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Stepping Out — Way Out — of My Comfort Zone

A Year Ago I Quit My Job to Travel — Here’s How It’s Changed Me

Over the course of two months last year, my wife and I spent each evening after work researching and discussing what started as a crazy idea but had, over time, morphed into a real possibility: We would quit our jobs to travel the world for a year. During these lengthy discussions, we both realized that we were looking for an opportunity to, as we kept putting it, to “move outside our comfort zone.”

It was a very unusual sentiment for me, as my friends or family in no way thought of me as a risk-taker. I’m an extremely analytical person, and I tend to overthink issues in both my professional and personal life. Anything that had data points could be analyzed and weighed to determine the highest probability outcome for success. No personal issue was too difficult for a pros-versus-cons list to solve.

My wife and I both felt this need to break through the routine of our lives and seize this moment — a moment that as we looked at it analytically, might not ever come our way again. We saw the value in being uncomfortable for a purpose: to learn, to grow and to experience parts of the world that we’d never experienced before. We understood that the uncomfortable place is where the learning happens.

Today we’re in Paris, eight months and about 25,000 miles traveled since that decision to set out on the trip of a lifetime, what we’re calling our One-year Retirement. We still have many miles to go before we return to our D.C. lives and rejoin the non-retired working world, but I already know that those areas of discomfort have provided life lessons, that along with memories and photos, I’ll take with me.

The Discomfort of Unemployment Teaches Me About Confidence

If you had asked Twenty-something Jim to imagine a future me who is unemployed and tell you what caused that situation, that younger version of me would probably say that I must be in some sort of crisis. Perhaps I would envision myself as homeless for an unexplained reason or that I had somehow lost my sanity. That’s how foreign the concept of not having a job was to me then — my job defined who I was. My career was the only scoreboard I could see.

Moreover, being a productive member of society was a trait I had been taught since I could walk. I’d been employed since I was 13 — first on my family wheat farm, then in a college newsroom, and on and on for nearly 30 years.

Even after we’d worked out a logical plan for this trip’s logistics and financing, the prospect of actually pulling the trigger and quitting left me with a month’s worth of sleepless nights. Every molecule in my body had to be re-educated, and that took time.

But once we wrapped our heads around this concept and really committed ourselves to moving forward, I became a transformed man. I had been baptized in the waters of retirement and was ready to start my new life at that moment. For some reason I gained a supreme confidence — maybe too confident — but maybe that overconfidence was just what I needed to actually follow through on the decision.

There’s a heart-stopping moment in the movie “The Walk” about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. The camera pans down from above the towers, as Petit takes that critical first step onto the cable. You see the chasm of emptiness below him and you know that for him, in this moment, there is no turning back.

When I sat my boss down to tell him my last day would be in a few weeks, so that I could leave not for another job, but for travel, in that moment I, too, had stepped onto the cable. After a lifetime of being perfectly content to be a spectator in the crowd below, now I was on the wire, and there was no turning back.

The feeling I had walking out the door of my office on my last day of work, and my first day of unemployment since before I could drive, was really unexplainable. It was a collision of euphoria and anticipation, but there was no regret. Twenty-something Jim had no inkling that this feeling even existed.

But now I know I can go back to being a happy face in the crowd, living a life perhaps with less excitement but with more certainty, and with the confidence of knowing that no matter what the real world throws at me, that one time, I had been on the wire too.

The Discomfort of Isolation Teaches Me About Kindness

When I first arrived in D.C. 20 years ago, I generally wouldn’t engage in a conversation with a stranger unless it was absolutely necessary. Like the “Excuse me sir, but I think your pants are on fire” kind of necessary. The advent of smartphones also meant I never needed to ask for directions, I’d just mindlessly follow the blue dot of the GPS, even when it was inaccurate. Small talk is hard. That’s why most people don’t necessarily engage in it unless we must — myself included.

When you’re traveling to a new country every 10 days on average, you are invariably the dumbest person in the crowd wherever you go. I know less about the neighborhood, the culture, the food, and the acceptable behavior than pretty much anyone within a twenty-foot radius of me — all day, every day. While I still definitely depend on my smartphone for necessities like directions and street sign translations, I am also trying to remember my position as Dumbest Guy in the Crowd, and break through that invisible wall with those around me to ask a question or share a moment.

Making those connections has served as a reminder that we are truly social animals. Everyone standing next to you is just like you — they feel perfectly comfortable talking to strangers once they know you’re not trying to sell them a selfie stick or a timeshare. We all maintain our Resting Business Face walking through our world, but we’re generally happier interacting with those around us. People are kind once you break through the invisible wall. So just break through.

The Discomfort of Difficulty Teaches Me About Appreciation

When you’re constantly on the move, the world is amazing and exciting, but it’s also a smidgen more difficult in just about every way. When my wife and I are getting dinner, or communicating with a language barrier, or trying to get our phone wifi to work in a new country, it always involves a few additional steps. That constant state of confusion is the tradeoff for deciding to travel around the world.

Please don’t think I’m complaining, I recognize how fortunate I am to be on this journey. But I know that when I return I will have a newfound appreciation for aspects of my life in Washington, D.C. that I never thought twice about before. I will be thankful that I know where the bedroom light switch is located in the dark. I will appreciate being able to stay in and cook with my wife, in our kitchen. I will seek out more opportunities to meet up with and talk with friends about important issues or mundane craziness. I will love arriving home and having wifi signal that is just there, automatically. Magic internets traveling through the sky directly to me, huzzah!

We wanted a little discomfort, and we got what we asked for. I like being in the uncomfortable place for now, because I realize that there is much to be gained from putting ourselves outside our comfort zone. Once I go back to D.C. I will take what I’ve learned to be the thankful spectator, and (hopefully) not the dumbest guy in the crowd.

I'd love to hear about your travel experiences stepping outside your comfort zone, so please leave a comment below!

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