Michael Alexis worked as a lawyer in Canada before deciding to take a career break to travel in China. After a six-month journey, he returned home and embraced a new career in marketing, while continuing to live out of a backpack.
In this new life he has built several companies, including Museum Hack, which helps to re-engage audiences with museums around the world, and Team Building, which makes organisations more productive by improving employee happiness, engagement and retention.
In this interview, Mike talks about his reasons for leaving the legal profession, meeting locals and learning the language in China, and the life lessons he has learned from travel.
You spent a year as a lawyer in Canada. How was this lifestyle and career working out for you?
Many lawyers track time in three or six-minute time blocks, which is important because that time is billed through to a client at a high rate. If I didn’t do enough “billable hours” in a workday, I’d feel incredibly guilty.
When guilt starts creeping into your career, it’s a red flag that something needs to change.
Why did you decide to take time out of the profession to travel to China?
Many people become lawyers for reasons that have very little to do with actually working as one. For example, the belief is that becoming a lawyer opens a lot of doors, connects you with other smart people, and offers challenging work. To a degree, these beliefs are all true, however they weren’t enough to keep me happy and engaged in the field.
I had travelled to China for short periods of time previously, and wanted to feel the passion and excitement around being there again. In some ways, being in China as a foreigner is like living life more, and I enjoy that.
Did you leave your job as a lawyer or did you make arrangements to return after the trip?
I have a strong preference for freelance work, consulting and entrepreneurship, so I knew that I would be able to return to that after my trip. Otherwise, I didn’t have a clear plan. When I finished working for a large firm, I made it clear that I had no intentions to return to the office.
How did your friends and family react to your decision to travel to China?
My family and friends were generally supportive of the trip. However, there were some concerns and even tears over the unknown length of the trip. I had plans to stay abroad long term, and so saying goodbye was difficult.
What preparations did you make at home and at work before the trip?
I sold everything. For my travels (and still today), my entire wardrobe included two shirts, one pants, one shorts, two underwears, two socks and one jacket. It all fits in a very small backpack.
I bought high-quality wool clothing and typically replace each item once per year or two (not the jacket). I wore the exact same outfit every day which was versatile enough to work in both casual and formal settings.
Part of my motivation was environmental. I didn’t want my consumption to have a negative impact, and so I also carried a reusable titanium cup and collapsible titanium chopsticks. As I travelled light more and more, I realised how much I loved it.
“When I lived in China I used a ‘view people near you’ function in a popular app to find new friends in the area and invite them for lunch.”
What did you do during your travels in China, and were there any standout moments?
When I lived in China I used a ‘view people near you’ function in a popular app to find new friends in the area and invite them for lunch. This proved invaluable in having a social life while travelling.
I also used this platform as an opportunity to practice Chinese. I had studied the language before my trip, and real conversations allowed me to go from a low-level of comprehension to being very functional and confident in the language.
I am habitual and went to the same few places over and over. I loved eating at the same restaurants repeatedly, because you get to know the staff, and they get to know your order. There is comfort in familiarity.
Visiting the Great Wall of China was definitely a standout moment. I learned that it wasn’t built for keeping out people — it was for keeping out horses because raiders without their mounts aren’t terribly effective. The point: sometimes there are indirect means of achieving a result.
Did you learn any big life lessons from the trip?
You can earn $300 per hour. It’s not that hard and you don’t have to be a lawyer to do it. Just provide a valuable service and do it better than everyone else. 90% of people doing anything aren’t doing it that well, so if you work your way into the 10% you can charge premium rates for your time.
Also, $300 per hour won’t make you happy. And neither will $600. I’ve charged both, and been way happier with less.
Also, you can count to ten on one hand! No repeats required, and every six-year-old in China can do this. There is a meta point about expanding your awareness of what is possible, but it’s also just fun to learn.
How did you find adapting to life in Canada after returning from the trip?
When I returned to Canada I made a nearly immediate change to leave the legal profession. I realised that I valued the flexibility to travel for long periods of time, which wasn’t probable in a legal career where you often need to meet with clients face to face.
When I moved to freelance marketing and eventually full-time roles, I made three changes in mindset.
First, I learned more about business and that some waste or idle time is expected. No reasonable employer expects you to run at 100% everyday. You will have off days, but as long as they balance with productive days then the organisation can continue moving forward.
“Having the occasional off day doesn’t mean you are someone that is unproductive – it’s just an off day.”
Second, I let go of my attachment to work as a measure of self-worth. Having the occasional off day doesn’t mean you are someone that is unproductive, or that you don’t care about your career or the company — it’s just an off day, and nearly everyone has them.
Lastly, I prioritise my health. It’s easy to look at an average lifespan in your country and go, “great, I have 78 years!” but what this doesn’t show is the degradation of your body and quality of life. You may already be 50%+ done your healthy, able-bodied life and on your way to living with chronic pain, Alzheimer’s or cancer.
What has your career direction been since the trip?
When I returned from China, I started working as a freelance marketer and learned how to build websites. You can actually learn the basics of main coding languages like HTML, CSS and PHP relatively quickly — maybe in just a few weeks.
Then, as you go on and work on projects, you can start building a simple site, and as challenges arise you know enough to look up the solution, like how to change the display of text or add a functioning form, and onward to more advanced skills.
Eventually I helped build and now own several businesses including Museum Hack, TeamBuilding.com, The Great Guac Off, Gingerbread Wars and Team Building Hero.
Do you miss anything about your legal career?
In any field you can build close connections with your colleagues, and when I left the profession these relationships were more difficult to maintain. I still see some of my closest friends who are lawyers, and I expect we would be closer if we had shared interests and expertise in the casework they are doing.
Do you still find ways to apply your legal training in what you do now?
Absolutely. My legal training developed my reasonable and logical side, and helps me draw quick conclusions with limited information in my current role. I’m also able to distill large amounts of information into something manageable, and research topics quickly and effectively. These are all skills I nurtured in law school that I use today.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time off work to travel?
First, the quantity of things you actually need to live well fit in a small backpack.
Second, you can negotiate way more than you do. Even though negotiating is somewhat taboo in North America, it’s very common in other parts of the world. You can negotiate your salary, rent, buying a computer from a small shop, buying a bed from Craigslist, etc.
And finally, there is a quote that goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” But actually you are already behind. The second best time was the day after 20 years ago. And all that is only if you accept as an absolute truth that earlier equals better — because sometimes timing is a huge factor.
To start planning your own travel career break, our ultimate guide covers every step from making the decision right through to what happens returning home. To maximise your professional development on the journey, see our guide to the career skills you can learn from travel. You can also read more travel career break interviews from our series.