Five radical lessons for getting out of the rat race

Growing up I was always fascinated with the great explorers and adventurers.

Lewis and Clark trudging across the great expanse of unknown territory to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s.

Entire families setting out in Conestoga wagons to pursue their dreams in the great westward expansion of the U.S.

For these adventurers, every pass over a mountain, through a virgin forest or across an untamed river must have been absolutely awe-inspiring. Even their trials and tribulations must have been incredibly life affirming.

Mountains near Rio Grande Panama

If you’re an adventurer at heart, here are five extreme lessons on moving abroad for the modern day explorer.

Lesson One: Indulge your urge to walkabout

It is in our DNA to travel, explore, and discover. Our genetic disposition always wants to know what’s on the other side.

For us hominids, it’s an almost Neanderthal, lizard brain desire. And it manifests itself across cultures — from Australian Aborigines who’s rite of passage includes “walkabouts” in the wilderness for months at a time, to new immigrants who leave the comfort and security of their homeland to seek economic opportunity or more personal freedom in completely foreign lands.

If like me, you came from a solidly middle class home you probably didn’t have the opportunity to travel much as a kid. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties in fact that I finally got to scratch the travel itch – taking a two-week trip to Thailand with my girlfriend at the time.

The images from that trip are now permanently seared into my memory: A stream of monks in saffron robes gliding silently down Khoh Sahn road at 3 in the morning; Watching a blazing orange sunset over a rice paddy from the window of a train; The crowds, the smells, and the squalor of Bangkok.

In the late ‘90s, the travel bug hit me so hard that I took a flyer on an insane business opportunity – exporting coffee and cocoa to Europe from the middle of a war zone in Sierra Leone.

The venture ended in failure when rebels invaded the capital city in Freetown, burned our warehouse to the ground, and stole all of our vehicles.

And yet the experience was so profound and exciting that I look back on it today as one of the most rewarding and educational two-year adventures of my life.

But for most modern day Americans our wild and adventurous spirit to explore is eventually tamed. You get married. You have your first child… And then a second.  The nesting instinct suddenly takes priority over that wild testosterone-fueled desire to walkabout and explore.

Lesson Two: Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone

If you’re like I was, you joined the corporate world and maybe even made partner. You dutifully donned the monkey suit and tie each morning even though it felt like wearing sackcloth. You try to satiate the travel bug with a rushed 7-day annual vacation.

Gradually, I grew accustomed to the creature comforts of my workaday life. For a middle class kid, the money was great. For the first time in my life, I could buy the things I always wanted. I could afford a big house and a nice car. We ate out at fancy restaurants several times a week. Life was no longer adventurous but it was plush and very comfortable.

Then almost imperceptibly, stress started entering my life. I would get to work early at 7 am each morning and started noticing that my stomach always hurt. I developed a chronic hacking phlegmy cough that never went away and that doctors could never diagnose. I put on weight. I ate like crap. I was unhealthy and couldn’t sleep.

I could never quite put my finger on what it was exactly, but I was profoundly stressed out and filled with anxiety. All of the money I was making, the fancy cars, the nice house — these were supposed to be the American dream, but they weren’t having the desired effect.

By early 2006, I finally realized what my problem was: I was terrified of losing this luxurious comfortable lifestyle I’d built for myself and ironically, I was working myself to death to hang on to the illusion of comfort.

Risk taking was no longer to be embraced it was to be avoided like the plague. I’d lost the desire to explore, discover and grow. I had become trapped in a cocoon of coziness.

Lesson Three: Remember the “Nigerian Cabbie Theory”

As it happens, there are two distinct types of stress. The first type (bad stress) is defined by low-grade chronic worry and anxiety. It is often characterized by fear of failure or fear of losing what you have.

Over time it takes a huge toll on both your mental and physical well being. Most importantly, it is reactive, that is, it is in reaction to a perceived threat. Withdrawing into our comfort zones and avoiding opportunities to explore, grow and yes, even make mistakes causes bad stress.

Good stress is different. It’s proactive and inspires us to get outside of our comfort zones and confidently take on whatever challenges life throws at us. Paradoxically, it creates a level of well being far beyond what is achieved when we slip into our comfortable, secure and convenient lives.

I once met a Nigerian cabbie on a business trip and I asked him why cabbies always talked on their cell phones. He laughed and explained that in addition to driving cabs, most cabbies had several side businesses. They talked on the phone so much because they were running their other business enterprises.

As a new immigrant to the U.S., he saw economic opportunities that I would never see. It turned out that he was a very successful entrepreneur. He owned a nightclub an import/export business and several condominiums that he rented to Nigerian immigrants.

He explained to me that many Americans were stressed and unhappy because we stopped exploring, discovering, and taking risks. We became complacent and comfortable in our cushy corporate jobs rather than pushing the envelope and risking new ventures or doing what we really wanted to do.

Lesson four: Sometimes it pays to go “all in”

My own “good stress” moment finally came to a head one late afternoon in April of 2006. I was sitting in a windowless conference room with fluorescent lights relentlessly buzzing overhead.

In the weeks before, my wife and I had been talking off and on about chucking it all and moving to some tropical paradise or far-flung Timbuktu to try something completely different. Fortunately, I married one of the few women on the planet whose desire for adventure and excitement closely approximated my own.

I called her that afternoon and told her, “I’m going to quit my job today. Lets move overseas and do something different.” She replied “Go for it.”

I met my boss that afternoon in his office and told him I was quitting. I explained that I was selling the house and moving overseas. He looked at me as if I’d completely lost my marbles.

The next two months were a blur. We put the house on the market and sold it in record time at the very top of the real estate bubble (luck). We moved most of our household belongings into storage. We settled on Panama and took two trips there to find a place to live.

And then, with a four year old and a two year old in tow, we boarded a flight to Panama and never looked back.

Lesson Five: Don’t believe for a second that America has a monopoly on personal freedom

We’ve now lived in Panama for 6 years. We had our third child here 20 months ago.

Life is great, but it’s not comfortable.

Things are not nearly as convenient as the U.S. The electric grid often goes on the fritz. Traffic can be terrible. The nearest grocery store is more than half an hour away. Medical care is an hour away and emergency services are non-existent.

But here’s the denouement: We have more personal freedom here with all of our trials, tribulations and struggles than we ever had in the U.S.

That may come as a shocker, but it’s true. America likes to brag about being the land of the free, but ask any American expat who has been out of the country for any significant period of time, and you’ll likely hear that the whole “land of the free” bit is getting a little long in the tooth.

In most developing countries today you are largely left alone. It’s not because their governments are necessarily better or put more of a premium on personal freedom and liberty by the way. Rather it’s because many of them simply don’t have the size or the scale to be up in your knickers.

In a place like Panama for instance no one really cares if you drive without a seatbelt. You can ride in the back of a pickup truck. There are no lifeguards on the beaches or government lackeys telling you where you can swim, walk, stand, park, drive, hike, or sleep. No one tells you what medicines you can or can’t take or what foods you can or can’t eat. Lawsuits or even suing someone for negligence are unheard of.

And if you’re driving on the highway and suddenly have to take a leak?  You stop on the side of the highway and take a leak in full view of all of the other cars passing by.

I know these may seem like little things, but often it’s the little things that matter.

Exploring, discovering, traveling… The reason we do these things is because ultimately they are an expression of personal freedom.

For me, the bottom line was that sacrificing personal freedom for comfort, security and convenience stalled my ability to grow and explore. It blinded me to the economic and personal growth opportunities the world had to offer.

If you’re in a rut, it’s often the most radical solutions of all that will get you into gear again.

Like the verse from the Jimmy Buffett song “changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes”, sometimes all it takes is a 3000-mile move to a completely foreign country to get your mojo back.

Share via email

Enjoyed this post? Sign up for regular updates — it's free!