The everyday success series is all about finding success from people doing their everyday things. However, in this interview, I wanted to highlight a different form of success. Related: Everyday Success with Matt from Distilled Dollar

Being in your mid 20s with a good paying job with a great work-life balance sounds like the dream for some people. However, that wasn’t the case for my friend, Derek. He wanted more.

Derek was born and raised in the bay area. He and I met in college at Cal Poly (Go Mustangs!). After graduating with a degree in Industrial Technology, he landed a full-time job in the heart of the Silicon Valley for the massive, multinational, tech corporation, Cisco Systems.

After four years of working, Derek felt that he wanted more out of life. He wanted a break from the daily grind of a commute, working a 9-5, contributing to a 401(k), saving up for a house, etc.

He wanted to experience life outside of the greater bay area. In order to expand his horizon, he headed towards it.

After one fateful “drunk talk,” he was inspired to take action. Roughly 6 months later, he was halfway around the world meeting new people and truly experiencing life.

He traveled through South East Asia and, some parts of Europe. During his 11-month hiatus from the Bay Area, he was able to visit 29 countries.

His original inspiration to travel has now snowballed into him wanting to take “mini retirements” every 4-5 years to unplug. He projects his next trip will be through the continent of South America with his future wife (ladies, swipe right).

After he returned, I asked Derek if he would do me the honor of being featured on my blog. He graciously agreed. It took a few months to find a time that made sense for both of us, but we were able to speak for an hour.

In the interview, Derek shared how he prepared for the trip, his favorite places, things that worked for him, things that didn’t work for him and the lessons about life and himself that he learned from being a nomad for 11 months.

“The best plan is no plan.”

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This is a common theme in all the personal development and personal finance blogs and books I read. And I agree wholeheartedly.

Without a plan in place, your actions, tasks and goals may be getting things done, but they will not be truly effective uses of your time, energy and resources.

A plan provides you with a direction. It’s your “true north.”

However, in Derek’s case. His trip was successful because he rebelled against the man on the $100 bill.

At the beginning of his trip, he took the information he learned from blogs and created a 6-month itinerary.  He started out organized with every intention of following his plan.

Then, 1 month into his trip, the plan completely deteriorated.  But his experience was greatly enhanced.

Derek’s priority in this whole experience was to “unplug.” He also wanted to live life without a schedule in mind. So he did.

My whole life, you kinda have this schedule. You’re gonna go to school, you’re gonna go to summer school, internship, job. For this whole year, I had absolutely nothing. Just woke up and did what I wanted to do. It was refreshing!

For the countries he visited, his metric for deciding how long he should stay was simple. If he liked the country, he stayed longer. If he didn’t he left.

To get to really know the country, Derek tried visiting the monuments, the statues and the temples. As beautiful and breathtaking as these wonders are, he still didn’t feel connected with the country until he got to know the people.

I felt like experienced the country more when i did nothing. When I sat at a coffee shop and talked to people. It’s the people that make the country

Derek’s subjective criteria on how long he should stay at each destination gave him great flexibility. However, he technically had planned end date in mind for his entire trip.

Cisco graciously granted him a 12-month leave of absence. This gave him an end date to his journey, which ultimately enabled him to come back to his job.

Derek at SFO at the beginning of his journey.
Source: @durrreck

From “drunk talk” to traveling.

I’ve had my fair share of “drunk talks” in my life. Some conversations were deep life talks, while others were frivolous, heated-debates about whether Super Saiyan 3 Goku would beat Superman or if Kobe is better than Lebron.

To my surprise, Derek’s inspiration for the trip came from a “drunk talk” he had with a friend 6 months prior to take take-off.

At a bar, he and his friend were commiserating about the “daily grind” of life.  Derek wasn’t miserable per se, but he had a burning desire and curiosity for more. This passion for more transformed into a fantasy of traveling the world.

Derek could have stopped there with that memory of the “drunk talk” with his friend. However, he did the one thing that changes turns your dreams into reality.

He took action.

It’s worth noting that before this trip, Derek mentioned that the longest he’d ever traveled was for two weeks with his family. He decided to slightly extend that time frame by traveling for 11 months and added the additional challenge of traveling by himself.

Using the gift of the internet, he armed himself with as much knowledge as he could. He leveraged blogs and various websites. He learned from other people’s experiences in order to make his journey successful.

Article by article, he became more comfortable with idea of traveling by himself for an extended period of time.

What’s inspiring is that Derek turned his dream into a reality by simply choosing to take action. He started with a dream, did his research to gather information, then hopped on a plane.

It may seem simple, but there are hundreds of excuses you and I could come up with for why we haven’t turned our dreams into experienced memories.

Source: @durrreck

Change your scenery.

When I asked Derek how the trip changed him, he spoke with such conviction about how his perspective on life has changed and matured.

In college, and after graduating, Derek partied a lot. He spent his time and money on clubs, booze and eating out. He admits that those times were fun, but after traveling, he wants to allocate his time and money towards more fulfilling things.

Traveling through Southeast Asia, opened Derek’s eyes immensely. He saw poor kids begging for pennies. He expressed that he learned that some kids even go as far mutilating their bodies with the hopes of receiving more money begging.

Seeing this had a tremendous impact on Derek. He now realizes that some of his “first-world” problems are not problems at all.

I’ve grown up in the bay area It’s natural to grow up and to college and not having to worry about most of the financial stuff. You see people in Cambodia, they have 0 chance of making it. They’re out begging for money as a kid. I didn’t have to worry about financial stuff. Like knowing where my next meal is gonna be or going to school. It’s just study, and that’s it. I definitely appreciate my parents and all the sacrifices they made to make sure I have SAT classes, going to Karate practice. I definitely appreciate that more. It’s good to take a step back. Our problems are not problems.

Experiencing poverty like that made him much more appreciative of the sacrifices his parents made immigrating to a whole new country to provide him and his sister with a greater life.

Derek’s growth was a product of his change of scenery. On the other side of his Bay Area bubble was a world full of experiences. Derek has lived within his Bay Area bubble for his entire life. He grew uncomfortably comfortable. So he changed it up.

You cannot expect to grow in a routine. For most of your routine, you operate on autopilot. This is natural, as our brains and bodies look to exert the least amount of energy to get things done.

However, in order to progress, don’t be afraid to change your scenery. I’m not advocating that you take an 11-month leave of absence. I’m telling you to find various avenues to challenge yourself and be adventurous.

With the internet, you can learn virtually any new skill. There’s free information out there, too. You simply have to ask the right questions and put in the time.

Another way to challenge yourself is to meet new people. Today, your network is even more important than ever. Furthermore, it’s significantly easier to make a connection. You can connect, message or interact with someone thousands of miles away with a single mouse click.

A picture of local children at Phu Chi Fa
Source: @durrreck

The power of hello.

The biggest lesson that I took out of my interview with Derek was the power of a simple “hello.”

Sparking a simple conversation can lead to a variety of things. It can spark a new relationship. It can be the beginning of a life-long friendship. It can be the foundation of a very profitable partnership.

In Derek’s case, “The power of hello” served him well. By simply introducing himself to strangers (I know, you’re not supposed to talk to strangers), he gained travel buddies in that country.

Derek’s courage to start a conversation created international friendships with people he stays in touch with through the internet. Thanks, Facebook.

The power of hello is the basis of networking. Regardless of the medium, you cannot network without an introduction.

And what easier way to introduce yourself than by simply saying “Hello?”

Derek and friends he met enjoying sunsets in Myanmar
Source: @durrreck

How technology helped.

For Derek, traveling lightly did not mean voiding himself of technology. While he did “unplug” for 11 months, modern technology saved him time and money, but also deceived him.

As previously mentioned, he used blogs, and various websites to give him the framework and initial structure for his trip. He followed bloggers’ advice and purchased a travel backpack that became essential to his survival.

Before getting settled into a new country, Derek completed three preliminary tasks:

  • He researched the most popular scams in the area
  • He purchased a cellphone Sim Card for that country to enable cell phone usage
  • He used TripIt to understand how much he needed to spend to experience a particular quality of life, i.e. living moderately or balling out

Understanding the local scams armed Derek with knowledge on how to defend himself. This helped him stay safe. He also mentioned that almost every country he traveled to is safer than the media portrays.

I did ask Derek if he ever felt unsafe, and this was his response:

In Bulgaria, which borders turkey. I arrived at 1 am after a 16-hour bus ride, no sim card, no money, no internet. I had to walk 2-miles to get to my hostel. I didn’t tell anyone where I was

Usually Derek would travel by Bus to neighboring countries that were arranged by his Hostel. If he had to fly to another country, he used SkyScanner to find the cheapest flights.

While technology helped Derek navigate through the countries he visited and stay safe, he mentions that one problem he faced with technology is that pictures online are highly deceiving.

For example, pictures on Instagram show a beautiful waterfall. However, that Instagram post fails to express the effort it took to get there. Derek said:

Pictures always look better online. I remember I biked 20 miles to this one waterfall. Size of barrel. It’s like there’s no waterfall. Sometimes the pictures look better online. [The] pictures on Instagram, you don’t see the back end work to get that photo.

Another problem with technology is that each device is a liability.

Derek packed a DSLR camera  with an additional lens. While this helped him take better quality pictures, he alluded to the fact that the setting up the camera for the “perfect shot” detracts from experiencing the scenery.

Having the camera with him on the trip seemed like a good idea at the time. However, looking back at it, he spent more time worrying about whether the camera would get stolen.

With modern smartphones, you have an all-in-one device that takes decent pictures. Derek mentioned that on his future trip, he does not plan to sacrifice living in the moment for a “perfect shot” for Instagram.

The interview.

A HUGE thanks to Derek Lee for deciding to travel and giving me the privilege of interviewing him.

To see photos of his awesome trip, visit his Instagram @durrreck

From this hour-long interview, I learned a lot about life, Derek and tips on traveling. I’d be lying if said I didn’t want to travel now.

I hope this article sparks an inspiration for adventure. Remember, your adventure doesn’t have to be an 11-month excursion. It can be in your own city! Go out there, say hello, meet new people and be present in the moment. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn about others, life and yourself.

Readers, where have you always wanted to travel? Why haven’t you booked your flight or made your plans?

If you have any one in mind who would be a great candidate for the “Everyday Success” series, let me know. I love meeting new people, hearing their stories and sharing it with you all.


Derek on Phu Chi Fa
Source: @durrreck