Today is my three-year cubicle escape anniversary of giving an official “thanks, I’m out!” notice to IBM and exiting Corporate America forever. Doing so was the first step to starting a life of travel which I plan to continue indefinitely.
Needless to say, I haven’t missed my old cubicle much since then. Life has been pretty good!
To celebrate, I’m going to post a story that I wrote a couple of years ago. I didn’t put much time into it, and so it sat on some dusty corner of my hard drive forgotten for many months.
When I did get around to submitting my story about how we just have to take a single step to begin a life of vagabonding, the response was overwhelming. I was surprised. The piece wasn’t particularly well written, but it provided inspiration to thousands of people that felt stuck in Corporate America just like myself.
Since then, this has been republished on a number of sites and has created an incredible response in email and comments. Some of the people it inspired went on to become incredibly successful cubicle escapees who began inspiring others themselves. Author and podcast host Bill Soroka cited this story as an inspiration during our podcast episode about escaping corporate cubicles to travel.
I named the story of my quitting IBM A Single Step because of the famous, oft-cited travel quote credited to Lao Tzu:
“A journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.”
I had no idea how true that was at the time, and had no idea what an impact in my life that first step would make. The journey certainly turned out to be more than 10,000 miles now. If you find yourself sitting in a cubicle reading this, don’t give up hope. If I escaped, anyone can. You just have to … wait for it … take that first step.
Here’s the story of the start of my new life of vagabonding, cheers! (this was originally published on Vagabondish many years ago).
A Single Step to Escape
There is no feeling that quite describes being stuck in a corporate office, worse yet, in a cubicle, when the sun is burning through a cloudless blue sky.
For seven years, I miraculously managed to not throw a phone, flog away an intruder, or hang myself in the corner of my office with Ethernet cabling. Like everyone else, I knew that there was more to life than waking up at the last minute and jockeying through traffic in a hurry to make a bunch of old men richer.
However, a strange and powerful force kept me glued to my seat, sorting through corporate memos reminding me to file my TPS reports properly and that Friday was wacky tie day:
Lots of them. Always creeping into my mailbox when I least expected it. There were all the usual suspects like electric, water, and a mortgage on a place so oversized for me that I hadn’t even opened some of the rooms yet. Then there were the really bothersome credit card statements that included all my internet purchases.
Among the damages, there were expenses for high tech toys I thought would make work (and life) more bearable.
My cell phone could play MP3s, games, movies, and open random gateways to alternate dimensions with the tap of a stylus. Also included were new clothes that I hoped would impress my dates. There were also restaurant tabs in overpriced places that specialize in making you feel important.
Being a well-trained IT engineer, I decided to do an analysis of where my money was going and constructed a simple spreadsheet where I recorded purchases for one month. I have the attention span of a bored cat, so actually a couple of months passed before I found the spreadsheet again hiding in a forgotten corner of my hard drive (sort of like this story).
“Oh yeah … I remember this!” I said and opened it with a snappy mouse click.
I nearly swallowed my tongue at the results inside!
Things needed for daily life, like groceries and Redbull, made up the lowest expenses. Not just a few, but a majority of my purchases were unnecessary and compulsive moves to keep me distracted.
I was putting at least one kid through college with my cable bill alone — all so that I had the option to watch hot dog eating contests on ESPN 13 at 4 a.m. Woohoo!
A pattern began to emerge as I looked over the data: I was purchasing things because of a deeper discontent.
I went into work slightly more enlightened than I was the day before, but I wanted to be sure. Was I just being too negative about my job? Was I starting into some sort of just-turned-30 midlife/depression/crisis? Was I about to run out and purchase a red convertible and pierce my tongue in a desperate cry for attention from women almost half my age?
As an experiment, I decided to count the number of smiles I received around the office and cafeteria for one day. Other than one nearly mad and shaking engineer that was watching the coffee machine fill his one-liter mug for the third time, the only smiling faces I saw on this beautiful June afternoon were the ones walking at a quickstep toward the door at closing time.
Things were quickly beginning to make sense.
Planning the Cubicle Escape
Like a twitchy convict who just discovered a tunnel beneath his bunk, I kept my findings to myself and began constructing a plan. First, I made a conscious effort to slow the bleeding of money from my account on useless toys. When I was in private, I started researching exotic destinations on the internet.
Soon enough, I was becoming consumed by my cubicle escape plans — and the hope they generated felt good. For seven years I had been a rat in a never-ending race, and now I had finally discovered that someone had left the door open on my cage. My happiness and bank account quickly began to build, and on one bold evening, I set a date.
My date was January 1, 2006. What better way to start a new year than to start a new life of vagabonding? In the six months between my enlightenment and the start of my new, less-paying-yet-more-satisfying career as a backpacker, I managed to save money and sell my house myself.
I also picked up a copy of Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding and realized that I was not alone. Many had made this walk before me.
During my meetings at IBM, I was having visions of living on an organic farm, picking fruit in the sunshine, and meeting hippy girls who could teach me to surf. Was I heading for sure financial doom? The thought did cross my mind, especially when I started trickling news of my plan to friends and family.
Vagabonding and even gap years (traveling between studying and beginning a job or more studies) are not really popular concepts for Americans, so my announcements were usually responded to with less-than-positive enthusiasm. I didn’t care. I was determined not to spend the best years of my life saving money to live when I would be too old to enjoy it.
Starting a Life of Travel
In November 2005, I gave myself the ultimate Christmas gift: I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and turned in my letter of resignation. The first step for a new life of vagabonding has been taken. And wow, it felt like a big step.
When the wheels of my plane left the ground and the pilot pointed our nose west toward the Pacific, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Luckily, the 23-hour flight provided lots of downtime for decompression and contemplation, of which I took full advantage. I still had no idea where I was going or what I was getting myself into, but it had to be more interesting than learning new acronyms at a company whose name was an acronym.
My first night in Bangkok was absolutely horrific. But as with all things in life, once I learned the ropes, the days became easier and easier until I was living my dream.
As I sit here and write this, exactly one year has passed since I left the United States for the first time. I grin when I read back through my early journal entries and blush slightly thinking of what an inexperienced newbie I was. I still don’t consider myself a hardened traveler, but I do want to share my beginnings with others and inspire them to take that first step.
Anyone can do this, and I never met a single person out of hundreds of backpackers met along the way who regretted their decision to escape Corporate America, the cubicle, and the Rat Race.
I would not trade my adventures, experiences, and new friends for all the promotions, cable channels, or wacky tie days in the world.
My new life of vagabonding is good.
Note: I’ve got some tips for living a life of travel here with the collective lessons learned from over a decade on the road.