Tim Moss has a lifelong passion for adventure. A decade ago, he channelled this into founding The Next Challenge, an initiative that offers free advice and an expedition grant to help people have adventures. Then, in 2013, he and his wife Laura left their jobs and lives in London to cycle around the world, a journey that lasted 16 months and covered 13,000 miles.
Since returning to the UK, Tim has retrained as an accountant, and was recently named Young Accountant of the Year in his region – all while continuing to run The Next Challenge and maintaining his life of adventure. In this wide-reaching interview, Tim discusses the lessons he and Laura learned from cycling around the world, balancing adventure with his new career, the benefits of making time for travel, and what the future holds for The Next Challenge.
It’s ten years since you set up ‘The Next Challenge’. What is the initiative about, and why did you start it?
Crikey, I hadn’t realised it was the ten-year anniversary until you pointed it out. That’s a nice milestone.
I set up The Next Challenge to encourage more people to have adventures and to help them do so. That focus has not changed, but how I’ve tried to achieve it has varied.
To start with, it was mostly me writing articles about my trips and sharing my thoughts about expeditions. I offered free advice to anyone who wanted it and logistical support for a fee.
“I decided to focus on helping those without the money/expertise/resources to complete a trip on their own.”
After a few years, I realised that I didn’t really enjoy organising other people’s expeditions. I preferred helping them get their ideas off the ground to the nitty gritty of logistics. I also concluded that the few who could afford to pay me would probably complete their trips without my help, so I decided to focus on helping those without the money/expertise/resources to complete a trip on their own.
As such, I now earn a living through a day job (I recently qualified as an accountant) and, instead of trying to make money through adventure, I actually give it away in the form of an annual expedition grant.
What inspired your passion for adventure?
Walking trips as a kid. My parents were, and still are, into walking. As a kid, I suspect I complained that it was boring but when I hit my teens, I used to go away on a big walking trip with my friends every summer: Exmoor, Dartmoor, the West Highland Way, the Ridgeway, the South West Coastal Path.
Back in 2013, you and Laura left your London lives to cycle 13,000 miles around the world. Why did you decide to do this?
On our very first date, Laura and I hatched a plan to cycle around the world one day. By the time we got married, we realised that we were both serious about doing a big cycling trip so set about making it happen.
I think we both recognised that you only live once and that it’s easy to just tick through days, months and years without much thought. But we wanted to make the most of our time and knew that we wouldn’t always be in a position to drop everything and disappear for a year.
What preparations did you make at home and at work before the journey?
We lived in rented accommodation so aside from putting all of our stuff into our parents’ lofts (thanks guys!), there wasn’t much to do at home.
Work wise, Laura was working as a solicitor and had only recently qualified when we got married. Leaving the job that she had worked so hard for, for so long, was not an easy decision. She waited until she had a couple of years post-qualification under her belt before handing in her notice.
When we first started planning our trip, I was self-employed, doing the adventure stuff I alluded to above: writing articles, giving talks, selling books and organising other people’s expeditions.
“From the 500-odd nights that we spent on the road, more than half of those were spent with strangers. People from all backgrounds were good to us.”
However, we almost had to cancel our plans when I fell ill with depression. Too much time working home alone, not making much money and feeling directionless left my self-esteem at rock bottom and I started having anxiety attacks where I’d curl up in a ball behind my bed.
Recovering from that took time, and included getting a “normal” day job. So, I actually followed a strange career path of starting a new job, doing it for a year and then leaving to go on this cycling trip. It probably wasn’t the ideal route, but life is rarely ideal.
What did you learn from the experience that you would never have learned otherwise?
The number one thing we learned from the experience of cycling around the world is that people are good.
It’s such a pathetic-sounding, throw-away line but it’s true. A hundred different people from two dozen different countries took us into their homes and gave us food, shelter and conversation at the drop of a hat without expecting anything in return. People would bump into us outside a shop, see us putting up our tent in the snow or flag us down in the rain and invite us in for dinner and give us a bed for the night.
From the 500-odd nights that we spent on the road, more than half of those were spent with strangers. People from all backgrounds were good to us: Texans with big mansions and Turks with no electricity; Muslims in Iran, Baptists in Albania, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Thailand, Greek Orthodox monks, Russian Orthodox nuns and atheists/agnostics the world over; Obama-hating, gun-toting Republicans and fun-loving, hippy socialists. They all treated us the same.
How did you find readjusting to life at home and work after you returned from the adventure?
There are a few things that made our return to normal life easier.
Firstly, we were well aware that it was going to be an issue. Partly from having spoken to other people who had done big trips before, partly from our experiences of coming back from other periods of travel or work abroad, and partly just because it’s obvious that it’s going to take some adjusting. As such, it’s something we thought and discussed well in advance.
“Rather than ‘going back to our old lives’, it felt more like starting a new chapter.”
Secondly, Laura always wants to know what’s happening next so was planning her return from almost the day we left. That’s a slight exaggeration but she had already started applying for jobs while we were in Australia (with three months of cycling across the US still to come), had interviews arranged before we got home and had a job lined up within a couple of weeks of our return.
Finally, we did not return to the same house, city and jobs that we had before we left. I could imagine it being hard to end up in the exact same place that you had been 16 months earlier.
We moved from London to Leeds (Laura’s from the north and it has better hills) and both started new jobs (Laura now specialises in charities and social enterprises, I’ve trained as an accountant).
Rather than ‘going back to our old lives’, it felt more like starting a new chapter.
How do you keep up a life of adventure while working full-time as an accountant?
When I started my website, I tried to make it sound like I was really cool and tough, and did expeditions that no one else could. That didn’t last long (not least because it wasn’t true).
Instead, I quickly shifted my focus to the opposite: highlighting that you don’t need to quit your job, win the lottery and train for years to go on an expedition.
(I appreciate that I’ve just banged on about how I quit my job to cycle around the world, but almost all of my other trips have been done within annual leave and at a cost of hundreds, not thousands, of pounds.)
As such, fitting adventure around the constraints of normal life (e.g. having a full-time job) was something I had always strived to do.
Since becoming an accountant, Laura and I have crossed a frozen Siberian lake on foot, bikepacked across the Cairngorms, scaled Moroccan mountains and walked a lap of Ibiza using our annual leave. We’ve also tried to fit in lots of little adventures on evenings and weekends, like bivvying out in Ilkley Moor on a work night.
I also wrote the book about our cycling trip around my work commitments (by using my evenings and lunch breaks). It required some real discipline and I hated it at times, but it felt like a really productive use of limited time.
On the reverse side of the coin, how do you remain effective and passionate about your accountancy career alongside your devotion to adventure?
One of the key reasons I stopped doing adventure stuff full-time is because it just didn’t use my brain enough.
From the outside, jumping from expeditions to accountancy seems like quite a curveball. But my friends and family know that I have been a maths geek since school and get an inordinate amount of joy from Excel (my website has always been full of spreadsheets).
I’m also an introvert, so while it’s easy to rail against working at a computer nine-til-five, a lot of it actually suits (which is not to say that I don’t still crave fresh air, daylight and exercise at the end of the day). As such, working as an accountant fits me well.
However, I think I’ve also come to terms with the fact that it’s ok to have a day job that isn’t your life and soul. I enjoy my job, it’s interesting, I work hard at it and I hope I do a good job. But it’s not my life’s passion and never will be. I’ve tried mixing those things and it left me feeling empty. The balance I have now isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was.
What do you think are the biggest benefits of taking time out of work for travel and adventure?
For me, the biggest benefit is perspective.
It’s easy to get bogged down in emails and deadlines, and think the world will collapse if you don’t get a report out on time. But it’s amazing how quickly those concerns fade once you get off a plane somewhere foreign or take in the view from the top of a hill. You remind yourself that there’s more to life.
“I might feel nervous about going into a client meeting, but it’s not as scary as dangling off a rope in Kyrgyzstan or trying to pitch a tent at -20 degrees.”
It also gives you a chance to step back from day-to-day life and take a good look at where you are and where you’re heading. In the office, you might be hell-bent on getting a promotion because that’s just what you do, but on holiday you might question whether that extra stress and workload is what you really want.
For me, I also find that the hardships of expedition life – working in extreme temperatures, dealing with exhaustion, rationing your food – put daily stresses into perspective. I might feel nervous about going into a client meeting, but it’s not as scary as dangling off a rope in Kyrgyzstan or trying to pitch a tent at -20 degrees.
Finally, with expeditions, there’s also something therapeutic about only worrying about the here and now – do I need another layer on? Will we reach the town before nightfall? Have we got enough food? – rather than mentally juggling your mortgage payments, career prospects and work/life balance.
What are your future plans for The Next Challenge and life in general?
For years, I managed to keep The Next Challenge ticking along with a full-time job. I had to be really disciplined with my time – no more playing around with how the website looks or messing about on Twitter – but I think it actually brought better results. I focused on what was important and forgot about the rest.
But having recently also become a dad, it’s getting harder. I’ve always had more things that I want to do with the website than there are hours in the day, but time is now really tight.
As such, I am going to have become even more focused on the important bits and either let the other parts fall by the wayside (which will be hard) or find some volunteers to help.
The number one priority will always be The Next Challenge Grant. It is by far the best thing I have ever done with my website. Instead of just writing articles or uploading photos and hoping that people will be inspired to go on adventures, I get hundreds of people to send me their expedition ideas then directly fund at least ten of them every year. I love it.
What advice would you give to anyone considering taking a break from their career to travel?
Everyone’s circumstances will be different and everyone will have different priorities in life, so it’s hard to give sweeping advice.
All I can say is that the 16-months Laura and I had cycling around the world is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to do it (for the record, the entire trip cost £6,500 each, and that includes every single penny we spent in a 16-month period, so it wasn’t an expensive thing to do) and will always treasure that time.
I learned so much from it and, although still new to my profession, it has been a great help in starting conversations and opening doors.
More career break interviews
If you enjoyed reading Tim’s story, you may like our other career break interviews:
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- How travel inspired a preschool teacher to retrain as a culinary nutrition expert
- Overcoming burnout: the career break reflections of a higher education professional
- 22 countries in 6 months: a project manager’s travel career break
- How travel inspired a boiler salesman to start a career in politics
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