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. I like this post Jodi. I was actually thinking this morning about the idea of a quarter-life crisis- people getting burned out and quitting their job to travel. I've never exactly had that, like you travel has been the goal for a long time.

  2. It's hard to explain the why…what motivates us. However as I'm sure you've realized – some people are travelers and some aren't. Some people love to hear about travels and hang on every word, and some would rather discuss politics.
    The main thing is that you realize it and then take the steps to make it happen. You have an amazing journey – one that will build and enhance your future and give you a lifetime of memories!

  3. I loved reading about what brought you to where you are! I think that is one of the most important stories and it really tells us who YOU are! I loved it!!

  4. This is a great post.We all know that some people have the ned to travel but I enjoy when people break it down like this – I'd much rather discuss that than politics!

    For me, it is no so much about leaving, moving, seeing but rather to experience moments like the one you started your post with. Being there and being able to soak it up, feeling grateful for life in general and having nothing else standing in the way.

    The question for me is: what happens next? Do we even need a next? How can we turn this urge into a sustainable lifestyle? Can we indulge in this happiness without terribly missing the ones we love all the time?

    Jodi, there are many more pists ahead of you if you want to stay on this topic ;) Thanks for the reflexion.

  5. TAMY EMMA PEPIN

    Thank you for sharing and saying no to fear. which dictates the life of so many of us. i will now try to find that documentary. smiles, tamy xo

  6. I had 3 photos up in my cubicle: a few of my favorite Venetian church from across the lagoon, a very green little stream in Blarney, Ireland, and a shot of Fernie Mountain in British Colombia. That kept me inspired, but out of respect for what my parent's spent on me, I also had my college diploma propped up too. :)

    Congrats on making your dream a reality!

  7. The more appropriate question is "why not?" Why not travel the world for two years? Good for you for doing what was right for you, instead of taking the more conventional path.

  8. Kudos to you for having the courage and wisdom to put your conviction into practice! I have for very long, since childhood – felt an affinity and connection to travelling – but not taken the plunge, only dreamed about it. Your story inspires. I am based in Mumbai, India. Hope you have a wonderful time here.

  9. The K After Tomorrow

    well-written post, Jodi! this is such an inspiration.

    i, too, aim to stop work for a living and just live for the sake of living itself. you rock!

  10. Thank you so much for writing this post. You managed to put in words some of the essence of 'why travel'. The emotions you described in the first paragraphs rang true for me.
    While I haven't yet started travelling for an extended period of time, your post is a source of inspiration.
    Thank you for sharing!

  11. I'm lucky that my job as a photographer means that I travel most of the time.
    I think life is too short to spend your life living the 9-5 treadmill.
    Great story,

  12. You added fuel to the lifelong desire of mine to travel the world. I have been wanting to do so for last 15 years. Thanks for posting this. I will go down the beaten path too one day…hopefully soon.

  13. Thanks for all the responses – the post is more personal than my usual fare, but I am thrilled to hear that it has been inspiring!

    @Stephanie: I realized your attitude toward travel was in line with mine when I read your post about leaving. As I commented there, it isn't running if you don't have anything to run from. I don't blame assuming I needed to run away, so long as they are open to reading and understanding that it's not always the case. For some of us, the longing to discover the world firsthand is all we need to get up and go.

    @Chloe Many more pistes, for sure! I owe you for convincing me to join Twitter and for inspiring me to share more about myself. An important corollary to this post, and one that I will likely write in the near future, is the vast number of wonderful people you meet on a RTW. People who change your life, for better or for worse, and who become woven into the fabric of your existence as a result. My 're-entry' this summer will be a challenge, and sustaining this type of joy perhaps impossible. But I will try! Either way: Corner Bistro this sumer. It's on.

    @Stuti I've pushed back my India, Nepal and Sri Lanka portions of the trip until the fall, but will ping you before I head to Mumbai for some places to eat.

    Thanks again for reading!

  14. Jodi!

    I'm gonna forward this post to all my colleagues……and if it inspires a spate of resignations, I'll kill you!!!! :-)

    Sawadee kaa!

    Vijay

  15. Wow. I totally connect with what you're saying. Huge props to you for doing what so many have only dreamed of doing. Keep the adventure alive. :)

  16. Hi Jodi, Very well expressed.
    I feel really identified with what you say. I'm a lawyer myself, and MBA. When I got my most recent job (3 yrs ago) they asked me for a photocopy of my titles. I still haven't found them… I left my home 5 years ago wanting to explore the world, so I moved to Europe. Now I have done that and my thirst for exploring hasn't been quenched, so I made up this plan to travel to more remote locations for a year. Now I don't think that year will do…
    Great Writing as always. Keep enjoying! N

  17. I love reading accounts like these. There is something indescribable about what drives us to travel. Thankfully, articulating it isn't required. Nice post.

    (Apologies for the repost but I don't have a Blogger profile).

  18. Man, it is so good to hear from someone who is ridiculously happy with their choice to travel long-term. I feel compelled to pull out my pom poms and cheer! No really, that sounded sarcastic, but it’s not! Your happiness is totally infectious so thanks for putting it out there. It’s also cool that you realise how lucky you are (seeing the benefits of the bird poo now huh!?) and expressed it so that it didn’t sound naf.

    I can completely identify with wanting to “soak it all up like a sponge”, in fact, the more time I spend on blogs and twitter the more I realise that there is a whole subset of people who fall into this category. I really look forward to meeting more of these people on the road. I hope more of the not-already-travel-obsessed people read posts like this and are inspired to get out there and at least give it a go.

    I can imagine everyone’s shock at you giving up the ‘dream job’ in the ‘dream city’ so you can go rough it with smelly backpackers in another time zone. I say I can imagine, but I don’t really understand, although I try very hard.

    At this stage I’m more on the receiving end of various “but why? you have so much POTENTIAL!” comments, usually accompanied by baffled and/or disappointed looks. I think this is pretty common for the mid-20s travel addicts (maybe like Stephanie). So I guess you’re lucky in a way, you can say that you “made it” and got to make your travel dream a reality as well.

    Also, cute pic, I think it only fair that Gary should post a childhood photo on his site so that you can make a witty retort. Just saying :)

    Thanks for the post Jodi – enjoy your months in Thailand – if you see a mass of red shirts please run the other way. oh, and one last thing… if you wouldn’t mind making a list of your top ten meals in every country and their locations so I can go there too, that would be just dandy ;)Thanks.

    (kidding on that last request…..sort of)

  19. Jodi, I think this is some of the best writing I've seen from you…ever! You've given me so much inspiration this morning it's ridiculous, I actually just put aside a big financial plan to overhaul my life and get out of here quicker. It will still take years but I feel like I should bookmark this post for future reference, haha. You're going to be a TBEX, yes? I'd love for us to sit down and chit-chat about how you did this. <3

  20. What a great post! Sounds like you definitely made the right decision. I am also obsessed with the Trans-Siberian Railway, so I look forward to reading your archives about it. I am very admirable of you of following your dreams and quitting your job to see the world.

  21. Thanks again, everyone.

    @A Year: Glad to know I am not the only one!

    @Anna: Thanks for your comments, and no worries about their length – I'm just happy you've enjoyed reading. Hope to meet up one of these days!

    @Candice: yes, I will be at TBEX and we can have strategy sessions there :)

    @Emily: thank you kindly – those trains were eye-opening, and I posted only a small amout of what I took from them. From the scenery, to the people, to the Russian soldiers who shared my cabin in Siberia, it was a sensory adventure and a terrific one at that!

  22. it seems not to be a matter of why, but of why not. great to meet you on your stop in NY…keep traveling. and although I probably don't need to remind you …..

    stay adventurous,
    Craig

  23. My dear, you're such a rare breed of focus that I'm sort of speechless. You took opportunities (law) and turned them into your main goals, a feat that not many can do. I feel like a proud mother, how lame is that? What an insanely inspirational post!

    I, too, had longings since age eighteen to conquer worlds yonder, but lacked that focus, am so glad to know someone like you exists. And thank goodness, I'm back on track. Posts like this cement it for me.

    Cheers, darlin'!

  24. http://www.beatravelbee.com

    Hi Jodi! I just started reading your blog and I really like it. I can identify with this post so much. I have been working for 2 years since my first Europe trip and small trips now and then just don't satisfy me and I need to do long-term travel and give up my job. Reading your post is such an affirmation so thanks for writing it and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  25. You are so lucky….and gutsy. I don't think I could ever take the plunge to do what you're doing :)

  26. @martin @nomadicchick: thanks for the comments. I think explaining the logistics is important so that people can see how I ended up here. Glad you agree!

    @be a travel bee: glad you enjoyed the post, and hope you continue reading!

    @hotelbedding: sure you can, and I am sure you wouldn't regret it either. Of course taking that first step is contingent upon what kind of lifestyle you are currently leading (it's more difficult with a family in tow!) but always possible nonetheless.

    @matt: glad my post reaffirmed your choice to see the world on your terms. cheers!

  27. I remember reading this article a few weeks ago and now I run into you at a house party. Crazy!

  28. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I love this post Jodi, and I'm so happy you are doing what makes you happy!

    I hope you keep traveling forever so you can keep us updated!

    Best,

    Sam

  29. I'm so envious of your trip, particularly its length. I know a lot of lawyers (including my brother) and none have the interests & spirit of adventure that you do! The lure of a comfortable life is very strong indeed :).

    I have been saving up for a while myself with the plan of taking off next year (my longest trip thus far was 2 months–it's never ever enough) but was a bit stunned to get laid off last week. Although I still don't think I'm ready for various reasons to do the long trip now–partly because I booked a winter ticket to Mali waaay in advance and am not sure how I would connect to that point– I've come to the decision that I don't want to find something permanent quite yet. I will take a 6-7 week trip instead, not eat into my savings too much, and continue saving for next year. Was thinking of returning to Myanmar but am now thinking Indonesia instead.

    Like I said, it's never long enough…but something is always better than nothing!

    P.S. Blogs like this always make me feel guilty that I'm so bad with writing my own travel stories. Nearly two years behind is bad, no?

    P.P.S. Your mention of Corner Bistro made me smile. It's funny what particular comforts we miss while traveling. For me, it's usually pizza.

  30. Sam & Nancy: thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Nancy, if you have any questions about planning or where to head to in Indonesia, please drop me an email (address on the sidebar) and I'd be happy to provide whatever help I can.

    -Jodi

  31. I have been silently following you on the blog, twitter and on picasa. I just had to write for this post. This does give me an insight into the person that you are and wow that knowledge just blows my mind. And yes, its one thing to say that you wanna do this (I have said this to a lot of things in my life) but actually doing it… takes a lot of courage and conviction. Thank you so much for taking us along in your journey around the world. I hope you get to meet us, your readers, during the journey too :)

  32. I came across your page while looking up info on Burma/Myanmar.
    In 1999, I encouraged my partner to quit his job and sell his house and we took off traveling. I had been saving for many years and was about to buy my own house, when I came to the realisation that by buying a house I would never ‘see the world’ something I had promised myself since I was 8yrs old.

    I have no regrets for doing this and like you had many people question why I/we was/were doing this. I rarely gave an indepth answer, back then I had just had a promotion and my career was looking rosy, but just felt as though something was missing.

    We had a fantastic adventure, got lost and found too many times too remember, met amazing people, saw wonderful places, ate indescribable food, and have many many fond memories.

    In 2001, we returned to Australia (way too short a time away).

    Nine years later I have the mortgage, the career, and I have the memories.
    My partner and I still travel but now its only for a month to two months at a time.

    Good Luck, I hope you enjoy your adventure.

  33. kristieinparis

    Hi Jodi!
    So much of your post reads like something I would write! I too am an escaped lawyer, and am in the middle of living one of my lifelong dreams – the ultimate long term holiday – living in another country. Every day there is some new challenge, some new twist of the French culture that I had no idea about, and one more day to be overwhelmed with the emotion of living the life I dreamed. I cant remember how many times I’ve walked down the street with tears streaming down my face! Last week I cried over pots of duck confit surrounded with yellow liquid duck fat, and the most perfect salad greens I’ve ever seen in my life. I used to cry when I’d spent weeks working like a dog with only 3 hours sleep per night. Not that I don’t love the challenge of law (I can get the same buzz from a great deal concluded), but everyone needs balance in their life, and everyone needs to follow their dreams to the fullest extent possible. Not everyone has the luxury that we do. Not everyone is able to drop everything and jump on the next plane to Cambodia. But we can all find a way to follow our dream in our daily lives – looking at information on the net, reading books, looking at photos etc. And for people like us who are lucky enough to be able to fully pursue our objectives, then I believe we are obligated to take the risk, to take the leap of faith, and contribute to the overall ‘happiness quotient’ of the world. Keep the dream alive! Sending you lots of positive vibes and support for your continued ‘irresponsible’ adventure!

  34. You are a cruel and heartless man to post this sort of story in front of a workaholic wage slave such as myself and others.
    You’d bring a bottle of Jim Beam to an AA meeting, wouldn’t you.

    Seriously, thanks. It can be done. I guess it just takes the guts to do it.

    h

  35. Reading this has helped resurrect my dreams of traveling the world. It’s time now. Thank you for the inspiration!

  36. Subir: I’ve met a few readers while on the road and it is always enjoyable to learn about their lives – as they obviously know far more about mine! Thanks for following and for your kind words.

    Emma & Kristie: thank you for reading and for sharing your stories here. It’s great to hear from those who have taken the plunge as well. Kristie, love the header on your blog!

    H. Jackson: Not a man, but have been called cruel and heartless ;)

    Therese: Glad the post was inspiring to you. Good luck planning!

  37. What a wonderful post and an incredible journey. Many have asked me why I gave up a career in journalism to become a lawyer………my answer has always been that I did it on a whim! Which is why I also blog about my travels at Wanderlust Women.
    We are asked many things by many people in life. Why is it that we are always asked to explain ourselves and why can’t we each just accept that we are doing for ourselves what makes us feel whole and happy?

  38. Thanks for being so open about your decision. This post really resonated with me, as I too worked at a big law firm in Chicago and then a smaller firm in Sacramento. I am on month four of leaving my job to travel, whitewater kayak and spend quality time with people I care about. Reading about the happiness you continue to experience really is quite affirming.

  39. Pingback: Earth Pilgrim | Lifestyle – May 2010

  40. Really nice history. What a journey!! One day you should come to Mauritius Island. I am sure you will like it.

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