It’s a widespread opinion that schools don’t teach the important stuff in life. But if I had to pick a single thing I wish I had learned earlier, it would be that there is an alternative to the 9-to-5 existence.

My upbringing was that of a typical middle-class westerner – go to school, get good grades, get a university degree, build a career, make a family, pay taxes, save for retirement, live only on weekends and holidays, be like “everyone else”. Except I didn’t know that not everyone else lives in this matrix. Sure, it’s the most common choice, but it’s definitely not the only choice.

Photo: Dan Gold

In the past few years, I’ve discovered that there is an alternative to the “normal life” and I’ve started to figure out that the path I’ve been raised to follow might not be my path. I’m not saying that it’s not a good way to live – just that it’s not the only way. I am writing this article because I keep meeting people who are unhappy with their lives. I feel that if they knew that there is an alternative, perhaps they’d feel less stuck.

The options I’ll talk about here are not exhaustive. They are just the ones I’ve found so far. I’m sure that there are many more to be discovered.

Education

This article is geared towards people like myself – independent millennials, who need to know that there is more out there. That’s why I won’t stress too much on school education. Still, it is a building block of society. Homeschooling is not something I’ll talk about here, although it’s also an option. Instead, let’s look into some alternative school systems that focus on developing children, rather than putting them in a box.

Montessori

The school system founded by Maria Montessori uses hands-on education. Every child learns at their own pace, according to their personal needs, and pupils help each other. The main goal is to teach children how to be independent and find their own mistakes, rather than have a stern teacher point them out. The method has been tested and successfully applied for over 100 years, and there are now more than 7,000 Montessori schools around the world.

Photo by: Markus Spiske

Waldorf/Steiner

The main idea is to develop a child’s creativity and imagination. To help kids learn more efficiently, teachers incorporate play and artistic approaches. Waldorf schools aim to develop a love for education and prepare children to fill their own lives with meaning. Although there are only about 1000 of these schools around the world, some exist in Bulgaria as well.

Photo by: Aaron Burden

Career

There is more than one alternative for professional growth, or in the very least making money, outside of a cubicle. Here are some.

Freelance

For the past 4 years, I’ve been working as a freelance writer. It didn’t just happen for me. After having worked in offices for a while, I was certain that it wasn’t the life I wanted. There was a time when I would go to the office before dawn and leave after sunset. An existence in front of a screen, under fluorescent lights.

So, I was determined to use my knowledge, skills, and experience to untie myself from the corporate world. It wasn’t easy at first. I quit my stable-salary job and pitched editors and clients all day long. For roughly the first 100 e-mails I sent, I didn’t receive a single reply. And then, just when I could almost taste the dry bread I’d be eating in candlelight, I got my first project. Gradually, my portfolio grew along with my confidence and I now feel almost comfortable with the pretentious term “digital nomad”.

Freelancing at the park

Anyone can be a freelancer, as long as they are willing to accept the lack of restrictions or security that come along with this lifestyle. Even hands-on professionals, such as doctors or a mechanics, can find an alternative in working online.

Freelancing is not all work from the beaches in Bali all the time but then again – what office job gives you the option at all?

Working on a boat down the Mekong River

Working 6 months, traveling 6 months

In my dorm room in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met a French girl called Dora. What she does is an alternative popular with backpackers and solo travelers – working and saving money for 6 months, and then roaming the globe for the rest of the time. Dora has years of experience as a luxury goods shop assistant, knows 4 languages, and chases the summer. She finds a job in some sunny piece of paradise and when winter approaches – she packs her bags to the other end of the globe.

It seems that you can build a successful career with seasonal work. After all, Dora’s CV is perfect for her particular field and so not only is it easy for her to find a job, but designer chains actually seek her out.

Shared economy

This is an alternative to monetary economics. Instead of money, people exchange services. One popular example is the Workaway website – you work for a few hours per day (at a hostel, a surf school, farm, daycare center, etc.) for room and board. Even though I have yet to try this approach, everyone who has ever told me about their Workaway experience has done so with a huge grin.

Photo: Han-Hsing Tu

To buy yourself out

I learned about this only recently and even though I don’t consider it professional growth, the two do have some common ground. The idea is that you sell something big, and then stretch the money out for as long as possible. I’ve added this to the “career” section since you can save up for something large, then renovate and sell it, similar to what construction entrepreneurs do.

Photo by: Dimitar Belchev

Living with no money

This alternative is becoming ever more popular and is exactly what it sounds like – a life beyond our favorite papers. I had heard about it here and there – a few articles, a few Youtube videos, a story from a friend of a friend… Then I met a young Bulgarian woman who claimed to have lived without money for a year. She used mostly shared economy and counted on the goodness of people who would give her a lift or a place to sleep, as she traveled Bulgaria and the neighboring countries.

Photo: Octavio Fossatti

However, moneyless living has many variations and can be adapted to taste. If you decide to do it, it seems important to research and plan well. Giving up money can’t be easy but apparently, it’s not impossible either, as you can see in this TED talk and this documentary.

Critics sometimes argue that people who make this choice live off of others. However, even if we don’t eradicate money entirely, it might be worth considering if they are as important as we perceive them to be. Perhaps there are ways to spend less cash and build more relationships.

Traveling artists and artisans

One of my favorite musicians – Dub Fx, began his career busking. He financed his travels with music. Gradually, he gained popularity and now he tours the world, gathering thousands of fans, who dream of getting close to him. Of course, not everyone can be Dub Fx – his lyrics and beats are special, even revolutionary. Still, if you have a talent or a skill, you can travel with it.

At a hippy campsite in the mountains of Bulgaria, I met the circus artist Dario. He isn’t a part of any particular company but instead uses his artistry at music festivals – sometimes he gets a salary and other times he relies on whatever people are willing to drop in his hat.

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

At the same gathering, I met the Colombian musician Orlando, who had made his way from South America to the remote Bulgarian town of Haskovo, thanks to his saxophone.

Even though traveling performers are most commonly musicians, you can actually obtain this alternative lifestyle with an array of skills or talents.

Home

A two-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette might be what most Europeans live in but if it’s not your cup of tea – there are plenty of other options to choose from.

Village life

There is a new trend where city people are flocking to the countryside. They return to their roots, a simpler way of life, and nature. They are not ignorant individuals, who have no other choice. Far from it. They have simply realized that shopping centers and traffic jams don’t make them happy.

Photo: Kiwihug

I know two families who have made this choice. What surprised me the most was how amazing their children were.

I met Ivo and Iva a few years ago, when I volunteered at their “Center for breeding and rehabilitation of tortoises”. It is the only tortoise conservation center in Bulgaria and the work that they do there is priceless for our country. They are both from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, but moved to a village near the sea where they have developed the center. Their son was only 3 when I lived with them but already felt comfortable with all creatures and handled with ease “dangerous” animals, such as snakes.

Photo: Gea Cheaonia

At the center, I gained priceless knowledge about the conservation of this endangered species. For instance, you should never move a tortoise to a different location because every population has specific bacteria and a single new tortoise can do great damage to the population. Another tip – if you ever find a tortoise trying to cross the road, never take it back. Instead, carry it to the other side. They are tenacious creatures who always follow the path they have chosen and if you take it back it would only return.

Photo by: Collin Xu

Laura and Stanly’s family, I met this summer. They have single-handedly restored their mountain house and every corner features a personal touch. The porch offers a marvelous view of the nearby peaks and the garden is full of vegetables and herbs. Out of them come organic delicacies and cosmetics. Laura and Stanly’s son is radiant – I’ve never seen such a happy, calm baby in the city.

Tiny homes

Even though the lifestyle in Bulgaria is far from the one in the USA, where people are enslaved by endless credit, before they can even vote, we are headed that way as well. While quick cash pavilions our sprouting at every corner, the opposite trend is growing as well.

Photo: Niv Rozenberg

An increasing number of people have realized that they don’t want to spend their lives paying off a mortgage or sinking half their salary into rent.  As an alternative, they build tiny homes and their contentment grows in the miniscule houses. There are all sorts of tiny houses – from cute mountain lodges to luxurious mini apartments in cities like London and New York.

The key words “tiny house” lead to hundreds of thousands of videos on Youtube and Google shows millions of hits. Most of these people have decided that they would like to be more independent, sustainable, and minimalistic while keeping whatever comforts they deem necessary.

Sustainable communities/Eco villages

This is an age-old concept and the foundation of modern society. Yet with the recent wave of environmental awareness, there came more information about sustainable communities as well.

The idea is that we can establish small societies, where everyone is a contributor. The goal is a life closer to nature, where people are connected, rather than passing each other by with blank stares.

Photo by: Sidharth Bhatia

One of the newest and most popular documentaries on the topic is “А Simpler Way Crisis As Opportunity”. The movie, which has won several awards, examines that sustainable communities are not a form of utopia. They have their own set of issues just like city-dwelling society. However, life there seems to be fulfilling on a deeper level.

Eco villages exist all over the world, and on Couchsurfing you can often find posts about newly formed communities, looking for members.

Nomadic life

Regardless of what 3rd-grade textbooks might claim, nomads haven’t disappeared with the development of agriculture and stock-raising. We’ve all heard about the desert Bedouins, who are traditionally nomadic. There are, however, other nomads as well – contemporary and willing.

These are people who travel the world whatever way they can – hitchhiking, volunteering on ships and boats, hidden on freight trains, etc. They spend the night with kind strangers, in a tent, or just anywhere at all. I must admit that this lifestyle is too extreme for me. I need some roots and comforts. Most of all – people who make me feel loved and at home.

Photo by: Atlas Green

The documentary “American Nomads” provides a thorough perspective on the types of nomadic travelers and their alternative lifestyle.

#VanLife

Recently, it has become popular to buy a van and turn it into your own travel capsule of joy. Search for #vanlife on Instagram and you will find thousands of cozy, slightly hipster mobile homes. Profiles such as @outboundliving and @reform_life are full of beautiful people, nesting on the road.

Whenever I look at Instagram posts, I can’t help but think about the dozens of photos, predecessors to the perfect Instagram moment. It all seems a bit fake and you can sense that things are probably quite different behind the scenes. However, I recently met a German guy called Eric, who’s been practicing vanlife for 8 years, without a hashtag and for his own happiness, rather than Insta fame. Eric comes from an affluent family and by the time he was 20-something, he owned a successful business in Berlin. But he was unhappy. He was lonely and his life was all work and no play. So, he decided that he could no longer go on this way.

Photo by: Eric Gilkes

Currently, Eric is traveling the world in a black van that looks like he is smuggling illegal aliens across borders. Inside, however, there are hardwood floors, handmade wooden cabinets, a couch, a queen-size bed, closet, library, cooking stove, furnace, internet, surround sound stereo, and all the little things that turn a space into a home. He welcomed us into his mobile home to serve snacks in beautiful dishes. While Eric was telling us stories from his life on the road, I kept thinking that #vanlife is a dream come true.

Home exchange

Even though this is usually not a permanent solution, with a bit of motivation and creativity you can turn it into one. There are a few websites that facilitate home swaps around the world. The platform I’ve used is GuestToGuest and so far, I’ve had only positive experiences, even though I’ve done short-term exchanges.

I also found a bunch of Facebook groups, geared entirely towards digital nomads who want to live in different locations but don’t want to deal with real estate agents or rent. You can exchange your place for a few weeks or more. If you look hard enough, this could become a long-term solution.

Minimalism – one common trend

Minimalism has become a worldwide trend and you can now find it everywhere – from fashion week runways and social media, to office spaces and even relationships.

Photo by: Khai Sze Ong

In Bulgaria, the past two generations – those who raised our millennial society, lived at the edge of poverty. They had to wait for months and bribe shopkeepers with favors, to receive goods that our generation feels entitled to. When it’s so hard to obtain something, then it’s only logical that it would be hard to let it go as well. But it seems that the more stuff our parents accumulate the more we, the millennials, ache to simplify.

Photo by: Shwetha Shankar

With minimalism, there are no rules as to how much you should own. All you need to do is ask yourself 2 questions: “Does this serve a real purpose?” and “Does it bring me joy?”. Let go of the rest.

Which alternative to the 9-to-5 existence would you try? Share in the comments below 🙂