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?

-Jodi

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.

79 thoughts on “Why I Quit My Job to Travel Around the World”

  1. Pingback: Perspectives on Long-Term Solo Female Travel | SoloFriendly.com

  2. Quite a lucky life indeed Jodi!

    Any thoughts on monetizing your site? I’m starting the Yakezie Lifestyle vertical, and would love to have you share your story there once it’s launched. I want to mesh personal finance with lifestyle, as in the lifestyle you always dreamed of having once you’re on the right personal finance path.

    I’ve found that many of us PF bloggers can make hundreds, or thousands a month. With that income, it can help us travel the world just from our sites!

    Best,

    Sam

  3. Hi! I’m a law student from the Philippines and should’ve taken the bar this year, but I didn’t. On my last semester in law school, I was seriously contemplating about travelling but couldn’t figure when I’m going to do it, since I know my chosen profession will be taking so much of my time. So i decided to while away this year and see the world. A lot of people think I’m wasting one year when I could’ve taken the bar, but I really don’t mind, because I’m having the time of my life. It’s hard explaining to people why I chose this year long sabbatical over a timeline that I “should” be following, but reading this post all the more affirms that I made a right choice. Thanks!

  4. Hi Diane, I’m glad that my post has made you feel more confident in the choice you made. There will always be people telling you what you’re doing is wrong, but so long as you believe you are doing what’s right for you, you can take solace in that fact and then have plenty of pictures to show them later ;) Thanks for reading and best of luck w/ the bar exam! -Jodi

  5. This definitely struck a chord. I am not a lawyer, but I have developed an obsession with Myanmar and have done quite a bit of research (an abnormal amount) on the off chance that I’ll have the chance to travel there. I often fear I’ll look back on an empty life unless I fulfill this need i have to travel and experience the world on my own while I’m still young but I am constantly tied down to my rent, bills, family, job and/or a boyfriend. And working all day makes it difficult to want to save up and deny myself of the luxuries that I enjoy. Reading your blog entry, I feel a bit more motivated to start setting deadlines and hopeful that I’ll one day have the courage to leave my life here and satisfy the unquiet urge I have to explore.

  6. Jodi,
    Great to see that you took the initiative to do this!
    I too left a corporate job about 18 months ago, where I was responsible for strategic relationships with large clients (banking & insurance mainly).
    The pay cut has been significant, but the quality of life is so much better!

    I have other childhood friends that are also making quality of life changes, they are now making handmade guitars and my best friend left the music industry to teach yoga.

    The focus is on quality of life and although financially it is more challenging, it is the best decision I have ever made!

    Keep up your adventures!

    Chris

  7. Hey Jody!
    My name is Josefina, I`m a chilean lawyer and I have the “traveling” idea since a few years in my mind. I’m just starting with the legal practice, so I don’t have so much money yet, but I really think that I need a deadline to start my trip. I’m very exiting with the idea because I really think that I need that experience in my libe before think in marriage, kids and pay a house for living. Thanks for your post because now I’m feeling more secure about the desition.

    Hugs from Chile

    1. Hi Josefina – thank you for your comment! In the end it is a very personal decision, but it was definitely the right one for me to make. I’ve had both good and bad times on the road but overall I’m thrilled to have done it. Suerte to you!

  8. Pingback: Dodging Monkeys Atop Burma's Mount Zwegabin | Legal Nomads

  9. This has been my dream since forever — to travel around the world but then again, money seems to be the problem :/
    I also want to tell you that I am so happy to read your blogs because I am overjoyed to see people living their dreams and enjoying their lives :)
    May you always be blessed with good health and best of luck all throughout your travels :)

    Regards,
    JoTan

  10. Thanks JoTan – I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. Best of luck to you as well. It is definitely not easy to save up for travel, but for me it was about prioritizing the desire to travel over other things. It took many years, but it was worth it.

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  13. I always smile when I read post like that. I smile because I know how it is to feel so free and happy. Traveling is a fantastic experience that every should try. It’s eye opening experience. And extended traveling more than likely changes the way people think about life.
    I was traveling for 20 months and just recently returned to ‘reality’. It’s really painful to be back to routine, so I am working hard on getting back on the road again as soon as possible.
    Good luck with your travels Jodi!

  14. Lola, Magda – thank you for the kind words. Travel isn’t for everyone but if it is something you want, then I urge you to try and see how you take to it. Definitely tough to head back to reality thereafter, but who knows what kind of springboard your travels can be for a new career or a new state of mind. Thank you for reading!

  15. Jodi

    Your story has REALLY inspired me! (“uncontainable joy”) I’ve been practicing law for over 20 years, and have had wanderlust for most of that time. I am finally at a point in my life where I can take to the road if I want to, and now have an unplanned transition that may “force” me to “seize the moment”. I will be absorbing your advice posts as I contemplate my next steps. thanks for sharing your adventure!!

    1. Hi Randy, thanks for your comment. I’m happy the post and this site has been an inspiration. If anything, I’ve found that getting out there and starting on a new trajectory is the scariest part; the rest falls into place a lot more seamlessly than you expect. Best of luck to you!

  16. Quite lucky indeed. That post just made me want to cry. I am 11 months away from embarking on my indefinate travel and I feel all of those things. I can’t explain quite why I need to do it but I know more than ANYTHING that I do need to do it. Thanks for this beautiful post.

    1. Hi Kim, thanks for the comment and for tweeting this post. As I said to Randy, above, getting out there is the hardest part but I am sure things will follow much more organically thereafter, at least they did for me. Best of luck as you continue to save up, and here’s to crossing paths one of these days on the road!

  17. Hey Jodi,

    Luved your story…all the best for future endeavors…visit india also and add some more feathers in ur great expeditions….good luck with your travel!!

  18. Hi Jodi,

    I just discovered your blog. It’s really cool! I’ve been forturnate as well to have travelled much, i.e., 31 countries between business and vacationing; although have not managed a full year off as you have done.

    I am real fan of SE Asia, including 8 trips to Thailand (I have friends there and have attended a college graduaton ceremony in Bankgok, which is a hoot!), and 2 trips to Myanmar (Golden Rock, and especially Bagan are fascinating; and don’t forget Ngapali Beach).

    I look forward to more of your posts.

    John

    1. Hi John! I’m glad you enjoyed the posts and thank you for the comment. I actually never counted my countries (perhaps I should?), but I’ve enjoyed finding myself in new ones and exploring them as best as I can. Hope your year allows for a trip back to the continent you know and love!

  19. Wow!! I love your blog. You are living the dream… or should I say “my” dream ;) Really amazing!

    A few years ago my bf and I took a 5 month trip to South Asia, fell in love with it and went back to visit Thailand last year. Right now we are saving up for a bigger trip through the rest of Asia.. I understand “the need” that you felt.

    Good luck and have a great time on your further travels.

    Xx

  20. Hi Jodi,

    Thanks for sharing your story. After 11 years with my employer I resigned last week. By far the scariest thing I’ve ever done! At the moment my emotions are jumping between overwhelming excitement and fear….guess thats normal.

    I love south east Asia, so plan is back to Cambodia for a while to see my local friend who has started a school for orphans….then…who knows…best wishes with your travels…thanks for sharing and inspiring others…if you in Cambodia way look me up…cheers Simon

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