How traveling changed my life is a story that starts with a risk I took right after college.
It was 2009 and I was 21. I planned to work in finance, but with the economic collapse, I decided to teach English in South Korea before coming back and looking for work when things improved.
But when I finally returned — 2 years later — my entire life changed.
Every day forced me to learn, grow, and reject what thought I wanted for what I really did. And while I didn’t travel to “go find myself,” it did remove me from my old environments and habits to see things with fresh eyes.
Here are the 10 biggest lessons I learned. The best part? No plane ticket is required to understand them:
1. Money is important, but it’s not everything
Growing up, I was always taught to make a lot of money, save it, and retire with enough to last the rest of my life.
But once I moved abroad, I realized how little money I actually needed to enjoy a great life. For example, when I lived in Taipei, I made roughly US$16/hour in cash, worked 11 hours a week, and had more-than-enough money to enjoy a full and fun life. (Sure, cities like Sydney and London are super expensive, but I managed to survive in both as well.)
The more I feed the mindset that I need a lot of money to “enjoy life,” the more trapped I become. After all, how much of what I buy do I actually need? How much of life is used to make money just to buy things that aren’t even important? How much of the greatest pleasures in life are absolutely free?
I’m not saying I want to be poor or that money is “the root of all evil” — far from it. Money is very important and can be used for a lot of good.
But I think a lot of people get caught up in making money just to make money rather than actually asking themselves what kind of life they want to live and how much money it would really take to do that.
They might find out they don’t need as much as they thought.
“It’s good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it’s good, too, to check up once in a while and make sure that you haven’t lost the things that money can’t buy.”
— George Lorimer
2. Build a lifestyle, not just a career
Before I moved to Asia, my main goals were to have a career in finance, get a good salary with good benefits, have a relationship, get a graduate degree, and buy a nice home.
But I never considered the kind of lifestyle I wanted to live and whether or not my career would fit. Instead, I focused on my job and tried to fit a lifestyle around that.
After I moved to Asia, however, I dumped those goals; the only thing I wanted was a lifestyle where I could travel and work anywhere I wanted. From there, I focused every step of my career toward location independence — whether it was building a remote company, finding a remote job, or even building a brick-and-mortar business and hiring someone to run it for me.
By working tirelessly to build my lifestyle, not just my career, and it led to the blessings I have today.
“People don’t want to be millionaires — they want to experience what they believe only millions can buy.”— Tim Ferriss
3. Remove distractions
As part of my English-teaching contract, I was supposed to get a TV and internet in my home, but they forgot the television.
It was actually the first time in my life where I didn’t have a TV, and it forced me to spend less time in front of a screen and more time outside. (Fortunately, in 2009, social media wasn’t as big and phones weren’t as advanced either.)
I changed my hobbies. If I had a day off, rather than sitting at home and watching television, I went to the gym, I went to a coffee shop and read a book, or I texted a friend and grabbed dinner.
After all, a home might be where I sleep, but it’s not where I live; I live once I step out of the door. I live once I’m in the world.
“What on earth am I doing inside on this beautiful day?! This is the only life I’ve got to live!”
— Calvin & Hobbes
4. Take more risks
When people think of “risk,” they think of things like skydiving or bungee jumping.
But what about quitting their job tomorrow and abandoning their current life for something new? Or what about moving to a new continent where they don’t speak the language? Few people have the courage to take those massive risks, yet those are the ones that would actually transform their lives.
After my teaching contract in South Korea ended, everyone in my family wanted me to come back to the US and start looking for jobs; they thought, by staying abroad any longer, I was wasting my life.
But instead, I took a chance and moved to Taiwan to continue my adventures. It was a huge risk, but I soon discovered it wasn’t as damning or permanent as I thought it would be. Even if I failed, I wouldn’t really lose much; if anything, it would open up the possibility of permanently altering my life.
Life gets a hell of a lot better when I start embracing risk.
“Fortune favors the bold.” — Virgil
5. Reading is the key to life
I used to hate reading, but that’s because I hated school — I hated the terrible books I read and the endless essays, tests, and more.
But at some point in South Korea, I was so starved for English, I went to the English section of a bookstore (there were only, like, 15 books) and bought the first one that looked interesting (Don’t Eat The Marshmallow… Yet!).
That was the first time I realized books could actually be fun, inspiring, and life-changing. And with all the free time I had at my job, it became a great way to fill the void — soon, I had more books in my suitcase than clothes.
This was the single most important habit I picked up while traveling. Books expanded my mind like nothing else. Like Ayodeji Awosika says, books are a cheat code; they give the answers to life.
“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”― General Jim Mattis
6. Say “yes” to more
Once I moved abroad, I created a rule: Whenever someone invited me for dinner, drinks, an event, etc., I had to say yes no matter what.
I wanted to take every opportunity to go out and do things.
There’s a lot of advice, however, that teaches to say no to practically everything: “Say no to the good to say yes to the great,” “It’s either ‘fuck yes’ or ‘no,’” “Good is the enemy of great,” etc.
But when I was 21, what the hell did I know? I simply did not have enough life experience to guide me on what I should and should not do. I never lived outside of Southern California. I had the same friends for over a decade. I only tried one career path. How could I possibly have known what was out there?
Sure, once I hit a certain level in life, I should be selective; but when I’m young, it’s better to just say “yes” to everything (within reason) as I’m starting out.
Only after I experienced more, met new people, saw more things, and tried more activities, I learned what I actually liked, what I didn’t, and what’s really possible.
“To know that what we know is what we know, and what we do not know is what we do not know — that is true knowledge.” — Confucious
7. Explore what I have
Growing up in LA, my family and I never explored the city: We went to the same restaurants, vacationed at the same places, and did the same things. Even at college in San Diego, I rarely visited the city despite having a car and all the free time in the world.
But when I lived abroad, it would’ve been a waste to not explore. When I lived in Taipei, I would randomly pick an area and check it out, armed with nothing but a backpack, a book, and a bottle of water. If I found a coffee shop, I’d hang out and read; if I met someone cool, I’d talk and hang out with them.
Once I came back to the US, I kept that mentality with me.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”— Saint Augustine
A lot of people think I need a passport, a plane ticket, and free time to “explore the world.”
All I need is an explorer’s mindset.
After all, how many different areas in my own city can I visit? How many people from different cultures can I talk to in my own apartment building, school, or office?
Now, with this mindset, even my hometown will look different. Without leaving, I can explore more of the world than I could ever imagine.
8. My social circle makes or breaks me
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”— Jim Rohn
I had a traumatic childhood and adolescence. And while my friends at that time weren’t responsible for my problems, I noticed they reflected the way I lived, the way I felt about myself, and the way I saw the world around me.
In other words, I manifested my friends, which made it almost impossible to break out. (Of all external factors, there is almost nothing as powerful and influential as social circles.)
But in Korea, I met so many kind, generous, thoughtful, and positive expats and locals — once I got to know them, I knew I wanted to surround myself with them so I could learn and change my life.
Since then, I’ve become very intentional in choosing my social circle. I credit a lot of my self-improvement to their influence and encouragement.
9. Be deliberate with my possessions
When I arrived in Korea, I had two huge suitcases and a carry-on bag full of clothes, shoes, and random things I thought I “needed.” By the time I left, I donated over 80% of my stuff and created a life rule I still follow to this day:
Donate one article of clothing for each new one I buy. (This prevents me from accumulating too much stuff.)
I’ll be honest: When I first tried to donate my clothes, it was like trying to decide which child lived or died. Who knew I could be so attached to some $20 shirt I got at Target?
But once I started “lightening the load,” I felt liberated to know I could fit my entire life in a suitcase. It gave me the freedom to move at a moment’s notice. It gave me peace of mind to know I didn’t need much to live a good life.
Even now, as I’ve been traveling the world full-time for over a year, I brought all my clothes with me — and they fill half of a carry-on suitcase.
“I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”— Henry David Thoreau
While people don’t have to be as extreme as me, the lesson is clear:
Too often, my possessions possess me, not the other way around.
By reducing my attachment to the things I own, it gives me powerful liberation. It makes me realize I don’t need a lot to actually be content. And with this mindset, when I buy and own things, they don’t control me as much — and I can be free.
10. Remember that I will die
“We are but dust and shadow.”— Horace
While traveling, I stumbled upon the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which taught me how fleeting life is and why I need to be aware of my mortality.
Ironically, life took on new meaning once I started thinking about death. Seeing life speed by and knowing it’ll end eventually gave me perspective: I realized the things I thought mattered didn’t and the things I thought didn’t matter did.
It also made me understand why spending one year — let alone one month — doing something I hated was just too much.
Because when I look back on my brief existence, I’ll notice how quickly everything went and how precious those wasted moments were.
I’m thankful I discovered these powerful lessons.
And I thank my travels for it.