Tag Archives: American Dream

Move to a country with less than 1% unemployment

Just one of the reasons I love Bangkok, Thailand…

The first time I heard it I was totally blown away. Thailand, the county I had relocated to had less than 1% unemployment. Pretty much everyone that wanted a job had one. The job market was literally humming.

Coming from a Western employment context where people were spending months and years searching for jobs and thousands of those that had them were making unhealthy choices to keep them, I was offered multiple job opportunities as soon as I arrived in Southeast Asia. Never had it been more clear to me that travel and flexibility in where you choose to live can create excellent opportunities in life.

If you live in the United States it is easy to feel like this is as good as it gets. We’ve been conditioned to think that way. We are supposed to have the greatest opportunities, to make the most money, to have the best prospects in life. That’s how this is supposed to work. I spent at least 10 years believing this. I stayed in a suboptimal job situation because I believed that I had to make my American dream work. When I finally found the guts to realize that this kind of thinking was holding me back, it was as though the floodgates of real opportunity had opened.

The fact is that although I still live in the US for 1-3 month stints here and there, I don’t miss the scarcity mentality that has somehow supplanted the optimism that is traditionally associated with America. I am still inspired by the traditional American dream. I just think you now have to travel internationally to properly pursue it.

Don’t Waste Your Life

Adventure time!!

Are you wasting your life?

When you get up in the morning, do you feel like you are one day older yet not a step closer to what you have spent your life dreaming you could do? Do you feel like you are just working for the paycheck? Do you feel like you are in a self-made prison? Do you wish you had the guts to call things as they are? I felt that way for a very long time.

OK lives

In many ways there was nothing wrong with our lives. Jammie and I had respectable, sought-after jobs. We had wonderful, supportive friends. We lived in a fun little college town in Northern California. We made decent money for a young couple. We were active in our communities. On the surface, our lives looked fine. If life continued as it was, we could really settle down, live comfortably, start a family and raise kids who would repeat the cycle.

The burning desire

But for years we had harbored a will to do something bold and fresh. Something that wasn’t just about a paycheck, benefits and water cooler conversations… about going through the motions. Something that would change our lives completely.

The secret plan

We knew what it was and for years we had secretly been talking about it: a trip around the world. But not just any trip. This would not be just a vacation. It would be an extended trip. A long-term adventure where we helped other people through service projects. This would be something idealistic. Something radical. Something completely, utterly life-changing that launched us on an international, meaning-filled life of service for years to come.

Every time we talked about it we got more excited. We knew this could change everything.  And every time we put off the trip off we grew more frustrated.

Enough is enough

In the fall of 2012, Jammie and I decided that we could not wait any longer. We simply could not put off our plans any more. If we didn’t take the step now, life would make it harder and harder to escape and we would just grow old, fat and frustrated bemoaning the lives we wished we’d pursued.  We simply could not let that happen.  We made a pact:  “We are doing this and we are doing this now!”


We did all the scary stuff as fast as we could so we wouldn’t back out. We told those closest to us of our plans. Job resignation letters were drafted, re-drafted, signed and delivered. We sold, gave away or dumped a ton of stuff that we had collected over the years. We bought round-the-world tickets. And we got on a plane.  This was it!

Five months in… 

We are now one month into living in Buenos Aires (city #2 of our Bangkok-Buenos Aires-Berlin-Bombay tour) and starting the  fifth month of our year.  We are starting to adjust to our new life. I am not going to pretend that we like everything.  We often miss family and friends.  I could do without the nightly mosquito bites and I could kill for some decent Mexican food.  But for the most part life has improved drastically.

I could spend several posts listing all the ways our lives are better but for now I can say this with all honesty:  For the first time in years it feels like everything I used to dream of doing is still possible.  I walk around unbelievably excited about life.  I am no longer as cynical.  I don’t roll my eyes when I hear people talk about their lives being happy.  I am happy.  And I am rapidly gaining perspective on how I want to live the rest of my life.

Here are some things I have learned:

Don’t waste your life thinking things will change – Part of what kept us from taking the bold step to get on a plane and follow our dreams was the vague feeling that things would change if we just put in a little more time. Maybe things would change with a little more money… or a more adventurous week of vacation time or a slightly better job. The truth was that none of those things would really change anything. Every little step we took on the same conventional path confirmed the obvious: more of the same would lead to a lifetime of boredom and regret.

Don’t waste your life thinking that “benefits” are a valid reason to stay in a job – Medical, dental, paid time off, growing retirement funds… we couldn’t just walk away! Or so we thought. But the golden hand cuffs were surprisingly easy to shake off when we realized that they were standing between us and doing what we really wanted with our lives. Security is fine but not if if means being handcuffed securely to a suboptimal life!

Don’t waste your life dreading risk – Within two weeks of landing in Bangkok we were offered four jobs between the two of us. We were not interested in taking them just then but we did the financial math just for fun anyway and the reward for shaking off the golden handcuffs was clear immediately: If we were to get jobs we could easily save over twice what we had been saving in the US. So much for our risk-averse golden handcuff thinking!

It was already clear that this world was full of opportunities and that risks where never quite as scary once you took them.  The rewards of action are great.  Everyone’s circumstances are different but don’t make the mistake of living your life dodging risk.

Don’t waste your life worrying about acquiring stuff - Traveling has taught us a lot of valuable lessons but one of the most important is this:  acquiring more “stuff” is one of the most pointless things we do in life.  Jammie and I ended up donating a ridiculous amount of our possessions to our local thrift store when we left Northern California.  I mean it was crazy. These were mostly things that had cost quite a lot to buy.  And in the end it was all just stuff… stuff that was in the way of us and a better, freer life.  This stuff didn’t add value; if anything it was a hassle, a nuisance.  The hours we spent giving or throwing it all away have taught me one thing as we walk past shop windows around the world: Keep walking.

Don’t waste your life chasing the American Dream – The house, the car, the white picket fence.  Keeping up with the Joneses is less and less attractive when you realize that they are upside down on their house, their possessions own them and living life chasing the American dream has them tied down and miserable, running faster and faster on the hamster wheel while their finite days on Earth slip away.  The American dream is not what it is cracked up to be. People should get over it.

Let’s end with some good news:  It is never too late to make a change… to make the jump.  If you are wasting your life, the time to stop is right now.  Right this second.  Stop it.  Seriously.  Don’t rationalize away this moment.  If you are tempted to do so, accept this absolute truth: This post was written for you.


The Beautiful American

For the first 20 years of my life I loved complaining about ugly Americans.  You know what I am talking about:  Arrogant.  Ignorant of the rest of the world.  Loud.  Barely unilingual.  Chasing a purely materialistic version of the American Dream.  The kind that believes that the answer to every diplomatic crisis is a healthy bombing.

Useless Critique

As much as I could list the faults of ugly Americans, I realized after moving to the United States, that as much as these tired talking points about ugly Americans may have been on point, harping on about them was helping nothing.

Qualities of the Beautiful American

So I started thinking about the future of the United States.  What would constitute a “beautiful American?”  Weren’t there already American models of: savvy, global do-gooding?  Could this behavior become sought after as the new American Dream?

I recently re-wrote, the About section (do check it out, it’s WAY more concise) of CultureMutt and I define the blog’s “savvy, global do-gooding” as boiling down to:

“… these three guiding principles:

1) You are happiest when you are helping others.

2) The best kind of adventure is found in international do-gooding.

3) To be of service internationally you have to first understand people and cultures.”

Just as it is true that the ugly American is truly horrendous, the beautiful American, as defined by a willingness to help others through international, culturally-appropriate service, is genuinely impressive and has always been around.

I recently heard a definition of art as being “that which chases away ugliness”.  Let’s dedicate ourselves to chasing away the ugliness in American society.  It’s time to build on what is beautiful.  Let’s welcome in the era of the Beautiful American.



Bjorn Karlman

Are We Waking up from the American Dream?

What is the American Dream?  Traditional answers included any of the following:

1) White picket fences

2) Your own huge house

3) At least two cars

4) Being Number One

Excuse me while I yawn.  

Childhood Dreams

Growing up in the Philippines I was absolutely sold on the American Dream.  I remember being depressed and incredibly down as a 12 year-old when my family moved from the US to Europe for work-related reasons.  Somehow I knew  that America was the ultimate destination, that the American Dream was real and that I could have it.

Coming to America (Again)

I was incredibly excited to get to study in the US for college.  I could not wait to get my shot at the American life.  I took to my studies with some serious rigor and networked like a madman trying to track down all the best internship or work opportunities.  I found an employer that was willing to hire me and file expensive paperwork for me straight out of college.  I was on the verge of the American Dream.  I was making it!  Or so I thought.

Not so hot

I had come to the US in 2001 right before 9/11.  In the decade that followed, terrorism and America’s response to it put at damper on the allure of America.  Somehow life in the United States looked less attractive.  The balance of power and wealth in the world was shifting.  China was rising.  It passed Japan as the second largest economy in the world.  Other non-traditional players were emerging – South Korea, India, Brazil.  A lot of the members of the international intelligentsia that previously contributed to brain drain from other countries were choosing not to come to the US.

And then Came the Recession

I moved up to Northern California for my second job in 2008 as world economies were crashing and everyone was foretelling Armageddon.  America was on the brink of another depression.  Even illegal immigration was down and the worldwide opinion of American was not nearly what it had been.  Not much has improved despite the hope so many had during the last election cycle.

Here’s the Thing Though…

But I am not giving up yet.  Call it brainwashing or naivete, I still believe that the US will rebound.  The recent dip in the unemployment rate, a recovered auto industry and a few other flickers of hope on the American economic horizon are a few near-tangibles but there is something far more powerful that I am banking on:  American can-do-it-ness.  If there is one thing that has defined the American experience so far it is this:  AMERICA ALWAYS COMES BACK.  This is not a bet against the rest of the world or a patriotic plug for American imperialism.  Power has limits and there is nothing wrong with adapting with the times.  But here’s what I can say with confidence:  I truly believe that America is a uniquely resilient country.  Will it go the way of Rome?  Maybe.  But I am not convinced we have to resign ourselves to the cynical reading of history that armchair political prophets indulge.  Failure does not have to be inevitable.  Let’s rise above that kind of thinking.  Let’s remember that a colony threw off the chains of tyranny not so long ago and rose to heights unparalleled.  Let’s remember that slavery was abolished.  Let’s remember Normandy.  Let’s remember the bridge at Selma.  Let’s remember that preacher from Atlanta.  Let’s remember the man on the moon.  Let’s remember the Berlin Wall.

The American Dream doesn’t need to be shallow and materialistic.  Let it instead be an unflagging belief in the future and our capacity to work for something better.



Bjorn Karlman