The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Learn

I’ve never really been one to follow the masses or participate in the rigid march of conformity. I sold candy on the black market in 5th grade, started an auto parts company when I was 16, skipped my senior year of high school, and was on a one-way flight to Vegas during my college graduation.

Buenos Aires Balcony

Looking out from my balcony in Buenos Aires

At age 23, I was making plenty of money and was only working a few hours a day. It was every guy’s dream – living in Sin City, improving my Call of Duty skills with previously undiscovered dedication, and embracing a general lack of responsibility that I hadn’t experienced since…well, college. So, after a year in Vegas, I took the next logical step – I moved back to New Jersey (where I grew up),  started working for the family business, and signed a 15 month lease with a new girlfriend that I met on Match.com.

Wait, what?

Me – the poster child of nonconformity and bane of authority figures nationwide – working a 9-5, playing house, and living 10 minutes from my childhood home. What had the world come to?

I was sure I was making a brilliant decision at the time. I reasoned that my business was well on its way to being automated and, with all the free time I had, I could earn a second salary, have great medical benefits, and start a 401(k) plan (I hated writing this sentence).

The truth is that I had a shameful secret. I had read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and though I eagerly told my friends and family about my quest to finish automating my business, I kept one key detail mostly to myself. I wanted – in the worst way – to leave everything else behind and embark an adventure around the world, starting in Buenos Aires. By Tim’s description, I was sure it would magically transform me into a walking, talking TED conference who could smash finance majors with my wallet.

It was this innermost desire upon which I was fixated – the trip, not the banker-smashing – and my heart raced as I thought of getting on a plane with nothing but a backpack, completely oblivious to what mysteries may await me in Argentina. But alas, the adventure seemed a pipe dream, akin to the giant rocket-powered pacifier that I drew as a child and never had the chance to fly.

Ironically, I found it hardest to share my dream with the people I trusted the most – my business coach, my family, my (ex)girlfriend, or the CEO group that I met with monthly. But when I traveled for business, I’d tell anyone who would listen – passengers, bartenders, homeless people – that I had outsourced my business and I would soon be moving to Argentina. It was a harmless lie that was exciting to tell, and I enjoyed the encouraging reactions that I would get. But in the back of my mind, I was sure that I would never go – it was like telling the exciting story of some bizarre, uninhibited, alternate-reality version of myself.

I agonized over whether or not to leave the family business. I worried that people would think I was a failure or a quitter if I left. I petitioned trusted advisors for advice but I always felt that they were judging me for wanting to leave – they all seemed to disapprove. I spent over a year talking about the decision, the pros and cons, the potential outcomes and alternatives – mostly without bringing up my true desire to travel the world.

I can tend to get stuck in a rut of circular arguments and major decisions like this can become paralyzing for me. In one particularly unproductive discussion, my business coach said a few words that changed my life forever:

What do you care what I think you should do? You’re the one that has to live with it. This is your life.

There are no rules.

There are no rules. It’s taken a long time for that to sink in for me. When people think “no rules,” they usually think about someone like Richard Branson who travels into space on a rocket made of money. In order to grasp this concept, we need something tangible – something far-fetched that you or I could actually do right now.

Right now, you can quit your job, get in a car or a bus, drive to Mexico, and live in a tent on the beach. Regardless of whether you’re 18 or 65, married or single, rich or poor, this is something that you could do.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine each step. Imagine quitting your job. Visualize yourself packing the suitcase. Fast forward through the drive and picture yourself pulling up to a deserted beach. Think about what it would feel like to pitch the tent and sleep the first night under the stars.

I’m not suggesting that you actually do this, but you need to know that it’s possible. Most dreams don’t require a magic lamp and a genie – they just require action. You need to know that you, and you alone, hold the power to make any decision that you want to make. And the flip side is that you get to live with the consequences – good or bad – of anything that you do.

I was conditioned to think that it was unreasonable to move to South America. It just isn’t something that a normal person does. Like a rubber band, I snapped back to a 9-5 job after being outside “normal society” by working from home in Las Vegas. And in the end, that was a pressure and a judgement that I exerted on myself – I felt so guilty about my nontraditional freedom that I forced myself back into the mainstream. Two years later, all I wanted was for an authority figure to tell me that it was OK to leave the family business and move to Argentina. But why did I want their approval?

I look back on some of the decisions upon which I’ve agonized – decisions that seemed monumental at the time, or decisions about which I felt so torn. I realize now that I knew what I wanted early on but I was afraid to make the choice for myself. Instead, I tried to collect endorsements for my decision from friends and mentors, or, in some cases, I waited around for someone else to make the decision first. Sometimes years passed by while I waited to feel good about a choice I was going to make. The most important thing I learned about decision making is that the right decision isn’t always going to feel good in the moment that you make it.

It’s raining now and I’m sitting on my balcony in the heart of Buenos Aires. When I talk about my “no rules” philosophy here, fellow vagabonds just nod their head and smile. To some degree or another, all world travelers have cast off from the mainland and left behind the arbitrary and imaginary rules that we’ve imposed on ourselves. I know I did, and I can tell you that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. There are no rules – your life is right there waiting for you to start living it.

Volkswagen ran a brilliant campaign some years back and it feels appropriate here: “On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers Wanted.” We all have a fantasy that we’ve hidden from the world – a fantasy that we’ve deemed too radical, too risky, or too silly to pursue. What is your’s?

Take the first step towards getting back in the driver’s seat – tell someone about your dream. Saying it out loud gets you one step closer to living it.

Un abrazo fuerte,

Zack

PS. My dream is to become a published author. Will you help me by sharing this post?

66 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Learn

  1. Absolutely awesome in reminding us old adventurers to get back into the Indiana Jones swing of things and to not limit ourselves with the expectations others impose on us that we internalize ourselves. Our society, and well-meaning friends, colleagues and family may hold hopes for us that no longer ring true for us deep down inside. Just like my move to a brand new city out West in Canada proved to be too much for my dear friends in Toronto, I can only imagine what it was like for you to have to move to an entirely new country. What is inspiring is how the pursuit, not just the accomplishment can reap positive benefits in the strength we discover within ourselves to jump higher, past our self-analysis to the point of paralysis, and beyond our fears of negative outcomes.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I’ve long preached these things to my kids, and want to see them reach outside of the box. I was a young mother, and have had tragedy touch my son ( brain cancer) it’s so important for me to tell them that they can do whatever they want, go wherever they want, no limitations. And yet, I have limited myself, my day-to-day is working a job that i like not love, and dreaming to do more. Guess I better take my own advice… Great post, I will submit a request for you for the shorty awards good luck to you!

  3. Pingback: Quarter Life Crisis « freechick

  4. Great post. I reposted, and even though it’s only the second post ever on my blog (and is probably bigger than my own first post :D) I hope someone will stumble upon it, read it and help you get published. I’d love to read your book 😉

  5. well put! I went through something similar at age 29. 10 (ish 🙂 years later looking back, I have learned there are certain times in your life when all the energy around you, pushing you in a direction you need to go – when those choices present themselves (or you help make them present themselves) that put you on a path and make the hugest difference in your life. Luck, being brave, semi-insane, whatever it was – I thank the Gods for it. I also think that there are some people who want and need this adventure/ who are at their nature, independent, not nec. rule followers (like you, like me, like the other expats you meet while living abroad) – and others that is scares the xx out of , very uncomfortable with the unknown and, by nature, would not be as happy making the same choices. You just never know what you end up finding out there -:) What I found abroad was very difft what I sought out, but could not have been more perfect for me. My blog’s first post “a start” describes briefly when I sold everything in SF to move 10 yrs ago. Best move ever!

  6. Wow. What would i do? Quit my job as a teacher (fulfilling, but becoming more tedious every day) and pursue my real dream: to create beautiful things and sell them online. I would move to the mountains and become the crazy, live-off-the-land hippie woman of which legends are created. Nice post, and very motivational.

  7. it is Amazing 😀
    i loved it … i have to admit that in 2minutes you could change my mind about a lot of things…your vision of life is perfect. For once i gave up what i wanted, i wanted to be an artist, but i live in Morocco and being a Morocccan artist isn’t easy, mostly people never respect you, not even respect your work. none appreciate so i gave it up, i was wondering what was the point of continuing painting if i’ll end up losing one day.then i read your article. and you are Right !! why do i need them to appreciate it ?? it’s all about me 😀
    it’s my life, it’s my decision 🙂
    thank you for reminding me about what i should do Zack

  8. Loved this blog, I will repost it from New-Brunswick Canada. I’ve started to live my life, my real life, last year when I said bye bye to my old crazy boss, my high paying job in the city to go live in the country. Since then, nothing but good things have happened to me, proof that your inner voice inside in never the one you need to ignore!

  9. Zack- love it my man. I remember those times that you talked about getting away. You may not remember speaking to me about it, but I remember! I am so psyched for you and extraordinarily impressed with your decision to just go for it. Btw, I also made a decision to just go with it but in a different sense. If you are at all interested to hear more give me a holler and I will let you know about it. Wish you all the best homie, stay in touch.

  10. What a fun post! At 23, I felt exactly the same way, travelled, worked far from home and had a great time. At 43, I am an accountant, work 9-5, have two kids and a wife I totally love, and I live 5 minutes from my childhood home. It is surprising how quickly you change from having to search for and define your life to having something to work for and protect (no matter how tedious employment may seem sometimes…account IS dull)!

    Though I suspect that the blogs would not be as entertaining, it is possible to be fulfilled by a life that seems from the outside so small and parochial as it is to have a life lived on a far-flung beach.

  11. So many of us stumble over opportunities that align with who we are, yet most of us pick ourselves up and move on. We think about it, but never start. Seth Godin’s points out that [starting] “is frightening and thus easy to overlook or ignore. The seventh imperative is to have the guts and the heart and the passion to ship.” Thanks Zack for showing how to take action and not being afraid to ship.

  12. Zack,

    What can I say…. Absolutely superb and honest on your journey, I admire your integrity to yourself and just putting it out there. You are indeed a self-realised soul who chooses not to sleep in the lap of maya (illusion). I raise my glass and toast to your freedom 🙂

    My dreams (passions) are laid out for me as follows:
    1. I help others achieve their purpose
    2. I create communities that help/support each other build each others awesomeness
    3. I provide a service helping others make money from them living their dreams
    4. I hold courses World-Wide and help transform people’s lives into doing something extraordinary, including building true charities that transform lives
    5. I invest in a number of my clients businesses because I know they will achieve results and therefore live a lifestyle of abundance

  13. Awesome post – I was almost teary-eyed by the end. You put in so much of your heart and your energy into this, and it comes across very strongly.
    I often read posts by inspiring people like yourself who say ‘there are no rules to life’, but there is no-one in my own life that has ever told me the same thing or lived by that philosophy. I think this is what makes it hard for me to accept this liberating, but scary principle.
    Perhaps I should be the first to set the example 😉

  14. I can’t remember the last time someone told me, “What do you care what I think you should do? You’re the one that has to live with it,” and genuinely meant it. But it’s good to be remembered that people like that – and people like you – áre out there. Thank you for this – it’s the most inspirational and comforting piece of text I’ve read in a while.

  15. A couple of years ago, I quit my stable career as a magazine editor to be an animator. Not quite as drastic as moving to South America (or even Vegas for that matter), but still… it was a big step for me to drop all that income, become a piss-poor student for a year, and then starting from the bottom of the ladder all over again with a matching tiny salary.

    I love my new career, but there are times when I still have doubts about what I did. Reading posts like this one keeps me going. Thanks!

  16. I am stunned. Every day you write something that mirrors my thoughts or problems. I had actually just gotten rid of a whole closet of stuffy stuff stuffed in there. I think Im going to sell it all and move to austria, where I have a dream waiting. In my head it’s happening, and form follows thought…

      • I agree with you on the challenges. It’s always easy to say “I would really like YOUR problems, they are not even remotely tough to solve”. But once you realize that everyone is given different obstacles and the challenge to overcome them with whatever tools you can master, you realize that even the easy stuff could be really hard.. or the other way around. I’m going to find a way to make the hard stuff easy.

  17. “I realize now that I knew what I wanted early on but I was afraid to make the choice for myself.” … the most insightful and self-empowering phrase I have read in a long while.
    In any given situation.. You instinctively know it, in that millisecond, you know your truth.. you always did, but you are too full of chicken shit to back your first feeling. You spend the next long while asking the “right people” what they think. The answers you know all along… but you are looking for people to “jump on” or talk you out of it. At the end of the day.. we target the people we think will give us the support we’re looking for… when we could have just taken a big breath and done it ourselves”… yaah to you Zack.. glued to your blog x

    • If I could write it again, I’d use your description of it – you nailed it. I was having trouble verbalizing exactly what I was trying to say.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  18. You’re quite lucky that this insight came to you so young, and you’re doing it young. I was ground down to “the mainstream” by my parents, who were ground down the same way. What you say is true, about vocalizing your wants, plans, or desires, to make changes in your life. Once you let the cat out of the proverbial bag, you can’t wrangle it back in, and that’s the way it was meant to be. If you have a dream, no matter how great or how small it seems, put it out there and make it happen. My dream will take a little more time than just quitting my job (which I would love to do) and packing a backpack (I’m just not sure all of my girly “essentials” will fit). Since my responsibilities will follow me wherever I go, I need to get those sorted first. Especially as this life change I wish to make is a fairly brand new idea and I’m trying to manage the little time I have by organizing and de-cluttering my current state of life. I’m also very cautious of the steps I must take to make my dreams happen, which does cause me some pause. Of course, I’m glad to have stumbled upon your ‘press. I needed a little more inspiration to make some of those “things I can do now” moves.

  19. Running away from home at 17 was the best decision i made in my life… it showed me a whole new world out there.

    Now I try to run away less and run towards instead… much more interesting.

  20. I came across your blog yesterday in the “freshly pressed” section (nicely done by the way) and I have to say, you’re an awesome writer. I had a ‘buenos aires’ moment myself (http://leftoversfromfriday.com/2012/01/02/go-frost-yourselves-a-reference-guide-to-the-the-road-not-taken/) about a month back and left my comfort zone of Kansas City, Missouri to move to Malibu, California as a nanny for a family from a different country knowing that I wouldn’t know one person. Is it terrifying? Every single day. But more importantly.. is it worth it? Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent. And I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

    Inspiring piece. I’ll keep reading.

  21. Pingback: Four Tips to Help You Live Life Your Way « Burlesque Bohemian

  22. Love this! It’s amazing how many people are searching for approval. My life hasn’t been the most conventional. I can feel the disapproving glances penetrating my skin when I tell people the course of my life and some of my decisions and I always remind myself the decision is mine for the making not their’s and as long as it is truly what I want I will never regret it, even if it is a bit unconventional or nonconformist.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I took a peek at your blog – which is great, but the way – and figured I’d throw a couple suggestions your way:

      1. Weight really isn’t good indicator of progress. As you get faster and stronger, you’ll be gaining muscle and thus adding weight. So, even though you’re getting more fit, you may not be losing weight. Get a good measuring tape ($5) and measure the circumference around your navel. That’s a solid indicator of body fat.

      2. Have 20-30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up.

      3. Do your best to avoid the following (I know it’s hard): bread, pasta, potatoes, white rice, couscous, etc. Try having beans instead.

      4. Add some weight training to your routine. I prefer kettlebells, but anything will do.

      Good luck!

  23. I’ve always believed everyone has the capability to live their dreams, but it’s not always easy. It takes a lot more courage than you would think, a ton of patience, limitless amount of faith in yourself and sometimes you need a little bit of luck. I’ve recently had my own “quit-my-job-and-flew-on-a-one-way-ticket-to-Latin-America Adventure” and I pride myself for doing so. I’m back stateside now, mulling over which of my next “dreams” to go after and I continuously check on wordpress for inspiring stories such as this one to remind me not to get caught in the daily humdrums of life. Hat’s off to you, sir! Live a very good life.

  24. I am about to go through what they say, a quarter life crisis. I’ve been searching for answers and individuals who would get what I’m going through. A particular article that struck me said,
    “You are young enough to believe that dreams can come true and old enough to make them happen”. Thanks for sharing this post which is parallel with my thoughts lately.

  25. What you say makes so much sense. I am 68 and am just now creating my own life, manifesting what has been my hearts’ desire for years I dream, day dream, imagine, listen to hear what is in my heart then comes focus. Glad I subscribed and shared on my FB page

  26. Thanks! I needed to hear this tonight, “Right now, you can quit your job, get in a car or a bus, drive to Mexico, and live in a tent on the beach. Regardless of whether you’re 18 or 65, married or single, rich or poor, this is something that you could do.” Perhaps it’s time for me to relinquish the rules again…

  27. Reading this post was so refreshing… I have dreams of living abroad… and traveling around the world. I packed up and left the place I grew up. It was the best decision I ever made. Even though I’m still state side, that move made me realize that I absolutely CAN do it. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Really looking forward to reading your posts.

  28. Pingback: 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Life Today | BA Expat

  29. Hm. I’m finding myself in the decision making process right now. After a huge change in my life I want to go and do something new but I have a job and bills and etc etc etc. I really admire your courage for getting up and going, hopefully I can do the same 🙂

      • Ha, see, I’m talking myself out of it…bad times. I think I’m more worried about how I’d pay those bills more than anything else. Not having a degree makes it hard to find decent paid work abroad doesn’t it? Hm. I’ve only just signed up to your blog so I’ll read previous posts as to how you’ve coped, but this post has really got to my head 🙂

  30. Zack- I have always considered you one of my best friends. We have had some great times….I must say….Amazing blog brother and Look forward to catching up with you at some point of your journey. best of luck to you.

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