The jet speeding down the runway wasn't going nearly as fast as the blood pumping through my veins. That's because I was finally doing it. It had been two long years of preparation for this day, but the mounting anticipation that had been muted by life was finally coming to the surface. Life - you know, that rote, day-in, day-out thing we do for thirty, forty, even fifty years. When life is at its end, I have heard the one thing that people talk about is not how amazing their time had been, even if they were relatively happy. They spoke about their regrets - missed opportunities, fractured relationships that they had hoped to repair, things they always wanted to do, but hadn't. That thought is what pushed me towards this step; the thought of dying with regret, of not having done what I had hoped to because I had done what society told me I should do.
It all started in the midst of a 16-hour shift at a horrible job that gave me five weeks of vacation a year. I mention that because the frequent overtime checks coupled with the vacation allotment were the only perks of the job, even though it was in a field I had prepared to work in my entire life. I spent a lot of nights and weekends raking in the extra pay for time away from that jail - a ten day drive down Germany's Rhine River to Oktoberfest, a 30th birthday escape to Mexico, three weeks backpacking alone through Thailand. However, I always returned to work, a little more depressed than I was upon departure, just with more passport stamps. This was a place where the miserable staff greeted you on your first day by asking how old you would be when your retirement date approached, twenty five years later. I spent a lot of time during my employment there thinking about my retirement, and the things I'd do, the countries I'd explore. Aside from daydreaming, I did a lot of reading. I had been frequenting the local library and picking out autobiographies, murder mysteries, and travel memoirs, when I came across a book that shared a short story that hit me like a ton of bricks...
An American businessman took a vacation to a small coastal Mexican village on doctor's orders. Unable to sleep after an urgent phone call from the office the first morning, he walked out to the pier to clear his head. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked, and inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish. "How long did it take you to catch them?" the American asked. "Only a little while," the Mexican replied in surprisingly good English. "Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" the American then asked. "I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends," the Mexican said as he unloaded them into a basket. "But... What do you do with the rest of your time?" The Mexican looked up and smiled. "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Julia, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor." The American laughed and stood tall. "Sir, I'm a Harvard M.B.A. and can help you. You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. In no time, you could buy several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats." He continued, "Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution, and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually New York City, where you could run your expanding enterprise with proper management." The Mexican fisherman asked, "But señor, how long will all this take?" To which the American replied, "15-20 years. 25 tops." "But what then, señor?" The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions." "Millions, señor? Then what?" "Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos..." (Excerpted from The 4-hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferriss, page 231-232).
The story made me realize that so many of us create lives for ourselves that are defined by societal, cultural, or family expectations. It is ingrained in us to make money, buy a house, have some children, work, work, work, then finally, after toiling away, you potentially get to enjoy your "golden years" doing what you love. Does that sound awful to you? If you love your job, maybe not. But how many people can honestly say that they love their job, have a perfect work/life balance, and still have the time and money to pursue their passions? I decided then and there, at the ripe old age of 32, that society's expectations weren't for me. I wanted something different. I wanted to live the life that I imagined myself having in "retirement", and I wanted it now. Yes, that would mean tossing my expensive education to the side. That would mean my coveted government pension would go bye-bye. But that would also mean I'd be living a happier and more fulfilling life for myself, albeit with a smaller bank account balance.
My dream? Live abroad in a Spanish speaking country. Open a bed and breakfast. Guide my guests on thorough, eye-opening excursions. Show people what an amazing place the world is, and that travel can be affordable and accessible to anyone.
The first hurdle was the mental preparation, and it was definitely the most difficult step. It wasn't a hard thing to say "I want a different life that will be rewarding and make me happy", but it was hard to say, "I'm going to buck the trend and ignore my education and last ten years of work experience, forego a guaranteed paycheck, stable job, pension, and health insurance, and move to a lesser developed country." The next parts of the process were relatively easy. I picked a date to start my new life, making my goal a bit more tangible. I left my career field and got a higher paying, private-sector job. I moved in with family to save on rent. I sold most of my possessions in preparation for an international move. I started researching desirable markets to start a company, where the weather was fine, the cost of living was low, it wasn't too far from my family and friends, and there were a myriad of things to do. And I chose Guatemala.
Here from seat 41A, as I gaze past the blinking wing light towards the full moon beyond, I'm filled with a conflict of emotions: excitement, fear, happiness, hesitation, self-doubt, pride, confidence, melancholy, but most of all, I'm calm. In the end, if I change my mind, or if something doesn't work out, I can return to my old "life". It will be there waiting. But I feel today that this is what I'm meant to do.
As Henry David Thoreau said, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you've imagined."
And I will.