Starting from zero

On 15 March 2012 we had just arrived in a new city in a new country, thousands of miles from home, where we knew nobody. We'd just quit a pair of well-paid jobs, leaving us with no way of making money and no idea of what to do next.

We wanted to be a part of it...hence the name of this blog. Do you see?
We wanted to be a part of it…hence the name of this blog. Do you see?

As you'll know if you've followed our story (and spoiler alert if you haven't), it all worked out in the end. But perhaps because we suspect deep down that we were just fluky and what we did was totally irresponsible, we've been advising people to take it more cautiously ever since.

We've written a lot about the merits of starting side-projects and building something of your own alongside your day job. Now though, I'm starting to suspect that by starting from zero we had it right all along…

Why it's hard to break free

We often hear from people who desperately want to become location independent and/or start their own business. Often they set up a blog and write a couple of posts, or write to ask us a question about how to deal with taxes after they make the leap…then a year later they're still exactly where they were, no closer to their dream.

That's understandable, because our lives are full of commitments, non-negotiables and distractions. If you try to fit in some tentative steps towards a new life around everything else you've got going on, the dream can easily fade as more pressing concerns get in the way.

Harry Browne recognises this in his incredible book, How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World:

Once you know what is necessary to live the kind of life you want, bold action is required. Take your time thinking about these matters, but don't be slow in acting on them – once you've thought things out.

In other words, your life is the way it is now because of the accumulation of thousands of decisions that you made over time because you thought they would make you happy. If you ended up somewhere that you don't want to be, it's far more effective to just cut yourself free rather than try to gradually unpick the knot of your life so far.

How to start again

Browne says that if you use your current life as the starting point, it's all too easy to rationalise every part of it as essential and unchangeable. Instead, you should start with your dream life as the standard – and eliminate any part of your current life that doesn't fit the dream.

Start by imagining yourself stripped of all responsibilities and constraints – starting from scratch with everything up for grabs. Think about what you would do if you were in this position: where you'd live, what you'd do, who you'd be with.

Then think about your life as it is now. Everything that's in your current life that doesn't appear in your dream life needs to go – making space for what you dream of having in its place. For each item you need to remove, there will be a price to pay – whether it's money, time or social standing – but the sooner you pay the price and move on, the cheaper it will be.

Leaving old lives behind

Thinking back, that's almost exactly what we did: we spent a long time planning what we wanted our lives to be like, then took drastic action to make it happen.

We knew that we wanted to spend time living in New York City and we knew we wanted to find more fulfilling work to do, so we quit our jobs and moved there. Once we were there we found out what a "digital nomad" was and realised that was exactly what we wanted to do, so we built the skills and found the work that could make that happen. We felt that some of our friendships weren't serving us well anymore, so we left them behind and deliberately sought out new ones.

We often talk about our "old lives" as a kind of verbal shorthand to describe before we started travelling, but it doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration. In the space of a few months we left behind many things that made up our old identities and started afresh – we even set up new Facebook profiles.

For everything we stripped away, there was a price – including the money we walked away from, and a whole lot more. But from the moment we made the decision, it has never felt like a bad idea for a moment.

And could we have made this complete shift in our interests, friendships and careers if we'd tried to do it gradually? Almost certainly not.

Overcoming the barriers

Of course, it was relatively easy for us: while our old lives were packed with activities and the decision we made had some kind of consequences for a lot of people, we didn't have the major commitments (like kids) that make starting from zero more challenging.

If you do have commitments greater than ours, maybe this approach isn't realistic – but make sure you're not just using your obligations as an excuse to avoid taking an action that's painful in the short-term. At least spend a bit of time considering the idea of starting from zero: imagine your life with a clean slate, and see which of your present commitments don't fit with your ideal life. Only then can you decide if the price of removing that commitment is worth paying.

For many people, the barrier will be money. It would have been for us too, but we spent a year aggressively saving because we knew that's what needed to happen to be able to do what we wanted. Even if you can't shake the etch-a-sketch right now, you can make a plan to do it and set a deadline by which time you will have saved the money you need.

Or if starting from zero doesn't feel possible or desirable, you can still follow our normal advice to start with a side-project, be cautious, build your skills and get there over time.

But we mustn't rationalise away the fact that we started from zero, and it was the best thing we ever did. It might be for you too.