The following is the unedited version of an article I wrote for the Irish Examiner, published on August 8th, 2012. Below the article (jump) I’ve included the full transcripts of the interviews I conducted with Benny Lewis and Johnny Ward.
I’m a thirty-year-old man from Slieverue, County Kilkenny, writing to you from a cottage in Kathmandu, the latest stop on what I expect to be a four-year trip around the world without flying. In the past twelve months I’ve stepped foot in fifteen different countries, three times the number I’d managed to visit in all my previous years.
My life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, but I’m rarely short on adventure. I could tell you stories of flirting in Amsterdam, presenting a workshop in Zurich, getting trapped in Romania, running out of cash in Iran, learning to dance on the Indian Ocean, making love in Delhi… the list goes on.
I’m not a rich man. Not in monetary terms anyway. I fund this vagabond lifestyle by working for myself online (web design, mostly). Month-to-month, I’m earning about half of what I did at the comfortable office job I quit almost two years ago. Everything I own fits into a forty-two litre backpack.
Earning and owning less has been a conscious choice; I exchanged the steady paycheck and the big screen TV for more time and more freedom. I’m now fully autonomous in choosing what to do with my days, where to go, which projects to work on, who to spend time with. In that sense, I’m richer than most.
But I’m just an amateur here. I’d like to introduce you to two other Irishmen further along the alternative lifestyle path.
Benny Lewis is a thirty-year-old language hacker hailing from Cavan. He speaks ten languages (including the Gaeilge, of course) and has lived seemingly everywhere from Rio to Taipei. His deviation from the norm began in 2003 when he graduated college in Ireland and moved to Spain for a “quick” internship. He discovered his defining passion while learning to speak Spanish, a passion that had eluded him all through formal schooling.
Benny initially funded his travels by working in a hostel, as a yoga shop manager, electronic engineer, Mathematics teacher, English teacher, freelance translator, and dozens of other jobs. For the past two years, however, he’s supported himself comfortably via his popular website, fluentin3months.com, which attracts hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month and provides helpful tips and encouragement related to language learning.
Recent months have seen Benny travelling through Taiwan and China while learning Mandarin, being a featured speaker at a conference in the United States, and brushing up on his American Sign Language.
Then there’s twenty-eight-year old Johnny Ward. Abroad since finishing university in 2006, the County Down native has visited more than eighty countries all around the world. He started out teaching English in Thailand and now earns a living via advertising revenue from a fleet of travel websites, the mothership of which is his personal blog, onestep4ward.com. He employs a full-time writer, a programmer and a virtual assistant.
From hitchhiking on cargo boats in the Mekong to getting rocks thrown at him by old men in Somalia, Johnny’s got plenty of crazy stories to tell. This summer, just for kicks, he’s been winding his way back to Ireland overland from Southeast Asia. July alone saw him touring most of Eastern Europe while working less than ten hours per week and earning in excess of €8,000.
Now I know what you’re thinking: To be travelling the world indefinitely, running their own online empires, and earning good money all at the same time, both of these guys are either exceptionally smart, or exceptionally lucky.
“A lot of people assume you’re from a wealthy family with a monthly stipend being lodged in your account, or maybe you won a chunk of cash on the lotto and you’re keeping it quiet, but that’s not the case at all,” says Johnny. “Then when they discover that you work online, it switches and they assume you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg which is probably even further from the truth… I’m a finance grad, so I’m awful with computers.”
Benny tells a similar story.
What is it, then, if not superior luck nor intelligence, that allows these guys to live such dream lifestyles? One key piece of the puzzle would appear to be a willingness to forgo the safe and familiar.
“I like unconventional living because it’s unpredictable and uncertain,” says Benny. “You learn to think on your feet and come up with new rules. Diplomas don’t matter, who you know doesn’t matter. It’s how flexible you are to what the world throws at you, and how you can go with the flow that matters.”
Another key, says Johnny, is to start acting in accordance with your priorities: “Anyone willing to take a chance can live this lifestyle. If you need the security of a salary, a microwave dinner and Coronation Street, then no, it’s not for you. But if chilling in a hammock in Thailand, or watching the sunset in the Serengeti is more important than who wins the next Big Brother, then this is definitely something you can achieve.”
Of course, there are a few notable downsides accompanying such lives of travel and adventure. While both Benny and Johnny make it back home regularly to visit family and friends — Benny, for instance, has never missed a Cavan Christmas — they more often find themselves living in strange lands without a reliable support network.
Says Benny, “I do genuinely worry that if something bad happens to me, unlike back home, I won’t have anyone to bail me out of a tricky situation, someone to visit me in hospital, a shoulder to physically cry on, and the like. It means that you have to be incredibly independent in this lifestyle.”
And then there’s the challenge of balancing romance and travel, which Johnny sums up nicely: “Agggh, this can be a nightmare!”
Johnny describes his romantic encounters from his first several years on the road as “fleeting.” But having recently made Bangkok his home base for four-to-five months each year, he now finds himself a committed man in a “proper” relationship, even if a good chunk of it has to be conducted long-distance.
Benny, meanwhile, has no such place to which he regularly returns for an extended stretch, and thus continues to find romance a challenge: “I’ve accepted it as a necessary downside to this lifestyle and will continue what I’m doing for a couple more years. Then I will look into a semi-nomadic lifestyle of a home base and building longer term relationships, especially with one girl. I consider this period in my life continued education and firmly believe it will all ultimately make me a better long-term boyfriend, husband, father, etc. when the right time comes.”
Likewise, Johnny expects he’ll eventually live a more rooted existence, though he doubts he’ll ever shake the travel bug completely: “Travel will always be a big part of my life, and although I mightn’t jet off for eight months at a time when I’m fifty, I’ll certainly still be hitting the road, backpack strapped and venturing to some unknown place, maybe with wife and kids in tow!”
So for the next few years at least, you can expect both of these chaps to continue wandering freely around the globe, working from their laptops, earning a good living, and experiencing enough adventure to last multiple lifetimes. Indeed, these are rich Irish men, but of a new and fascinating breed.
Q&A with Benny Lewis and Johnny Ward
1) The big WHY: Why have you chosen to live such an unconventional lifestyle? What’s the appeal? Why travel so much?
Johnny: Coming from Ireland, i guess i was always struck by the island fever, being locked on our tiny island seemed to give me the feeling that i needed to spread my wings. Once I took the plunge with my oneway ticket back in 2007, then i really started to understand the beauty of travel – new cultures, new religions, new people. Every day is an adventure, i dont need to worry about grim Monday morning meetings, instead I concentrate on how to communicate with some vendor in a bazaar in Istanbul as I bargain for some more delicious dates!
Benny: Saint Augustine once said “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” So to me the question can equally posed of “why not travel so much?”
The biggest retort to such a question is usually related to practical matters of not having enough money and the like. That’s where the “unconventional” comes into it. Many of us bouncing around the world haven’t won the lottery, we’ve embraced minimalism, own about 20kg of stuff or less in the entire world and our major expenses are simply a roof over our heads for the night and a bite to eat, which can be incredibly affordable in many places outside of North America and Northern Europe.
I like unconventional living because it’s unpredictable and uncertain. You learn to think on your feet and come up with new rules. Diplomas don’t matter, who you know doesn’t matter. It’s how flexible you are to what the world throws at you, and how you can go with the flow that matters. When on the road and when you embrace this way of thinking, all you can do is keep learning!
2) How did you get started? (what was the catalyst? who inspired you?)
Johnny: After graduating from university in 2006, I worked at a summer camp in New York State and then gallivanted around the US for a few months. That’s when I knew i was sold on the traveling lifestyle. I nipped home for Christmas and before new years eve I had my oneway ticket to Asia booked, and my place on an English teaching course secured. Then I flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand, took the course, taught English there for a year, and have never looked back since.
Benny: Graduated as an electronic engineer, and had a plan to move to Spain to do a “quick” internship before continuing my career. Fell in love with the festive life of Spain and the warmth of Latin culture and decided to stick around. A Brazilian guy I was living with in Valencia, who spoke a bunch of languages, inspired me to give languages a try for myself.
3) Was it easy to get to where you are now, earning a good living online? (I’m particularly interested to hear how you guys learned how to make money online. Neither of you studied anything along the lines of marketing, IT or the likes in college, right?)
Johnny: I’m a finance grad, so I’m awful with computers. I wouldn’t say it was easy getting here, but it certainly wasn’t the struggle that people online like to make out. By the time I had started my first travel site I had been to around 50 countries so I had loads of crazy stories to tell (hitchhiking on cargo boats in the Mekong, getting rocks thrown at me by old men in Somalia etc), so the site got quite popular within the first 6 months. I hadn’t monetized it at that point, then the advertisers started coming in and before long I was making over $1000 per month. Once I was there I realised I didn’t have to ‘work’ anymore, so I started a few more sites, which has led me to the point I’m at today with a full-time writer, a programmer and a virtual assistant on my monthly payroll.
Benny: It wasn’t “easy”, but it was natural. I don’t have any background in marketing, and I travelled for many years before I even considered blogging about it, since I did poorly even in English in school.
For the first year I had no intention to earn from the blog and did it on the side while working as a freelance (and location-independent) translator. However, having followed many other blogs for a while I had picked up on good approaches and social media techniques so I learned how to help my blog grow quickly, especially considering the unique topic I was writing about of language learning while travelling. I met several other bloggers while passing through Thailand, who had very big plans with their own sites and they inspired me to push mine to the next level.
I released a digital product that is very subtly mentioned (my website has never had any blatant advertisements or sponsors) with plans just to supplement my income, but the demand for it was huge and even two years later that one product continues to support me entirely due to the immense popularity of the blog. It’s not quite passive because I have to constantly come up with fresh and cool ideas for the blog so it continues to be shared and new people find it, but I feel so pleased that it’s not about the money at all. I just write about my language learning adventures, do it in an interesting way, and more and more people find the site and a tiny percentage of them will support me to continue doing it.
The site has recently reached 400,000 unique visitors per month. Not bad for three years!
4) How do you balance romance and travel? Isn’t it difficult to develop meaningful romantic relationships when you move around so much?
Johnny: Agggh this can be a nightmare. I try to balance my travel life, so when I’m not traveling I base myself in Bangkok, Thailand. I guess I roughly do 7 or 8 months of travel per year, and 4 or 5 months in Thailand. Over the last few years my romances have been fleeting flings shall we say, but last year I met an awesome girl so I’m actually in a ‘proper’ relationship for the first time since 2006! That being said, large portions of our relationship are long distance but I’m hoping to drag her to Central America with me next year and we can travel together.
Benny: Yes, it definitely is. When in more traditional countries it’s a huge problem because many will look at me cynically as a sailor who plans to leave a wake of broken hearts behind him. This makes it really hard to connect with someone when I genuinely like them.
Unlike many travellers, I have no base and nowhere to call home that I can go back to. So a long term relationship is not possible unless someone were to travel with me.
However, I’ve accepted this as a necessary downside to this lifestyle and will continue what I’m doing for a couple more years, and then will look into a semi-nomadic lifestyle of a home base and building longer term relationships, especially with one girl. I consider this period in my life continued education and firmly believe it will all ultimately make me a better long-term boyfriend, husband, father etc. when the right time comes.
5) Do you ever feel you’re missing out on anything else a conventional lifestyle has to offer? (regular paycheck, family gatherings, a place to call home for more than a few months at a time?)
Johnny: With my set-up in Bangkok, any time I’m feeling jaded from the road I head back there so I really think I can have my cake and eat it. The family thing can be a source of contention, but now with my online income I can fly home if and when I want to, and the family certainly enjoy their foreign escapades once or twice a year to come and visit me in some far-flung place around the globe. A regular paycheck though? No chance. Working for myself gives me such a creative outlet, it gives purpose to my travels and it’s growing. That’s much more exciting to me than generating revenue for some boardroom that I’m never invited to.
Benny: Thanks to the flexibility of being able to go where I want (within reason), I actually do go back to Ireland at least twice a year for family gatherings. Despite being on the road for a decade, I have yet to miss Christmas in Cavan! I call my parents once a week on Skype for lots of time and video chat with them.
The one problem with all the instability is the many things that can go wrong. I do genuinely worry that if something bad happens to me, unlike back home, I won’t have anyone to bail me out of a tricky situation, someone to visit me in hospital, a shoulder to physically cry on, and the like. It means that you have to be incredibly independent in this lifestyle. I worry sometimes that I may be too independent, and could find it hard to integrate back into a community when the time comes, but will look at that as a challenge to overcome like any other.
People in stable lifestyles don’t realise how fantastic it is that you have this strong network of support, and how those in your local shop recognize you. Nobody ever knows who I am. This makes me appreciate it all the more when I have it.
6) Gotta ask the money questions: Can you give an idea of how much you earn per month? What’s your primary source of income? How do you get paid?
Johnny: I own and run around 10 travel sites now, and I’ve launched a business in Bangkok recently too (http://Teach.Travel) so my income has been increasing month on month. Last month [June, 2012] I earned around $7,500, but I’ve launched some new sites this month so I should crack the $10,000 mark this month i hope.
Benny: Not interested in having this printed! My Language Hacking Guide costs US$97, so as long as I make at least one sale a day (and nowadays I always do, usually more) then I know I’m covering my expenses and saving a little fine.
Someone buys it via my website, and that money goes to paypal. I then withdraw that to my bank account and can access it via ATMs.
7) Do you see yourself continuing to live this lifestyle long term? Any eventual plans to settle down?
Johnny: I really hope so, it’s so much fun! Certainly for the next 3 or 4 years at least, in the future I’d love to get married and get kids, but I’m not sure that necessarily constitutes ‘settling down’. Travel will always be a big part of my life, and although I mightn’t jet off for 8 months at a time when I’m 50, I’ll certainly still be hitting the road, backpack strapped and venturing to some unknown place, maybe with wife and kids in tow!
Benny: I definitely see myself doing this medium term – up to five more years. But after that I will change tact and become semi-nomadic most likely. One base for six months out of the year at least. I think I’ll always have itchy feet, but having a home is part of your identity and I want to make sure I don’t lose that part of my identity eventually.
8) What one thing do people most frequently misunderstand about your lifestyle? What is it that they just can’t comprehend?
Johnny: When I try to explain my lifestyle to people they literally don’t believe that I work less than 10 hours per week, and that I can travel indefinitely for that, and put money away too. When you’re stuck in the 9-6 rat race, waiting for your regimented monthly paycheck, that lifestyle seems so unobtainable, and I used to think the same too. A lot of people assume you’re from a wealthy family with a monthly stipend being lodged in your account, or maybe you won a chunk of cash on the lotto and you’re keeping it quiet, but that’s not the case at all. Then when they discover that you work online, it switches and they assume you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg which is probably even further from the truth. People can’t comprehend that you don’t have to have a ‘real job’, the path that society has created for us isn’t a necessity at all, if anything it stifles what we could have been. So forget that path, blaze your own trail and reap the rewards.
Benny: Money. They think I can do this because I’m rich. I’m doing better now, but for most of my travels I had an incredibly tiny budget and earned pitiful wages. And yet I was doing fine, moving country, eating well etc. Settled life in the first world to me seems so mindbogglingly expensive when you take mortgages, car insurance, buying the latest crap you don’t need, drinking and so much more into account. Get rid of much of that fluff as possible and use money where it counts, and you’ll see that you are much richer than you think you are.
It’s especially surprising to hear this from Europeans, who know that flights cost a few euro, and accommodation with Couchsurfing can cost nothing.
9) What one piece of advice would you give to young Irish people who’ve just finished school or college and can’t find a job in Ireland? (what would you tell the 21- or 22-year-old version of yourself?)
Johnny: First of all, money and business aside, go traveling. Explore the world, understand how lucky we are. Teach English, work in a hostel, backpack – so many doors open for us when we leave our comfort zone behind, so leave it. Once you’ve done that, discover your passion and follow that with everything you’ve got. You don’t have to subscribe to the status quo, forget unemployment benefits or graduates schemes, do what you’ve always dreamt of doing and success and money will follow. Remember, if you’re doing what you love then you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
Benny: Finding a job seems so hard because you are just one of a million other people exactly the same as you – even if you have a higher degree. There are plenty of people with those! You can’t be competitive.
This isn’t what gets people the best jobs. It’s something unique that sets you apart. Explore that – you won’t regret it! If possible, travel and spend time in a completely different country so you are taken outside of your comfort zone and forced to see what makes you special. Meet many people by hosting or travelling as a Couchsurfer so you are exposed to more stories to inspire you. Try and fail at dozens or hundreds of things, not necessarily sticking to plan A.
There is this fear that if you go off on a tangent you’ll somehow die of starvation. Failing is a part of life. Make mistakes and learn from them. Try a completely different job path out, and learn a new language even if you did poorly in them in school. When you see the world from within the eyes of another culture, you change your perspective on everything and may even get that eureka moment for something to help you make a living.
10) Can anyone live the kind of lifestyle you do? Is this for everyone?
Johnny: Everyone can live this lifestyle IF they truly want it. Redesigning my lifestyle is something I’m very passionate about, I don’t know who created the fallacy that we should work 50 hour weeks, but I certainly never signed up to it, nor will I ever. But to turn your back on that is to take a chance, and that is the hardest part. So anyone willing to take a chance can definitely live this lifestyle. If you need the security of a salary, a microwave dinner and Coronation street, then no, it’s not for you. But if chilling in a hammock in Thailand, or watching the sunset in the Serengeti is more important than who wins the next Big Brother, then this is definitely something you can achieve.
Benny: Everyone’s lifestyle is unique. There is nothing wrong with a stable lifestyle if that’s what brings you happiness. If you travel to escape your problems, and your true problems are part of your personality and way of looking at the world, then travelling is not going to necessarily help you. Sometimes the answers to our problems are right under our noses.
Travel works for people who have an interest to explore and learn more about the world. For people who know they need to further their education. Many people have a different place in the world, and it’s thanks to them that the world runs as well as it does. I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone. One day it won’t be for me. But it is certainly open to everyone if they are imaginative enough in trying to get into it.