I Took a Year Off and This is What I’ve Learned

In December 2016 I decided to leave behind a perfectly fine job and take some time for myself to go travelling. The trip lasted about six months before I was tired and out of cash.

For the six months after I spent time back home in Toronto trying to figure out what I want to do, in addition to figuring out a financial picture for myself.

The first question you probably want to know is, “where did you go?”, so I will start there and then move to some of the lessons i’ve learned from this experience.

Preparing for the Trip

Part of my motivation for the project was a sense of frustration with living in a big city. I found that I spent all my days at work, yet at the end of the month was fairly broke. I had been wanting to go to Berlin for ages, and I didn’t see this happening any time soon with my financial picture.

So I said “what the heck?”, and decided to give notice with my landlord, then with work, and finally with my parents, who were hysteric about what I had done. By the time I landed in Berlin, my family had come around and were excited that I was finally going to see all these places in Europe that they have enjoyed seeing in recent years.

The Trip Itself

The plan for the trip is I was busy working on a soundtrack to a game (Orphan Black: The Game for iPad). I was also doing research for my company, Spaghetti Lab, to see what sort of penetration that maker technology has made in different countries. I will follow up with what I learned about this later on in the post.

I spent January in Berlin, which I found to be a little on the dreary side. But I made some fantastic new friends there, and got to experience a culture that really loves everything techno. I also got to see that Berlin is similar to Toronto in that it is a melange of ethnicities living under one roof.

By February I needed some warmer weather, so I packed up and headed to Spain, with a week in Portugal. This is where I started to become a traveller as I felt the euphoria of stepping into a new world the day I arrived in Barcelona.

March was split between the south of France and Italy, and by the end of the month I had made it to the north with Paris and Amsterdam. Closing in on April I hopped on a plane to Tel-Aviv ready to experience the Startup Nation.

In Israel, I felt the true joy of travel as I stayed in the numerous hostels throughout the tiny country. I started to meet more Europeans than I did in Europe itself (since I would stay in people’s homes through AirBNB).

By the end of a month in Israel I got an ear infection from wearing earplugs at night to block out the sounds of snorers, and I was getting run down. I wanted to keep going further east to Asia, but the more practical decision was to head West to London and New York.

After traversing through Boston and Burlington, Vermont, I ended up back in Canada where I no longer had to be worried about things like having an ear infection due to our healthcare system. My trip concluded on the East coast in places like Halifax and Prince Edward Island, a region of my country that I had never been to before.

On the last day of my trip I had to hitchhike to get to the airport in Halifax, and then I made it home.

As someone who never liked travel much, I can’t speak any higher about this experience, even though this might be ignoring some of the more difficult times I went through on the trip with constantly finding a new home every few days.

What I Learned – Work Perspective

As I wrote earlier in the post, I was working on two projects while I was travelling. The first was traditional client-style work (the soundtrack), and the second was for my own career (Spaghetti Lab).

I was curious how it would be to do freelance work while travelling, as this is a hot topic in the Digital Nomad space. Personally I found this very difficult overall because I was so new to this type of work. In Berlin I found it very hard to find a place to work that wasn’t too expensive. Like in most cities, coworking comes at a premium now, costing at least $20/day. On the flipside, working in cafés is always hit and miss, and is hard to get settled.

And once I ended up in Spain, I was now really on the move, which made things more complicated. There was a day when I really had to deliver a lot of work, yet I was on a bus that offered me very little space to use a laptop because a person was sitting next to me. A traveller has a lot of things to be mindful of, and mixing in work made for a bit of a frazzling experience.

If I were to do it over again I would only do remote work if I was settled into just a handful of places. Rent a place for a month, and make sure it has a desk in the room to do work. You will have to sacrifice a lot of fun times but that is the cost of working in a random location. It would also be preferable to do work in a similar time zone to where your clients or customers are.

I recently hired a freelancer who was a solid twelve hours ahead of me, and I couldn’t continue the project because it was so hard to meet with her.

What I Learned – In General

The virtues of travel are the easy part to discuss. They are kind of obvious even though it takes many of us years to figure this lesson out.

The harder lesson that i’ve learned this year is that happiness is really up to you. When I was in Toronto last year, you could say that I was in an unhappy state as I wanted to travel yet couldn’t afford it. I thought that wiping the slate clean would help alleviate some issues, but after the trip was done, I was broke again, and have stayed at home with my family longer than most people would do.

So, I now have the opportunity to exercise this lesson that I learned. Happiness is up to me, every single moment. Even though it has been frustrating at times negotiating what my parents want to see me do, and what I want to do, I am learning to cherish every moment I have on this planet.

I also used to treat my hometown Toronto with a bit of contempt. Lately I have been working at a job downtown which brings me into the heart of the city every day. I have the choice to view the people and the architecture with a negative outlook, that I live in a big city full of evil motivations with people who prioritize how they look over who they really are inside. However, I can catch myself in these destructive thinking habits and am able to see the good in everything.  It is a beautiful city made up people just like me who are looking to make the world a better place.

Sometimes when the weather is dark and I am tired, I can close my eyes and dial up a memory of being at the coast of Spain or Israel, or the calm I felt while being in a museum in Naples or Amsterdam. I am so grateful for the opportunity I gave myself to take a break from 9-5 work, and really get in touch with who I am and what I enjoy.

While I was away, I had to evaluate if I wanted to keep working on the Spaghetti Lab project I had started before I left. In every city, in every department store, in every neighbourhood, I was constantly looking at who was selling small programmable machines like the Arduino. In Berlin I loved going into the store where so many people buy modular synths, or their equivalent to Radio Shack known as Konrad. There was no question by the end of the year that I love this world of tinkering more than anything else. I am excited to share with you more developments on my company in the months ahead, as we move into a new year.