One year ago, I was an English teacher in South Korea. My days were spent preparing PowerPoint-supplemented lesson plans and playing English games with groups of hyper-energetic elementary school children.
In August of 2014, my teaching contract ended, and thus began an eight-month period of jobless drifting that took me throughout Asia—from South Korea to the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos—then back to the United States to Iowa and Nebraska (my roots) for a couple months of seeing family and friends, and finally in March to San Francisco, California, where I am presently living for an indeterminate amount of time.
Nowadays I’m pretty much back into the rhythm of American life. I’ve had a full-time job for a month now. I have rent payments. I have a burgeoning community of local friends. And I have plans to stay put for a while (a year or so at least). Things almost feel stable.
But for eight months or so I was experiencing a state of being that is decidedly different from, or even antithetical to, the day-to-day experience of most people in the world today. I was occupying a space void of all obligation and commitment, in which I was free to do virtually anything permitted by the laws of various societies and physics. I say this not to boast but to stress how odd my position actually was. For most of human history and for most humans today, the amount of freedom I had was unthinkable.
(To insert a quick disclaimer, I should say that I realize this state of affairs would not have been possible without a sizable number of privileges, among which the most notable is the relative ease of finding salaried jobs that pay enough to put me in the wealthiest ~4-5% of Earth’s population. Ideally I’d like to see long periods of non-work become feasible for all, but at this point that’s certainly not the case. I did not take this opportunity for granted, but rather tried to learn as much as possible, share what I learned, and help others in the process [hopefully my writing this is a way to create something meaningful/useful from my experience]. Lastly, I should mention that even though I am undoubtedly privileged to have been able to undertake this journey, I managed to save all of the money for these travels [and pay off a few thousand dollars in student loan debt] in just one year as an English teacher earning ~$25,000/year. Frugality was key. Any single Westerner could feasibly do what I did.)
But so anyway I was uninhibited. Radically uninhibited. And this was highly unorthodox. By far the longest obligation-free period of my life since I was like three years old. (A bit weird to consider how school and then job(s) just kind of get inserted around age four to suck up most of your waking hours for the next 60 years, huh?) And I think that in any sufficiently atypical state of being that lasts for a sufficiently long time, humans are likely to learn some things (or learn old things in a new way) that they wouldn’t have learned otherwise. So this is the essay in which I try to put words to the most significant things I (re-)learned while bumming around the Earth for eight months.
1. Lasting contentment should exist independent of work/achievement.
I can’t speak to what it’s like growing up in other cultures, but in the United States, it’s instilled in many of us early on that there’s always something to be doing, that it’s our duty to work hard, and that labor will ultimately allow us to reach our goals and dreams. Thus we’re told that it’s necessary to spend a significant chunk of our adolescence churning out busywork at school in order to get into a good college, then to get a good job, then to retire comfortably. These are the built-in milestones of our society.
In this way, work (of whatever sort) becomes the unquestioned primary mode of being for most of the population. More than that even, it becomes a kind of default purpose for our existence, a go-to justification for why we’re living—because we have a job to do. One time I wrote of how difficult it is to shake this constant, conditioned feeling that we ought not be idle:
“Even when we all but drop out of society and travel/live in Asia for 16 months (as I’ve just done), we still deal with that distinct American restlessness—that feeling that there’s something we should be doing, some race we should be running, some pursuit we should be furthering (if you know a reliable way out of this feeling, please tell me). Many of us succumb to this feeling and become ‘workaholics,’ (ironic how addiction to work is codified in a way that nods at America’s other age-old addiction: alcoholism) spending our lives chasing desperately after that next job or promotion or paycheck, hardly realizing that all the while we’re living in a state of nebulous desperation and padding somebody else’s pockets. And we never get there. Someone is always ‘beating’ us. We never manage to ‘keep up with the Joneses.'”
Being unemployed for a while is probably the best way to force yourself to realize the world-shattering truth: that you can just stop working for a while and nothing will happen, that everything will just go on without you. Perpetual labor wasn’t really necessary after all. That’s not to say that it wasn’t helping anyone. Just that it wasn’t necessary.
Once the illusion of work-as-primary-purpose begins to crumble, one must breathe deeply, look around, and realize that it’s actually okay to be doing little or nothing for a while. Another blogger had something good to say about this in his “guide to funemployment”:
“[F]unemployment is training for you to stop taking yourself so seriously and to stop pressuring yourself into progress towards ill-defined and non-existent goals. Of course it’s fun to be skilled and improving, and this is probably a significant part of why you keep working and learning and feel uncomfortable when you’re not. But I bet that an equally significant part of why you are so interested in learning that new framework-generation framework is that you are nebulously worried about what will happen if you don’t. Will you still be employable? Will your next job be better than your current one? Will you get to lead the next big restructuring? Will the kids still think you’re cool? I also bet that none of these things are really directly related to what you actually want in life. Just because you don’t wear a tie doesn’t mean you’re not in some form of rat race.”
Although it may seem at first to be a pure source of anxiety, (f)unemployment can open you up to taking everything less seriously and ceasing to place unnecessary pressure upon yourself. Your arbitrary goals can wait. Just be alive for a while. Just be. Do whatever comes naturally. That’s it. Your contentment doesn’t have to hinge on labor, achievement, or any other external factors. You need not frantically search for a purpose beyond yourself. It might sound crazy, but life itself can be the purpose. Just to be experiencing something, anything, can become your baseline of contentment. This moment can be enough.
“Wait, but that would mean I would be content all the time.”
Exactly. You can be, so long as you embrace the inevitable ebb and flow of joy, suffering, and everything in between. It’s not that you can always feel good, but that you can always accept however you’re feeling and appreciate your state as part of your ongoing experience, knowing that “this too shall pass.” My nomadic sabbatical allowed me the space to reconstruct my value system to realize this on a deep level, but you need not be unemployed or traveling to practice “going with the flow.”
2. Engaging with the world as antidote to depression/solipsism.
Now that I’ve told you that you shouldn’t need to do anything to be content, I’m going to tell you that participating in the world to some degree is a really, really good idea. This might seem self-contradictory, but don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that I’m strictly opposed to work/activity. It’s that I’m not cool with the idea of labor/”having a job” as a necessary duty, or as an ultimate purpose/source of contentment. Or with the trivial, meaningless drudgery of which so many jobs nowadays consist.
But I do support engaging with the world. Because there’s something odd that can happen when one stops working or doing much of anything for a while. One can begin to feel like a bystander to the rest of humanity, as if one could just stand off to the side and watch the world careen onward, an asteroid hurtling through blackness. The human enterprise can start to seem like some preposterously complex machine that was long ago set in motion and will continue perpetually with or without your or anyone else’s assistance. Cities like well-oiled assembly lines in which every person, machine, and building dutifully serves its purpose—production proceeding uninterruptedly for eternity.
Seeing things in this way can actually become a bit of a dangerous rabbit hole if one indulges too much and has difficulty snapping oneself out of the space. That’s not to say that the space isn’t in some way useful or valid. It is, I think. Or at least it’s interesting. But it’s also a natural byproduct of making oneself an outsider. To take the extreme case, if you don’t have a job and no one knows you in a particular city, you are, from a particularly cold, utilitarian perspective, superfluous. The entire system was built to sustain commerce and human relationships. Since you’re not engaged with or contributing to any of that, you’ll probably feel alienated. If you can handle these feelings and keep a healthy perspective on them, you’ll be fine, but I think such feelings can easily spiral into feelings of depression. Jonathan Franzen once had something profound to say about this:
“Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression’s actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it.”
As Franzen suggests, isolating oneself from society/humanity can precipitate a view of society/humanity as some sort of Massive Other, some nasty entity that is mostly there to spite you. And then of course this viewpoint causes one to isolate oneself further, which increases the feelings of antagonism, etc., ad infinitum. Franzen implies that the key to ending these feelings is to engage with the world, find communities, help others, make yourself useful in some way. Remember that we evolved to be social creatures, and that therefore we have a real, deep, pressing need to be an integrated, useful member of a community (or several). Cutting oneself off entirely is only cool for so long.
Remember Chris McCandless? The dude who left everyone/everything to live alone in Alaska, subsequently died, and whose story was made into a book and movie? After months in total isolation, he scribbled the following words in his journal:
“Happiness only real when shared.”
3. Doing things for their own sake = the best way to do things.
And, okay, so engage with the world and other people, yes, do that. But while you’re doing that, try, to the greatest extent possible, to do things for no reason other than the enjoyment of the activity itself. For the intrinsically rewarding nature of whatever it is you love doing (unless you enjoy serial killing).
Many people do things for external reasons—to accumulate more wealth/possessions, to impress others/gain prestige, etc. During much of my jobless drifting, I had almost no external incentives. I had saved up plenty of money. I was totally anonymous and had no reason to try to impress people. So I had no excuse not to do precisely what it was in me to do, at whatever particular moment. (This is generally what I aim to do anyway, so it came pretty naturally.)
I read, wrote, played guitar, made weird rap songs, played chess, hiked, climbed mountains, snorkeled, scuba dove, kayaked, surfed, conversed, napped, ate delicious cuisine, etc. And it was pretty damn glorious. Doing things for the intrinsic joy that they bring you tends to allow you to enter a flow state, in which you become one with the activity, lose yourself in it, and everything else just kind of melts away. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the concept of “flow,” has called it “the secret to happiness.”
Generally I try to arrange my life so as to allow myself to just flow as often as possible. I find that the best way to do this is pretty straightforward: recognize which activities seem most conducive to flow and center one’s life around those activities. Some of my most flow-inducing activities: writing, reading, rapping, hiking, cooking, helping others, skateboarding.
4. Relocating as a means of self-elucidation.
In the same vein, maybe you’re not really sure what sorts of things you find intrinsically rewarding/joyful. Moving to a new place can be an effective means of quickly understanding what moves you. As I’ve written previously:
“When wrenched from the familiar, stripped of all connections, and plopped into a new environment, all pressures to be who one once was are suddenly absent. The slate is clean, and one has space to really consider how to spend one’s time. In this situation, the excess seems naturally to fall away, like a gaudy snakeskin, revealing what is most important and joyful for the individual.”
If relocating isn’t feasible for whatever reason, I’ve written in the past about the possibility of an Anonymity Thought Experiment. Essentially, I posited that spending a significant amount of time meditating on the question of how you would live if you were totally anonymous and knew no one might give you some clarity on what it is that really motivates/moves/excites you, what you really love to do.
5. Cognitive momentum.
“Cognitive momentum” is actually a term I picked up from my friend/roommate, Chris. It may have different meanings in other contexts, but for our purposes, cognitive momentum refers to the fact that over hours or days or years, your mind is conditioned by your environment to function in a particular way. Chris has used the example of working as a software engineer, saying that over the course of a workday his cognitive momentum is funneled so totally in the direction of meticulous calculation and analysis that by the end of it he has a hard time switching to an everyday social consciousness for, say, a night of drinks and light conversation.
Imagine then, the momentum one’s consciousness might gain over the course of years. I think that once one gains sufficient momentum in a particular direction, it’s next-to-impossible to double back. This is why it so often seems that people over 30 have pretty fixed views about life and aren’t really open to change. They have so much momentum in their default direction that it would be extremely painful to reconsider their core beliefs. This idea could also be used as a lens for understanding why moving can be so traumatic. So much of our cognitive momentum is tied up in our environment and associations that when those things are stripped away, we can be thrown into despair and confusion. On the other hand, it seems that disrupting one’s cognitive momentum through traveling, funemployment, deep reading, exposure to art, or other means is precisely what one must do if one wants to change/refine one’s worldview.
This idea of cognitive momentum seems relevant to jobless nomadism for a couple of reasons. For one, if one is without a job and is still trying to do any kind of intellectual work (e.g. I kept writing while traveling), one needs to develop a talent for shifting from a recreational consciousness to a creative/ideational consciousness at will. If one is an entrepreneur, it’s even more imperative that one is effective at shifting mental gears—i.e. pushing oneself into a task-oriented consciousness without a boss/work schedule forcing one to do so. Getting better at doing this seems to involve good ol’ fashioned discipline and habit-formation. Practicing mindfulness really seems to help as well. (if you know of other hacks, please tell me).
Another way in which cognitive momentum is relevant here relates to culture shock, which brings me to the next point.
6. Culture shock and reverse culture shock: the struggle is real.
Moving to another country is probably one of the ultimate ways to test whether you can totally disrupt your cognitive momentum and live to tell the tale (being hyperbolic). In addition to your environment and associations being ripped out from under you, you get the added challenge of being forced to adapt to an entirely different cultural operating system—i.e. an entirely new set of social norms, polite gestures, expectations, rituals, etc.
I think one of the most important things I’ve learned (and continue to try to learn on a deeper level) from the experience of living abroad for 16 months is the humility to anticipate serious anxiety/disorientation upon making a huge transition. One simply has to realize that when one’s cognitive momentum has been conditioned to go in a particular direction for months or years and is then re-directed suddenly in a totally different direction, there are going to be ramifications. A few weeks after arriving in South Korea, it slowly began to sink in that I was going to be in this place for a whole freaking year. I had a near-breakdown wondering why I’d come to this place, how I was going to survive a whole year, etc. It would have helped me, in that situation, to recognize that my mind was finally processing and responding to a GARGANTUAN DISRUPTION OF MY DEFAULT CONSCIOUSNESS, and that anxiety was to be expected. Strangely, returning home from Asia seemed in many ways to be even harder to deal with. Shortly after arriving home, I posted this status on my Facebook:
Although what I wrote still rings true to some extent, I can detect now the sense of urgency and confusion I felt at the time of writing. I can see that I was experiencing a painful transition and was therefore looking for things to latch onto and criticize to explain why everything seemed kind of shitty.
I’m not sure why/how reverse culture shock could be worse than culture shock, but I suspect it has something to do with novelty. When one moves to a new country, one’s cognitive momentum is totally disrupted, but at least one is in a totally new, interesting place that, at least for a while, feels like a wonderland of sorts. When one returns home, however, it’s like déjà vu, a feeling of uncanny familiarity. And the mind has taken such strides to adapt to the foreign culture that the prospect of letting go of all of that in order to, in some sense, go backwards and regain the consciousness that is well-suited to one’s native culture seems totally unsavory, undoable.
My mind seemed to rebel against the American norms of my youth, to try to avoid reintegrating them. After several months, I seem mostly to have come around to the facts of day-to-day life in the states, but I nonetheless view my home country with a critical eye. I also experience feelings of longing for what now seems like a separate lifetime in Asia, as well as feelings of fragmentation and disjointedness in my personal history. Dealing with these feelings is difficult, and I think they should be discussed more often and openly online and elsewhere. Traveling the world is extraordinary, but it’s not all romance. There are definite trade-offs and psychological debris with which one must come to terms. For me, I think the difficulties have been justified, but even if they didn’t seem to be, I would do my best to accept them. What’s done is done, after all.
7. Novelty overload.
“Novelty overload” is a term I coined to describe a peculiar sort of anxiety that can occur while traveling. I characterized it as follows, writing in reference to my first few days traveling in the Philippines:
“Experiencing all of this is magnificent and exhausting. One gets the sense that the bits and pieces that one is able to put into words and process intellectually pale in comparison to the magnitude of shit that has been intuitively or unconsciously integrated into one’s worldview, and that those latter things yet pale in comparison to the magnitude of shit that one has overlooked, or that is simply inaccessible. This can be an anxiety-producing experience—this realizing that there is far more to grasp and think about and ‘get a handle on’ than one can ever hope to. In this way, traveling is like studying philosophy or science, in that all are avenues which, if vigorously pursued, demand that one admit that one does not know or control an iota of what one might wish to know or control.”
Generally, I think novelty is exciting and stirs in one a sense of adventure. But I discovered, while traveling, that as with most anything, one can encounter too much novelty. Absorbing disproportionately large amounts of new information can leave one feeling overwhelmed, discombobulated.
It’s at the point of novelty overload that one realizes that there’s actually something golden and irreplaceable to be found in familiarity, routine, and the intimacy of long-term community. As with so many other things, I’ve concluded that an ideal lifestyle would contain plenty of novelty and familiarity, balancing the two extremes and accentuating the virtues of each.
In his autobiography, In My Own Way, Alan Watts wrote of a trip he took to Kyoto, Japan:
“When one goes to a city like this it is all very well to make plans to see the famous sights, but there should be plenty of time to follow one’s nose, for it is through aimless wandering that the best things are found.”
I think Alan was on to something here. As I wrote elsewhere:
“Some of my most acute intuitive feelings or moments of insight have come amidst aimlessness—while trekking through a Malaysian rainforest, wandering around in South Korean cities, kayaking Halong Bay in Vietnam, lounging on an Indonesian island, etc. In my experience, engaging the infant mind in these situations tends to be exceptionally worthwhile. Also, don’t feel like you have to book the next flight to Asia. Try the woods near your apartment, or literally go get lost in your own city and see what happens. Or don’t, you know, don’t force it.”
When one walks around aimlessly, with no destination in mind, one seems naturally to go slower and to soak in more fully the sensory experience. I would go as far as to say that there is an art of seeing—a mode of consciousness one enters to really perceive the small details that give any place on Earth its distinct suchness, its inimitable quality. Deliberately slowing down and staring at things, even though you don’t really know why you’re staring at them, seems a reliable way of engaging this domain of experience. And, as I said, it feels very natural to do this when one finds space in which to move aimlessly, to do nothing more than exist in a place—being, sensing, touching, smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing.
9. Other countries are not real until you’ve traveled to them.
In some important sense, I think this is true. Having now traveled to 14 countries, I can say that prior to having left the United States, other countries were little more than nebulous facades–less-real worlds where things and people were different from home and therefore, I imagined, not possibly as good (hah!). I suspect that this is a common feeling among Americans (with our legendary jingoism), but also among most anyone who has never left their home country. The following excerpt from an essay of mine on Japan elaborates on this idea:
“Perhaps the most important, totally obvious thing that I took away from visiting Japan: the Japanese are just another group of humans going about their business, doing many of the same things people everywhere are doing, and 98% of them just want to be calm and avoid conflict (same thing the vast majority of people in most places want, it seems). This might seem laughably self-evident, but until I actually visited the country, “Japan” was just a concept in my mind with a vast array of ideas attached to it. Said ideas may have become more detailed and accurate in the years between my early childhood and my visit to Japan, but they were necessarily somewhat flat and limited, as are all ideas when held up next to intricate, immersive, visceral reality. Japan finally became “real” for me in a way that it had not been previously, as do all foreign countries the first time you visit them.”
In our present global situation, countless people–not merely the masses, but media commentators, politicians, CEOs, other powerful people, etc.–make assumptions about/opine about/make decisions that negatively affect foreign peoples and places that they have never personally encountered. In an age when international military conflict, xenophobic hate crimes, torture, and terrorism are yet alive and well, this seems inestimably ill-advised. Today, everyone–especially people in the upper echelons of society–has the power to affect the lives and popular perception of people in far-off places.
One hopes that we can exercise extreme care and consideration in aiming to avoid forming unsubstantiated, jingoistic judgments about the value of another culture, or country, or people. Instead, we can strive for further education, deeper mutual understanding, and learningful travel experiences. Perhaps through doing so we can gradually increase the number of individuals who reject sweeping generalizations about other nations, perceive all cultures as possessing ostensibly good and bad attributes, and recognize all people as precious and equal in their humanity.
10. 98% of people just seem to want to live peacefully.
I kind of alluded to this in point #7, but it’s worth reiterating. I think many of us fall prey to the fallacy of thinking that people of certain countries, cultures, or regions are inherently more hostile than others. Or that everyone from a particular country/culture/region is likely to support the violence perpetrated by other groups/individuals from that country/culture/region. A couple of obvious examples of this fallacy in action:
- The US government forcibly relocating and incarcerating ~120,000 Japanese, 62% of whom were US citizens, during WWII, based on the racist fear that because they were Japanese, they were likely to support Imperial Japan.
- The huge surge in Islamophobia/violence against and harassment of Muslims in the United States post-9/11, based on the racist assumption that because they were/are Muslims, they were/are likely to support the radical, violent “Muslim” groups that perpetrated the attacks.
Let my experience serve as a counterexample to these sorts of assumptions. In every country to which I’ve traveled, I have found the overwhelming majority of local people to be kind and hospitable, or to harmlessly keep to themselves. This observation is reinforced by the experience of a French Canadian man named Claude whom I met in the Philippines. Claude had traveled to far more countries than I, and he insisted that the vast majority of people everywhere just want to live a quiet, peaceful life. Try to keep this in mind before stereotyping or making broad assumptions about any sizable segment of humanity. Or, if you’re inclined, travel and see for yourself.
11. The inescapability of life’s downsides.
“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”
― Fernando Pessoa
I think it’s a common romantic fantasy to imagine that when one travels abroad, one enters a sort of paradise of beauty and wonder so powerful that one can’t help but be ecstatic. This image of travel is reinforced by the gobs and gobs of travelers whose every post on social media reveals wide-grinning people seemingly perpetually in the ecstasies of some sort of travelgasm. I’ve probably contributed to this trend.
But let the truth be known: travel is not all rainbows and pixie dust. Travel genuinely sucks sometimes. Like that one time I ended up in an emergency room in Bangkok on an IV because a bite from a Cambodian sandfly had become infected. Or that time I returned to South Korea after a trip to Cambodia and became extremely, extremely ill and got rejected by like three hospitals because my foreigner ID card had been stolen while I was asleep on a bus in Cambodia (along with my wallet and iPhone).
Sometimes things get really shitty. But then, in the final analysis, those are kind of the times when you really learn the lesson of point #1—i.e. how to accept any circumstance, let go of what is beyond control, and just go with it.
There’s also the matter of never being able to escape your own mind and your particular set of demons, whatever those may be. Yep, don’t think for a second that travel will be some kind of auto-cure for your melancholia, depression, anxiety, stress, self-loathing, addictive personality, or whatever. It probably won’t be, though the shift in cognitive momentum might just shake things up in such a way so as to give you the space you need to let go of some baggage, or find a helpful perspective on your issues, or develop new habits of mind, or even to forgive yourself. Traveling might also bring to light totally new and unforeseen demons that you now have to cope with. It’s impossible to say.
Just, don’t embark on a trip expecting a totally metamorphosed Über-you to burst from some non-existent cocoon and breeze through every situation with unparalleled tact and grace. Not in the cards. And, in the final analysis, I doubt you’d want that to happen anyway, as the pains and difficulties of travel create space in which growth can occur, in which unrealized inner resources must be summoned. And that potential—for growth and transformation and new understanding—is, of course, one of the best reasons to travel.
And so that’s it.
No, I’m not going to conclude by telling you that these are all of the totally undeniably tubular reasons why you should do exactly what I did. I hope I’ve made it clear that as with any lifestyle, there are upsides and downsides to extended periods of jobless nomadism. I also hope I’ve been able to communicate some small sliver of what my experience meant to me, and to perhaps pass on a few pebbles of understanding that might prove fruitful or valuable for you.
As I look back on those eight months and the 16 months total that I spent in Asia, I feel an inarticulable nostalgia. Vivid memories, like shards of glass, form a kind of encircling montage in my mind, as if I’m wandering in a house of mirrors, and each panel is displaying a scene from my time abroad.
I am not the same person who left for South Korea almost two years ago. I can never be that person again. The ghost of time drifts onward, and I must find a way to go with it, to dance with the changes, to become whatever it is that I will become. My time abroad has not left me with any sense of an obvious trajectory. Quite the opposite, actually, as I find myself in the beautiful and staggering predicament of knowing that I could, if I wanted, leave tomorrow for anywhere in the world and do most anything I wish to do.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” Kierkegaard wrote. The traveler knows this all too well. I submit that the only way to resolve this feeling is to treat whatever it is that you’re doing as if it were the only conceivable fate for you at this time. To know that whatever is happening is necessary, and to love it precisely for that reason, as per Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati. To really feel, as the Zen proverb goes, that “no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.”
As I write this, fate finds me situated in San Francisco, taking things moment by moment, doing what I can to appreciate this experience for what it is. Eventually, time will almost surely take me elsewhere, but for now, that’s all speculation. Here is the only certainty. So I’ll be here. Give me a jingle if you’re in the area.
A version of this essay was first published at HighExistence.