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A Change Of Direction Is Needed To Keep Going

Maybe I did it all wrong?

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ASTORIA, NYC- I could have spent the past couple of months traveling — chasing countries that are opening up, fleeing those that are shutting down, doing whatever I could to not get Trevor’ed. But I did something else instead.


I just couldn’t get the numbers to work. Travel had transitioned from a hobby to a business. For each trip out I would weigh the potential expenses against the potential earnings, and I’d usually come out a little ahead. My product was stories — articles, films, and speaking engagements — and I’d just let these endeavors guide me around the world. It went well for a number of years, and then Covid wiped everything out.

Having to pay for my travels was something I only had to do periodically over the past couple of years. I was like a nomad going to where the pastures were greenest (where other people would pay for me to go), and I would pile other projects and money making opportunities onto these trips. Now with this model blasted, I was left with the grim scenario of having to pay for all of my travels, which severely altered my P/L, to put it mildly.

On top of that, my product was based on face-to-face interaction, with meeting people, with going out and checking things out for myself. In a world where people are working from home, who’s going to welcome in a traveling journalist for a face-to-face interview? I could have sat in my room in NYC — or taken on a proxy office in Mexico or somewhere — and worked over Zoom … but that’s just not what I do. I’d rather get another job entirely than be that kind of journalist.

Poor me.

A couple of months ago I looked at my bank account, ran the numbers, and concluded that I had enough to fund a year of travels. I could go out, do whatever projects I could, and try to make enough to keep me a float until next year, when the world might be back to business as usual.

Then a thought hit me:

What if things are not back to normal by then?

What if your industry doesn’t recover enough to allow you to go operate on the same business model?

What if you go out, squander your resources, and then find yourself in the same position as you are now … only broke?

It was at that time when I began to seriously harbor the idea that it could be over.

It was a good run …

In travel you’re always thinking three to five steps ahead. You rarely ever enter a country without some sort of notion of what country you’re going to next. A good traveler doesn’t think in terms of places, but in terms of paths. There’s a zillion contingency options built into this planning — if you can’t go here you go there, if there sucks you go here — and world travel becomes a proverbial circuit where you go where the current freely flows. This is part of what makes travel fun.

My financial strategy revolved around funding the next trip with the proceeds from the previous trip, and I hand no plan for what I would do if this chain was ever severed. Sure, I’d still have my passive income, but that wouldn’t be enough to subsist off of for the long term. I realized then that I set up my tent without firmly staking it to the ground. It was liable to blow away in the first gust of wind.

And blow away it did.

Covid showed me how tenuous my profession is. One day I’m traveling all over the world on someone else’s dime, giving talks, doing journalism projects, and working on documentaries, and the next day it’s gone. I had no plan for not being able to travel. My business model was stripped down to the studs.

Media is a hustle, it is a passion. It is not a career. I got this impression early on in my work when I’d consistently meet marketers, PR agents, and logistics operators who would be like, “I used to be a journalist.” Then I’d be like, “What happened?” And they’d reply with something that amounted to, “I wanted a real job.”

But I didn’t lament this fact as much as I probably should have. I was living a dream, yes, but deep down I knew it wasn’t sustainable. I had this sinking feeling for a long time that I’d eventually have to strengthen my position or do something else … It was that annoying kind of feeling, like wearing a pair of boots that are a little too big. Most days you don’t notice it, but on the chance that you do you can’t stop feeling your heal sliding up and down.

But logical conclusions about probable future positions are rarely enough to move the lever of a lifestyle change. I continued on for the next year feeling as if I was on occupational life support.

Like a criminal on the run who finally gets caught, Covid was almost a relief. I probably would have otherwise just kept going the way I was, focused on the path underfoot rather than the cliff that it was leading towards. Not being able to travel and, subsequently, not having any work woke me up to the volatile chain of dependency that stood between myself and my sustenance:

Me <– Editors <– Audience <– Traffic sources (search / social media, etc.) <– Publication <– Advertising revenue <– People buying products <– Status of broader economy

I set out at the onset of the pandemic to make myself more financially bulletproof, and this meant cutting down my chain of dependency. I looked at the end points of this chain, and began thinking about ways to cut out whatever I could from the middle.

I began trading again. I’ve always like trading and always figured I would do it more if my work in media ever went belly up. What I didn’t previously plan for was the possibility of using trading as a mechanism to bankroll media projects.

Almost paradoxically, what has been holding me back from my objectives in media over the years was the fact that I endeavored to make a living from it. This meant taking on time consuming jobs that were just for the pay and writing endless amounts of articles when I should of been writing books. As with most creative pursuits, what you make money at is rarely what you’re known for. To get paid well for art projects is a good thing, but only a fool would expect to do so.

It became clear that I would never accomplish my goals if I continually had to keep focusing my efforts in media on making money, and I eventually had to ask myself a question:

If it doesn’t lead to me obtaining what I’m after would I still want to work in media?

I had to answer with a resolute no. It it was only about the money then I may as well go into marketing or logistics like everybody else.

I wanted time to work on big projects I would need to try something different.


At some point I realized that I’d done things the wrong way. Rather than building up a pile of money or arranging operations to continuously bring in respectable amounts of income that could fund my travels and media projects, I just went out and started writing. It worked out better than I probably imagined. I can’t have any regrets. However, when I start thinking about the other ways that I could have done things …

For some reasons I never thought that I should bother trying to make real money. I’d never known anyone who had any money. Where I come from people work, they get paid, they spend their money, and they work some more. The idea of acquiring more money than you could readily spend was a foreign concept. But then I began meeting people my age who did things different — they started companies, they invested more than they spent, they prospered, and then they began traveling full time working on media projects.

This wasn’t something that I didn’t think I could do or something I thought was out of my league. I just never considered it.

Around 15 years ago a reader of this blog left I comment that I’ve never been able to shake: “You’re thinking too small.”

While I readily denied it at the time, somewhere deep down I always knew this guy was right.

Filed under: Make Money for Travel, Travel Philosophy, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3623 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

16 comments… add one

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  • Kyle B. October 20, 2020, 5:22 pm

    I get it, New York City has a way of making you restless with your job in a way that other more isolated places like Upstate New York don’t do, since you see the full variety of careers and income levels people can have all in one place. Add on top of that the recent situation.

    I’ve always enjoyed your perspective, have you ever considered teaching or public policy? You’ve got a lot to share about the new economy, globalization, China, and a whole host of other topics that are as relevant as ever.

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    • VBJ October 29, 2020, 10:02 pm

      Yes, it’s pretty wild here. The full spectrum of humanity.

      It’s more a case of having to do a day job more than anything else. I opted to do whatever I wanted first rather than making some money and then doing whatever I wanted. I have a lot of projects that need cash, and that’s not going to happen on a journalist’s salary.

      So I’m just trying to free myself up a little. More on this to come.

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  • DaNuck October 20, 2020, 8:01 pm

    Wade,
    You didn’t “do it all wrong” you simply did it “your way” and in the process you’ve gained an abundance of travel and life experiences, besides ALL the fun you had exploring the world that few travelers get to see.
    I’m sure you’ll be able to use all of that experience, to do some pretty amazing things. Only problem is , that you can’t see what they’ll be just yet ?
    Hang in there, your a smart Guy, you’ll figure it out.

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    • VBJ October 29, 2020, 10:04 pm

      Thanks man, very much appreciated!

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  • Trevor Warman October 21, 2020, 7:08 am

    Man what you did was great. But everyone is fucked now what ever they are doing. All dodging the bullet as we try and out run Covid, keeping safe. Or like me dealing with the consequences alone in a country that I don’t have a passport for and with no safe option.

    As the last guy said… You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out.

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    • VBJ October 29, 2020, 10:07 pm

      “But everyone is fucked now what ever they are doing.”

      That’s true. We now have to transition away from waiting it out to living with it. It’s mind blowing though. The lockdowns have been shown to be ineffective, the WHO and UN (and numerous others) have come out denouncing them, but Europe is still imposing them. Why? It’s getting … how can we put it, fishy? Are they trying to incite revolution?

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    • VBJ November 2, 2020, 9:30 am

      Hello Trevor,

      Thanks for this! Very much appreciated.

      “All dodging the bullet as we try and out run Covid, keeping safe.”

      Definitely. It’s nuts what you’re doing and have had to resolve to keep going. You’re on a real search for freedom, the prime directive of travel.

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      • Trevor Warman November 2, 2020, 12:07 pm

        Seems half the vloggers and bloggers have gone to Mexico and the other half are here but I’m still more of a backpacker, fighting for a way to keep myself on the road. It’s not always easy. Isolation and other crap as detailed in the new post is a bit mind numbing sometimes. Keeps me in business on VBJ. lol. And trying to spread the word.

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  • Jack October 21, 2020, 8:04 am

    You didn’t do it the right way or the wrong way, you did it your way:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxAfEEq6DXA

    🙂

    I think these times call for a lot of introspection, but I don’t think you can second guess yourself or really do a post-mortem until things level out. It’s going to be another year or so.

    Have you considered doing a van build and hitting the road to explore the US and all the stories that are here? Have you thought about getting a job in the US and finding the stories of people here in the US?

    I went through a phase when I first came back to the US where I’d take throwaway job just to get ideas. The pay was crap but I wasn’t doing it for the pay, I was doing it for the stories and the interactions. (Throwaway jobs are jobs in retail or call center or similar environments where you can easily find the job, work it for a few weeks and then just stop going in). Talking to people in a down and out work environment really gets you tuned into the way the down class people are thinking and doing. Those gritty stories are the real stories. No money in those stories, but there might be a book.

    I realize after reading this article, I’ve never really been a write. I’ve just been a marketer for others and I’m ok with that.

    You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. You are a talented writer so do what you want to do and not worry about pleasing others.

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    • VBJ November 2, 2020, 9:19 am

      Thanks man, I really appreciate you saying this.

      “I went through a phase when I first came back to the US where I’d take throwaway job just to get ideas. The pay was crap but I wasn’t doing it for the pay, I was doing it for the stories and the interactions. (Throwaway jobs are jobs in retail or call center or similar environments where you can easily find the job, work it for a few weeks and then just stop going in). Talking to people in a down and out work environment really gets you tuned into the way the down class people are thinking and doing. Those gritty stories are the real stories. No money in those stories, but there might be a book.”

      Excellent! Yes, I went through a period once where I did that too. It’s absolutely fascinating and kind of fun … and you get paid a little for it too.

      What’s perhaps odd is that I don’t struggle too much financially in journalism or other writing / editing endeavors. The issue is that what I make is basically just enough to keep going and it maxes out my work-time capacity. I’ve met a lot of rich people over the past few years when writing for Forbes and it got me thinking differently. There is way more money out there to be had than what I imagined. I grew up where it is normal for people to spend everything they make, and it was only recently that I started thinking that it could be possible to break out of this. By only taking the thinnest layer of wealth off the top of the pile I could have more than enough to finance any venture I’d like to do and then have some left over at the end of the day. I needed to break my working class money mentality … which is oddly difficult to do. There’s really no other way that I can move forward with media.

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  • Rob October 21, 2020, 11:47 am

    The world is changing right now, someone took the pandemic as an opportunity and ran with it. The numbers on this pandemic are not much different from the pandemics in 1957 or 1968 but the reaction this time has been huge!
    This is so much more than dealing with a bad flu, it’s not over yet.

    “You’re thinking too small.” is a valid point in many ways but we are who we are.
    Without this world reaction to the flu our lives would probably be on the path they were and this whole conversation would never have happened.
    The changes have not calmed down, it’s a good time to watch & wait and see how things shake out…

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    • Jack October 22, 2020, 8:27 pm

      We already have more deaths from Covid-19 in the US than we got from the 1957 and 1968 pandemics combined. This thing is just getting started and unless we have a huge pool of asymptomatic people, this thing is going to get much worse. I hope I am wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is already much worse than the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics.

      Anyways, I hope you are able to tell you you told me so in 6 months from now.

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      • VBJ October 30, 2020, 12:20 pm

        But when 94% of those deaths have at least one other co-morbidity it is arguable how many of that number can truly be attributed to Covid. Should a 95 year old with lung cancer count as a Covid death? I guess so, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it as a healthy 20 year old.

        This is just something that we need to live with. Tell people the actual risks, tell them what types of masks are effective, let them know that Covid is aerosolized and part of the fluid air, and advise a course of action which keeps vulnerable people safer but predominately allows most people to live their lives. I don’t see much of a choice … short of worldwide revolutions and civil wars, which seem to be getting brewing on many fronts. You can’t expect people to willfully be imprisoned for years. It just isn’t possible. I’m surprised Spain hasn’t revolted by now.

        And don’t believe anything coming out of Imperial College.

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    • VBJ November 2, 2020, 9:41 am

      I agree. I guess we could all argue about how deadly it is, etc forever but I don’t think many could seriously argue against the fact that we’re overreacting big time and our extremely destructive intervention methods are doing more harm than good. Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t seen a single non-theoretical report showing that lockdowns work. Even for the skeptic among us, it seems as if something else is going on behind the scenes.

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  • Michael Robert Powell October 23, 2020, 8:53 am

    Hi Wade.

    Ride the wave, brother.

    Unless, you and your Mrs, can’t keep it afloat in NYC, I wouldn’t sweat it.

    By mid-next year, things will probably bounce back. I mean, travel is always going to be there – if there’s cool stuff to see and do ( and borders are open); humanity, craves a bit of adventure and excitement. Even the armchair crowd (EG: web content consumers).

    Meanwhile, maybe others posters have some valid ideas that could work: a van road trip, online tutoring or…?

    I don’t have the answer for you, but I do understand the drawbacks of making a living off a passion/hobby, when it’s often easier to do a dumbass job and then cash-up to focus on the real-calling – art.

    Stay strong. Shit will work itself out!

    Regards – MRP

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    • VBJ October 30, 2020, 12:32 pm

      Thanks man, very much appreciated.

      In normal times I make a pretty good living in journalism, but doing it as a day job takes up almost all of my available writing time and nothing is left in the tank for the big projects that I care about.

      The make money first model is looking pretty good to me right now. As Kyle pointed out, being in NYC makes you realize how much money is out there. All I need is just a little sluice off the time and I’m good to go!

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