Ethan Wall sold everything he owned to travel—then coronavirus hit
A google search helped him figure out what he wanted to do with his life
Back in the Before Time of my twenties, I spent a few wild weekends at Camp No Counselors, an adult summer camp. One of the “non-counselors” there was Ethan Wall, a lawyer from Florida, and I’ve followed him on social media ever since. Eventually I noticed that Ethan had uprooted his life to work remotely and travel the United States, an option I’m seriously considering for myself. I also sensed he’d gone through a breakup and a big life change. Sometimes his posts discussed his struggles with mental health and spending so much time alone, something rare to hear from a straight man. I wanted to know more.
You can only learn so much from carefully curated pictures and captions, so I interviewed Ethan over the phone a couple of weeks ago. He’s been living in New Mexico for more than two months after the coronavirus shutdown put his big travel plans on an indefinite hold. We both feel incredibly stuck. But we know it’s just for now.
A google search of “how to figure out what you want out of life” (I swear each and every one of us googles our way through hard times) helped Ethan leave behind his career at a corporate law firm in his early 30s and rebuild his life from the ground up. And a tough breakup and the discovery of Brené Brown helped him finally get in touch with his own emotions and face his narcissistic tendencies (his words). Now his days are centered around his passions rather than suits and spreadsheets—but it definitely wasn’t easy. Ethan shares the unpaved road to self-employment, the awful and often hidden parts of “living the dream,” and the many benefits of vulnerability.
We need to talk
Jillian Anthony: Tell me about yourself and what you do.
Ethan Wall: I’m a social media attorney in my late 30s. I also run a marketing agency and a nonprofit education company. I was working for a great law firm for many years, and I decided I wasn’t spending enough time doing things I was passionate about. So I sold or donated everything I owned, and I’ve been traveling for the last six months running my businesses remotely.
Where were you living before?
I lived in Miami for about 10 years. About five years ago I decided I didn’t want to be part of the corporate world anymore and wanted to develop a life that revolved around my passions, and exploring and traveling were my number one and number two passions. In 2016 I took 74 flights, and since then traveling has been a big part of my life.
I know so many people feel stuck in the corporate world. I recently got laid off and it’s not welcome during this exact time, but I have been thinking about leaving that job and leaving New York for years. I’m interested in how you built an independent life for yourself.
A year or so before I left the corporate world, I had a breakup and a difficult transition. I was 32 years old and I thought to myself, I have absolutely no idea what I want out of my life. Nothing. I googled “how to figure out what you want out of life.” There was this website called Zen Habits written by this guy Leo Babauta. He suggested that I turn my phone and computer off, get a pad and pencil and write down everything in life that made me happy. I wrote down things like professional wrestling, drinking beer, biking, yoga, going to football games with my friends, wanting to go Europe, wanting to see every state in the country, a whole big list. Then I turned the page and I wrote down everything that I didn’t like about my life. I listed things like billable hours, working behind a desk, putting on a suit every day, Microsoft Excel. I remember at the bottom of the page I wrote the words “not this.”
Through reviewing what it was that made me happy I was able to distill my life down into eight core values that were most important to me: exploring, traveling, reading, writing, teaching and public speaking, helping other people, this niche in social media law, and spending time with my friends. From then on every decision I made was geared toward those passions. I looked at the folks in my law firm and was like, these are wonderful people and great attorneys, but here they are 55 years old still sitting behind a desk just waiting to make partner or get the corner office, and I didn’t want that life.
You built your own business brick by brick then?
Yeah, and it changed a ton. I was the president of the Young Lawyers Association in Miami and I was just named the most productive young lawyer in the state of Florida, and at that time in my life I really valued those credentials as my self-worth. I basically said I was retiring from the practice of law. But people would come to me with legal issues because there was a big demand for a social media lawyer. So I said, what if I created a law firm that was on my terms? No billable hours, no Excel spreadsheets. I opened up an LLC—I had to google what the heck an LLC was. I trademarked my company. I started taking every speech no matter where it was. I created a marketing agency that does social media for lawyers. It’s all evolved as I evolved over the years.
That’s amazing. How long did it take you to feel secure?
I experienced very little success for six months. I had no money left. I tapped into my credit, and I had a nervous breakdown and a panic attack on my couch because things just weren’t working. After six months, I started getting smaller clients more regularly. Then there was a six month period where I started to level out and was no longer drowning in debt. By the time I was a year out I had found my footing and I was able to start enjoying the fruits of my labor.
On your social media you’re pretty honest about when you experience negative things. You talk about mental health. That’s just more rare for men. Why do you feel that it’s important to talk about those things?
Prior to six months ago I would have never talked about my emotions.
Never. I was really emotionless in a way. I experience mental health issues just like everybody else. Mine is really having narcissistic tendencies. I’ve always been incredibly independent and competitive, and as a result of that I had a very inflated ego, and that carried on in life and in relationships. I really craved achievement, and as part of that my social media was also like, hey, look at all the wonderful things in my life. People would tell me that I was always on or I was putting on a show and I’d feel so insulted by that. The reason was I was disconnected with my emotions.
I had recently tackled really big business goals, hiring a whole bunch of employees and building this big warehouse and investing everything into it—and I failed in a big way. And someone like me that has traditionally had a very big ego really doesn’t take failure well. That really brought me down because I believed so much in myself and I fell flat on my face.
That carried over to my relationship, and after three years it ended. It was my birthday and I was like, okay, two questions: “Are we moving forward together? And what are we having for dinner?” Because I felt so confident in how things were going. And I remember her saying, “I just don’t know.” I think she was too afraid to say she didn’t want to move forward. I packed all my things up and went and sat in a hotel room. But I wasn’t upset or emotional even at something like that.
Ten days later I started having anxiety attacks and nightmares. I couldn’t sleep and it was constantly eating away at me. My friend Johnna said to me, “I think you should lean into your emotions and allow yourself to feel what it is you’re feeling,” and I just started bawling crying, like a volcano exploding. All the emotions that I had tucked away in connection with the breakup, the business failure just came out, like uncontrollable sobbing.
I assume you’re not much of a crier?
Never. I think I would only cry at the end of The Fox and the Hound.
Later on, I reached out to my ex because I just needed to talk to her. She thought I would never talk to her again. I thought so too, but through that process and talking to Johnna I started to deal with my emotions. Johnna recommended I watch some Ted talks by Brené Brown. She said you can’t selectively hide away emotions, because when you hide away one emotion you hide away all emotions. Somewhere along the line I must have been hurt in a relationship, so I tucked away that pain, but in doing so I really disconnected myself from all emotions. As a result I wouldn’t get hurt, but I never experienced joy, like high highs or low lows. I’d be so muted. It’s the reason people couldn’t feel things from me.
Through this whole time I had helped to create this initiative called #StigmaFreeYLD (Young Lawyers Division) which was designed to help end the stigma over mental illness in the legal profession. I remember going into this board meeting and announcing to everybody, “Hey, I’m going through some really difficult times and I’m experiencing these things too.” I had never been so well-received. People started sharing their own struggles with me. And people didn’t come to me for stuff like that. All of a sudden I started to see the value in being vulnerable and sharing things with people. Having mental illness, experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, bipolar disorder, alcoholism—all of these things happen as part of life. But being authentic and vulnerable is a sign of strength that you can still go on doing these things despite the setbacks and the hardships and how it might be affecting you.
How do you feel your life has changed since you started being more emotionally open?
100 percent for the better. I think many of us, especially men, are afraid of being vulnerable. I was afraid that if I began expressing vulnerability and sharing these things people would think less of me. Those fears of a negative reaction just never came—in fact it was the opposite. I started going to virtual therapy in part to stay better connected to my emotions so I don’t fall back into bad habits. It’s really just been a positive experience, if not one that’s confusing because I still have to wrestle with these things on my own. Part of the personality disorder I’ve been working through, which is narcissistic tendencies—you can’t cure it with Advil. I have to learn how to better identify and manage things so I don’t let my personality hurt other people or myself. I have to constantly work on that, just like going to the gym.
Did you start this big travel off the heels of your breakup?
No, actually. Most people are like, oh, you went through this big breakup so you went on this Eat, Pray, Love journey. It’s incredibly reasonable to think so but it’s actually not true.
We were dating for two-and-a-half years. She had always wanted us to progress forward, and I was too scared or hesitant. And by time I came around and was like, hey, let’s move this thing forward, she was already mentally checked out—partially because she’d been waiting so long, and partially because of how I treated her in the relationship at times in my behavior through my narcissistic tendencies.
The biggest problem we had was we lived three-and-a-half hours away from each other. It was like this puzzle that couldn’t be resolved, and it could have been had I been more open with communication, but I tried to solve it all internally because that was my frame of mind at the time. I had found the ability to end my business lease in Miami, so I proposed a couple options: we could pursue our passions full-time and travel together, or I would move to Tampa where she was. I preferred the first option but was totally okay with the second one, especially if it meant us remaining together. We told our family and our friends, so I started unwinding everything, selling and donating my things, ending my leases. Then when she decided she wasn’t ready for this in her life, I said, “Okay, but I’m still going.” There was nothing left for me in Miami.
When I had my really big failure in business I tried to reflect upon why it happened. And I realized it had happened because I was focusing on making money as opposed to doing things I was passionate about. So this new life is not so much the result of a romantic ending, it was more that I realized that I wasn’t going in the right direction in life. The universe kept sending me all these signals but I was too hard-headed to listen. But the universe is not going to give up. It just kept giving me harsher and harsher experiences and bigger failures and more painful things to deal with until I realized that I shouldn’t be going down this path.
I’m very happy that transition period helped you realign back to where you want to be, but damn, that sounds hard.
Yeah. It was the hardest time of my life. But the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. That experience let me know what it felt like to be in a lot of pain and to be at my personal and professional low, but at the same time it provided the contrast to know those incredible highs—to climb a mountain in Colorado and see life from the summit, to walk the beaches of Southern California and hear the peacefulness, to road trip in the desert from Austin, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico. As much as it sucked and I don’t want to go back to that place again, I also wouldn’t be where I am but for those things.
So you decided to go on the road and live in different cities, and obviously coronavirus has fucked that up. Tell me about your plan now.
The original plan was to live in a new place every thirty days. I put together a bucket list of all the places I wanted to go: Boulder, Colorado; San Diego, California; Austin, Texas; Alaska; Hawaii; the Pacific Northwest. That’s what I did for five months. Before the pandemic hit, I was going to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, then to Colorado to deliver speeches, and I was going to end up in Utah. And then the world kind of shut down. So it’s been about five weeks in Santa Fe now since nothing’s been open. I don’t have friends to go on a run or a hike with and I’ve never spent more time by myself.
I knew when I left I would experience ups and downs. I couldn’t imagine selling everything I own to live out of a duffel bag and a suitcase and a backpack to travel and that the entire world would shut down. There are people out there experiencing worse things than me for sure, but I feel so stuck.
I’m sorry. You have such a tough situation to be so alone. I’m here quarantining with my mom in Las Vegas, and I’m happy to be with her because I don’t think I would have done well home alone this whole time. In my past life where none of this was happening, I would have lost my job and moved out of my apartment and traveled the world this year. Now I have no idea whether that will be possible. So it’s a very stuck feeling. I know everybody’s going through it but it doesn’t mean it’s any less hard for you or me.
It’s a hard thing to get a grasp around because people are dying and sick, and if I take a look at my or your situation objectively, it’s not bad. But at the same time it doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle. It’s okay for us to say it sucks. This taught me to do what you want in life while you can because you don’t know when those things are going to be gone. Originally I was going to be around the U.S. a lot longer, but now I’m going to go international as soon as I can. My immediate plan is basically watching the news to see how the states are going to be opening up. I’m not on online dating sites—I’m not ready to date again—so I’m not getting that interaction through my phone. My interaction is just being around other people. Maybe I can’t sit near other people, but I can see something new and experience stuff.
I’ve been taking care of a stray cat, Catty McCaterson, that showed up at my door one day. I gave him solid white albacore tuna, and now he comes back every day. This is now my best friend here. We sleep in the same bed together every night. It makes it so much better having someone around to talk to and interact with. It’s been helpful for me taking care of an animal, being accountable and responsible, putting someone else’s needs before mine. It’s helpful in my own emotional journey, and also having patience when it walks on my face at seven o’clock in the morning.
To love a cat is to know your cat is a dick. That’s so sweet. I’m in a similar spot to you. I’m just taking it in two week chunks right now. I’m taking a lot of time to think about what I want this year to look like and I’m going to make choices as I can. And that’s kind of all we can do. It is super disappointing, but I keep remembering this is just for now. And there will be other things on the other side of this, whatever that ends up looking like.
We make decisions based on the information available to us and the information is changing every week. Ray Dalio writes in his book Principles that time is like a river that carries us into encounters with reality. How can we go with the flow of what life is, as opposed to rejecting what’s happening, causing ourselves mental pain and regret and trying to fight it?
More about Ethan: Ethan Wall sold all of his things to explore the world, pursue his passions, and live a more meaningful life. You can follow his journey on Instagram. In his spare time, he practices social media law, works toward ending the stigma over mental illness, and tries to leave the world a better place than how he found it.
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