Ten Years A Nomad: An Interview With Matt Kepnes

Traveling—that itch to get away, to hit the road, to see the world—feels like a distinctly modern craze. Yet it was common in Ancient Rome for people to escape the heat and the frenzy of the bustling city to get away for some time in the countryside. Marcus Aurelius liked to say that he wasn’t a citizen of Rome, but of the world. Matt Kepnes, or better known as “Nomadic Matt,” quite literally is a citizen of the world. Matt spent a decade living out of a backpack, traveling the world—and built a 7-figure business, wrote a New York Times bestseller, started a hostel, a charity, and more while doing so. 

Matt captures the journey and everything it taught him in his second book Ten Years A Nomad, which just released this week! Daily Stoic had the chance to interview Matt about Stoicism, sympatheia, what living with all of his possessions confined to a backpack for ten years taught him, and much more. 

We know you’re a voracious reader. Have you read much of the Stoics? Do you have a favorite? Any quotes or exercises that have especially resonated with you?

I have a lot of Stoicism books on my bookshelf after being introduced to the subject by Ryan. But, sadly, other than his books on the subject, I haven’t read many of the original books and text. That said, I have read generally about the philosophy and I love how it focuses on taking the world as it comes. People are really good at latching on to their emotions and trying to control the world around them. But we have little control over the world around us. All we have control of is our actions.

And the more we realize that, the easier it is to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Letting go and accepting this fact has really helped me in life and business. I don’t beat myself up over mistakes as much I used to. Mistakes will happen. All you can only make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time. All our choices are half chance. If one doesn’t work well, learn why and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Nothing will be gained by that.

One of the things you have to do to live nomadically is try to live conservatively and cheaply. And you teach others how with your book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. What has living that way taught you? 

That you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. Living out of a backpack for years and doing so frugally as I traveled around the world taught me how little one needs to get by from day to day. I had a few sets of clothes, one pair of shoes, and a few books and I had all I needed. When I slowed down my travels and moved into my own apartment, I struggled greatly because I didn’t need a lot of stuff but felt the need to fill the space with furniture and other consumer goods.

My apartment is still bare (save for a few bookcases full of books) but I’m just as happy. The more you own, the more it owns you.

The Stoics talk about the concept of sympatheia—the belief in mutual interdependence among everything in the universe, that we are all one. Marcus Aurelius said he wasn’t a citizen of Rome, but of the world. You quite literally are a citizen of the world. With all the different cultures you’ve lived among and people you’ve met, has it been your experience that we really aren’t all that different from each other?

People really are the same everywhere. Interacting with people, watching them commute, pick up laundry, go grocery shopping, and do all the other everyday things you did back home, you really internalize the idea that, fundamentally, we all just want the same things: to be happy, to be safe and secure, to have friends and family who love us. The how of what we do is different but the why of what we do is universal.

At the core of everything you do—your site, your books, your foundation (The Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education), the hostel you started—is inspiring others to live happier and fuller lives. Why is that so important to you? 

Momento Mori. We’re all going to die. And we spend so much of our life worried about the little stuff and the daily struggles, we often never seem to enjoy it. We get so caught up in the day-to-day pressures of modern life that we’re always stressed. We have the most material wealth ever yet study after study shows people are unhappier than ever.

Travel taught me to not sweat the small stuff in life. It taught me patience. It taught me how to be a better person.

Yes, I get stressed a lot and I could still be an even more patient person but I let go a lot quicker than I used too.

Travel makes us happier, more empathetic, and well-rounded individuals. As Maya Angelou said, it’s not going to end bigotry or solve all our problems but it may increase understanding.

I also think a lot about legacy. How am I leaving this world? I want this to be my impact on the world. I want to work to bring people together and make the world a better place and feel I can do that trough travel.

You’ve said that what often keeps people from traveling or chasing their dreams is not money but mindset. Can you elaborate? What would be your advice to the person sitting in their cubicle wanting to make a change?

Not everyone is going to be able to travel. There are people poor health, with sick parents, or massive credit card debt. But, for the majority of us, traveling is something you can do if you desire it more than anything. You have to be willing to give up the short term benefits of say shopping or eating out for the long term goal of going on that dream trip.

I’ve met people on the road who traveled after earning minimum wage. They accomplished it because they woke up every day and asked themselves “What can I do today that gets me one step closer to being on the road?” Sure, the lower your income, the longer it will take to save enough to travel, but longer does not mean never.

If you don’t believe you can travel, you never will. You need to wake up and say “What can I do today that gets me closer to traveling?” Even if it takes you a year to save for that trip, you have to start.

As Lao Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Take that first and then keep going. Start you travel fund, put a dollar a day in, and just keep adding to it!

What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

Anthony Bourdain and Bill Bryson are two modern writers who have shaped my views on travel. Bourdain’s willingness to go deep into a place and try anything and Bryson’s intellectual look at why people do what they do have shaped how I try. I try to blend the two approaches. I’m a big fan of Hemingway who inspired me to write. And then there are some random books like The Power of Habit that taught me how to master my habits, What Got You here Won’t Get You There on the need to never rest on your laurels and the value of interpersonal skills, Quiet on being an introvert in an extroverted world, and Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) on how people rationalize decisions and how easy it is dig into a position you know is wrong.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

Every day you get a chance to restart your life. You can sleep better, eat better, workout, and just be better. The past doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do today. Stumble, pick yourself, up and move forward. Take a moment every day to as yourself “am I happy my life?” Think of what can I do differently today that will increase that happiness. Humans are imperfect creatures. You will never have a perfect life. But perfection should never be the goal. Progress to living a happier life should be.

 

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