When I talk about designing an extraordinary life, sometimes I hear things like, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You don’t have kids.”
To be clear, I know it’s likely easier to take long road trips, travel nomadically, or live in a campervan or RV if you are child-free. But, it’s not impossible to do these things if you have kids.
I’m excited about this week’s Slow FI interview with Heidi Dusek (from Ordinary Sherpa) because she shows us that you can still live an adventurous life with kids. In fact, she has 3 of them. And, she and her husband are taking their 12, 10, and 7-year-olds on a gap year RV road trip in 2023.
I had the unique opportunity to work with Heidi this past spring as a client as she was creating her plans for her summer sabbatical so that she could experiment with long-term travel and part-time, remote work.
I’m particularly excited for this interview as Heidi shares what she learned and how it’s informing her family’s plan to take a gap year in 2023.
Let’s get into the interview!
1. Tell me a little bit about you.
I am Heidi Dusek, an adventurous mom of 3. That’s my favorite title.
I am also recovering achiever and striver who has checked a lot of boxes in life. But, now I realize that it’s the little moments that are the most fun and memorable.
Having grown up with a large family scattered throughout the country, I fell in love with connecting with others through travel. My husband came from a different background, and it took a little convincing for him to value and understand my desire to travel.
Together, we took road trips on his motorcycle, and later, when we had kids, we realized we weren’t ready for this adventurous side of our life to end. So, we adapted and kept going.
We kept a small travel budget, and then it became a game of how we could have high-value experiences with a small budget. This led to designing so many unique experiences connecting with locals and understanding how to travel just a bit differently.
My husband and I both spent nearly 20 years working in public service roles. The bulk of his career was in the education sector. I have also worked in public health and research, and I am currently winding down my role as Executive Director for a private family foundation.
In 2020, I launched the podcast and brand, Ordinary Sherpa, designed to inspire families to connect through simple and authentic adventures. Earlier this year I wrote a book, Beyond Normal: a field guide to embrace adventure, explore the wilderness, and design an extraordinary life with kids.
And, in January 2023, we will kick off our own version of a family gap year for a family of 5 plus our dog.
2. You recently took a sabbatical this past summer to test out full-time RV travel with your family. Can you tell me more about this decision?
When I first learned about Financial Independence, I was excited to have some clarity about what we were working towards. At the same time, I wanted to enjoy the journey and be present in our lives.
As you might expect (based on what I’ve shared so far), adventure is a part of our ethos. Initially, my WHY for travel was to connect, unplug from life and be present with each other without all the distractions of life. Over time, this motivation expanded. I realized that travel and adventure also fostered risk and resilience in our kids, and we all simply felt better physically and mentally. With each experience, I wanted to stay a little longer next time.
My dream was to take a family gap year, together as a family of 5. That clarity helped us to define why we were initially pursuing financial independence. However, it felt like such a long slog to get there. So, instead of thinking it was the end goal, we decided to test “how might we” scenarios to make this happen sooner rather than later.
We never intended to be an RV family. It happened to us by (somewhat) accident. We rented an RV on vacation, and we fell in love with being able to take our space with us. We also tested some other types of travel, including a month in Hawaii (using many miles and points). With that type of travel, it felt like there were so many logistics outside of our control. The number of transitions made travel feel exhausting, and the kids really missed the dog. So, we started leaning toward an RV so we could slow down a bit.
In 2021, we ended up buying an RV from a family in Florida who had been living a full-time RV lifestyle. My husband only had one personal day, so we flew down to get the RV. Then, I stayed with the kids while he went back to work for a few days.
This allowed me to test working and schooling remotely in the RV. We stayed put in a single destination. Plus, having life, work, and school responsibilities helped us test slowing down. I had decided to work 6-hour days (6 AM-noon) for 3 days that week. The kids had pre-planned lessons to complete for school.
I remember sitting in my office in the RV peering out into the dining room and seeing all the kids helping each other with their work. After lunch, we took a hike on the trail through the campground that took us to a park. Later, we went to the beach. It was a different experience, not like a vacation but more in line with an adventurous lifestyle where we could explore new places and connect with each other.
This test of part-time work while solo-parenting and online schooling in an RV was one of the highlights that led to our summer sabbatical experience. I wanted my husband to get a flavor of this lifestyle.
To be clear, it was really a summer “sabbatical” (in quotes) because it was a combination of working remotely part-time and using paid time off for this sabbatical experience. I started having conversations in early 2022 with my boss about my desire to take a gap year. This summer “sabbatical” allowed us to test the concept of a long-term slow travel experience to confirm what our next step would be.
We did a lot of experiments during this trip. We scheduled the first half of our trip in the Banff/Canadian Rockies area, but we intentionally did not schedule the second half of the trip to see if we enjoyed going with the flow. We decided to travel during the peak of gas prices to test our tolerance for what we thought was an “off the rails” budget.
The experiment helped us learn a lot. It confirmed that working part-time remotely in my same role created some internal conflict. I have a public role, leading an organization that addresses community needs. I came to realize that my personal brand focused on family adventure was in conflict with my professional life. For example, when my work schedule ultimately determined our return home date there was a sentiment of resentment from the entire family. I could feel the entire mood shift. No one really wanted to come home.
During the drive home and the weeks following, we utilized these indicators to inform our decisions. Ultimately, we decided to confirm the timeline for the family gap year and begin making a transition at work.
3. How has making the decision to take a family gap year impacted your quality of life?
Clarity definitely offers motivation and lightness. If I’m being honest, though, I run the gamut of emotions each week.
I loved my job. I loved the people I worked with. I was really proud of my team and what I have accomplished. It feels a bit raw to step away and train my successor.
I’ve also been supporting my husband as he makes this mindset shift as well. He resigned from teaching earlier this year allowing him some time to “unschool” and explore his interests and ideas.
Unschooling is often described as informal learning that advocates for learner-chosen activities as a primary means of learning. We also use the term to describe a process of unlearning systems, habits, and rituals that have been ingrained in our learning over time. We have developed beliefs and cultural expectations of what school and work look like, and we have a lot of unlearning to do.
My husband’s break from work has been both a blessing and a trigger. While I have done considerable work detaching my value from my income, I realized he hadn’t done the same level of inner work yet. As a result, each week for the last 2 months, there have been moments of instability and concern. Each time, it resolves and lightness and confidence emerge. But, it’s also a lot (and important) to allow the feelings to be raw during this stage.
It’s also been important to support our kids through the transition as well. We often ask them how they feel about things. We want them to be active participants in designing their gap year experience too. We take each of their concerns to heart and look for ways to test out their fears. Some of their most recent fears were about friendships and not participating in organized youth activities.
Taking this iterative model of testing our questions and fears has demonstrated over and over to us that taking a gap year in the RV is the best decision for us. I see and feel a completely different sense of being and our family unit functions cohesively. Things feel less pressured, less rushed, and more connective. We even appreciate each other more.
I think our quality of life will improve as we get closer to our departure date. Now that our close friends and family are aware of our decision and things are public, it feels real. It’s no longer just a dream. While I know I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do this, having that layer of support and people excited and rooting for us has been a bonus layer.
4. How will the family gap year impact your financial goals or timelines?
We have been working towards this goal for 5 years now. For context, I will share I am 42, my husband is 41 and our kids are 12,10, and 7. When we began sharing this dream with the kids, our oldest was pretty adamant that he was willing to do this in middle school. But, he wanted to go back to high school with his friends.
When we leave in January we will have roughly 18 months until he enters high school. In some ways, I feel like that was the most pressing factor in our timeline. There is also an awareness of both our parents’ ages and health. Because of that, it seems better to go now.
My husband and I both agree that we are willing to go back to work. We have marketable skills and are leaving our current work in a very positive light. In fact, our most recent employers asked if they can have “first dibs” when we decide to come back to work. We are mindful that we want to stay engaged in our fields in some way so we don’t seem irrelevant when we return.
All of this informs our decision and how much it impacts our financial goals.
Because we have achieved the Coast FI benchmark, I don’t have as much concern about our timeline. I know that our traditional retirement is taken care of, as long as we can cover our costs now.
The only impact money has right now is on how long we can actually travel. But, we gave our taxable brokerage fund (and my husband’s 457 plan deferred compensation) a job, and it was to fund the gap year. So, despite the market and inflation, we have decided it’s time to put that money “to work” for our family’s gap year experience.
We do have plans to make a modest income while traveling, but we will be drawing from the funds even though it’s not an ideal time to do so. We aren’t jeopardizing our traditional retirement, and our time, health, and overall well-being seem a lot more pressing than money right now.
5. What enabled you to make this seemingly wild and crazy decision to take a family gap year?
It was so valuable to find people who were already doing this and have conversations with them. It’s largely why I started my podcast in the first place. I wanted to connect with other adventurous families who were doing simple things to get outside of their comfort zones. Every time I had a conversation, I would take what served our family from those models and leave what didn’t.
For example, most RV families sell it all and hit the road. That model doesn’t fit us. We purchased a third-generation farm from my family. I want to come back to our home. We also have kids in public school and likely will be returning to public school. So, we needed to find what parts and pieces of those models fit into our version of the puzzle.
I also have to celebrate the courage of my kids. While I am the one crafting the vision, my husband is more tactical bringing it to life and my kids add colors and flavors to make it fit us. Each of my three kids embodies a different form of adventure and accepts each other’s differences and preferences. If this had been a constant uphill battle, I don’t know that I would’ve kept working toward this. Instead, they have fully embraced the adventure and enhanced it in their own unique ways.
6. Were there things in your life you adapted so you could continue to work toward your goals?
Having this goal made us look at our stuff differently. The motorcycle that once had sentimental value sat in the garage more than it was used. Selling it was equivalent to at least a month on the road.
Using the principles of Your Money or Your Life, my husband and I joke with each other over buying decisions and say things like, “That purchase is equal to ___(something from our budget) on the road.”
While we don’t want to sacrifice value today to live tomorrow, reminding ourselves what we are working towards has been helpful.
7. What will your gap year look like? Do you have an itinerary? Or are you going with the flow?
Our itinerary is based on the people we want to spend more time with and places we previously felt rushed by an external timeline when visiting.
We brainstormed 20+ people we really would love to spend more time with. I have a large extended family and when I was a kid, the only way we traveled was to meet up with a family member, often staying at their house.
We are carrying that ethos to travel with the intention to connect with friends and family. We hope to create opportunities for authentic experiences allowing for deeper and more memorable connections. For example, I have a cousin I spent a summer with in middle school (30 years ago) whom I seldom see. Our kids get along, so we will kick off our trip by spending some time parked in their driveway and just exploring the local area.
Many people have asked, “what’s your route?”
The truth is, I don’t really know. We have an untourist approach to travel. We love to explore the places most people pass by or don’t know about, getting to know the hidden gems and connecting with locals.
We will jump in the RV in January and head out west to chase snow doing considerable downhill skiing on independent ski hills. Each kid has established a gap year wishlist experience and we will be doing one-on-one experiences with each along the way. The gap year wishlist experiences appear to be:
- Backcountry snowcat skiing (using a snowcat or groomer machine to transport you up the mountain because there are no chair lifts there)
- Riding a horse on a beach
- Driving an off-road dirt bike
I have never been to the deep south, and we have heard Arkansas is the mountain bike capital of the world which has inspired us to add it to our list of places to stop.
We might have some heavy travel days and only stay in a place for one night, but that will be rare. We learned from our sabbatical summer that 3-5 days in a location is the minimum we want to stay. Since we are in the RV, we have considerable control over where, when, and for how long.
We are less than 60 days from departure, and we have decided not to make any reservations.
While on the road, I will continue to create content and lead the Ordinary Sherpa community. I’ll be attending Camp FI Southeast in January and the EconoMe Conference in March. I am continually looking for ways to connect with others along our journey (Feel free to message me if you want to meet up or let us park in your driveway). Finding the right balance of adventure, learning, enjoying the moment and a form of contribution and intellectual connection will likely be an area of focus the first few months.
8. Why and when do you think someone might consider “downshifting?
For me, spending time with my family was the driving factor behind our why and when.
Having clarity about what a downshift could look like and testing elements of that over time will help you determine when and if it’s right for you.
It’s clear to us that we aren’t downshifting to run away from anything. Instead, the pull of what we are running towards is so much stronger. Every time we tested out our gap year lifestyle, we wanted more.
9. How did your pursuit of FI help or hinder this decision?
For me, it helped. Initially, learning about travel rewards through the FI community inspired me to consider an around-the-world ticket. After various family travels, I realized that wasn’t it. FI helped frame and define our Why and then gave me tools to craft the plan.
10. What advice do you have for someone considering a similar decision?
Stress test the parts and pieces that trigger the most anxiety.
In my book, I share an exercise called fear-setting. In a nutshell, you list all the fears down the left side of the page. Then, you take each one and work through:
- How could I prevent this from happening? and
- What would I do if this fear came true?
It helped me to think logically about the plan in addition to addressing my own limiting beliefs.
For example, one of my fears/limiting beliefs was that I was being irresponsible because I would be spending money without having a steady supply of income. When I worked through these questions, I realized that I have back-ups to the back-ups and nothing about my plan was irresponsible.
In my book, I also have a diagram that focuses on how neuroscience affects our growth. To build up our tolerance for risk, we need to get to the edge of our comfort or stretch zone. I like to call this getting “discomfortable.” Experimentation will allow you to test out your plan without the need to dive deep into the panic zone right away.
Lastly, I’d encourage you to find a community. Who do you know who is ahead of you on the journey? Ideally, they would have a similar life structure and intention. If there’s a way that you can hire them to mentor you, do it! This is a concept that Jeff Goins talks about in Real Artists Don’t Starve, which is to be the apprentice behind a master. If you can find someone to support you who has lived experience and can empathize with your journey, you can skip the line and prevent burnout and defeat.
Thank you so much, Heidi, for sharing your story with us!
There are so many helpful insights I want to dig into from this interview. The first is around experimentation. I love how Heidi talked about exploring “how might we” scenarios to see if they could make their post-FI dreams a reality earlier.
I feel like this is exactly how we’ve approached our FI journey as well. Our original motivation for financial independence was to be able to travel as much as we wanted to. Instead of waiting until we reached FI, we asked, “How might we travel more before FI?” This led us down a path of learning about location independence and how it’s possible for people while they still need to generate income.
I also really appreciated Heidi’s insight that experiments or tests can help push the limits of our comfort zones without dropping us into the panic zone right away. I’ve always thought about experimentation as something that can help us answer questions and build our confidence. But, expanding our comfort zones is a new benefit of experimentation to add to that list.
Additionally, I love how Heidi talked about the importance of building a community. I’m a firm believer that, at least for most of us, we won’t do what we haven’t seen. So, it’s important for us to look for models of people who are already living similar lives to what we want. We can see what’s possible, and, then, we can pick and choose the elements that resonate with us in our unique context.
Lastly, I love the idea that Heidi shared from Real Artists Don’t Starve about being an apprentice. If you can find someone who is a few steps down the path that you want to go along, you can learn from their successes and challenges. This can allow you to “skip the line and prevent burnout and defeat.”
While I’d never heard this specific analogy before, this theme has played a vital role in my journey. It was important for me to find a “guide” at different inflection points along my journey, particularly as I was starting my coaching business and taking the leap to entrepreneurship.
We can benefit from finding guides to help us with almost anything. For example, when I started planning the Slow FI Retreat, the first thing I did was reach out to everyone I knew who had planned retreats in the past. Hearing their perspectives allowed me to envision what was possible and begin to pick and choose the things that would work in my situation.
Thank you, Heidi, for sharing these nuggets of wisdom with us. I can’t wait to hear more about Heidi’s family’s gap year, the go-with-the-flow itinerary, and where they decide to go from here.
If you’d like to follow Heidi’s podcast and her family during their gap year, you can find her in the following places: