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Those Lucky, Smelly Brits

Our visit to an elephant sanctuary.

Our visit to an elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the first seeds for the one-year retirement were planted.

One of the most frequent questions friends and family have asked my wife and me about our one-year retirement is our decision process. How could we go from two steadily employed career-minded professionals to unemployed world travelers in the course of just four months? The long answer involves a series of many thoughtful discussions between us on each aspect of the trip, researching online, talking to friends and family, and making a final decision after weighing the overall positives and negatives between quitting and staying put.

As per usual, the long answer is the more boring one, so here’s the short answer of how the first kernel of an idea to do something like this entered my mind. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I rode in the back of a pickup truck on the side of a mountain in rural Thailand, I began the mental journey that has me at this moment in a hotel room in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the 21st country and sixth continent I've visited in the last six months.

We were on our honeymoon just fifteen months ago. We had opted to wait about a half-year after our wedding day to adjust for our work schedules and to be in the country at what travel bloggers said was an optimal time to experience Thailand. I scheduled the longest vacation I had ever taken in my life – two weeks – and told myself I should take this once-in-a-lifetime trip and the extended time away from work responsibilities because it was my honeymoon. We planned out the trip extensively, including an all-day excursion to an elephant sanctuary outside of the city of Chiang Mai.

We climbed into the back of the pickup truck, which served as our transportation to the elephant sanctuary, and found the only two remaining spots on the wooden benches running down each side of the bed. After quick introductions we soon discovered we would be spending the day with three other couples. Randomly, all three were British, in their 20s, and “on holiday.” One couple was clearly still drunk from the night before – I was suddenly thankful for the open-air pickup as their alcohol stench hit me like a punch to the face.

As we shared awkward early-morning pleasantries, I came to find out that “on holiday” meant that all three couples were spending between four to six months in Southeast Asia. Suddenly my big vacation didn’t seem so big anymore. Of course, I immediately hated these people. Four months of just traveling? Who in the world can do something like that? Didn’t they have jobs? Or at least school? And who is paying for all this? I imagined their pampered home lives on their rural English estates, with Mummy and Daddy providing for their every want or need, including a Thailand holiday for as long as their little hearts’ desired. I assumed those were the only people who could do something like this.

My wife and I got married relatively late in life at 35 and 40 respectively. I had been effectively working since I was 16, starting on my family farm in Oklahoma. As the youngest of seven children, the work ethic ethos was more than a life lesson. It was a source of pride and an occasional generator of shame. I always had the sense that I was considered the lazy one growing up because my place as the youngest sibling gave me an easier time and simpler work responsibilities than my brothers. Maybe that drove me to work harder, I’m not sure. But any extended travel or summer abroad program just wasn’t in the cards for me. Besides being unable to afford international travel, I was needed for the summertime harvest each year.

“They have no idea how lucky they are,” I told my wife back at our hotel room that night. I still couldn’t fathom a multi-month vacation. Regardless of how they made it possible, I was sure they didn’t truly appreciate just how rare and amazing what they were doing really was. They were seemingly oblivious to their great fortune, to be among the very few people in this world who can leisure travel for extended periods.

Since I’d never taken a two-week vacation before, I had expected that by the end of our Thailand trip that I’d probably be antsy to get back to my home and work routines. Yeah, not so much. By our last day in Thailand, I was dreading the return back, and could have easily stayed in the country for several additional weeks. I thought back to the Brits, now without disdain and instead with a sort of begrudging admiration. Was that really only possible for 20-somethings with means for a gap year? I still had career-track opportunities at my job at that point, so I did what everyone does – I stuffed those dreams down deep inside and waited for the Monday morning alarm to go off. But the seed was planted.

A few months later, management changes at work would initiate my first ruminations on my next career move. As I tried to decide on my next logical choice – working for another firm or starting my own business – an illogical choice of taking a year off began to percolate as well. After all, I’d met people who had done something similar – sure, they were British, sure, they were in their 20s, and yes, they smelled horrible. But why couldn’t my wife and I spend some time doing what we wanted, just like them? As we researched deeper into creating our one-year retirement, we spoke to and learned from many other professionals who helped guide our thinking and influence our decision. But if I hadn’t met those smelly Brits, I probably wouldn’t have ever really entertained the idea. So to them I say cheers, wherever they might be, and thanks for the inspiration.

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