What is your professional / educational background and how did that
enable you to achieve your work / travel balance?
I went to Penn State University for a B.S. and M.S. in accounting. Between my junior and senior year, I spent one month in China and got hooked on traveling immediately. I graduated one year later and spent my first summer as a ‘real person’ studying for the CPA exam. After three months of hiding from the sun in the library, I passed the test and rewarded myself with a two week trip to Argentina. A few days after landing back in the U.S., I began my post-grad career as an auditor with Deloitte.
Things were going well – I was in a stable position with a promising career path ahead. Then one day, my wife (girlfriend at the time), Alyssa, hit me with a game changing idea – we should quit our jobs and move to South Korea to teach English to children for one year. I loved the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I became terrified – I wasn’t scared of what would happen when I lived in South Korea, but when I came back to the U.S. and wanted to re-enter the professional world after a one-year hiatus. Eager to rationalize this pipedream in any way possible, I set up meetings with experienced professionals so that I could get their feedback about the idea and how it might impact my career. Luckily, I received positive feedback and built the courage to share the idea with my bosses at work, both of whom ended up being quite encouraging. Two months after committing to a one-year contract, Alyssa and I were on a plane to Seoul, South Korea – we were away from our family and friends for fifteen months, became English teachers without having any prior experience, and lived in a country where we didn’t know the language or a single person. Soon after arriving, we created a home and found ourselves surrounded by a welcoming expat community of family and friends. Deciding to quit my job and teach English in South Korea was the best decision of my life.
How did you end up in this career / role?
Flash forward from my time living and traveling in Asia – I now work at Alvarez and Marsal in the Transaction Advisory Group and focus on buy- and sell-side financial due diligence for mergers and acquisitions of companies held by private equity funds. As my position is heavy in accounting, finance, and excel, my background as a CPA and auditor helped me become a fit for this role. More importantly, I would not have gotten my job if I didn’t live and travel abroad. My position requires frequent travel, and my travel experiences showed that I could handle it. Before moving to South Korea, I was scared that I would fall behind in my career path. Ironically, I am in a better position now than I would have been if I stayed in the U.S.
What's your favorite place to travel? Why do you find it appealing?
Very general answer, but I love travelling in Asia because I always feel so out of my element, like “what am I doing here?” When traveling, I know that I’m in the right place when I instinctively stop in my tracks and say to myself, “Dude, you have no business being here…” That’s the best feeling I can have while traveling.
What's your worst travel experience?
My wife (Alyssa) and friend (Katie) were in our last week of backpacking through Southeast Asia, and we were in Bali, Indonesia. While visiting the Uluwatu Temple in south Bali, we decided to spend a night in a nearby bungalow – picture a collection of freestanding hotel rooms perched atop a cliff towering above the Indian Ocean – it was spectacular. Our first night in the bungalow, we fell asleep in peace but woke in a panic. It was morning – I reached toward the nightstand to check my phone for the time – but, my phone wasn’t there. “Alyssa,” I said, “where did you put my phone?” As the three of us looked around the room and saw our bags ripped opened with our belongings scattered throughout the room, we realized what had happened – we were robbed while we were sleeping. The robber, whom we were convinced was some sort of ninja, stole two iPhones, an iPad, and all of our money – he was nice enough to leave us our passports, one cell phone, and one credit card. More than anything, we just felt degraded – a stranger was in our room, literally inches from us while we were sleeping. Thank god we didn’t wake up. When the ninja was robbing another bungalow that night, a mom woke up and the ninja held his machete high in the air and declared that he would kill her son if she made any noise – she stayed quiet. Anyway, here’s how it happened – the bungalow had an open-air style bathroom without a roof. The ninja climbed over the bathroom wall from the side of the building, opened the door to our bedroom, and made his way in.
Also, thanks to the Find My iPhone app, we were able to see exactly where my phone was – so, we went to the police, but after hours of bribing them with food and coffee to do their jobs, we realized that they had no interest in actually helping us. We accepted our losses, checked out of the hotel, and checked into a luxury cliff-side resort with the single credit card the ninja had left us. At the resort we were welcomed by new friends who treated us to sympathy drinks all night long. The three of us have recently overcome having nightmares of strangers in our room robbing us while we are sleeping.
What's the most fortuitous (read, lucky) experience you've had
The luckiest experience I’ve had while traveling was meeting a travel video producer while on a three-day boat trip down the Yangtze River in China. We docked at a random village to reload our fuel, and were explicitly told that we were not allowed to leave the boat under any circumstances. As the producer, my friend and I were sitting in the producer’s cabin polishing off a bottle of baiju (Chinese liquor), the producer began asking why we were sitting on a boat when there was an entire village outside to explore. He made a valid point – we were, after all, told that we would be docked for the next four hours. Within minutes we were running off the boat, literally pushing past security guards as they yelled at us to come back (I don’t understand Chinese, so I’m guessing that’s what they were yelling). Before we knew it, we were free. It was Friday night and the village was alive – we found ourselves in the heart of the village immersed in an ensemble of hundreds of locals performing traditional Chinese dances in harmony. Every person who saw us stopped dancing immediately and gazed at us in awe – was it that obvious that we didn’t know the dance? Quickly, we realized that no one in this village had ever seen a westerner before – to them, we were celebrities. As we weaved through the mass of dancers, we were ushered into a nearby restaurant by a random man. We were forced into seats and given beer and nuts. Then, an entire crowd of people watched us in amazement as though we were monkeys at a zoo. When we finished our beers, the restaurant owner refused to accept our money – he was so grateful to have met real, live westerners. We decided that we had enough excitement for one adventure, and we began making our way back to the boat. But, when we got to the harbor, we were once again forced into seats around a table of locals. The table was filled with baiju, cigarettes, and snake – yes, snake. For an hour, the three of us chain-smoked and were force-fed alcohol and snake by random Chinese men who didn’t spick a lick of English – we sat there overlooking the Yangtze river as the sun set over the adjacent mountains, and I remember the three of us looking at each other without saying a word. But, we knew exactly what we were all thinking – wow, this is cool.
Any advice or tips for others looking to bring travel into their lives?
There is no “perfect” time to travel. But, I promise it will feel perfect while you are doing it. It can be scary asking our bosses for a vacation or extended absence from work, especially for those of us that are career people and might “fall behind” in the rat race. Create a plan with goals that will help you accomplish your travel aspirations and stick to it. Ask people for help and advice – people who travel love to help other people travel. Take advantage of vacation days at work. Tell human resources that you would love to work on a project that requires travel. Become a traveling consultant, bartender, photographer, or blogger. Quit your job entirely and backpack for one year. Go to Thailand and teach English. Move to India and figure it out when you get there. There are a million ways to travel, but no matter how you decide to do it, you will never regret it and will always remember it as the highlight of your life. Now, where are you going?!
Zach managed to quit his job and move to Asia, all the while further his career in Finance. Feel free to reach out to him with any questions.