They’re all happy, though they earn just enough to get by.
As though attempting to prove that money can’t buy happiness, all three of them have ditched a life of stability – along with the conventional aspirations of 5Cs – in the pursuit of their dreams.
Which makes me wonder: Do the 5Cs – once a common measure of success and happiness in Singapore – no longer matter for today’s generation? Is it really possible to discover your passion, find a way to make a career of it even if it doesn’t pay very much, and live a meaningful life?
Most importantly, are the sacrifices worth it?
According to these inspiring explorers of life, the answer is a resounding “yes”.
This full-time nomad basks in her freedom to see the world
When the travel bug first hit former Lianhe Zaobao sports reporter Hong Weixi in 2008, she spent 502 days traversing a whopping 38 countries. When Weixi, 39, returned in 2010, she re-joined the paper as an executive translator/reporter with the foreign news desk, but could not resist the allure of the road. The avid traveller and author of two travelogues – Seeing The World In 500 Days & Seeing The World In 500 Days II – packed her bags and took off again in July 2014, and hasn’t looked back since.
“When I first started travelling solo, I met fellow travellers, some of whom were travelling for up to a year. That’s when I started toying with the idea but was hesitant about quitting my dream job. Like any Singaporean, I wondered what would happen after I was done travelling – what if I couldn’t find a job, or could never find such an ideal job again?
Then one day, I saw this quote: ‘Some things, if you do not do it while you are young, you will never get down to doing it.’ I decided right then that I would quit my job and go see the world.
My original intention was to go on a one-year trip as a 30th birthday present to myself. It ending up lasting 502 days and only served to fuel more travel lust. At the end of it, I went home, broke, and worked full-time for a few years before I left again.
The first long trip was a huge learning curve for me. Many a time, I would be the lone traveller in some remote place and have to worry about my safety. I had to learn to deal with unwanted attention from men (something I never had a problem with while in Singapore); I was almost raped in Turkey; I had my mobile phone stolen in Ethiopia and ended up in an Ethiopian court facing the judges and lawyers’ questioning and finally saw the thief found guilty.
But these experiences turned out to be valuable lessons for my second trip. Now, my biggest problems are having my camera breaking down, missing Asian food terribly, and being alone when I fall ill.
For this second trip, I’ve been away for 1,200 days and counting, and am now writing from Bolivia. I’ve been a nomad for the past three years and this is my life now.
Although freelance work does bring in some income, what I make is only enough to cover my expenses. Sometimes, I have to dig into my savings, which I’m no longer able to build up like before, and I doubt I’ll ever see a fat bank account again. But as long as the money I make is enough to cover a nomadic lifestyle, that is good enough.
When I was younger, I used to think that success was measured by how far up the corporate ladder one could climb, how much money one could make, or how big a car or house one could have. Now, I feel that success is simply how happy one is in life. Happiness, for me, can be as simple as sitting in a cafe watching the world go by, or having the freedom to find out how beautiful other parts of the world can be.
I may have lost my dream job (that was how everyone saw it), but I have gained so much. I have seen and experienced so much more in these few years than what other people might experience in their lifetimes. Before I set off on my first long trip, I knew how to write only sports reports. Now I’ve evolved into a travel writer and photographer. If I had not done these, I’d never have known what else I’m capable of.
That said, the nomadic life is not for everybody. In choosing to quit your job and travel the world, you’re throwing away a life of stability. If you are an ordinary salaried worker like I used to be, the reality is you will come back to an empty bank account and no job. If being close to your family is important, this life is not for you, either. And at some point in your trip, you’re bound to miss a flight, get lost, be ripped off, attacked, or will meet with some mishap or another. It will not always be blue skies and beaches all the way.
If, after this, you’re still considering the road less travelled, then listen to your heart. Even if things don’t work out in the end, at least you tried. Everyone has his or her own yardstick for happiness. Go with your own and it will never be wrong. You live only once, why not live happy?”
This outdoor education student finds joy amid the wilderness of Middle Earth
Erstwhile writer Ruby Tan, 29, has always had a yearning for the outdoors. In early 2017, the adventurous free spirit answered the call of the wild and took up an Outdoor Education programme at Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth, New Zealand. After completing her foundational year, she is now a full-fledged outdoor guide.
“When I left my job as a writer in a women’s magazine in 2014, I felt I was drifting in life. I decided to spend some time volunteering in Nepal, hoping that in doing so, I might find some answers as to what I ought
to do next.
There, I made a list of things I thought would give me fulfillment in my next job. At the top of that list, I wrote that I wanted to be doing something related to nature and the outdoors that would allow me to make an impact on the lives of others.
When I returned to Singapore, I got a job as a service learning officer with the United World College of South East Asia. There, I interacted with students in an outdoor setting and slowly, I started to see how I could combine my passion for the outdoors with my desire to make it a meaningful career – by helping others connect with nature, too.
I began researching jobs to do with the outdoors and chanced upon an education programme in New Zealand that would equip me with the skills to be an outdoor instructor. I threw caution to the wind and enrolled for the course.
Around that time, my then-boyfriend and I received the keys to our HDB flat. So, from November 2016 to January 2017, I had a wedding, an HDB flat, and my school fees to pay for.
Thankfully, I received incredible support from the people in my life. My husband and I chose to have a modest wedding which cost us only about $6,000. He’s also been shouldering the HDB mortgage and renovation loans on his own. Two relatives of mine also lent me money for my tuition and living expenses in New Zealand.
The only person who isn’t entirely on board with my decision is my mum, who believes in the importance of financial stability and is worried that I’m not going to find that as an outdoor instructor. She also feels that the work is too risky and physically intense – she’s not entirely wrong – but mostly, I think she misses having me around and is concerned that I might be having a difficult time there.
Even so, I’ve never doubted that I was doing the right thing. My biggest challenge hasn’t been managing a long-distance relationship or my financial worries but, rather, the difficulty of the outdoor course itself.
I’ve always considered myself fairly athletic and a quick learner, so I expected to grasp the technical skills of activities like whitewater kayaking, raft guiding and tramping (what they call “hiking” in New Zealand), quickly.
But it wasn’t the case – I was often falling over rocks with my heavy backpack and struggled to keep to my classmates’ tramping pace, I was terrified of kayaking, and I took ages to learn how to steer a raft in the river. My 28-year-old body, accustomed to city life, struggled with the wild terrain and physical intensity involved.
I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the second day of the course and feared that I didn’t have what it takes to be an outdoor instructor after all. But with strong support from my husband, friends, and classmates, I pushed on, learning that just because I’m passionate about something doesn’t mean I’m automatically good at it. So, I worked hard on improving my physical fitness and technical skills, and am proud of how far I’ve come.
Even though I am now $30,000 in debt, and carry the guilt of not contributing towards my HDB flat and possibly causing my mum some heartache, I am happy. After all, how many people have the privilege and freedom to chase their dreams?
My only hope is that one day, my mum would be able to see that money and stability are not all that important to me – even if it is to her, and that’s OK – and that I’d rather do meaningful work in a place that makes my spirit sing.”
This urban farmer and customer relations manager likes getting her hands dirty
Sarah Rodriguez, 28, left a comfortable job as a corporate communications officer in the civil service to pursue something related to her love for food. Despite taking an almost 70 per cent pay cut, the bubbly urban farmer now enjoys spending her days in the sun, growing her knowledge and appreciation of vegetation, and sharing it with others.
“I didn’t set out with a clear passion for farming. The plan after quitting my job in June 2017 was to experience WWOOF-ing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) abroad. But I thought, if I were to try my hand at farming in another country, why not do so here first?
So, I started volunteering at Citizen Farm, which was just starting up then. That’s when I realised how satisfying farming could be, especially after spending an afternoon pulling up weeds and being rewarded with a clear patch of land. I began going down to the farm almost every day; soon, they offered me a job and I accepted it.
Along the way, my team taught me how to respect the art of tending to plants and how they can communicate with you through their colours, for instance. Seeing how driven my colleagues are by their passion is inspiring.
We’re a lean team of about 10, so whenever there’s harvesting to be done or workshops to be conducted, it’s all hands on deck. But even though I work longer hours – and most weekends – now, I enjoy a great camaraderie that takes precedence over money.
My parents were both accountants, so the idea of financial stability naturally meant an office job. But I tell them I wouldn’t have left my job if I wanted more money. And I owed it to myself to give it a real shot.
Still, I know they’re worried about me because they’ll ask if I’m OK working under the sun all day. But they’ve been very supportive. I’ve also got a wonderful circle of friends who pop by to volunteer at the farm just so they can have lunch with me and hang out for a bit. I return the favour by giving them fresh vegetables!
It’s been about seven months and I’ve found that it’s not that hard to live simply. My only vice was online shopping, so I cut out my ASOS addiction – I used to receive a package every week. Eating out now means going to hawker centres, and I seldom take an Uber or Grab. I also built up my savings months before I quit my job.
My friends are mostly bankers and lawyers, so if I think about success in terms of wealth, then yes, it might seem like a “setback”. But here’s how I look at it: When you have more money, you feel glad that you can eat at fancy places or afford nice things. But when you have less, you learn to manage. And I’ve come to see that even after cutting out these things, my life is just as full.
Following your passion is a journey, as I’ve learnt – you can’t expect to find what you’re looking for immediately. It can also be arduous, and when you’re the only one with “17-year-old problems” while your 28-year-old friends are progressing in life, it can be difficult.
But be committed once you’ve decided to take the plunge, and the opportunities will open up. What makes me happy is the pride I feel every day at pursuing something new in life, which has allowed me to find an unexpected passion I can grow with.”