Things I Learned While Living Out of a Backpack
Published 2015 on Refinery 29
I wrote this piece to share the larger lessons I learned after selling all of my belongings and living out of a backpack for over a year. The finished article received a lot of praise on Twitter, was shared organically by New York Magazine, and led to me being interviewed and featured in People Magazine.
Unfortunately it went live with alternate titles (one example below) that didn’t encompass the message I was trying to convey, so I feel the need to provide the following disclaimers: I didn’t quit my job, I was let go; and while I was happy and content with my life, I never would’ve said that "I left my perfect life."
Things I Learned While Living out of a Backpack
After eight years of living in New York City, I finally had it all — my own Manhattan apartment just a few blocks from Central Park, a good job doing what I loved, a passport quickly filling with stamps, and an active social and dating life. While most people would have been happy (if not elated) with all of that, the truth is, I was bored. I was ready for a change. So I sold nearly everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to South America.
I spent five months living out of a backpack while traveling the continent and continued life as a nomad for another seven months once I returned to the U.S. All I can say is, as much as the hustle of New York City taught me about being a hardworking, thick-skinned professional, freeing myself from that fast-paced, career-driven lifestyle taught me so much more.
It wasn’t until I got rid of everything that I realized just how liberating “less is more” truly is. I downsized my belongings to a stack of boxes that could fit into my parents’ attic. It was a tough decision to get rid of everything I’d worked so hard for over the years, but once I sold that first clunky desktop computer, I couldn’t find enough junk to get rid of. Not only that, but the longer I lived with just the things on my back, the less I wanted to own things.
Everything I owned now was functional and multipurpose. I exchanged my wardrobe for a handful of key layerable pieces. My makeup bag was reduced to four items — SPF moisturizer, concealer, baby powder, and lip balm. And since showers in South America tended to be short and cold, I invested in wet wipes, ditched the hairstyling routine, and learned to embrace my natural hair color and air-dried texture. After about a month, I surprised myself when my already incredibly high self-esteem hit diva levels once I started going natural.
I’d like to think that this newfound attitude helped make me less socially awkward, too. Most people wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be painfully shy, to the point where I used to come home from school crying as a child, begging my mom to never make me go back. But now, as one of my friends says, you could drop me anywhere in the world and I would leave with 10 new friends. Traveling alone and sharing tiny hostel rooms, delicious homemade dinners, and long bus rides with complete strangers finally taught me how to make small talk with just about anyone. I didn’t even realize that I’d spent eight years hurrying around New York, squeezing onto crowded rush hour trains with headphones on, and never really meeting any of the eight million people around me.
Another thing I realized was that most random interactions I had in New York started with “what do you do?” Sadly, the answer usually dictated how long the conversation would last. But once I hit the road, career choice took a back seat to life experiences. Whether I was talking to the hostel owner, a local family, or just a fellow traveler, I got to know people based on their passions and beliefs without the preconceived notions that come with a job title. Maybe it was just me growing as a person, but I found myself opening up to more types of people and making an effort to learn from their varying outlooks. Even when we didn’t see eye to eye, I still figured out how to travel, work alongside, and simply coexist with them.
My frugal ways meant I was too cheap to pay for an international cell phone plan (plus I didn’t want to stand out as a flashy tourist), so I packed away my iPhone and ditched the headphones. Thankfully, this forced me to let go of my addiction to technology. Don’t get me wrong, I still took advantage of the elusive Wi-Fi connection that was strong enough to upload a few photos and Skype my parents, but I was getting around without GPS and no longer checking my social channels every 10 minutes.
Perhaps the most important thing I was reminded of is that I don’t have to follow any career or life path other than my own. After so many years spent proving to myself that I could make it in New York, I finally learned that it’s okay to get a bit lost and simply take things one step, one day, and one opportunity at a time — which is much easier to do when you’re not tied down by leases and contracts. As long as I followed my gut and kept making every decision based on my own values and beliefs, I knew I would eventually get to where I was supposed to be.
Over the course of my travels, I realized that every positive life-changing experience I’ve ever had has come from taking a risk. After returning home, I got a full-time job offer in L.A. that I was finally ready for. I still love, and will always love, New York. But as someone who’s always been a goal-oriented, borderline obsessive planner, learning to roll with the flow has been one of the biggest transformations of my life. Now, I’m settling into a completely new life on the West Coast, but it’s comforting to know that I can always take a break or change paths again if I feel the need. Things will work out just fine.