Selling all your worldly possessions and packing it in for a nomadic existence can sound mighty tempting when you're stuck in a cramped office space, staring at an antiseptic wall and aching for the touch of sunlight on your skin. For most of us, it's a passing daydream, a pretty thought before getting right back to the grind. TJ Lee—formerly of San Francisco before becoming a citizen of the world—actually made it happen, handing over most of what she owned to the highest bidder and booking a trip out of town (she's traveled to 13 countries this year, including Iceland, China, Uruguay, and Bolivia). She's documenting it all on her YouTube channel with the sort of wide-eyed authenticity that's reminiscent of the very best early Real Worldconfessionals. Intrigued with the woman and the journey, we tracked her down across the globe and asked for her story.
On deciding to take the leap:
"I'd always wanted to travel the world, but the idea of becoming nomadic didn't occur to me until a year and a half into my first full-time job. My good friend Valerie had talked about 'digital nomads' and moving to Thailand to live and work. The next thing you know, she did it, and there I was still sitting at my office desk calculating my available PTO hours and thinking about how long until my next vacation.
Facebook must've tracked my new obsession because on top of my feed was an article about a program called Remote Year: travel with 75 professionals to 12 cities and spend one month in each. This was in August. I immediately emailed the program, and after a week and one interview, I was in. The excitement didn't last, though, because my company spent two months debating whether it was okay for me to travel and work for them at the same time. The answer? 'Sorry, too much liability.'
After that call, I cried; an hour later, I put up a status that my apartment was available for a year's rent. A week later the person I'd sold my car to came to pick it up. I hosted a huge closet sale to get rid of everything I owned, and all the leftovers I stuffed into bags that were either donated or trashed. By the end of November I was eating good-bye cupcakes on my last day of work—my flight out of the States was that night."
On making sure it's financially possible:
"Financial stability was the number one-concern for me, but luckily I've always loved saving. At 18 I began a savings fund for travel and rainy days, so that was helpful. I learned how to automate my finances, too. Ramit Sethi's book I Will Teach You to Be Rich did a fantastic job of helping me streamline my income so I could save and invest while pay off debt and monthly expenses—it helped me put 20 to 30 percent of every paycheck I earned into my travel fund.
On unexpected curveballs:
"Health has been a huge issue for me. South America gave me so many stomachaches and unwanted hours spent on the toilet, and traveling between time zones really stressed out my body. I wish I would have developed better eating habits and at-home workout routines before coming on the trip.
When you're digesting new things constantly, you can forget to refocus. Five months in I was thinking, Who am I? You forget you're changing so much and that your goals and desires are changing too. I've started to set weekly check-ins with myself.
I also struggled with setting too high of expectations for myself. I had so many goals and wishes for the trip, and we always overestimate the number of things we can accomplish in a year. We forget how life throws crap in your way too. Three months into my trip I received news that my best friend, who had been missing for a year, was found, but no longer in this world. I was a zombie in the weeks after that, unable to work or feel. Because I'd had so much planned for those months I felt frustrated I wasn't able to accomplish it all, but I just needed to heal."
On figuring out what to pack:
"I looked at all the countries I was traveling to and what the weather would be like when I was there. It was mostly summer year-round with bits of rain, so I decided on lighter clothing like easy dresses and separates that could create a variety of outfits. Wrinkle-free fabrics like polyester and poly blends were smart too. Before I had my moving sale, I read Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and followed that method. I purged about 10 bags of stuff, so when I had my sale, I was just selling pieces I loved that made me happy. The few things I kept were simple and minimal.
Accessories need to be comfortable and efficient: I use coconut oil as a conditioner, moisturizer, and cooking alternative. Safety accessories are also vital for me, not because the world is frighteningly dangerous, but because accidents can happen all the time. Having things like a whistle to help others locate you or a flashlight at night help ease nerves."
On the biggest challenges and rewards:
"Dealing with my mental health has been the biggest challenge. A trip like this is literally life-changing. I'm now a freelance photographer and videographer instead of a full-time marketing professional, and I don't know when my next project will come. The successes I achieved in my previous life no longer apply, and I'm starting from zero. That professional transition combined with the craziness that comes with moving and traveling has thrown me into a tornado of emotions at times.
Traveling is a test. Everything from dealing with getting your stuff lost or stolen to not losing it when the toilet is clogged on a 16-hour bus ride. But if you pass each hurdle you're rewarded with unbelievable scenery like the salt flats of Bolivia and the castles of Prague; you're greeted by hippie bread-makers from Uruguay and giggling kids in the countryside of Taiwan. You're taught that love and human kindness exists in all people in all parts of the world. I've seen how small I am compared to the massiveness of the universe and am consistently reminded to be grateful, humble, and to give back to the world what it has given to me."