Why I Quit My Job to Travel Around the World

A few weeks ago in Hpa-An, Burma, I was walking down Mount Zwegabin after sleeping on the floor of a monastery at the summit. It was just after dawn, and the claustrophobic heat of the day had yet to take hold. I was alone, and it was completely, almost eerily silent as I made my way to the valley below. Suddenly, I became overwhelmed — as in, tears pouring down my face overwhelmed — by how lucky I was to be there after I quit my job to travel almost two years prior.

After so much saving and wanting and wishing, it was fair to say I have never been happier. To set a goal — “I want to save up money, quit my job and see the world — was something I did not expect to turn into anything more. I did not do this to try and “find myself”, nor to check off a bucket list of destinations from a list, but to soak it all up like a sponge”. To have that deep and bright hope all of these years of lawyering and then set out and actually deeply and truly love what I am doing (despite many ailments!) is a whole other realm of happy. Of all the wonderful consequences of my adventure, my uncontainable joy at the privilege of this lifestyle choice is the best of all. It has been extremely satisfying to have embarked on a voyage of this magnitude and to have been spot on about what I thought would drive me to continue travelling. But throughout, I have not lost sight of how lucky I am to simply have the opportunity to try. I’ve written it elsewhere: perspective in travel is one of the better gifts it provides.

Why I quit my job to travel: future traveler aged 4

Future Traveler, Aged 4.

So why did I quit my job to travel for a year?

During the course of this trip, one of the most frequent questions I receive from home is why – really why – did I give it all up to travel around the world. What prompted my departure? Was this a last ditch attempt to avoid growing up? Wasn’t vacation, something normal people take to escape, sufficient to satiate my vagabonding dreams? Conversely, when I am travelling the people I meet want to know whether I plan on going home at all, and if so, why. They want to understand the density of purposes that keeps me moving from one place to the next and the abiding longing for somewhere else that I just cannot shake. Also? They want to know what they ought to eat dinner, and where. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

Until recently, I never contemplated a post explaining why I chose to quit my job to travel. My close friends and my family understood my motivations, and ultimately that was what mattered. However, as the two-year anniversary of my departure rolls into view, more and more people have asked me what catalyzed the decision to take that first step. Most make the natural assumption that, weighted down by a contract-filled existence, I got burned out and finally left to travel. While that would make for a great story, it’s actually the opposite of what happened: I left because travelling around the world was something I dreamed of doing for years, and with the passage of time the trip had morphed from a want into a need.

After I quit my job to travel for a year: exploring the Batad rice terraces in the Philippines

Overlooking Batad’s Rice Terraces, in the Phillippines

When I was still in high school, the PBS did a documentary on the Trans-Siberian trains. I became a little obsessed with the documentary, and then with the trains themselves, and then with the idea of going there and riding them myself. I had also written a short project about Lake Baikal in Siberia, another fascinating component to this “quit and drop everything, go to Siberia” motif I had going on.

But why stop there? Soon, I was set on travelling around the world, with the Trans-Sib as a small but critical part of my overall journey. If the stubborn roots of this trip can be traced to one influence in my life, that documentary is it. For your viewing pleasure, it’s actually available on YouTube – quality of film is not what I remembered.

My dreams of round-the-world travel percolated under the surface as one year dissolved into the next. Next thing I knew, someone bet me I couldn’t get into law school and with Canadian tuition being so reasonable, I saw only benefits arising from my acceptance of McGill’s offer. It is a great school and a legal education seemed like an interesting path to access a whole new way of thinking – even if I did not plan on practicing law forever.

I was fortunate enough to secure a job offer in New York City and start my career with colleagues who proved to be extraordinary mentors and clients who often became friends. Despite the fact that most of the other lawyers in my firm had their law degrees on their office walls, I put up four 8×10 pictures of prior adventures – reminders of my eventual goal. Almost 6 years of lawyering later, I had saved enough to quit for an indefinite period, setting aside what I felt comfortable spending without a real timeline in place. When I gave notice, a partner at the firm finally asked me where my degrees were, and I sheepishly admitted that they were under my bed, gathering dust.

Jodi Ettenberg Gili Meno

On Gili Meno, with one of the few birds that didn’t crap on me.

Was quitting to travel worth it?

And so here I am in Thailand, almost two years of travel later. I am a happier, more relaxed person with thousands of stories and pictures from some of the more fascinating places on earth. The long-anticipated Trans-Siberian trains proved to be a wonderful, often hilarious and fascinating way to arrive in Asia, and have remained a highlight overall. I have also realized that vacation is insufficient to sustain my travel needs; I need to immerse myself more thoroughly to satisfy my desire to learn about a new place. And I have come to love Asia more than I ever expected, from the street food to the people to the millions of small, quirky things that make each and every day a smile-inducing adventure. The overriding feeling is that all of this – the crazy bus rides, the dirt, the many mountains to climb and all the glorious food – just feels right.

How lucky is that?


Update from 2015

I wrote this post in 2010, when I did not expect this website to take off, nor to become a business that ultimately served as the platform for a new career in travel and food writing. I certainly never thought that I would build a community of wonderful readers around my writing and the history of what interested me. Five years later, I wrote a piece about how quitting to travel isn’t simple or easy if you want to make it permanent. It is one thing for it to be saving to travel, then returning to work. But to morph into a new career, one where money is uncertain, is not as simple as a sabbatical. I wanted to write that piece as a counterpoint to the many “it’s so EASY just quit!” pieces out there. But the same facts remain: I’m so grateful I did it, and that I had the privilege to do so.

In those 5 years this site has grown, I wrote a book, I do public speaking (something I NEVER thought I would do) and all these other big challenges that seemed like giant cliffs I’d never be able to scale. Regardless of your chosen work, if it challenges you in these important ways, ways that force you to grow not just by putting pen to paper but by confronting the things that scare you, then you are doing something right.

Thanks to those who are still reading. What a crazy ride it’s been.

Sign up to receive the best of the web, straight to your inbox.

Links I Loved, my monthly roundup of interesting reads.

(No spam, just fascinating links to learn from.)