took that leap, decided they wanted something different and discovered the magic in living outside the proverbial box.

      If you’d like to follow us on Facebook (TheMeanderthals), we update those stories and feature some of those people on a pretty regular basis.

  7. In June I stopped working in the traditional sense of the word, after over 25 years in an office environment and have spent the last few weeks adjusting and literally calming myself down as I know that the 9 to 5 life is not something I ever want to do again.

    Reading your post has been an inspiration to me. Four years ago I left the UK to live in Germany with my new wife with just a suitcase full of my most precious possessions. It was also a very liberating experience and I began wondering what would it be like to go one step further and leave the security of a monthly salary to see what else is out there. When I told people I wanted to write a book people said I was mad, brave and a few other things but it was always this look they had, as if they wished they could just get off the train and see what comes next.

    Your story is re-assuring and gives me and many more people the courage not to panic and jump on the next train to the old comforts from which we fled!

    Thank you for sharing.

  8. Hooray for you, William! I love hearing stories like yours and completely understand the mixed reactions from people around you when you decided to do something that took you out of the box. As you no doubt know, those comments are never about you…they are about the person who delivers them and who often feels threatened/envious/resentful that you are DOING something they only dream about.

    As one of my friends (and subjects in our book) said, when asked if she was afraid when she moved to China to teach English after leaving a high-powered job in the US: “I’m more afraid of staying stuck in the same place”.

    Keep on keeping on. You are an inspiration to many!

  9. I feel like I can’t go further than my partner and he is too afraid to do anything. We have two kids together and it feels like I am caged. Growing up I moved every year and lived all over the USA. His family came to the USA 40 years ago and have not left the 250 miles they originally moved to. I have been mostly daydreaming about global travel to happen 20 years from now or later. We have lived in the same area for 10 years and are being priced out eventually we will have to move in with his parents I only see a way of travel and living abroad when I don’t have to make desicions with a scared person or force them to go along with my dreams . How have people done it when their partner doesn’t want too?

  10. Gabrielle thank you for sharing your experience in this lovely post. For quite a long time I ran with the “Just do it” mentality, running through new ideas and doing things almost as soon as they came to mind, though I ended up with very mixed results and really needed to address that issue. One of the main issue for me had long been the feeling and the belief that I had to do everything for myself and that accepting help some how diminished what I was doing. When I finally let go of that and starting accepting help things really began changing for me, lots of things started falling into place and life in general became a lot more fun.

    I love the advice you give here, giving is a great thing to do and helps create a far more positive world to live in. Going slow brings the ability to savour life and enjoy it, as indeed does keeping an open mind. Just doing things and accepting help brings a wonderful spirit of connection and amplification of possibilities in life. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and wisdom here.

  11. Gabrielle, I love that your article seamlessly blended your experience with advice for others. I think your words of advice to “do it now” are dead on.

    After 10 years of marriage my husband has changed jobs 7 times and we have moved 15 times. We still haven’t landed on our “Phnom Penh” but we have certainly learned a tremendous amount about what we do and don’t want in life. It may sound like a great deal of change to most, but I don’t regret it at all and I look forward to whatever the next adventure is because I know it too will teach us something.

    1. Good for you, Amanda. As you have probably discovered, there are many people out there who will criticise anyone who makes lots of changes in their lives as they (we) are seen to be unstable or searching for something. I endorse your wanting to make changes and to keep looking and moving till you find what makes you happy. Why settle for something if you don’t have what you really want.

      Thank you for taking the time to write.

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