How I quit my job to travel: The corporate lawyer

Travel and food blogger Jodi Ettenberg explains why she left a successful career behind – and no, it wasn’t to “find herself” or “pursue her passion”.

When people hear how I quit my job as a lawyer after six years of corporate work, they assume I burned out and fled the nine-to-five (or, more accurately, the nine-to-midnight), leaving contracts, negotiations and lawsuits behind. 

In reality, I long had aspired to travel the world for a year, inspired by a documentary I saw in high school about trans-Siberian trains. Staring at the screen, watching birch trees and snow and a railroad track running for thousands of kilometres, I resolved to take the journey from St Petersburg to Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar myself. Almost a decade later, those trains were a huge part of why I gave notice at my law firm to do a round-the-world trip, but over the years, my fantasy trip to Siberia had morphed into a trip to... everywhere. I wanted to see as much of the world as I could in a year. I expected to return to practicing law thereafter, hopefully working in the public sector instead of a private firm.

I quit my job in March 2008. Now, six years later, where I am today surprises me as much as anyone else. My website Legal Nomads – which I started so my mother could keep track of my wanderings – has grown to a million views a year. I freelance about travel and food for various publications around the world, I work as a social media consultant, I’m a public speaker and I’m a brand ambassador for Canadian travel company G Adventures.

And some of the lessons I learned to get here were intangible.

For one, despite the stereotypes associated with long-term travellers or career changers, I did not start travelling with the purpose of “finding myself”. Others I have met on the road echo the same, saying they did not take off for the purposes of self-discovery, even if it was a fun by-product. Plus, if you reframe a decision to quit your job as a practical learning experience versus something more stereotypical, it goes a long way toward convincing those around you to support your choice. When I quit my job, many people said I was making a huge mistake I would regret – feedback that left me feeling dejected. But I found that talking about how my sabbatical would be centred on the history of places I longed to visit, and how I planned to volunteer my skills as a lawyer where I could, helped to keep the conversation positive.

Secondly, it is important to let go of the external pressure to “find your passion”, an expectation that especially affects those who left a traditional career path. Those that don’t run the risk of falling into the “passion trap”, the idea that figuring out what you “love” in life can be to the detriment of your day-to-day living. Instead, that energy can be focused on getting better at the skills you already have, or learning new ones that apply to the life you want.

In my case, I did not quit to begin a new career. But in writing about culture and travel, and learning to experiencing a destination through its cuisine, I found one along the way.  

In addition, just as I didn’t suddenly “find my passion” on the road, I didn’t become a completely different person either. For some, leaving things until last minute and seeing what happens is the norm. For my lawyer’s brain, it was rare. Yes, my current lifestyle has made me less risk-averse, and I have spent time in places I was scared to go before I quit my job. I’ve learned, also, not to be rigid about plans and schedules, an approach I would recommend to others. Bookending your travels with open-jaw, long-haul flights makes sense if you have time constraints; otherwise, I would caution against planning too much. Part of the glory in travelling is making friends – and having every day planned takes away the serendipity of journeying to unexpected new places together.

At the same time, I will never be completely comfortable with the inherent unpredictability of long-term travel. Uncertainty stays, and spurs me to keep building toward bigger goals – not just to make enough income to keep travelling, but to focus on building a business as I go. Conversely, the ability to have a flexible life – writing from places around the world, spending more quality time with family when I do return for a visit, meeting others who inspire me to see a new place at the last minute – far outweighs the uncertainty factor.

Finally, it is important to keep to your own standards of integrity and quality, regardless of what others might think. This applies specifically to those who want to try for an online writing career. When I started out, people told me my posts were too long or that I posted too infrequently. This might be true for some, but I wanted to treat my readers the way I wanted to be treated. By sticking to my own values, I’ve had the pleasure of creating a community of like-minded people. If you don’t like what you’re putting online, you’re probably not going to like the people who are drawn to it.

Thinking of making your own transition to long-term travel? Here are some of the more practical lessons I’ve learned along the way.

There are scores of websites and books about how to save to travel. I had the huge benefit of going to law school in Canada, where tuition is incredibly low, but before I left I was living in New York, which made saving to travel more difficult.

My goal was to have sufficient funds to travel for one year, plus have money to find my footing upon my return; based on research, this equated about $15,000. When deciding on which purchases to make, I found the most important consideration was travel opportunity costs: I could purchase a pair of beautiful shoes or I could buy a plane ticket. It was an excellent incentive. Budget breakdowns from fellow travellers come in at around $12,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on how much time is spent in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, which are more expensive. My year ended up costing closer to $10,000, because I skipped those destinations, opting for prolonged time in Southeast Asia and South America instead. It also helps that I love to eat street food, so my on-the-ground expenses were kept reasonable. I tended to stay in hostels or small guesthouses, where single rooms can still be found for a reasonable price.

My travel resources page includes a lot of information on the nitty gritty details of travelling, including insurance, first aid kits and must-bring tech gadgets. But there are some essential packing items worth mentioning that I don’t leave home without:

A safety whistle: great for camping or hiking, or when trying to fend off monkeys, such as the ones that chased me up a mountain in Myanmar.

A sarong: it doubles as a towel, a pillow cover, a blanket or a scarf. Useful for men or women, regardless of climate.

A headlamp: you never know when the power will go out.

A doorstop: it adds peace of mind if you wedge it in your door to help keep out intruders when alone in a guesthouse room.

Duct tape: used to tape window screens, bag tears, shoe holes and more.

Jeans: don’t listen to people who tell you to leave your jeans at home. You’ll want to feel like you normally do, and if you like your jeans, bring them. There are scores of lightweight jeans that dry quickly. 

I realise that I am privileged to be able to build a life in this way – and I am very thankful to be here. I didn’t quit my job as a lawyer to “be” a travel and food writer. But when opportunities came my way, I took them, curious about where they might lead. I look forward to seeing what comes next.