After many failed attempts and years of dreaming, I finally conquered my fears and walked out of IBM Global Services for the last time on December 31, 2005.
This is the true story of my escaping Corporate America to begin a life of travel and adventure (as documented here on my vagabonding blog, VagabondingLife.com).
I hope this provides some inspiration and insight for visualizing your own escape from corporate life someday.
– Greg Rodgers
The Day I Escaped Corporate America
The year was 2005. I was standing in bright winter sunshine. My dreams were coming true, but I was scared out of my mind.
A four-story concrete building with tinted windows loomed over me. I stood at the edge of its shadow and looked up. The sky was clear and blue.
My hand rested on a cold metal railing I knew very well. It ran along wide steps to the back door. I dragged up those steps and went in that door every day throughout most of my 20s. The sun was often gone when I emerged—usually feeling tired and broken. My job as a network engineer at IBM required me to work nearly every weekend. I was often called out late at night for various outages and incidents.
My job was my life, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I wasn’t exactly saving spotted owls. If anything, I was probably aiding corporations that turned them into pillow stuffing. I was ruining my health to bring an absurd level of wealth to people who didn’t even know my name.
I dreamed of running off into the night. Escaping. Life had to be bigger than just grinding for a salary.
I wasn’t alone in my discontentment. Most of my coworkers were equally miserable. They celebrated Wednesdays because the week was half over. Plans of a mutiny were murmured daily, but it never came. We all lived with the delusion that more money was needed to escape our unhappy situation.
But today was different. For once, instead of voicing the same, tired complaints, I was taking action. I felt a sense of power. Fear faded into relief as I stood on those steps. Meanwhile, scenes from the last eight years replayed in my mind.
Getting Trapped in a Corporate Job
Landing the IBM job was a feat only successful thanks to many hours of hard work and study.
When most folks were dulling senses in front of suburban televisions, I studied. I built servers and networks at home. I hacked everything I could get my hands on. Scripting Linux commands ran late into the night. Screens glowed in a semicircle around me. The Matrix movie had come out the year before, and I was as pale as Neo in the film.
Even still, when I landed what should have been my dream job, I was clueless.
Fortunately, my technical mentors at IBM were the best in the business. One’s still a hero of mine. Because of him, I became good at my job. His advice reached beyond just work. During a visit to their farm, his wife—a writer and editor—encouraged me to continue dabbling with words. I accidentally took that advice. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Stanback.
But as I learned later, being a doer in a company of talkers isn’t necessarily a good thing. The reward for proving yourself competent was often more meetings, more questions, more projects.
The talkers scheduled full days of conference calls. They sent emails by the hundreds; it’s all they knew how to do. That didn’t leave much time for us doers to do anything.
I bought a house, my first and only, in the suburbs. I was proud, but it was way bigger than I needed. It backed up to a park where equestrians trained. I had an SUV with leather smell and the usual luxurious options. I owned six computers—all the latest and greatest hardware that I assembled myself. Computers had four-digit price tags back then.
I bought lots of iToys and gadgets. Some were supposed to help me do my job better. Some promised to help me spend what little free time I had more efficiently. A lot of the stuff I bought was supposed to boost my health and happiness, two things I was trading for money in the first place!
In evenings, I left the office then logged on at home to continue working. I was regularly called for network problems throughout the night. Holidays didn’t matter. My accounts in India didn’t care about nonsense excuses such as Christmas or New Year. I spent the last days and hours of the 20th century averting the Y2K apocalypse.
A lot of the stuff I bought was supposed to boost my health and happiness, two things I was trading for money in the first place!
Overtime was mandatory and unpaid. Yes, that is illegal. IBM later settled a lawsuit for the practice. Us techies celebrated a tiny victory. Management retaliated swiftly by cutting all travel, classes, benefits, and cost-of-living increases. The top executives received bonuses while we were tightening the belt.
During extended network outages, I slept on the office floor. Whatever weekends IBM didn’t claim, my commitment to the Army National Guard did. My health and quality of life quietly deteriorated.
My peers who had more seniority and larger salaries seemed no happier with their situations. We shared a common hatred for the company. In an enlightened moment, I realized that obtaining more money was not going to sustainably increase my core happiness levels.
What I really wanted and needed was more time.
Trading Time for Money
Why trade all time for money when many of the best things to enjoy in life are free?
I began searching for a way to reboot my life, to live more intentionally. Why had I turned over control of my time to someone else? How much money did I really need to live happily? I looked into options such as volunteering and off-grid living on a homestead.
While doing research, I stumbled across the friendly community at Portland-based Bootsnall.com. There, I learned that you didn’t have to be rich to travel indefinitely or frolic in white sand for longer than two weeks.
Waiting for retirement to travel was folly. Someone in the forums turned me on to Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding. It opened my eyes to something simple I had been ignoring: Most of the things that make us happy cost very little.
I craved sunshine and exercise. I wanted to decide what to do with my day instead of someone else telling me what to do.
More than material things, I wanted time to read, hike, climb, cook, develop myself, practice kung fu, learn languages, and visit family and friends. The things that made me happy don’t cost very much.
I simply wanted to live and learn new things. I wanted to not feel rushed all the time. I wanted to not care what time or day it was.
The idea of waiting until age 65 to fish (a relatively low-cost pursuit) whenever I wanted suddenly seemed ludicrous.
The path to a new future became clear. After a few months of saving and planning, those cubicle days were now over. There would be no going back tonight—or ever. Life was about to change drastically.
Leaving Corporate America to Travel the World
Moments earlier, I had handed in my well-worn employee badge.
The job market for technical types was bad. A financial crisis later dubbed the “Great Recession” was building. My chances of being reinserted into the Matrix again were poor. Walking down those back steps at IBM, I wondered if this was how “regular” people ended up homeless later in life. Did it all boil down to one or two bad decisions made decades earlier?
All the bravado of what I planned to do in the last hours on the last day at work dissolved. I had fantasized about this day for years, but I was too introspective to celebrate. No stubborn printers were smashed to smithereens in a field. No obscene gestures were given.
Thoughts were somber as my manager walked me out. She wished me good luck. I heard the door to Corporate America click shut behind me forever.
After the panic subsided, a calm you-did-it feeling crept over me.
Adrenaline faded to elation as I turned toward the parking lot. The scene is burned into my memory as if it happened this morning. That moment redefined who I would become for the rest of my life. I learned that escape is possible, you’ve just got to take that first step. It’s a big one.
I expected things to feel out of control. But instead, I felt like I had finally seized the reins. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt in control. There was a new inner calm in my core. This was big. I had turned to face the hooded rider pursuing me all my life. In a moment of defiance, I had bitten the hand that was both feeding and beating me.
When I got home, I began my international travel prep for vagabonding.
Beginning a Life of Travel
Little did I know what was in store for the next 15 years. Had I known, there would have been better reason to panic on that December day. Leaving a comfort zone, no matter how uncomfortable, can be stressful.
Three weeks later I’d be traveling abroad for the first time in my life. My one-way flight would touch down in Bangkok with a midnight squeak-thump! of the landing gear that filled me with terror. I would be completely on my own in an unfamiliar place. It was my first time in a foreign country.
(I describe in detail the terror I felt, why, and how I overcame in my How to Beat Fear ebook.)
I had no backup, no rescue, and no guarantee of success.
I also had no income after escaping Corporate America. My life savings were limited, even after selling everything. That savings had to get me around the world, last a long time, and allow me to build some sort of new career or endeavor.
Despite having held a well-paying job for eight years, I spent much of what I earned. That’s the American way.
Friends and family would be 23 hours of flying away. We would be 9,000 miles apart, literally a world away from each other. As they drifted off to sleep in the Eastern Time Zone, I would begin my day in Asia. I didn’t have an international phone for contacting them or swapping daily text messages.
I had no plan and no guidebook—only optimism to survive whatever came next. I felt fear and doubt. But what I thought would be a six-month experiment in escaping Corporate America unexpectedly turned into a life of travel—a better life.
I found happiness, love, loneliness, and near-death experiences. I had way more adventure than I ever did in the army. I saw things that I still can’t believe. My understanding of myself and my place in this world are forever altered.
Meanwhile, my stuff quietly depreciated in climate-controlled storage. I naively paid $200 a month to keep it there rotting away. I thought I may need a couch again if I failed at vagabonding. My fancy SUV rusted silently. I didn’t mind so much. I was too busy being alive to worry about that stuff.
The deluge of experiences and passport stamps was torrential.
From Cubicle to Castaway
After a few months on the road, my former life faded to a hazy memory. It all seemed so far away. I eventually did come back, but I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land. Along with the paradigm shift came a new set of eyes. Nothing would ever be the same. There were sacrifices, but the gains from escaping Corporate America were worthy.
When I left Kentucky, I was on my own—in more ways than one. My hesitant-but-supportive family doesn’t travel internationally. Few of my friends and cohorts had passports. In 2006, backpacking world-travelers were rare in my hometown. Digital nomads weren’t a thing, yet. Connectivity just wasn’t good enough.
Leaving a corporate job was completely mad, I was told many times. The economy was rapidly springing leaks and sure to sink.
And sink it did. But I hardly noticed. As the economy slipped into a recession, I was driving a motorbike through the jungle interior of an island. I was climbing volcanoes and diving with sharks. I learned how to spear fish and open a coconut. I ate two-dollar dinners and slept in bungalows for $10 a night or less.
I was gaining new reference points from cultures around the globe. I was falling in love, forging friendships, and earning scars—the good kind—that I’ll still enjoy in old age.
I experienced the highs and the lows, the dangers and the rewards, of what this world has to offer in the raw.
No matter what happens later, those glorious experiences are mine to keep. No one can take them away. As fellow Kentuckian Hunter S. Thompson said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride … ” I heeded that Gonzo madman’s advice, and what a ride it has been.
Escaping Corporate America Is Possible
I’m not special, and I’m certainly not wealthy. I come from a middle-class world of clipping coupons and driving across town to find cheaper gas.
Anyone who wishes to transform their life can do exactly what I did—probably better. I’m no ninja. I definitely didn’t pave the way, and I certainly won’t be the last.
Is it in your blood? Either you feel it boiling right now from what you’ve just read or you don’t.
Travel is just one of many ways to achieve personal growth. An unconventional life on the road isn’t for everyone. Vagabonding isn’t just challenging, sometimes it’s absolute hell. After a while, you just get tired of checking your bed for scorpions.
But if you feel you were pushed into a way of life that really doesn’t fit, if you’re longing to grow, if you have a gnawing in your gut that says there just has to be more—you’ve landed in the right place.
Believe me, you aren’t alone. There are many of us.
The conventional life centered around consumerism and “stability” is only a fraction of what’s really available out there. It’s a throwback from the old days, from a time between wars when digging in to live quietly was a good thing.
Don’t believe those weary, defeated people who tell you that life is hard, and ignore what they tell you about “the real world.” How would they know? Most of them haven’t seen much of it.
Whatever you’re looking for is out there, and there’s more than enough to go around.
If you’re willing to do what other people won’t, you can live in a way other people can’t.
You’ve just got to stop running, face fear, and begin living an exceptional, deliberate life. Escaping Corporate America is a good start (assuming it makes you unhappy).
If you are happy with your current job, you may be able to begin remote work to enable travel.
Big change must always begin with a shift of personal priorities. As with all new endeavors, no amount of planning or studying can replace hoisting the black flag and getting down to work. That is the true nature of change.
You could read every book written about surfing. But you’ll never know what it is to surf until you charge into that foaming wave, taste the salt, and get the hell knocked out of you. Escaping Corporate America to set up a life of travel is no different. The lessons are tough, but the rewards are great.
This beautiful planet is ready to treat you to experience, personal development, romance, beauty, and exceptional people.
Once in my 30s, I realized I shouldn’t be “looking” for the magic—I should be creating it.
A lot of discontent people cry “poor me.” They think life is like some rickety carnival ride we can’t control. Our wheels ply along the rusty track laid out by bosses, politicians, and people bigger than us. We have no clue what’s waiting up ahead. The toy steering wheel in our hands just spins freely. We have no control. Where did the hungover workmen end the track? Will we fall into the weeds?
The clowns in charge would rather you stay put. You’re helping make them richer. They prefer to be the ones who travel the world while you drown in plastic things.
But you do have control. Don’t expect the other passengers to help. You are responsible for your own happiness. You’ve got to take that first step. Begin by escaping Corporate America, get out, go punch Bozo in his red nose, and get your money’s worth.
Greg Rodgers is a corporate escapee, budget traveler, and location-independent writer. He created Science of Escape to help others also enjoy a thrilling life of travel.