Today, January 23, is a special day.
My one and only nephew chose to be born on this day in 2005. One year later on the same day, I was boarding a Korean Air flight with a one-way ticket to exit the United States for the first time. I had made my long-awaited escape from Corporate America to travel.
Fortunately for me, my nephew doesn’t remember this bad-uncle move on his first birthday, but I certainly do.
Getting on that plane was simultaneously the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me—and 16 years later, I’m still consumed by it. In fact, I’ve dedicated the remainder of my life to offering people the Red Pill, helping them wake up from an American Dream that looks much different than they hoped.
Once you’re blessed enough to discover your calling in life, every minute you aren’t answering that call is painful.
The landmarks and landscapes aren’t as important as how much solo travel and adventure can shape us into who we’re supposed to be. It’s a soul forge hot enough to produce quality results. You don’t have to make a life of it—then you’re doomed to write blog posts that confuse and traumatize the Googlebot—but everyone should pass through once.
For the record, I’m not talking about boutique travel. Better if you go experience a village toilet in Laos.
Making an escape from Corporate America to travel was like shaking the Etch A Sketch for me. All the squiggly lines of my old life vanished. I was left with a clean, gray slate primed for people, experience, and adventure. The world became one big playground, a place where you could meet people, explore, and occasionally fall off something to get hurt.
It was glorious.
As a newbie, I got my butt kicked after arriving in Bangkok on the first trip. Now, I appreciate that those initial beatings are all part of a necessary process, much like heating and hammering a sword—but I won’t retell that story. I already did so in my “15 years out of Corporate America” post last year.
Instead, I’d like to share something I don’t think I have before.
Warning: I decided to randomly litter this post with photos I took in Perhentian Kecil, a small island in Malaysia I’ve visited many times. With Kentucky thermometers hitting 7 degrees F (minus 14 C) tonight, it was the only sensible thing to do.
Solo Travelers Share an Age-Old Bond
On the last hour of my flight into Bangkok, an older Thai man sitting next to me rubbed the sleep from his eyes and began a friendly conversation. He went by “Peter” and was on his way home after visiting St Louis (this is why you should keep a travel journal).
Peter could tell that I was nervous—and he was right. My anxiety grew with every minute our flight approached Bangkok. I knew after landing that I would soon have to face the unknown without retreat or backup. An unfamiliar Asian capital of 10 million people would need to be navigated in the middle of the night, and I was travel weary.
Without my asking, Peter diverted to help me every step of the way after we landed. He knew an alternate place to be stamped in therefore helping us avoid a winding, hour-long queue at immigration. As a Thai national, his line was shorter than mine, but he waited for me. Even after we collected our baggage, he didn’t go on his way. He stuck around and coached me when exchanging money so I would have small bills for a taxi.
Then Peter helped me avoid the overpriced, mafia-run taxi queue outside the airport. He knew of a side exit, stepped out in the road, and hailed a “real” taxi for me. He negotiated in Thai so I wouldn’t be ripped off. As I got inside, I shook his hand and thanked him many times. All this transpired at 2 a.m. after a very long flight, and he still had to get himself home outside of the city.
As a first-time international traveler, I expected an opera of terrors once on the ground. I truly was naive enough to think I could be robbed, kidnapped, or bitten by something at any moment. I felt vulnerable and exposed. But instead of throwing me to the wolves, Peter showed kindness and the karmatic jai dee (good heart) attitude I would later learn to love in Thailand. The first of many lessons for my life of travel presented itself before I even got out of the airport.
Thank you, Peter.
Before the Escape From Corporate America
Tuk-tuks in Bangkok, as in most places around the world, are open air. Instead of air conditioning, you get blasted with sooty exhaust from city buses and trucks. It leaves a black film on your face and grit in your teeth. As an added bonus, should your three-wheeled, colorful toy vehicle get sideswiped, you’re guaranteed to fly out the other side like a human cannonball. There are no seat belts. Perhaps the only other mode of transportation more likely to unravel your telomeres is a motorcycle taxi.
Add to this that many drivers have more Redbull in their veins than blood (it originated in Thailand), and that Thailand typically has the highest road fatality rate in Asia. I pondered these things on my first tuk-tuk ride of many dozens to come.
I also thought of something else completely random and had a chuckle.
Eight years earlier, I had climbed into a limousine for the first time. Unlike my first tuk-tuk, the limousine had a muffler and didn’t use any sidewalks while jockeying through traffic in Atlanta, Georgia. I like to think my driver wasn’t a Redbull-crazed maniac with a death wish but maybe he was. We couldn’t see him through the tinted glass.
I was starting my new-employee training for IBM, and they had sent a freaking limo to collect us. We were a motley crew of mostly sales and marketing new hires; no executives or prom dates were among us. I was the only technical person.
I’m not sure if sending a limo for new hires was standard practice or not. Maybe it was an act of convenience because there were nine of us trainees, or maybe corporate wanted to lure us wide-eyed 20-somethings into thinking we had “made it.”
It worked. We were all starting to believe our own hype. The self-indulging chatter inside the limo would have made a group of travel bloggers grimace—no easy feat.
While training for the Army at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, a few years earlier, I was often transported in cattle trucks. The limo felt like quite an upgrade; it certainly smelled better.
I started to think that, finally, after decades of geekery, inhaling solder fumes, and studying electronics books into the night, I had hacked my way into success somehow. All those years of being the last one picked for sports involving a ball were about to pay off.
What I didn’t understand as a 20-something who craved money and respect was that I was walking into an ambush. Millions before me had rushed into the same trap and unwittingly entered a machine where the survival rate is dreadfully low.
I managed to get out of the Rat Race and escape from Corporate America before it was too late–but many people don’t. I feel a burden to help them crawl out of that Tatooine sarlacc pit, if they so choose.
Talkers and Doers
Not long after, as I gained traction at IBM, I learned that there are two types of people in gigantic organizations: talkers and doers.
Without knowing better, I accidentally established myself as a doer in a company of talkers. That meant extra work. You don’t need to be a doer to succeed. In fact, the talkers often fared better. Promotions happen more often in conference rooms and on golf courses than in server rooms or network closets.
The talkers scheduled hours of conference calls each day and sent hundreds of emails. That meant us doers had to do our work—the enterprise outsourcing stuff that paid for the talkers’ golf—on nights and weekends. We were on call 24-7-365 because we knew how to do things.
The brown wave crested when IBM began sending the jobs of many fellow doers to India. The weary who remained had to pick up the slack; meanwhile, talkers got bonuses.
I’m rehashing these things to give IBM a slap on the wrist, yes, but more importantly as a reminder for anyone thinking about linking their fate with a giant corporation. If you must do it, weigh your options as either a talker or doer. After working late nights and 60-hour weeks to help avert the Y2K crisis (remember that missed apocalypse?), us doers got a shiny desk token (see photo). The talkers got more bonuses. And tokens.
If you’re reading this as a 20-something waiting on your new-hire limo, be wary. My unsolicited advice is to pack a bag and go see the world first.
Run off into the night, howl at the stars, climb volcanoes, make love, eat mysterious things in unpronounceable places, help fellow travelers, and experience the purity of the road. Doing so once you have a cubicle and mortgage is possible but more challenging.
Even though it seems like I’m ready to ship IBM a box of sea urchins at any moment, don’t get the wrong impression. I’m exceedingly grateful for the way Corporate America handled my 20s.
Had I felt like the trajectory were improving, I may have never searched for ways to escape my cubicle. I may have stayed put, like a doomed frog who never hops out of the pot as the temperature increases one degree at a time.
Thank you, IBM.
The Bittersweet Curse
One of Anthony Bourdain’s friends was quoted in the documentary Roadrunner:
“Nothing feels better than going home. And nothing feels better than leaving home…the bittersweet curse.“
Mercifully, the theater where I watched the film was nearly empty. Good thing. I could barely keep it together after hearing a quote that so simply sums up the entire vagabonding travel experience, at least for myself.
Thank you for helping me celebrate 16 years of health, happiness, and freedom after making the escape from Corporate America. Relax: no more way-too-long travel anniversary posts for another year! Vagabonding will begin again someday.
Until then, I have to do some birthday shopping. My nephew will probably remember this time.