Category Archives: Fears and Doubts

It’s Not Either-Or. It’s Both.

Important decisions don’t have to be “either-or” affairs: black-and-white with no middle ground.  We don’t tell women they must choose between children or working outside the home–many do both by going part-time, hiring outside help, or having a spouse take on the duties of child rearing.  Following graduation we don’t tell our children they must go to college or find full-time work.  Many young people spend a “gap year” seeing the world while others opt for short-term stints in the military, Peace Corps, or with charitable groups.

The same is true about living and working overseas.  It isn’t a black-and-white choice between blindly remaining in your day job or having amazing travel adventures.  People mistakenly assume the only possible way to live overseas is to sell the house, kiss friends and family good-bye, and head out with no set return date.  This is fueled by books and movies that describe what I call the “Wandering Nomad” mode of travel.  Most of us have read stories like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence, or have seen movies like Eat, Pray, Love that glorify the ex-pat who leaves the cubicle behind for exotic adventures across the ocean.

I just finished a popular travel book that fits perfectly into this genre–Wondrous Journeys: The World is Waiting for You by Dean Jacobs.  Dean was a marketing specialist who, after a decade of success at his chosen occupation, gave it all up to see the world.  He bought a travel hat and a world map, spread the map out and said, “I can go anywhere I want.  Where do I begin?  What have I always wanted to see?”   His dreams resulted in a two-year journey to 28 countries.  Today he is still traveling and giving talks to audiences around the U.S.   Sounds great, right?  Yes, but let’s be brutally honest.  Many of us enjoy the jobs we have and the financial security they afford.  We love the communities we live in, and the friends and family near us.  We have important commitments we will not throw under the bus.  We can’t simply chuck everything we have, but we would love to add something new and exciting to our daily routine.

There is a solution to this conundrum, and it is based on the original premise of my post:  Living and working overseas does NOT have to be an either-or proposition.  You don’t have to choose between 40-years and a gold watch vs. pulling a Dean Jacobs, selling everything, and sailing a 36-footer around the world.  In short, you don’t have to become a wandering nomad.  There is a reasonable middle ground–a middle ground that I call a working vacation–a short-term job (typically 2-6 months) that affords you the cultural and social benefits of a typical overseas posting without having to burn bridges behind you.  It allows you to refresh and renew your daily routine and your professional career while allowing you to return to your home, job, and regular paycheck when finished.  Working vacations are a realistic option for any skilled professional with the desire to see the world and become a more informed global citizen.  I know from what I speak as my wife and I have been on 15 of these amazing adventures in the past 30 years–Mauritius to Mongolia, Turkey to Tibet, Borneo to Bhutan–without ever having to open up my wallet or quit my day job.  No matter how much you enjoy your current position a working vacation can be a truly transformative personal experience, and it is something you should seriously consider.  Please let me teach you how.

(Read about Michael and Ruth Schneider’s working vacations around the world, and learn how to have these amazing adventures for yourself in his travel “how-to” book: On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

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.)

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.)

The Why and the Wherefore

I have argued, rather vociferously, for skilled professionals to take working vacations–short-term, overseas postings which pay enough to cover most or all your expenses and do not require you to quit your day job.  Well, a reader wrote me asking a rather simple question:  “Why the heck should I close my house, pack up the kids, and schlep halfway around the world just to work for a couple of months? I am quite comfortable where I am!”

Fair question.  In fact its a question that gets to the heart of this blog and its 112 posts!  It isn’t trivial to plan and pull off a working vacation–it takes time to apply for a sabbatical or leave of absence; it takes time to rent a home; it takes time to find housing and transportation in the host country; it takes time to plan activities and schooling for young children.  It is far easier to simply open a cold beer and enjoy a Twins game.   Therefore, to answer this straightforward question, let’s talk a bit about the whys and wherefores of working vacations.

When we were teens or twenty-somethings many of us relished the idea of living, not just traveling, abroad. We dreamed of heading off to Europe after graduation (and a good number actually did) to experience a new culture, make new friends, and mature as young adults and global citizens. We were not interested in a one week “Highlights Tour” or dashing past a few major tourist attractions. Instead, we wanted to settle down, learn the language, find employment, and become part of the local community, even if only for a few months. Why should this love of cultural adventure fade as we grow older? Why should we abandon our idealism and wanderlust because we have added a few years, a few pounds, and a few dependents? Why aren’t we still as passionate about the joy and excitement that accrues from living and working abroad?

The Beach at Flic en Flac on Mauritius Where We Lived For Six Glorious Months While on a Working Vacation

When you live in a community, rather than drop in for a few days, you have time to meet neighbors, attend social, cultural, and religious events, and participate in local activities. Everyday tasks like shopping, laundry, even getting a haircut, require you to learn about the neighborhood and the people who live and work there. A short-term working vacation affords you time to take those off-the-beaten-path excursions not possible in the jam-packed schedule of a one- or two-week family holiday. You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it.

One’s own social and political philosophy can be profoundly changed on working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain insight into what is happening right here at home.   Travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or 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. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness … .”

And, best of all, short-term overseas work is a wonderful way to invigorate one’s  own life which can, no matter how much you love what you do, slip into a pattern of repetition and boredom–go to work, eat dinner, watch TV, fall asleep.  As the Roman philosopher Seneca said “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”   For many skilled professionals this type of transformative work experience is far more rewarding than a Caribbean cruise or a couple of weeks at a B&B.  A short-term working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth and excitement of interacting with and learning from local residents and professionals.  And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Read about our adventures living and working in Mauritius in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)


How NOT To See The World

A big thank you to Adele for sending the following quote from the book Dream, Save, Do by Betsy and Warren Talbot:  “The longer you invest in your current reality–with your time, attention, money, and habits–the harder it will be to pull up stakes and make the changes necessary to live your dream. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll do it later. A dream deferred is a dream denied, and a smarter person than me coined that phrase.”  (It was Langston Hughes.)

This is a wonderful quote, and I just had to go to their Web site, Married With Luggage, to read about their experiences.  However, what I found was your typical “wandering nomad” travel blog describing a lifestyle that few, if any, of my readers would care to emulate.  They describe a lifestyle unrelated to the goals of  those who don’t want to throw everything away and start anew but simply want to add a dash of curry to a not-very-spicy lifestyle.

Betsy and Warren Talbot are two 30-somethings who got tired of chasing the big paycheck, quit their jobs, and sold all their worldly possessions.  They put a pack on their back and left home to see the world and have been doing just that for more than a year.  They are not sure when (or if) they will return, and their answer to the question “What will you do for work when you get back?” is a not too comforting “We really don’t know.”

This may sound exhilarating, but the reality is that many professionals, myself included, like our jobs and our life.  We might want to make some short-term changes, and we are not averse to adding a bit of adventure to a daily routine that is getting too predictable, but we are not ready to pull up stakes and leave everything behind.  When the excitement and hoopla of an overseas posting is done, we want to return to our home, friends, family, job, and paycheck.  For most of us, the response “we don’t know what we’ll do when we get back” is totally unacceptable.

This is the reason for creating this blog and my book.  Although my wife and I have lived and worked in dozens of countries we are most definitely NOT wandering nomads roaming the world aimlessly without a financial safety net.  Instead, my writings describe how to take working vacations–overseas postings for those who want to work and play in an exotic locale but have neither the ability nor the desire to leave everything behind.  I blog for people who would love to take a short-term sabbatical but do not want to quit their current position. I write for professionals who want travel options that do not require permanently kissing family and friends good-bye.

My wife and I have seen and done as much, if not more, than the Talbot’s–we have lived and worked from Bhutan to Borneo, Mongolia to Mauritius, Turkey to Tibet.  The difference is that I accomplished this without having to sell my home or quit my job, a job that I love and cherish.  I think that it is I, not the Talbot’s, who drew the long end of the travel straw.

David Brooks, Redux

About two months ago I wrote a post entitled The Haimish Line based on a New York Times op-ed article by David Brooks.  His essay touched me so deeply that I wrote a blog entry to express my enthusiasm and support.

Well, he’s done it again.  On October 28th Brooks authored an op-ed piece entitled The Life Report that hit so close to home it felt like it was written just for me.  His ruminations on why people choose to follow, or not to follow, their dreams addresses the central theme of this blog and could not be a more apt topic for discussion.  So, for a second time, I offer a post based on his writings; let’s call it “David Brooks, Redux!”

Brooks describes a collection of reminiscences written for the 50th reunion of the Yale class of 1942. While a few stories were inspiring and spoke of years enjoyed to the fullest, the majority lamented a rather mundane and pedestrian life that was endured not enjoyed; a passive existence in which events happened to them rather than a life aggressively forged to match their hopes and dreams. For example, Brooks tells how one man looked back on an uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but its a little late now.”  He relates the bittersweet memories of those who lament the path not taken.  “I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”

Those who did have a fulfilling and satisfying fifty years describe the role that chance played in enriching their lives–”a pivotal and thoroughly unexpected moment that changed everything and took their life in a new direction mid-course.”  As I look back on my own “Life Report” I see exactly that pattern–a pivotal moment that changed my life forever.  In this case it was an offer to live and work abroad, an opportunity described in My London Epiphany. Until then I was a conventional, 35-year-old college professor with a good job, great wife, two kids, and house with a picket fence. (Sorry, no dog.)  By any measure life was good, but I was in a rut; life was simply happening, not being molded or directed.  Without a mid-course correction there is no doubt I would now be writing about my gold watch, grandchildren, and golf game rather than hiking the Himalayas, taking a camel safari in the Gobi, and living on a tropical island paradise.

After receiving that offer I closed my office, rented the house, and moved the family to England for three and a half months. Thank God I was willing to take that initial risk because this working vacation opened my eyes to other opportunities to live in exotic locales, experience new cultures, and have adventures usually seen only in National Geographic.  That initial posting was followed by 30 wonderful years of travel and work in such faraway places as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey, Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Israel, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan–experiences described in my memoir On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.

People tell me that I am lucky to have traveled the world and had so many amazing adventures. I am lucky only in the sense of being given the opportunity to change the direction of my life.  However, those opportunities are not unique to me;  in fact, you had one yourself when you began reading this blog, which explains how you and your family can have exactly the same type of experiences.

So, it is not a question of having the chance to set sail in a new direction; that chance is out there waiting for you.  Instead, it’s a question of what you do with that chance–whether or not you have the gumption and the spirit to take a risk and try something completely new.  That risk may pay off; it may not–life does not come with guarantees.  However,  Brooks ends his essay by saying that in all the reports he read from the class of 1942 “nobody regretted the risks they took and the life changes they made, even when they failed.”

What is Travel? What is Work?

One of the most oft-repeated arguments I get for not taking working vacations was voiced by a young woman named Sabrina in a letter on Travel For Free, a blog mentioned in my previous post.  In her commentary, she states, with apologies for the language and grammar:

“When I travel, I don’t want to work. Many people work while they travel, they get none or a shitty salary but they offer free rooms and sometimes free (crappy) food. And in the end these people didn’t really travel, they just worked around the world for free and didn’t see much. Traveling is traveling, its vacation time.”

In spite of the poorly worded sentences her argument is clear:  She does not  want to cover the cost of travel through paid work.  I hear this a lot from people who imagine an overseas experiences saddled with back-breaking physical labor, like harvesting crops, or with mind-numbing tasks such as chasing after rambunctious children 24/7.  Well, let me quickly put your concerns (and Sabrina’s) to rest about the pleasures of a working vacation.

My posts are not written for the 18-25 year old crowd heading off to Europe or Asia before starting college, graduate school, or their first job.  For these young travelers, low paid positions such as clearing tables or being a nanny may be all that is available, and these jobs do indeed pay a shitty salary.  Instead, my book and blog are for individuals with one (or more) college degrees, work experience, and, most importantly, professional skills of interest to overseas institutions.  For such people (e.g., doctors, teachers, nurses, business people, engineers, social workers, clergy, artists) there are many short-term postings that, unlike what Sabrina suggests, pay a reasonable salary–certainly enough to live on–and provide both comfortable housing and sufficient free time to enjoy the pleasures and promises of the host country.

However, the most misleading part of Sabrina’s letter is her assertion that  ” … in the end these people didn’t really travel, they just worked around the world for free and didn’t see much… ”   In fact, I would argue that professionals on a short-term working vacation do more and see more than those whose idea of travel is a week or two at the beach, on a cruise ship, or ensconced in some comfy European B&B.   I don’t learn a great deal about a culture, its people, and traditions by talking with my tour guide or peering through the windows of a bus.  Instead,  I settle into an interesting locale, make friends with neighbors and colleagues, shop at the local merchants, and participate in social, cultural, and religious events.  I learn about a culture not by observing it by become a part of it. To me that is the very definition of exciting and rewarding travel.

So, Sabrina, I am sorry to say that I could not disagree more with your argument that those who worked while they traveled “… didn’t see much.”   If by “seeing” you mean ticking off the biggies of the local tourist scene (art museums, temples, waterfalls, big game animals) then maybe you are right. But if you define “seeing” as learning, interacting, and growing intellectually and culturally, then I think that a working vacation has it all over more traditional travel.  In the words of the author Miriam Beard “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is the change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself!