The worst part of vacation is returning and heading back to work. I just listened to the audiobook, Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. It’s a philosophy book disguised as a travel book. As I drove my family to spend a week in Chicago I listened as Potts described a lifestyle built around travel as a priority with only as much work as needed as opposed to a life where work is the priority. I was thankful, listening to his vision of extended travel, that I would not be rushing back to work. Ten years ago I quit going to work and quit checking in with the boss.
There’s a meme that circulates on social media – Create a Life You Don’t Need to Take a Vacation From – and that’s what I try to do every day. The truth is I would work during our Chicago stay. I would sneak off in the mornings before my wife and the girls wake. I would head off on foot into the waking city, feel the pace of those who are cubicle-bound. But I’ve designed slack in my chain and one of the benefits is that after a vacation or after a weekend I don’t sink back into the swamp of the work world. I thought about this as I drove and listened to the audiobook and wondered if I hadn’t maybe found my own version of vagabonding. Maybe my liberation from all I found offensive about work was my own extended “vacation.”
What if we could somehow incorporate work the way we want to work into life the way we want to live?
Vagabonding’s second chapter, where he talks about building up enough thrust to exit the work world for an extended period of time, is titled: Earn Your Freedom. I was sure that this would be where Potts would answer my most pressing question: What’s Potts’ Magic Formula for putting distance between the traveler and his work life? How do you do it? What’s the trick? Once we’re free, most of us would think that we would have no problem being self-directed in our life and in our travels. But, how to get free? What is the method that Potts uses to carve out the permission from the world to take extended leave of his responsibilities? I’m always looking for new ways to break free.
In Earning Your Freedom, Potts tells us to focus of the gratification of extended travel following the season of work. He uses the wealthy trust-fund travelers to make the point that it’s harder to experience an authentic experience when you’ve invested nothing in it. He quotes from literature to illustrate a universal distain of work. He tells us to visualize the beers and dinners we won’t drink at home as a sacrifice so that we might enjoy authentic dishes later, in some far off land.
But shouldn’t removing the work/travel conflict once and for all be the ultimate goal? The worst part of travel is heading back to work. But, Potts reinforces the belief that work is necessary in order to earn and enjoy our time off. But, what if there’s another level to approaching this quest for the extended vacation? What if there’s another way to live a life of discovery and appreciation of newness that doesn’t require a return to the drudgery of work? What if we could somehow incorporate work the way we want to work into life the way we want to live?
Limits bum me out. Why do we have to stop adventuring in order to start working? Why must “refueling” be soul-sucking? This acceptance of an eventual return to work reminds me of how Aubrey DeGray chides people for using the same old excuses for why we should just accept the inevitability of death. “Life would be valueless without out it,” they say. “Can you imagine how boring it would be to live forever,” they plead. “Bullshit!” DeGray exclaims. Like DeGray I can’t accept the limitation just because “that’s the way it’s always been.” Haven’t we advanced beyond this!
Imagine one of those cheesy illusion paintings. You know the ones where half the population first sees the old people and the other half notices a beautiful young couple in courtship. We are delighted when the one we didn’t notice at first comes into focus. But, notice how the two cannot exist together. You can’t focus on both at the same time but rather they seem to shift back and forth before our eyes in an uncontrollable flicker. This is my metaphor for the world where work and freedom are two distinct and isolated things.
I hate arbitrary boundaries. If you tell me that daytime is the time for work or adventures and nighttime is a time for sleep I will immediately want to go have adventures or do my work at night. I want to meet the cast of characters who live at night and who have everything upside down. I want to see the world from an unusual and interesting perspective and by doing this, be able to appreciate all perspectives. I want to inhabit the entirety of existence fully and without boundaries. And I want to own and enjoy all time and all space that I have at my disposal.
Potts describes work as a time away from travel to support long-term travels. And, I love 99.999% of what he has in his book. Let’s face it he’s attacking an enormous pre-conception – that travel should be hurried and shallow and short and cookie-cutter. But, what bothers me is the assumption that there must be a dichotomy. That “work” is the sentence we must serve in order to earn our freedom. What about the possibility that the two could inhabit the same place, and that by both existing together each enhances the other?
Can’t we be trusted to be useful while remaining free? Why hasn’t Mankind set its mind to solving this bane of our existence. Think of the lives that could be changed if we could only reclaim not only the miles of the globe that Potts points to but even more, the hours of our lives, that we didn’t realize we had traded away?
Why should the assumption about work be that it is the time we must serve as if in a kind of gilded prison in order to earn brief – or in the case of Vagabonding, more extended, leave? Where must the “time off” or “holiday” end? How far can this be pushed? Potts himself must be the nearly perfect example where Vagabonding has become his life. He works as a travel writer/blogger/speaker. He has fully stepped into the reality of wrapping travel around his existence.
I enjoy travel, but fundamentally it isn’t physical travel that I seek. For me, travel is an experience that gives me the feeling of being truly free to explore the world as if it were as new as when I first opened my eyes this morning. In this sense, an eternal stay-cation where I can explore my hometown at what ever hour offers almost as much adventure as a trip to wherever. Plus, I can sleep in my own bed. What I really seek is the sensation of constantly opening my eyes to the beauty and wonder of this playground that we are afforded. Travel is just one way to enhance the senses by changing things up.
I thought of the illusion paintings and imagined this article as it’s own illusion painting. At first we see a man working. Maybe he is doing manual labor. Maybe he is toiling in a factory lighted by an open blast furnace.
But wait. We change our focus just a little bit and now something else comes into view. We see that the brilliant orange light of the open blast furnace appears now to be a sun setting over an endless ocean. The veil of smoke and dust that hung in the air becomes light stratus clouds floating out over the expanse of water. It turns out that we are looking at the same man lounging on a tranquil beach.
How could the two very different depictions of the same man exist in one painting? Now, instead of a man in a factory, let’s see ourself at our office desk miles from home or from where we wish we were. Now, see ourself trying to enjoy a week in some exciting place trying not to think about returning to 51 weeks in traffic, in a cubicle, at work.
Let’s make the “vacation self” we see enjoying her liberty the same person who is being useful and gainfully employed. Let’s remove the necessity to focus on one and then the other separately. Let’s bring the work that we want to do into focus with the freedom that we crave. (In a nutshell, my own personal answer to bringing these worlds together was to learn a skill that I found both rewarding and that allows me to work from anywhere: web services. But you might start charging money for that wood-work hobby. Or, find a way that you can use your teaching skills outside of a standard classroom. That’s the “How” that this website is about.)
How might we adjust what labor our painted self is performing so that it incorporates some of the colors and brightness and warmth and relaxation of our other “vacation” self. How can we adjust our mindset so that we are free to enjoy and experience every landscape we inhabit. Maybe we could accept that a possible trade-off of some of our income might be worth it to purchase our freedom. Maybe we could realize that money isn’t our only motivator – maybe it’s pretty far down our own list. Maybe we could learn to stop fearing uncertainty and actually embrace it. After all, so many of the certainties we cling to in life are really just illusory.
Some might claim that they need the separation of Work and Life. They need two sealed and separate containers for their life and their work. For them, work and life remaining distinct and even contrasting is necessary for their world-view to remain harmonious. I say that’s fine with me if it’s fine with them. Potts often tells the reader that Vagabonding might not be for everyone.
Imagine your big, annual vacation. Let’s say you are going to Europe and we’ll say that you’ve booked two weeks. What would happen if you decided to stay in Paris one extra day – assuming there was no problem re-scheduling your flights? What would prevent you? Maybe you’re running a little low on money, or perhaps there are familial duties, but most likely it is your boss. He wants you back at your desk, answering phones. There are phones in Paris. You can answer an email from a sidewalk cafe while sipping a Cappucino as easily as from a florescent-lighted cubicle in an office park. And, you and I should demand this freedom. Now imagine that instead of an extra day you’d like to stay an extra week, a month, a lifetime? What will you allow to prevent this possibility?
Workplaces have devolved to confuse physical presence with productivity. The lazy approach to human resources has become a simple counting of heads. Who showed up to work today? Who logged in to their work station. I once had a job that required me to login to three different systems to prove to HR that I was present, engaged and locked in. I think the assumption was that with this much restraint I must be doing the work – what else could I be doing? In truth, every new restrain made me question why I was there and prompted me to begin planning my escape. But, to each his own. Just like a dog’s crate, some find close quarters comforting or else they look around at everyone else and accept that this is just the way it is. Birth. School. Work. Death.
I loved the spirit of Vagabonding. I loved its liberating message. The key to Vagabonding it seems to me is, like Thoreau’s self-test, taking stock of what your individual self is yearning for and committing to it. The key to work-life freedom is taking stock of your personal understanding of Productivity and Life.
Both begin by visualizing yourself where you want to be and by building that vision by consciously moving in that direction – taking A Day On and then another, and then another…