Book Reviews Reviews

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts Book Review

“Vagabond” is a word with lots of negative connotations – laziness, narcissism, dependency, aimlessness – someone avoiding commitment to home or job. In Middle English, it was actually a synonym for a criminal.

So despite many famous endorsements, I had been skeptical of  the book – assuming it was  just another quit your job, leave your commitments, and explore type book with lots of trite, over-simplified advice. That assumption turned out to not be true after I, you know, actually read it.

It turns out that Vagabonding is possibly the most practical book of the genre I’ve ever read. It’s simply different – so much so that Rolf Potts starts the book right off the bat with his own definition of Vagabonding as an outlook (vs. someone who is a vagabond).

Vagabonding -noun. (1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time. (2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasizes creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit. (3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible.

As the definition notes, he’s introducing more of a concept and philosophy of exploration and a deliberate way of living (vs. sort of following along and checking life boxes).

What I Liked

The philosophy – There has never been a time in human history where we have so much choice. The passport and an internationally recognized system of visas allows you to go nearly anywhere. Air travel exists – it’s also cheap, ubiquitous, and safe. A growing number of workers can work literally anywhere in the world. There’s a globally accepted currency. There are fewer wars than ever before. All this means that often you can deliberately choose how and where to live. That may mean being home-less and staying in hostels in Camobodia; it might mean settling in a house in an American city and  constantly looking for opportunities to explore the immediate world around you. The whole point is to actively choose to explore, learn, discover – and that’s an amazing concept to me.

The practicality – Travel guidebooks are usually very destination-focused, so they are really quite impractical for traveling. The books and blogs that are more travel focused usually paint in broad strokes with generic (and really quite obvious) advice. Every chapter of Vagabonding has a Tip Sheet with some of the most insightful nuggets of practical tips I’ve seen.

The profiles – Interspersed throughout each chapter, the book has short profiles of both contemporary & historical people who took on the concept of ‘vagaboding’ – exploring and traveling the world. They’re interesting, well-selected and break the chapters up well.

The potential & possibility – The genres of self-help, career and travel are perennial culprits for leaving you with the feeling of “well, that would be nice…but.” What I liked about Vagabonding was that he outlines the exact possibility & potential of travel, funding & exploration so well that there’s really no room to put it down thinking “that would be nice…but.” Instead of easy excuses, the book forces you to deliberately choose whatever it is you want to do – and think about why. Not many books can do that, but this is one of them.

What I Did Not Like

The potential & possibility – In all irony, the whole forcing you to deliberately choose not to travel after reading the book is easy to not like. It’s a lot easier to read a book in this genre and think “well, I don’t have X, so it’s not really an option for me” – and go on wishing and hoping. Since Vagabonding doesn’t really allow you to do that (if you do, then you didn’t really read it), it can be irksome for good and for bad.

The personal-ness – There is a very wide and blurry line between personal growth that helps people around you and personal growth that shifts into individualism and narcissism. It’s the tradeoffs everyone makes everyday at work (stay an extra 20 minutes and help a colleague with a presentation but get home on time for supper) or at home (go workout for 30 minutes to stay healthy or make a special trip to the playground with your kid). There’s never really a right answer, but simply being aware of that line is often all that’s needed to do what’s right. And for the huge impact that long-term travel would have on the people around you – it’s an issue that’s not really addressed in Vagabonding. The books touches on a bit on the tactics (traveling with family, taking care of professional responsibilities), but never on the why or general how to. At least touching on the non-personal growth aspects of long-term travel would have given the book even more credibility.


If you have ever thought about traveling for more than 2 weeks at a time – Vagabonding is a must-read. If you try to do long-term career planning or just generally interested in different types of lifestyles – you should read this book as well. If you’re just looking for an easy, fun, entertaining travel book, then go grab something by J. Maarten Troost or Bill Bryson.

By Nate

I'm Nate Shivar - I live in Atlanta and love exploring the city, outdoors, books & Internet. Read about me, my Now page, or my work.

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