There is this idea that keeps coming up in the travel writing community, that quitting your job to travel the world is a profoundly brave thing. You aren’t settling for life in a soulless cubicle. You are grabbing life by the pubic hairs and screaming the guttural war cry that Neanderthals uttered before they went on the hunt for – I don’t know – dinosaurs? (I suck at history.) You are the human embodiment of a 90s-era Mountain Dew commercial that involves lots of neon and extreme sports and six-packs of both varieties. You are actually living life (because worrying about paychecks and mortgages are for the weak).
(Insert some quote from J.R.R. Tolkien here.)
I have problems with this mentality. A lot of them.
It’s not that I don’t think travel is a brave act. I do. I’ve met travelers with extreme mobility issues, who use wheelchairs or can’t stand for extended periods of time, or have chronic medical conditions that require them to stay close to home. I’ve met women, and people in the LGBTQ community, and people of color (and people who fall into all of those categories) who travel in parts of the world that are historically hostile to them (and yes, this includes parts of America and the Western world. Let’s not kid ourselves). I’ve met people who are agoraphobic and claustrophobic and who suffer from anxiety so severe that leaving their circle of comfort is incredibly difficult, but they do it anyway.
I find all of that pretty damn brave.
The problem I have is with the recurring narrative that quitting your job to travel the world is inherently a noble act, when sometimes it just means that you are very, very fortunate. Fortunate to have a strong support system of people who will let you crash with them. Fortunate enough to have a substantial amount of savings to draw from, or parents who will let you use their home as your forwarding address, or fortunate enough to be able to leave for months at a time without worrying about treating chronic illness or paying down your debt.
Fortunate enough to be able to drop everything and live your dreams. To look at your life – at the tender age of 20-something! – and be unhappy with the trajectory you’re on and actually have the means to change it. Too often, that gets confused with bravery.
I actually read an interview with a travel writer whose first piece of advice to those aspiring to do the same thing was, I shit you not, “Pay off your debts.”
REALLY? THANK YOU. I HONESTLY WAS JUST GOING TO LET THAT SUFFOCATING DEBT CONTINUE TO ASPHYXIATE ME (and maybe develop a drug habit, just to add to it), BUT YOUR WISE REVELATION HAS CAUSED ME TO SWITCH GEARS.
What if you can’t pay off your debt? What if you can’t find a job? What if your debts are so extreme because of school or illness or god-knows-what that you can’t just pay it off by skipping a couple Coke Zeros and using your older iPhone for a few years? WHAT THEN?
We don’t ask those questions. We start talking to these people as though their lives and their success is entirely a result of their own adversity and steeliness in the face of fear and the unknown. I know, because I get a lot of these questions. I’ve actually been told I was brave because I decided to quit the rat race to travel the world and live my dream.
And after I’ve recovered from my hysterical laughter, I let them know that every single one of their assumptions about me is incorrect.
- I am not brave. I am scared of pigeons.
- Travel is so not my dream. I barf on swing sets. Can you imagine what plane turbulence does to me?
- I quit nothing. I was laid-off.
- This blog does not pay the bills. Rand does. Guess how? With a 9-to-definitely-later-than-5 job.
- It ignores the profound contributions to my life made by class, race, ethnicity, circumstance, my family, and my incredibly doting and patient husband.
When we start equating privilege with bravery, something even worse occurs: we suddenly view the opposite of those acts as complacent, and even cowardly. That staying at a job you hate is somehow ignoble (spoiler: it’s not. If someone works tirelessly at a job they hate in order to support themselves and/or their family, that is pretty damn admirable). Or that not hating your job means that you’ve just bought into some great American lie. That settling down is somehow settling for less.
Years ago, when I actually had a 9-to-5 job, I loved it. When I told people this, I was usually met with incredulity, and occasionally laughed at.
“Bullshit,” someone told me. “You’d quit tomorrow if you could.”
I wouldn’t have, of course. But sometimes it’s hard to convince people that their experiences are not yours.
People often ask me if they should quit their jobs to travel the world. I’m usually dumbfounded, as it’s such an incredibly personal query. I have no idea. I can only cull from my own experiences, at which point the answer is a resounding no. No. Not unless you are in perfect health and have zero debt and extensive savings from which you can support yourself.
If all of those are in place, then maybe, maybe, you should do it. But make no mistake: that act alone doesn’t make you brave. It just makes you very, very lucky.