This column, “Escape Artist,” is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, the online entrepreneurs, and the lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
Traveler and writer
Matt Kepnes runs Nomadic Matt, a lifestyle blog that discusses how to travel more but spend less. Kepnes began traveling in 2006 and created the website to help others. He wrote the New York Times best-selling book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, and has visited more than 80 countries. More than 1 million people visit the site monthly. In 2016, he’s focusing on a nonprofit that helps youth travel around the world.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality is becoming more popular. What are your impressions?
Matt Kepnes More people are choosing life experiences over possessions. With the popularity of social media comes the influx of gorgeous images from around the world. People get to see into lives that were only written about in books before. They get to eat breakfast and scroll through their friends’ photographs from the Galapagos or the Maldives on their phone. People get to see into the life of all sorts of jobs that seemed really distant and unattainable before. But social media is changing all of that.
Online courses are changing all of that. Want to be a web designer so you can work from home? Watch YouTube and learn how. Want to become a traveling writer? Buy a domain name and start a blog. Want to travel around the world on points and miles? Read up on how to do that. We are in the age of ever-flowing information, and that is a wonderful place to be. People are realizing that you can create jobs rather than settle for what you can get.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked ongoing travel for you in 2006?
MK Growing up in Boston, I was never a big traveler. I didn’t take my first trip overseas until I was 23. After college, I got a job and the standard American two weeks of vacation. I wanted to use that time to travel. For my first trip overseas, I went on a tour to Costa Rica. That trip changed my life. I experienced other cultures, got lost in a jungle, saw real poverty and met people from around the world. From that moment on, I was hooked on travel. All I wanted to do was travel, see more of the world, and learn more about the people in it. But like most Americans, I only had two weeks of vacation per year and I didn’t know any of the genius ways to save money and travel longer.
A 2005 trip to Thailand changed that.
There, in the wonderful city of Chiang Mai, I met five backpackers who showed me that I didn’t have to be tied down to my job and that I didn’t need to be rich to travel. After that trip, I went home, finished my MBA, quit my cubicle job, and, in July 2006, set out on an adventure around the world. My original trip was supposed to last a year. I didn’t come home until 18 months later.
Back home, I quickly realized I couldn’t go back to working in a cubicle and, three months later, I was on the road again. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.
What inspired you to start blogging, and how did you first build a following?
MK I wanted a job that got me out of the cubicle and exploring the world. “Maybe I should become a travel writer,” I thought. “I bet writing guidebooks would be pretty cool and that would get me out of the house.” It sounded perfect. But I had no established writing resume or any experience. Being the Gen Y-er that I am, I thought — the Internet can solve this problem. So I started Nomadic Matt.
Over the next few months, I wrote for Matador, Vagabondish and Hotel Club. Soon, I thought, I would be writing guidebooks, but that never happened. Then one day someone offered me $100 to put a text link ad up. Then a few months later, I got more offers. By the end of 2008, I was making a steady $1,000 per month from my site via text links and Adsense. Around this same time, I started getting more exposure in traditional media and online circles. The stars were aligning and things were happening.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
MK Book a ticket! I find that most people want to travel but don’t. Some people have illnesses, family obligations and financial hardships that keep them from living a life like mine. But what keeps the vast majority of people home is not money but mindset. It is the false belief that their circumstances are different and everyone else who travels has money or privilege they don’t. They have bought into the belief that traveling is a luxury for those with means and, unless you’re on the inside, you’ll never be able to make it happen.
But let me tell everyone who believes this mindset: If you truly desire to travel, you will find a way. For some, it will take more effort and time (maybe years), but you can do it.
What are you most excited to focus on in 2016?
MK I’m really excited about my new non-profit, FLYTE (Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education). Travel is a powerful agent for change. It broadens our horizons and helps us find our purpose.
For kids, travel can be even more life-changing than for adults because it exposes them to different ideas, cultures and people at a crucial developmental time in their life. FLYTE’s mission is to provide the resources and funding to help high schools in underserved U.S. communities send kids overseas. We are doing this to help students become global citizens, bring life to the subjects they learn in school, and expose them to new ideas and cultures.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. She writes about travel, health and business for regional and national publications.