The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Learn

I’ve never really been one to follow the masses or participate in the rigid march of conformity. I sold candy on the black market in 5th grade, started an auto parts company when I was 16, skipped my senior year of high school, and was on a one-way flight to Vegas during my college graduation.

Buenos Aires Balcony

Looking out from my balcony in Buenos Aires

At age 23, I was making plenty of money and was only working a few hours a day. It was every guy’s dream – living in Sin City, improving my Call of Duty skills with previously undiscovered dedication, and embracing a general lack of responsibility that I hadn’t experienced since…well, college. So, after a year in Vegas, I took the next logical step – I moved back to New Jersey (where I grew up),  started working for the family business, and signed a 15 month lease with a new girlfriend that I met on Match.com.

Wait, what?

Me – the poster child of nonconformity and bane of authority figures nationwide – working a 9-5, playing house, and living 10 minutes from my childhood home. What had the world come to?

I was sure I was making a brilliant decision at the time. I reasoned that my business was well on its way to being automated and, with all the free time I had, I could earn a second salary, have great medical benefits, and start a 401(k) plan (I hated writing this sentence).

The truth is that I had a shameful secret. I had read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and though I eagerly told my friends and family about my quest to finish automating my business, I kept one key detail mostly to myself. I wanted – in the worst way – to leave everything else behind and embark an adventure around the world, starting in Buenos Aires. By Tim’s description, I was sure it would magically transform me into a walking, talking TED conference who could smash finance majors with my wallet.

It was this innermost desire upon which I was fixated – the trip, not the banker-smashing – and my heart raced as I thought of getting on a plane with nothing but a backpack, completely oblivious to what mysteries may await me in Argentina. But alas, the adventure seemed a pipe dream, akin to the giant rocket-powered pacifier that I drew as a child and never had the chance to fly.

Ironically, I found it hardest to share my dream with the people I trusted the most – my business coach, my family, my (ex)girlfriend, or the CEO group that I met with monthly. But when I traveled for business, I’d tell anyone who would listen – passengers, bartenders, homeless people – that I had outsourced my business and I would soon be moving to Argentina. It was a harmless lie that was exciting to tell, and I enjoyed the encouraging reactions that I would get. But in the back of my mind, I was sure that I would never go – it was like telling the exciting story of some bizarre, uninhibited, alternate-reality version of myself.

I agonized over whether or not to leave the family business. I worried that people would think I was a failure or a quitter if I left. I petitioned trusted advisors for advice but I always felt that they were judging me for wanting to leave – they all seemed to disapprove. I spent over a year talking about the decision, the pros and cons, the potential outcomes and alternatives – mostly without bringing up my true desire to travel the world.

I can tend to get stuck in a rut of circular arguments and major decisions like this can become paralyzing for me. In one particularly unproductive discussion, my business coach said a few words that changed my life forever:

What do you care what I think you should do? You’re the one that has to live with it. This is your life.

There are no rules.

There are no rules. It’s taken a long time for that to sink in for me. When people think “no rules,” they usually think about someone like Richard Branson who travels into space on a rocket made of money. In order to grasp this concept, we need something tangible – something far-fetched that you or I could actually do right now.

Right now, you can quit your job, get in a car or a bus, drive to Mexico, and live in a tent on the beach. Regardless of whether you’re 18 or 65, married or single, rich or poor, this is something that you could do.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine each step. Imagine quitting your job. Visualize yourself packing the suitcase. Fast forward through the drive and picture yourself pulling up to a deserted beach. Think about what it would feel like to pitch the tent and sleep the first night under the stars.

I’m not suggesting that you actually do this, but you need to know that it’s possible. Most dreams don’t require a magic lamp and a genie – they just require action. You need to know that you, and you alone, hold the power to make any decision that you want to make. And the flip side is that you get to live with the consequences – good or bad – of anything that you do.

I was conditioned to think that it was unreasonable to move to South America. It just isn’t something that a normal person does. Like a rubber band, I snapped back to a 9-5 job after being outside “normal society” by working from home in Las Vegas. And in the end, that was a pressure and a judgement that I exerted on myself – I felt so guilty about my nontraditional freedom that I forced myself back into the mainstream. Two years later, all I wanted was for an authority figure to tell me that it was OK to leave the family business and move to Argentina. But why did I want their approval?

I look back on some of the decisions upon which I’ve agonized – decisions that seemed monumental at the time, or decisions about which I felt so torn. I realize now that I knew what I wanted early on but I was afraid to make the choice for myself. Instead, I tried to collect endorsements for my decision from friends and mentors, or, in some cases, I waited around for someone else to make the decision first. Sometimes years passed by while I waited to feel good about a choice I was going to make. The most important thing I learned about decision making is that the right decision isn’t always going to feel good in the moment that you make it.

It’s raining now and I’m sitting on my balcony in the heart of Buenos Aires. When I talk about my “no rules” philosophy here, fellow vagabonds just nod their head and smile. To some degree or another, all world travelers have cast off from the mainland and left behind the arbitrary and imaginary rules that we’ve imposed on ourselves. I know I did, and I can tell you that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. There are no rules – your life is right there waiting for you to start living it.

Volkswagen ran a brilliant campaign some years back and it feels appropriate here: “On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers Wanted.” We all have a fantasy that we’ve hidden from the world – a fantasy that we’ve deemed too radical, too risky, or too silly to pursue. What is your’s?

Take the first step towards getting back in the driver’s seat – tell someone about your dream. Saying it out loud gets you one step closer to living it.

Un abrazo fuerte,

Zack

PS. My dream is to become a published author. Will you help me by sharing this post?

I’m an entrepreneur currently living in Boulder, CO (I’ve previously lived in Buenos Aires, Washington State, Las Vegas, and New Jersey). Here, I write about all sorts of topics that interest me: business and lifestyle automation, entrepreneurship, and personal development. Want to contact me? You can email me at zackkanter@gmail.com.