At the ripe age of 28 years old, my wife (then girlfriend) and I quit our jobs. We hopped on a plane and moved to Costa Rica. The plan was to take a year off by living the Pura Vida -- as locals call it. We had no return ticket.
It has ended up being one of the best decisions we've made together. We now spend half of our year living on a family-run coffee farm and the other half living in my native Wisconsin.
But we aren't special, nor do we need to be viewed as outliers. In the end, our ability to have this adventure all came down to four very simple steps.
But first, a quick primer on our motivation
I went in with both eyes wide open. The charter school where I started my teaching career in inner-city D.C. had almost 10-hour days for students, school on Saturday, and mandatory summer school. The demands were high.
But after two years of struggling to find my footing, I loved what I was doing. The students were my family, and I felt at home. Three more years, however, and I knew it was time for a break. My wife and I would get home from school and collapse on the couch while eating pizza, only to wake up at 5 a.m. and start the routine over again.
It wasn't sustainable. We were OK with that. It was time for a change. Here's why we were able to make it happen. (Many of these ideas come from Nassim Taleb's books Antifragile and yet-to-be-published Skin in the Game).
1. Identify the worst-case scenario and get comfortable with it
This was perhaps the most liberating of all the things we did. The thought of quitting our jobs and living off our savings for a year scared the daylights out of me. Then we mapped out the worst scenario. It wasn't so bad.
If we burned through all of the cash we had set aside for the year, we would return to the United States, live with either my parents or other family, and get teaching jobs as soon as possible.
Was that ideal? Absolutely not. But would it have been the end of the world? Hardly.
2. Avoid debt at all costs
Increasingly, this is becoming harder and harder for recent college graduates to do. I won't pretend that it was virtue alone that left my wife and me with only a very manageable level of student-loan debt. Our parents were able to help us cover most of the costs. Not everyone will be so lucky.
Even so, we avoided debt like the plague after college. Many of our friends bought houses after getting full-time jobs, not because they wanted to put down roots, but because "it was a good investment." Simply put, we didn't buy into that reasoning.
We didn't buy a house, we didn't put any money down on new cars, or the latest gadgets. We didn't take fancy vacations on our time off. Simply put, we saved whatever money we could.
3. Practice via negativa to find your level of "enough"
There's no concept I write more about here on the Fool than the importance of finding your own level of "enough." To me, this is the only way to get off the hedonic treadmill and focus on what really matters in life. Former Motley Fool columnist Morgan Housel also wrote about this a lot, opining that there are really only four things that matter to happiness, once your basic material needs are met:
- Having purpose and meaning.
- Autonomy of time.
- Progress in what you're pursuing.
- Connections to family and friends.
What my wife and I found was that this was better accomplished via negativa. We decided to start subtracting things from our lives to find out what mattered, instead of endlessly adding more. By subtracting different things from our life (for example, our teaching jobs, or -- later -- our car), we could see if they really were as important as we thought they were, or if they were just an illusion.
4. Put your skin in the game
People who feel they must have a long-term plan in place before making such a jump will probably never make it. We had no idea what our future would look like beyond our year in Costa Rica.
Then we started meeting other folks who had been down there for decades. Most of them had no idea what they'd be doing once they moved down, either. Many had simply found ways to make the situation work. That's what happens when you take the leap and actually put your skin in the game: You're forced to find a way.
For us, I started writing on The Motley Fool's boards because I found the solitude in rural Costa Rica to be incredibly boring. When a spot opened up for a writing position with the company, I explained to my wife that after six months' training, I could work from anywhere on Earth. We jumped on the opportunity.
But if we waited for everything to be just right, we'd still be teaching. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but we're glad we took the plunge.
In the end, the point isn't that everyone should attempt such huge life transitions. Instead, it's to focus on the benefits of accepting a worst-case scenario, reducing your debt, finding your "enough" using via negativa, and putting your own skin in the game. Life -- for us -- has been a whole lot more interesting because of it.