“Not all those who wander are lost.”
-- J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m a big fan of early retirement, just not in the normal way of thinking about it. In my early 20s, I made a conscious decision to switch the order of my career and my retirement. I figured there was a good chance that I would work until the day I died, hopefully doing work I enjoy, so I might as well retire for a few years at age 23, and then focus on my career after my retirement. In that way, I could do all of the crazy things I wanted to do while I was still healthy, single, and tolerant of long, uncomfortable bus rides with farm animals.
I learned this approach from a few Aussies and Kiwis whom I met when I was on my first backpacking trip in Europe. They convinced me of the wisdom of doing a long walkabout after graduating from school and before starting a family or career, for a duration of about six months to two years. (Not that I needed much convincing at the time.) It sounded like a solid plan to me. Okay, maybe it wasn’t solid, but it was very appealing nonetheless. So that’s what I did, although my journey ended up taking three years to complete.
As soon as I passed my comprehensive exams to earn a Master of Science degree in biology from Creighton University, I was on a plane from Omaha, Nebraska, to Geneva, Switzerland. I didn’t even wait the extra few days to attend my graduation.
Why Switzerland? I wanted to be able to speak French, and I heard that people speak the language slower in Switzerland compared to France. That was a good enough reason for me. Plus, I was an avid hiker and mountain climber; in my mind, Switzerland was synonymous with mountains. So Switzerland it was.
My parents were a bit reluctant to support my idea at first, but as long as I was able to support myself financially while I traveled, they agreed. With their blessing, I was ready to start the “deliberate wandering” phase of my life.
Even during these walkabout years, I had an agenda—albeit a vague one. My goal was to visit 100 countries by the time I was 50 years old. There was no magic in those numbers; 100 sounded like an impressive number, and 50 sounded old at the time. I figured that, if I visited 100 countries, I would have some good stories to tell, and I would hopefully acquire some nuggets of wisdom about myself and the world. Most importantly, I would have an opportunity to meet foreign women and drink exotic beer.
Later in life, I heard this concept articulated by Jim Rohn from a slightly different angle. (The women and beer parts were notably absent.) Jim had a mentor, John Earl Shoaff, who suggested that Jim set a goal of becoming a millionaire. The reason? For what it will make of him to achieve it. The money part was irrelevant.
The greatest value in life is what you become, not what you get. Set goals that will make something of you to achieve them. That’s solid advice, and I shamelessly use that line to justify my crazy trips.
At age 23, my plan was simple: Travel until I run out of money, find a random job abroad to save up for the next trip, and then repeat the process. I had no idea where I was going, and I didn’t care. I just went with the flow and capitalized on opportunities as they came up. I did that from May 1993 through August 1996.
What kind of work did I end up doing during that time? Well, here’s the basic outline:
• Biology, math, and geography teacher for five months at the Gstaad International School in Gstaad, Switzerland—the most expensive school in the world at the time.
• Bartender for four months at The Boater, a rugby pub in Bath, England.
• Aviculturist at the captive breeding program at the International Crane Foundation to help raise all species of endangered cranes, including the whooping crane. This turned into an opportunity to go to Kenya and live in a tent for several months in the western highlands, where I worked on wetland conservation projects in and around Saiwa Swamp National Park.
You get the idea. These were great experiences, and I found it to be a priceless education. While I did a lot of wandering over those three years, I never felt lost. I sometimes wonder why I ever stopped living that way. (Oh, yeah. Now I remember: family and debt.)
Fortunately, you can apply the “early retirement” concept to your life, and it doesn’t have to be anything extreme. Write down the things that you dream of doing or learning when you retire. Then make some changes in your schedule so you can start doing those things today, without dropping the ball on your commitments to your family, job, and so on.
Why wait until retirement to do the things you love to do? Set aside a few hours each week, and gradually increase the amount of time you spend “in retirement” throughout your life. When I reach the normal retirement age, I want to write, play music, exercise, enjoy quality time with my family, spend time in nature, and travel. And that’s precisely what I do today, just in smaller doses. I hope to allocate more time to do these things as I get older.
Start your early retirement today.
Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).