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Four Life Lessons I Learned Traveling the World

When my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and travel the world for a year, one motivating factor to take this surprising journey was that we knew we’d learn more over the next twelve months by traveling than simply staying put in our jobs. And indeed we’ve learned invaluable lessons on many fronts — about travel, culture, art, architecture, cuisine, wine, language, event planning, problem-solving, patience, flexibility and self-improvement — to name just a few. But along with learning about the world, we’ve also learned about ourselves. These are four life lessons I’ve taken from leaving my comfort zone of my career and life in Washington, D.C., to travel around the world.

Lesson 1: I Don’t Need Things

Wearing our backpacks.

Because we planned to travel to more than 30 countries over 12 months, we worked very hard to pare down the items we’d be taking with us to the bare minimum. At home I had a closet full of clothes. On this trip I brought just enough clothing to get through one week between washings. Everything I need for the year fits into one large and one small backpack. We gave a very NASA-like review to everything we were bringing to decide whether it was absolutely necessary. For example, if something weighs 1 pound, and you carry it on 40 legs of your journey, it’s like you’re carrying 40 pounds. Is it worth bringing a 40-pound hair dryer on the trip? As you can tell from my photos, it’s definitely not worth it for me. My wife took some convincing, but she reluctantly agreed. The only problem is she makes us rent a convertible in every city, and we drive around the block until her hair is dry, which I think is a little excessive.

We decided our only souvenirs would be pictures, so that we could recall our journey through our memories instead of material things. We have a pretty strict “one in, one out” policy on buying anything on the road. If we decide we need something, we have to think about what we might need to get rid of so that we don’t add to our load.

Back in a dark storage building in D.C. there are two units filled with all our things. I can’t think of a single thing in there that I’d like to have on this trip. Sure there are plenty of mementos and things I want to use again when we're home, but not now. There are dozens of boxes weighing hundreds of pounds in those units. At our last weigh-in my two bags together weighed about 35 pounds total. For both of us that means we have 70 pounds of stuff for an entire year.

Traveling with just the necessities does mean we can’t enjoy one of our favorite home activities — cooking. Though renting AirBnBs allows us to cook occasionally, I miss our knives and our other great cooking equipment when we’re in these rental units. I mocked Megan for putting a zester on our wedding registry, but as usual, she was right — I miss zesting! And the knives at AirBnBs are so dull they seem to be designed for use by toddler chefs (Note to self: call the Food Network for a great competition series I just thought of). These knives are safe enough they could be used for theater props. Tomatoes have been turned into mush. Bread loaves have been squished. But no one has been harmed.

Lesson 2: I Don’t Need a Lot of Space

I’ve never really been interested in having a large house, but this trip has reaffirmed my belief in living small. When we've looked for an AirBnB or hotel, we try and maximize our budget by finding the very best location with the smallest space available. While I won’t be looking for one of those trendy tiny houses when we return (where would we put the zester?) I just see large homes as too much work — work to fill up with stuff, work to keep clean, work to keep repaired, and especially work to keep paying the large mortgage.

Lesson 3: I Don’t Need Nice Restaurants

I may regret writing this when I get back to Washington’s great restaurant scene. If you spot me next year at a fancy eatery gorging on meats and fine wine like a victorious viking, please don’t scream out across the room “Aha! I knew it! You’re a fraud!” First, because it’s not nice. Secondly, because I think people in DC are deeply insecure about their professional lives, they will paranoidly think you’re screaming at them. We don’t want to send that guy over the edge who’s really been crushing it as an advocacy lobbyist/industry disrupter/senior consultant/political advocate.

We’ve budgeted everything, including a food and drink budget — restaurants, bars, coffee shops, groceries — of $60/day total for both of us. So when we look for a spot to eat, three-dollar-sign restaurants are not an option. Using the Foursquare search function and filtering for only $ or $$ spots with the highest rating has been a fantastic way to help us mind our food budget. We have eaten spectacularly well at quaint bistros, quiet cafes and family-run restaurants all over the world. We find places that do a few things very well and we order what they’re known for. If a place is full of locals and is a bit off the beaten path, whether it’s a ramen shop in Tokyo or a pizzeria in Florence — it’s probably good. One of the best meals of the entire trip was a pho joint in Ho Chi Minh City with a total check of $6 for both of us.

In D.C. I went to relatively expensive restaurants more than I’d care to admit. This was partly because the D.C. market, and especially my neighborhood of Logan Circle, is flooded with high-end spots, and partly because I could afford it as it was the only thing I really spent any money on. I probably won’t eliminate the three-dollar-sign spots, but I know I’ll be more aware of the lower-cost options and be hunting them down.

Our average daily spending on all food and drink (restaurants, groceries, bars, etc.) so far — $47/day for both of us, which I realize would be a lot for a home budget but is pretty good for a year’s travel. We’re still in Europe, which will be the most expensive leg of our trip, but we’re in good shape.

Lesson 4: I DO Need Friends and Family

It’s trite to say, “Oh, we miss our wonderful family and friends so much. You all mean the world to us — smiley face!” but it’s really true. Not just because you’re all wonderful people - all of you are really great! (Except one person — you know who you are.) But because we frankly miss interacting with you.

A person’s daily communications are usually varied in length and depth — a little small talk with the guy standing in line at the coffee shop, longer conversations with coworkers, and maybe an in-depth personal discussion with a loved one. If the burden of all that communication is put on one person, it’s not easy. What I’m saying is if my wife hears me dissect the intricacies of my golf swing mechanics one more time, she is going to bludgeon me with a seven iron. (Because as we know the AirBnB knives won’t get the job done.)

This trip has helped us learn smart ways to communicate with all of you. The Facebook page was designed to help us communicate with family and friends and let everyone know we’re safe. And this site, to a degree, is also designed to help us connect with our friends and relatives and to remember what we’re experiencing. I’m using Whatsapp and FaceTime much more than ever before, and we’re using Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch too.

But nothing replaces face-to-face contact. We’re hoping to connect with all of you more when we return, because we miss you. Smiley Face! (We will do our best not to smother you.)

I knew this year would challenge me, and I knew it would change me. It definitely has, for the better I think. I’ve learned as much about what isn’t important as about what is. These are lessons I could have learned in other ways, but I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting and challenging classroom. I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned and using it in the real world once I emerge from my one-year retirement, and come back to the working world. Maybe NASA could use a packing consultant.

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