Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grabbing Life By The Short Hairs

I just finished The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau, a book that spoke to me like few others.  As the author says on his Amazon page, “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.  Those who are open-minded, ready to challenge the status quo, are hard-working, and personally responsible can lead lives of rare authenticity.”  Reading these words made me feel like I have shared the writings of a “soul mate.”

My colleagues at work would often inquire how my wife and I were able to take working vacations to such exotic places as Mauritius, Borneo, Bhutan, Kenya, Australia, and Mongolia.  I would respond that most of our travel took place during the three-month summer hiatus when school was not in session.  “But isn’t that when you are supposed to do your research, write books, and prepare lecture notes?” they would ask.  “Yes, but I don’t need every single summer for these tasks and, besides, there are other ways to grow and improve as an academic professional–for example, working overseas and living and learning about new cultures.  “Oh, that sounds great, but I could never do that.”   Sadly, when I hear them utter those words, I know they never will.

That, dear friends, is the crux of the problem faced by Chris and myself: Namely, there are so many people who allow the scope of their dreams to be set by others; who routinely follow the expected path through life;  who believe that other people’s perceptions of them, rather than their own desires, are what count the most.  Let me give an example of this.

In early 1990 my school, Macalester College, signed an educational and cultural exchange with Miyagi University in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester, while every January two staff from Macalester would spend one month overseas. Visitors would stay on campus for about ten days meeting with faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures–not a burdensome load.  The remaining 20 days would be spent traveling the country and learning about its people, history, and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one-and-a-half weeks of light academic work for a fully paid two-and-a-half week Japanese holiday!  This was a unique travel opportunity, and I submitted my application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 160 full-time staff, with two selected each year.  With 80:1 odds against me I doubted I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the exchange program would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of so many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine–work, eat dinner, play with the kids, go to bed.  They watched football on Monday, bowled every other Thursday, had sex on Saturday night, and spent a week or two each summer “up at the lake.”  It is so easy to fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 160 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)  That is so sad because reading someone else’s adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like having these adventures yourself.  Four months after submitting my application, I headed to the airport for a flight to Tokyo and four glorious weeks touring this fascinating country–all on the other guy’s dime.

For those readers who might now be willing to consider a dive into the deep end of the pool, I would like to make the following two recommendations:  First, read Chris Guillebeau’s book to inspire you to live life with gusto and bring more excitement and adventure into your daily routine. Second, read my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, to learn the nitty-gritty details of exactly how you can do this.  Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

(Get On The Other Guy’s Dime to read about our 15 working vacations and how you and your family can duplicate these adventures for yourself.)

Why oh Why?

In my last post, Don’t Fear It; Don’t Fight It,  I described the excitement that comes from taking short-term working vacations.  My wife and I have been on 15 of these adventures in the past 30 years, loving (and benefiting from) every one.  However, not all readers were convinced, and some expressed rather negative opinions about this type of life-style travel.  In this post let me address a simple question before moving on, and that simple question is “Why?”

My Wife And Students In Her Third-Grade Classroom In Thimphu, Bhutan

One reader states he does not consider any trip that includes work to be a vacation.  You can purchase a nice 10-day excursion to London, so why complicate things with a job?  Another writes he has a comfortable home with many friends and family nearby, so why jettison all this to live overseas?  Another states he already travels quite a bit, enjoying beach holidays in Jamaica and B & Bs in the south of France.  What does a working vacation offer that these trips do not?  All reasonable questions, so let me try to offer some reasonable answers.

1) Making friends.  On a working vacation you make new international friendships that can last a lifetime. My wife and I are regularly in contact with a young woman we first met in Mauritius. Recently, we had friends from Australia, a couple I worked with 20 years ago, visit us in New York. These relationships have become an important part of our lives.

2) Living in a different culture. On a typical 1- or 2-week family holiday you go on tours, visit historical and cultural sites, eat well, and relax. Fun, yes, but you rarely have an opportunity to spend time with locals, participate in their cultural and religious activities, or get involved with community organizations. The country is defined by the airport, hotel, and views from a bus window.  The locals you meet are often limited to those serving you meals or cleaning your room.

3)  Children.  The personal growth and maturity from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only an exhilarating experience for parents, it is a transformative experience for their children.

4)  Getting off the beaten path.  When you have three to six months, not just a few days or weeks, to explore a country you have time to discover hidden gems often overlooked in the hectic schedule of a one or two-week tour.  On a working vacation you can chat with colleagues and neighbors and learn about places that may not be in Frommer’s or the Lonely Planet but which give you an appreciation for a region and its culture–just as my wife and I learned in the Istanbul adventure described in Yogurt To Die For.

5)  Becoming a more informed American.  One’s own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but gain greater insight into what is happening right here in the U.S. For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth.  It’s startling to see the differences in racial, cultural, and religious tolerance between those who have lived overseas and those whose excursions are limited to a week at their cabin on the lake.

For many professionals these are compelling reasons for working vacations. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” A working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation and enjoyment of a holiday with the intellectual growth that comes from interacting with and learning from other cultures. And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Discover additional reasons for working vacations and learn how to do it yourself in On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

Don’t Fear It; Don’t Fight It; Do Enjoy It!

My wife and I have been on 15 working vacations in the last 32 years–from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Mongolia, Borneo to Bhutan–and I consider myself a “gold medalist” in the overseas work arena.  However, at the start I certainly did not have that kind of global curiosity; heck, I had never even been more than a few hundred miles from home.  I was a reluctant traveler frightened by the prospect of living in a strange new place, so when I received an invitation to spend a summer teaching at Imperial College, London I immediately came up with dozens of reasons why this cockamamie idea wouldn’t work.  Thank God my wife was far more adventurous and convinced me to give it a try, a decision I have never come to regret.

The most common problem I encounter when talking with friends and colleagues about working vacations is their fear of doing something totally different; the uncertainty that comes from pulling up roots, even for a few months, to become part of  a new and different culture.  Overcoming those initial fears is the biggest impediment to working travel because once you have done it you appreciate how rewarding, invigorating, and personally exciting it can be.  Then the only issue becomes how to do it again.  Let me illustrate.

Imperial College, London Where I Taught For 3.5 Months On My Very First Working Vacation

When we returned from that amazing 3+ month stay in England I asked myself why I had waited so long to attempt something like this. My accounting of income and expenses, completed for tax purposes the following April, showed that this English adventure had cost us a grand total of $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses, about $3,800 in today’s dollars.  Our stay in London had been a break-even proposition, perhaps even generating a small surplus, due to my Imperial College living allowance, summer paychecks (I have a 9-month teaching job, but I spread the income over 12 checks), and rental income from our home in the US.  The extra costs came from our many family excursions throughout the region.  We could only marvel at how many things we had seen and how well we had lived at a cost that probably would not cover a two-week family stay at an upscale Caribbean resort.

Not only was the trip a financial success, it was a professional and cultural success as well.  I initiated scholarly activities that helped me achieve tenure a few years later. My wife and I had an opportunity to be part of an international culture and make new friends with whom we are still in contact.  My children had the chance to meet and play with British children raised in far different circumstances and, although they are now fully grown, they still fondly remember that first overseas adventure.  Finally, given three-plus months, rather than just a week or two, we had plenty of time to discover the hidden gems of this wonderful city and enjoy spur of the moment weekends to Devon, Cornwall, the Lakes District, Scotland, and Paris.

Looking back on my imagined doubts and problems I now realize that they were just that–totally imagined.  Not a single one of my deep-seated worries came to pass and none of my irrational arguments for foregoing this trip were valid.  I can think of nothing I would have changed except, perhaps, to host fewer house guests.  (Not only do I enjoy traveling on the other guy’s dime, so do friends, family, and neighbors!)  It was such a transformative experience that after returning home I immediately began planning our next jaunt, which came only two years later and took my wife, two children, and me to Jerusalem.  The pattern had been set.

So, please believe me when I say I understand your initial reluctance to give working vacations a try–I felt exactly the same way.  However, also believe me when I say that taking a short-term working vacation is a decision you will never regret.  It can make an enormous change in your view of the world (and your children’s) and give you a new and refreshing outlook on life.  It certainly did with me.

(Read about that summer in England and our subsequent 14 working vacations in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.  It also explains how you and your family can experience the same type of cost-free adventures.)