Trading in Your Backpack for the Briefcase

Cindy Peterson (aka The Blonde Wanderer) interviews her husband, Bill, about trading in his backpack for a briefcase again after 14 months of travel. We also featured some of Cindy’s itinerary tips in a previous post.

[singlepic=1791,300,,,right]My husband Bill and I recently returned from fourteen months extended travel. When we stepped out of our corporate jobs in November of 2008, we both wondered what would be in store for us after our planned year of exploring the world. And as tempting as it was to continue our adventure living in a foreign country, or finding enough work to continue to travel like so many of the “career” travelers we envy, in the end we made the decision to re-enter life in the United States.

While I embarked on some new business adventures and am keeping our travels alive through continued travel writing, Bill headed back to the Semiconductor industry that we had both walked away from to live our long-term travel dreams. In truth he never completely left – he kept up on industry news and worked to keep his network alive – a key to him finding work in the field only a short two months after we returned to the US.

Bill’s path back to the corporate world seems to be the exception, not the norm, when it comes to long-term travelers. Our friends at Briefcase to Backpack, along with many of our fellow travelers, friends, and family, were curious as to the motives behind Bill’s decision and how his perspectives toward work have changed with the experiences he gained while traveling.

Bill always left the majority of the travel blogging and writing to me, and this is no exception – so I’m here to interview my own husband, the other half of the Blondewanderer travel team on his career break and re-entry. At least this is one interview that I could do in my pajamas over coffee!

What made you decide to take a career break?
[singlepic=1794,300,,,right]It had been a lifelong dream for me to travel the world. I lived in Belgium for six years for work, and had the opportunity to explore much of Europe, which only made my desire to travel stronger. During the winter before my wife and I were married we started talking about “What if we could take a year off to travel”, and over time it became clear that it was more than a dream. Our momentum towards the idea kept growing, until it was a question not of IF we would do it but WHEN. I think we both felt that if we DIDN’T take this opportunity, we would regret it for the rest of our lives.

What were some of the ways you prepared for this new experience? Were you able to apply your skills from the Corporate world in the planning process?
Well, at first we both made separate lists of places we wanted to visit – using Excel, of course! (Side note: Both Bill and I have engineering backgrounds, so planning a year of our life without Excel would have been impossible!) We discussed our lists and made a plan of what countries would travel to by combining our lists. Then we created a budget – again, using Excel! Creating budgets and planning expenses were a key part of our corporate life, and that skill really helped make our dreams a reality. Also, both Cindy and I traveled for work, so international travel wasn’t a big, scary leap for us. Plus we had LOTS of airline miles to use for our trip – that really helped out with our travel budget. So our work turned out to be a big enabler for us to live our dream of traveling full-time.

What surprised you the most about yourself during your travels?
[singlepic=1793,200,,,right]When you travel long-term, you learn that things will just work out and you learn to let go of what you think should be your “plans”. Early on in our travels, when we didn’t understand how we were going to get from point A to point B, or how we were going to find that bus we needed to be on, the ambiguity would often stress me out. We were used to having our precious vacation time – one or two weeks – planned out completely. Long-term travel is very different, and for Americans letting go of the minute-by-minute travel planning can be hard. But by the end of our trip, I had a different level of acceptance of those situations and an attitude that no matter what, things would work themselves out. It was all part of the adventure!

How was your experience returning home? Did you struggle with reverse culture shock?
I don’t think I struggled with reverse culture shock coming home – in fact in the couple of months before I started working I really enjoyed reconnecting with friends and family. But the first few weeks back in a corporate environment were particularly challenging. I no longer thought of myself as a “cubicle” person. I particularly missed my time on the road and interacting with new people. You interact with people differently in a work environment – even though I work with a variety of cultures, everyone is conforming to the Corporate work environment. It was a difficult transition.

Reflecting on your career break, what insight have you gained?
I feel I understand other cultures better – at my current company there are people from many different cultures – and I feel that my understanding of their countries and backgrounds and my cultural experiences have helped me better connect to people at work. When people hear that I have visited their home country – something many of them don’t expect – there is a different level of camaraderie.

What was it like trading in your backpack for your briefcase again?
I had a lot of mixed emotions. On one hand I was starting to miss the mental stimulation that I feel work provides, and I was starting to miss the idea of having a home base somewhere that truly felt like home. On the other hand, I wanted to continue traveling – seeing new places and experiencing different cultures. Once a traveler, always a traveler!

How are you going to apply lessons learned from your experience to your life now?
[singlepic=1795,300,,,right]Looking back at our planning before we left on our trip – we booked our camper van for New Zealand (our first destination) a full six months in advance, along with our plane tickets – we didn’t need to do that and didn’t save any money over just finding a good deal when we arrived. We have learned how to travel on the cheap – and how often it pays to wait until you are in a country to make a plan, because likely it will change once you get there, learn more about the country and talk to other travelers. Plus you have more adventures along the way and see places you didn’t plan on, all because you kept your travel plans flexible. I plan to travel more spontaneously than have before – even on shorter trips.

Secondly, I want to maintain my involvement with charitable foundations, both ones we interacted with during our travels and also ones closer to home. I was having lunch with a colleague the other day, who happens to be of Indian descent. He asked me “What do you think the biggest problem in the world is moving forward?” and I answered “Access to clean water”. I would never have had that perspective if we hadn’t traveled extensively. Even seeing what I’ve seen with my own eyes, watching people wash their clothes in the same water they drink – while we, because we could afford to, drank bottled water – there are things that you never think about if you don’t travel to many countries. Being involved in projects and charities that improve living conditions for those less fortunate and with fewer resources than we have is now a priority than me.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of making a career break?
I would say, “Go for it!” unequivocally. You will never regret your time away from the work world. But make sure your finances are in order first. Have a budget and be sure to plan to have money in reserve for “re-entry” so you have time and funds to settle back into life – whatever you choose that to be!

Other comments

14 Comments on "Trading in Your Backpack for the Briefcase"

  1. Tweets that mention Trading in Your Backpack for the Briefcase | Briefcase to Backpack - Travel Advice for Career Breaks or Sabbaticals -- on Mon, 31st May 2010 12:05 pm 

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BriefcasetoBackpack, Stella. Stella said: RT @CareerBreakHQs What happens after a #careerbreak and you trade your backpack in for the briefcase again […]

  2. Financial Samurai on Mon, 31st May 2010 8:06 pm 

    Hi Folks!

    May I ask an honest question? I’ve noticed that many people took a career break in the 2nd half of 2008, which so happens to coincide with the biggest economic downturn (Dow 6,000, Lehman bankrupt, etc) in our lifetimes.

    Do you think most people were actually fired or pushed out of their jobs, and are just proclaiming to have quit their jobs to pursue their dreams?

    Love to hear your thoughts!



  3. Michaela Potter on Tue, 1st Jun 2010 10:01 am 

    Hi Sam! You would think that the downturn in the economy would have inspired people to travel, but most of the people that we have profiled actually spent years planning their career break. The timing is very coincidental. I don’t think people jump into a career break or sabbatical mindset so easily, so even though it may be cheaper to travel rather than sustaining a lifestyle without a job, many don’t understand that. But we are trying to educate Americans about this. We hope that you will join us in creating a career break movement!

  4. Adam on Tue, 1st Jun 2010 12:38 pm 

    Cool interview. I’m in the same position as you Cindy, and my wife is in the same position as your husband. She went back to her previous career as an attorney when we returned from our year long RTW, and I am trying to switch careers and make it as a travel writer. It’s been interesting to see her assimilate back into her old work life. She’s practicing a different kind of law and litigating now (something she SWORE she would never do, and she probably wouldn’t have had we never taken the trip), and I enjoy seeing her take on things since we have changed so much since our experience. I know one thing though; after just two and a half months of work, she is ready to start making plans for our next extended adventure. How are you two feeling about that? Do you see yourselves taking another long trip at some point in the future? Are you going to be satisfied with a week or two a year (obviously I don’t know your vacation situation, but if it’s anything like most Americans…)

    As far as the comment about so many trips being taken that coincided with the recession, we had been planning our trip since March 2007, long before anything happened. Now it did make it easier for us when the economy turned south, and my wife asked for a leave of absence from her job (she was granted it, but then didn’t get it back when we returned because the economy hadn’t recovered enough yet). While some may gave taken a trip because they’d been laid off, most have to plan something like this for years, and it was just a coincidence.

  5. Keith on Tue, 1st Jun 2010 6:01 pm 

    I really enjoyed this interview – I don’t often see mention of round-the-world travelers return to the business world. My question is do you think another career break will be in your future? That you’ll need to return to the road for an extended period of time? Or was this that one-time trip you simply needed to take?


  6. Cindy Peterson on Tue, 1st Jun 2010 9:47 pm 

    Thanks everyone for the great comments!
    @Sam – Good question. We do know some people that decided on doing some long term traveling after they were let go during the downturn but that wasn’t the case for us. We wanted to not leave our companies in a lurch (or burn bridges) so we gave a full two months notice to both our companies in September of 2008. It was only a couple of months later that the economy started going downhill – Bill’s boss even came to him at that point and told him he would give him three months off and his job back – a good offer at the time. It took a lot of courage to stick to our guns and go ahead with the our original plans (which we had been planning for 6 months and saving for a lot longer than that – Like Michaela and Adam said, the timing was coincidental).

    @Adam – very interesting that you and your wife’s story mimics ours. As it sounds like you guys are finding out too, there are certainly big challenges coming back to the real world – especially the US vacation schedule. I honestly don’t think anyone who has the passion (and it does take passion, as you know) to take a long career break will ever stop yearning to travel more and again, to see more of the world. I don’t know about you guys, but our travel wish list is longer now than before our career break! We struggle with this part of the US mentality around vacations, but are definitely in “recovery” mode from our trip so it will be a while before our next one.

    @Keith – For people passionate about travel and experiencing other cultures, a one-time trip would never be enough. It think it’s the reason so many long-term travelers figure out a way to stay out on the road longer (teaching ESL, figuring out how do do their job while traveling, starting another career that is conducive to continued travel). We would love to have another career break at some point – it is a great way to gain perspective on the world of work and get the creative juices flowing too. Once a traveler, always a traveler. And in the meantime, it’s a matter of getting in as many trips as can fit into a US vacation schedule.

  7. Adam on Tue, 1st Jun 2010 10:33 pm 

    Cindy, you’re absolutely right. Taking a week or two here and there until retirement is simply NOT going to work for us. I think we’ll lose our minds if that’s what we had to do.

    Keith, that was our initial plan, get it out of our systems before coming home, buying a house, having kids, and doing what “we’re supposed to do.” But I just don’t see that happening anymore. Like Cindy said, we saw 11 different countries and nearly 100 different cities/towns, and our list of places we want to go has gotten so huge it’s going to be nearly impossible to go everywhere we truly want. We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to do it, but travel is our top priority, so we will find a way to make it happen. I’m changing careers and trying to become a travel writer, so that will hopefully help in our quest to travel, but it’s also not the most lucrative of careers, and it takes some perseverance to actually make it work.

  8. Cindy Peterson on Wed, 2nd Jun 2010 12:53 pm 

    @Adam – your story overlays ours almost to a tee. Since we are following such similar paths, I would love to swap some ideas with you on the travel writing front since that’s what I’m pursuing as well. Didn’t see an email on your blog, but I can be reached at

  9. Alonna on Thu, 3rd Jun 2010 1:48 am 

    Great timing on this article, since my husband and I just returned from our career break 3 days ago! In our duo, I’m the one returning to the corporate world… and right now I honestly don’t know what to think of it. I’m really happy to be home (we kept our house, so returning to it and all of our belongings was like the biggest Christmas gift-unwrapping ever!), but I’m having a hard time getting in the job-searching mindset.

    I definitely agree with Cindy & Adam about wanting more career breaks and travel in the future. Once you see how great it is, how can you not want more?! But this brings up a couple interesting questions: how will multiple career breaks fit into a career (ie. after 2 or 3 career breaks, will someone really hire me?)? and how will kids fit into the picture (something we hope for in the future)? For the latter, reading profiles on Briefcase to Backpack of families who travel has been very inspiring, and I hope to follow in their footsteps someday.

  10. Sherry Ott on Thu, 3rd Jun 2010 1:42 pm 

    Great conversation! I’m loving it. I’m one of those who didn’t go back to my briefcase upon returning. However I’ve found a way to keep up my skills but in more of a consulting role that allows me to work from anywhere. Granted – this means that I have given up climbing a corporate ladder and am have made a decision to not be part of a hierarchy. I’ve learned that I don’t need as much as I once thought so giving up the hierarchy means living a different life financially – but the trade-off of more freedom to travel wins out.

    So – I think you can take multiple career breaks without ruining your career – however you may have to change your career a bit to do that. Freelancing is riskier – but one of the biggest things I learned from my career break is how to take risks and be patient/flexible. I’m putting all of those traits to use now in the ‘real world’!

    Keep the great conversation going and thanks so much for the interview Cindy and Bill! We love your story!

  11. jessiev on Thu, 3rd Jun 2010 3:10 pm 

    what a GREAT article – and you’re right, we rarely hear of people re-entering the workforce when they return. the challenge is fitting back in, isn’t it? bennett calls us cultural marginals, able to live in several different cultures but belonging to none, bc we are now truly global citizens.

  12. Earth Pilgrim | Lifestyle – May 2010 on Fri, 4th Jun 2010 6:39 am 

    […] Peterson at ‘Briefcase to Backpack‘ has an interesting interview with her husband as goes back into corporate life after […]

  13. Cindy Peterson on Fri, 4th Jun 2010 11:17 am 

    @Jessie – Indeed! In fact, so many people tell us how much courage it takes to quit your job and just travel. In my opinion it takes a lot more courage to go back to corporate America! I love your comment about being cultural marginals – it’s really true and that makes it a conscious (not easy) choice to “reintegrate” into the US.

    I agree with Sherry – great discussion – I’m loving it!

  14. Sarah Lavender Smith on Mon, 21st Feb 2011 8:55 pm 

    Thank you for this — it’s so interesting to read other couples’ experiences, given that we (and our two school-age kids) traveled RTW for 10 months. My husband left his partnership at a law firm, and six months after our re-entry and much soul searching and planning, he’s opening a new firm solo with a different focus than the firm he previous partnered at. He never would have had the courage and vision to change without the experience of long-term travel. The ongoing challenge for us as a family is to maintain and nurture the positive ways that our family dynamics changed from living a stripped-down, nomadic life (chronicled on our blog Away Together). My advice: follow Bill’s advice in the last point about saving money not just for the trip, but also for re-entry. We had to be very frugal and live off savings and investment income during these past months post-re-entry — not easy, but do-able.
    Finally, I’m happy to report that our career break and year of travel gave me the inspiration to start a new site, The Runner’s Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More.
    As they say above, “Go for it!” You’ll never regret it.

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