Will Hatton: Travelling on a Budget, Taking Risks, Finding Your Values

Will has spent close to a decade travelling the globe, and is the founder of The Broke Backpacker – a resource for off the beaten track, budget travel.

For those who don’t know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?

So I am a broke backpacker turned serial entrepreneur. I was travelling on $10 a day and less for seven years – India, South America, all over Southeast Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Myanmar, Venezuela – and then about five years ago, I started a fairly well known travel blog  that has led me into doing a lot of other businesses online. I’m currently running nine businesses and I’m building a coworking hostel in Bali.

When you first embarked on this journey, what were the most difficult psychological challenges you faced?

I was definitely daunted. I was pretty shy as a kid and a teenager, but I recognised that being uncomfortable, stepping out of my comfort zone and having the opportunity to meet new people every day was a really powerful opportunity. So, yeah, the rewards far outweighed the discomfort I felt.

I was hitchhiking and couchsurfing a lot – I slept rough for two years and I was living in a tent for around four years. When you don’t have any money, you have to be good at being uncomfortable. In general I was, but sometimes, I’d be low energy or wouldn’t be very well –  like, I’d have the shits – and that’s when, living in a tent in the middle of nowhere, was just like “Why the fuck am I doing this?” It was definitely challenging.

How did overcoming these obstacles develop your character? Do you feel happier or more fulfilled as a result?

I think doing a lot of physically demanding things – going on hikes, peak climbing, setting up camp in the woods, making fires, hunting rabbits, learning how to cook for and care for myself, etc. – was really useful. It improved my confidence, my ability to problem solve and to get my head down and work.

I definitely feel happier as a result. I can pretty much talk to anybody now; I’m confident and outgoing – I’m just just happy to sit and chat to people, which was a massive change for me.

I guess the big one is gratitude. The reason that I was able to be so uncomfortable was because I’d open my tent and I’d be in the woods, in the mountains, or just, like, somewhere amazing and I’d think, “Fuck, you can’t buy this kind of experience.”

That is something that I have continued to try to cultivate over the last few years. I’m normally a fairly happy guy and I think I think it’s because I’m grateful.

The Broke Backpacker

How has your relationship with fear and discomfort changed after nine years on the road?

When I was younger, I would like to say that I was fearless, but really, I would just take stupid risks. Now I’m not so keen to take such stupid risks because I actually really like my life. That said, I do try to consistently step out of my comfort zone – I think that’s important. If you don’t regularly step out of your comfort zone it just contracts and before you know it, even just going outside and socialising can seem intimidating.

I try to make myself do something physically challenging and something mentally challenging fairly consistently. I do a lot of CrossFit here in Bali. Normally, I would be hiking in the mountains, or taking a motorbike around Pakistan [18 Reasons You Should Travel to Pakistan – The Broke Backpacker], but here, I’ve tried to make more of an effort to push myself physically; to train harder and to make myself read difficult books that I know I should.

Yeah, just making sure I’m keeping myself sharp during this period of quarantine and using it as an opportunity for reflection and growth rather than lying around and watching TV, or going down the destructive alcohol, drugs, porn rabbit-hole.

Did you experience loneliness?

Yes, for sure. For me, journaling is really like the antidote to loneliness – when I’m in the mountains by myself, I’m journaling every day. In the evening, I try and do a ‘brain dump’ where, if anything’s bothering me, I’ll just get it out and then it’s done and I can forget about it.

But yeah, I talk to myself a lot; I listen to a lot of podcasts and I journal. I think those three things really, really helped me.

But also, if I am feeling lonely, I’ll probably just go out to a coffee shop and I’ll strike up a conversation with someone. When I was first in India, I was super shy. I had this game where I had to talk to one more person than I talked to the day before. I got up to 88 before I was like “We’ve dealt with this now. We can’t keep going, it’s getting ridiculous.”

It’s a little bit different today because so many people meet through social media or Tinder or whatever. It’s as if approaching people in person is something of a lost art. But as long as you do so with a smile, you’re friendly and you give people their personal space, I find people are usually pretty thrilled to have someone say “Hi” to them.

How has travel shaped your mindset?

Oh, like honestly dude, when I went travelling I was a mess. I think it’s fair to say that travel completely saved my life. I was not on a good path at all; I was getting into lots of trouble.

So yeah, travel was really the most important thing that I ever decided to do. Like I said, it made me more grateful; it made me appreciate the little things and it made me ask myself important questions, like “What do I want to do with my life?”

I’m not religious at all – and I think a lot of young guys can probably relate to that – but that means that I’m responsible for coming up with my own value system. That’s something I’ve been working on over the last few years. Being on the road has really helped me figure out what is important to me and what traits I value.

I mean, I’ve been in places where people have nothing and they’re the most amazing, friendly, welcoming, kind people. Meeting these people and having those experiences with them, that was really beneficial for me in pointing out what’s truly important.

I think, in general, it’s very important to find your tribe; to find people who are going to lift you up rather than beat you down. It becomes important (as hard as it might be) to cut out friends who are enabling negative behaviour and to find people who have similar values and want to head in a similar direction. So I’ve been pretty brutal with that over the last year, cutting people out of my life who aren’t good for me – it’s better for me to choose my crowd and I’ve done that quite carefully.

What would be your best advice for building a tribe of good people to surround yourself with?

Do some kind of fitness. If you can, do it in a class environment – maybe it’s CrossFit, maybe it’s P45, yoga etc. – then you’re going to meet people. Trying new fitness related sports where you get a chance to meet people has been one of the best things that I’ve done.

Also, just make sure that you don’t get stuck in a rut of, you know, watching TV, playing video games, smoking weed and working a shit job, simply because you don’t know what you want to do. There are options. So many options. Be brave, step out of your comfort zone, figure out what it is you are passionate about.

What has been the most valuable lesson that travelling has taught you?

I think to not judge people and to always be kind. I’ve got a couple of mantras, one of them is “Always be kind, never be weak.” So, you want to be kind, but not in a way where you enable people to take advantage of you. But kindness is one of the most important qualities you can cultivate within yourself – it will just make you a better person and you will make the world a better place.

You seem to have a great appetite for risk – travelling on $10 a day, running a number of online business ventures, and now opening your own hostel. Have you always been this way?

Yeah, I’m definitely a risk taker and I’ve had a couple of businesses that have failed, but I’ve definitely learned that if you know something is failing and you can be honest with yourself (i.e. if you can pull your chips off the table before it gets too bad rather than lying to yourself) and you’re also able to take risks, then that’s a really powerful combination.

The biggest rewards come with the biggest risks. Where problems ensue is when you take a big risk, it’s not paying off, you know it isn’t – maybe it’s because you just can’t motivate yourself to do the work; maybe it’s a shit idea, but you know, it isn’t working – and you just keep going.

I think with maturity, I’ve gained the ability to improve my risk analysis. You should absolutely be brave and you should absolutely be determined, but you should also do your risk analysis. And you should know what an acceptable risk for you is – it varies per person.

But honestly, I do think that to build the most incredible lifestyle and to have the most fulfilling experiences, risk is involved. The standard cookie cutter template of school, job, mortgage, two kids, etc., I’m not saying it’s unfulfilling – it’s not personally what I want though – however it likely isn’t the most captivating, most “living-to-the-full” kind of lifestyle that you can have. But it is low risk.

So you’ve got to decide what works for you individually. All I would say is that if you want to go for that kind of lifestyle, take a year out, go and have some experiences and even if you don’t like them, it will be good to have got them under your belt before you then take a step back to a more traditional lifestyle.

How did you develop the self-belief and mental resilience to persevere in the face of adversity and uncertainty?

That’s something I’ve always massively admired and it’s something that I’ve tried hard to cultivate within myself. I am definitely not naturally gifted in that regard. I’ve done lots of treks and hikes, and have thought, “Why am I doing this? I just want to go and find a nice cold beer, and chill the fuck out.” And I’ve really had a mental battle with myself for like three weeks whilst doing these hikes. It’s a struggle to make myself do these things, but I know that the reward is worth it and I know that willpower has to be worked at, has to be cultivated. The more hard things I do, the easier it gets to do hard things.

What did it take to scale your business to where it’s at now?

A few things. Firstly, just a shit ton of hard work. At the beginning, all I had was sweat equity – there was no money. And then, for the first two years, every single penny that I made I reinvested back into the business. The third thing was building standard operating procedures.

SOPs enabled me to hire a great team from all around the world – I’ve got a large Filipino VA team that helps me. We built these systems where we could create fantastic content and it would be the same quality every time.

When you hire people, there’s two things that matter: the first is finding great, trustworthy people and the second is making sure that they’ve got the tools they need to do a good job. If you don’t give them enough direction, especially when you’re working remotely with a team, you’re usually not going to get the results you need. You have to be able to give direction, feedback and give a framework and that was something I was good at as it appealed to the organised, logical side of me.

How would you contrast your view of the world now, to what it was like before leaving the UK? Have your values changed as a result?

I think I’m more interested in participating in society now than I was when I was younger. I was very much like this ‘crazy, adventure’ guy who would go on epic adventures to impress people. I was driven by that. I had a lot of inadequacy complexes and definitely felt I had to prove myself. That’s changed over the years, I’m now quietly confident in my abilities and my value.

Today, I’m far more interested in building this coworking hostel where I hope to run entrepreneurship events and hopefully boot camps; I want to build an Earthship to live in, here in Bali; and I’m really interested in environmental causes. I’ve got a couple of projects in the works at the moment – they may not make much money – but they could have quite a big impact and I’m excited to work on passion projects.

We’re actually in the middle of working on a backpack over the last 18 months which is made almost entirely out of recycled ocean plastic. I’m really interested in projects like that, where we can create cool products out of, especially, recycled plastic. When you’re travelling, you see it in rivers, you see it in forests, it’s everywhere.

But, yeah, I’ve been very lucky to have learnt quite a few valuable lessons on the road. I want to do what I can to share those without being preachy, so that if anyone wants that information, it’s available to them. I want to be involved in projects I think can be good for the planet. But I’m not someone who’s going to be like, “Yo, come follow me on Instagram – I’ll tell you how I make six figures a month! Oh, and here’s a link to buy my course.” I’m never going to do that because it makes my skin crawl.

Have you had any role models, or people you’ve met who’ve changed you?

I mean, the classic answer – and for good reason – is obviously Tim Ferriss.

Tim Ferriss is a bit of a legend. His book Tools of Titans is probably one of the most valuable books you can read purely because it gives major insights into world class performers.

You just have to read three pages on one person to find out what their favourite book is, or what their top tip is and then you can just correlate all of the top books and all of the top tips like, “Okay, out of these 100 awesome, top level, people, 70 people all do this – so this must be worth doing. Or, 50 people have all read this book – so this must be worth reading.”

I’m also a big fan of Dan Carlin who runs the hardcore history podcast. He’s an amazing storyteller and in my opinion, one of the greatest content creators – I’ve got a big content crush on him. At the end of the day, I started out as a content creator, I still do quite a lot of it; I’m a big fan of quality content and his stuff is just amazing. So yeah, I highly recommend him.

But I was also lucky as my Dad was self employed and built his own business. My parents came from an extremely poor background and, throughout my whole childhood, there was lots of drama like, “Oh, we’re gonna lose the house or we’re gonna lose a car.” It was all crazy. But I had my Dad as a role model – he often worked 80 or even 100 hours a week, and that that was powerful to see and instilled in me a strong work ethic.

Travel is a great way to detach from the usual routine we find ourselves in, but, with no routine, we can often feel as though we’re aimlessly drifting. In your own experience, where does the balance lie?

I think you should pick three things that are irrefutable in that you do them every day. And if you do miss a day, definitely do it the next day. And pick three small things. So for me, when I’m travelling, I do 100 pushups a day, I do my 10 minutes of journaling every day, and I do my meditation every day. That commitment takes a total of about 30 minutes. Sometimes I miss it, but I never miss it twice in a row. As a routine, it really helps me feel grounded.

What have you learnt about human connection? Specifically, how do you relate to those with whom you’re so different?

I’ve learnt that, actually, most people are pretty similar. Everybody kind of wants the same things. Everybody wants a good life for their children; everybody wants to feel safe; everybody wants to feel that their group is represented and isn’t persecuted. You know, people want to eat; people want to have a good time; people want connection.

I’ve met some people who, if you were to give me their CV, I’d be thinking, “There’s no way I’m gonna have anything in common with this person.” But you realise that people actually tend to have the same basic motivations and desires.

But in terms of relating with those that are quite different, I think it depends. I mean, in places like Pakistan or Iran or Venezuela, where there aren’t many tourists, the people are just so interested to meet you. I think usually the connection is that they are thrilled to see a foreigner and, in my case, I am thrilled to be in their country. I’ll be telling them how beautiful their countries are and they’ll be offering me tea in their house, I’m like, “Ah dude, I’ve already had like 15 teas today… But yeah, okay, let’s have one more.”

It’s easy when travelling to remain in the ‘backpacker bubble’. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, what words could you give to those looking to push themselves beyond this enclave?

My advice is to leave the backpacker bubble for sure. Go to a country that is less visited – there are fewer and fewer each year, but there are some real adventure frontiers left. Kyrgyzstan is beautiful and safe, Pakistan is beautiful and safe (just stay away from the Afghan border) and Iran is amazing.

And yeah, get off the beaten track. You don’t necessarily have to go to a far-out country to do that – though I would recommend it. But go on a trek, go on a hike, go on a kayak, go and do something that’s out in the wilderness. You can’t go to a country and just stay in party hostels; that’s not travelling, that’s not the full experience.

You’ve said that meditation is a part of your daily routine. How has it changed you and what other habits do you consider key to living a good life?

So meditation has been really, really powerful for me. I would definitely say that I am a ‘below average’ meditator. I easily get distracted. But just taking a set period of time in a day just to show up and to be like, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to focus on my breathing, and analyse how I’m feeling.” It’s just great. Slowly but surely, you get used to being able to snap into that zone for 20 seconds at a time. If I’m stressed out, I’m just like, “When did you last have a breath, man, like, just take a breath, just take a couple of breaths, and we’re good. We’re good to go again.”

As for other habits – being well hydrated. So many people are dehydrated, I used to be one of them. Drink enough water, it’s important to get those electrolytes in – cold coconuts are the way to go.

Fitness is also a big one for me. And walking, I just love walking man, I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m walking.

Also, the biggest thing that I’ve done for my mental health over the last year is control my phone use. So I have two phones, I have this phone, which has WhatsApp and my inbox and stuff like that on it and I’m only allowed on this phone for three hours a day. The rest of the time, I have a phone which only has music, podcasts, meditation apps, etc., so I’m not going to get sucked into WhatsApp or something. I don’t have Tinder or Instagram or Facebook or anything like that on either of my phones just because I find them to be a massive time sink.

I think that it’s very easy in today’s society to never spend any time with yourself because you’re constantly numbing yourself. Whether it’s alcohol, or just Netflix binges, or smoking – I like smoking weed but not every day – or social media, you never take the time to sit back and ask yourself those more meaningful questions.

I am extremely grateful that when I was travelling I didn’t have a phone. Like, many years, I would be me lying in my tent, I’d have books, but like, I’d be lying by myself thinking about, you know, what I wanted, who I wanted to be and, in general, just spending time with myself – much of which was extremely uncomfortable for me to do. But it was a powerful experience for sure. So I think it’s important to try and take that time to slide your phone away. Take yourself away from distractions, sit down with a pen and paper and just see what comes up.

Which three books have had the most profound impact on your thoughts? In what ways did they change you?

The best book I’ve read this year was probably (1) Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is all about finding focus and building up a routine for doing those hard things that require 100% attention. That’s a book I recommend everybody to read. It’s great.

(2) Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, as I mentioned, is another amazing book.

(3) The Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser are probably my favourite books of all time. I’m obsessed with old military history and The Flashman books are just hilarious. They’re about this fake character who’s beautifully inserted into real historical events in a very humorous manner. It’s just like this crazy, Victorian, alcoholic, womanising dude running all over Afghanistan and it’s just fantastic. I love them so much.

It might not be the best book for an entrepreneur, but one thing that I’ve noticed is that I have to read something light before I’m going to sleep. What I was doing in the past was reading business and entrepreneurship books before I went to sleep and my mind was racing – I had to get out of bed multiple times just to take down notes. So now I read those books in the morning or in the afternoon, and then in the evening, I just go for something that is pure chill or pure fun.

I also recently read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, which is a book all about psychedelics. Psychedelics have played a pretty big part in my life and I wanted to learn more about them from, I guess, a more scientific point of view. But, yeah, it was a really powerful book.

If you had to pick, what would you say your 3 favourite places have been so far?

I’ve never been anywhere with such stunning landscapes as Pakistan; I’ve never been anywhere with such friendly people as Iran; and I’ve never been anywhere with such fun culture as Colombia.

Finally, what is your advice for young men?

I think my advice to young men would be to try to come up with your own value system and, whatever it is, to build kindness in there. Understand that, like with the role of religion not being present in a lot of people’s lives, you need to figure out what your own value system is; you need to have some kind of guiding principles. If you don’t, you will end up compromising yourself where you shouldn’t.

For me, it’s the most useful thing that I’ve done. And the way that I did it was, I started out by writing my manifesto. I did that five years ago and I tweak it constantly. There’s a great blog post on the Art of Manliness which teaches people how to write a manifesto and I highly recommend that people read it. It’s really, really good.

I’ve got a mission statement in there; I’ve got my one year goals, my three year and five year goals; I’ve got the traits that I’m trying to cultivate within myself; and I’ve got a list of personal weaknesses; I’ve got strategies around how to avoid the danger of those weaknesses – It’s just a powerful thing to read every day; to drill it into your head and to start to understand what’s important to you.

I’m more proud of the person that I am now than I was five years ago, for sure. Like, I still have flaws, but I have worked hard to try to be a better person and to try to foster discipline and attributes within myself that I think have value.

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