When I finished my university studies back in 2002, a really strange thing happened…
I’d been having a grand old time for a few years – enjoying myself, living life on my own terms, traveling and hanging out with friends every day while living on the university campus.
Then, as that final year drew to a close, a sense of impending doom snuck up on me out of nowhere, and seemed to get worse and worse by the day, whenever I paused to consider the prospect of what I was about to get myself into.
A 40 year career.
40 hours a week.
No. End. In. Sight.
Eeek, I can feel the dark heaviness of it again right now as I type this.
It was an odd feeling to me, because it seemed to be in stark contrast to the feelings of excitement and anticipation many of my peers were expressing for the fact that they would soon be ‘getting out there’, beginning their careers and finally… getting cashed up after those frugal years of study.
The other reason it was so strange to me was that I really had no reference point, either personally or within my family growing up, that would give me reason to dread entering the workforce to the extent that I was.
My mom periodically worked part-time jobs as I was growing up, mostly that she seemed to enjoy, and I never perceived her as ‘always at work’. My step-dad was talented with metal work, and often worked long days like any tradesperson, but loved what he did and I never heard him complain about it. The extent of my own work experience up to that point had been waitressing through my senior years of high school and although it was exhausting at times, I loved the social aspect of it with both customers and colleagues and remembered it fondly.
So what was this apprehension all about then?
Why was almost going into convulsions at the thought of working 5 days a week?
You know, I think it was the realization that the corporate office environment I was about to walk into would be a place where you were expected to suppress your true self, your authentic personality, daily during the hours of 9 to 5.
I had absolutely no desire to prove myself, impress senior management or ambitiously set ‘annual goals’ (reviewed quarterly!) for my career development.
For a time, I felt like there must be something wrong with me.
In fact, I even recall sitting in a fluro-lit, glass-walled office for my first (and only, thank goodness) performance review… hearing the manager sitting across from me say something to the effect of: “We thought you were going to have a little more drive than this, you’re not what we expected.” All the while, another senior staff member sitting to their side threw in tidbits of constructive criticism to ‘help’ me along in my brand new career.
I walked out of that meeting, caught the lift straight to the bottom of the building, hid around the corner in a back alley and cried. Then I called my mom on my cell phone and cried some more.
Not so much because the criticism hurt – what they were saying was true after all – but more because I just felt so incredibly lost.
How did I end up here?
If this is supposedly a “good job” I’m in right now, with good pay and benefits, in a sought-after field – and I can’t stand it for the life of me – then what options do I really have for a happy life?
I stuck it out at that first job for 6 months, and soothed myself during lunch breaks each day by:
- Laying down on the grass to nap in the sun with a view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (I never stopped appreciating the fact that that may be the one and only time in my life I work with an incredible view like that!)
- Buying decadent French pastries and tarts from the little patisserie around the corner, my head tucked into a book and pretending I was in Europe.
- Browsing the internet in search of that something else and stumbling onto sites like InternationalLiving.com, EscapeArtist.com (old-school location independent inspiration targeted at retirees and expats) and various dive schools and ‘simple living’ programs in places like Belize and Costa Rica.
- Wandering around the cutest boutique bookstore, Ariel Books, that was in The Rocks , Sydney at the time.
It was during one lunch-break trip to this particular bookstore where I put my hands on a book that would change my life forever.
Slowly but surely.
The book was “A Patch of Paradise: A woman’s search for a real life in Bali,” by mom and entrepreneur, Gaia Grant.
I’d just traveled to Bali for a short 3-week vacation a few months earlier, so that part of the title jumped out at me. The phrase she’d used, “real life,” seemed to point to the exact desirable opposite of what I was feeling at the time.
In the opening chapter of the book, Gaia describes the busyness, exhaustion and frustrations of young family life with a baby and both herself and her husband working to earn an income. She expresses the intense desire of just wanting to ‘be’ together as a family. She recalls the sense of freedom and adventure that her husband and herself had experienced while traveling together through their twenties and poses the question – what’s stopping us from doing that again right now?
Here I was at 21 years of age, with absolutely no sign of kids or a husband on the horizon, reading her descriptions and feeling like it was my story too… like I could somehow relate… my future-self could relate… like she was describing with crystal clear detail this underlying pain I’d been feeling about entering the workforce.
It was the most welcome feeling of relief and hope to hear this woman tell the story of how she’d decided things just shouldn’t be like this, and had set about hatching a 12 month escape plan with her husband to turn things around.
I was excited to think that people could keep traveling even with kids (this was a really novel idea to me at the time) and I was in love with the idea of starting your own business with a computer and an internet connection from a thatched hut on a tropical beach somewhere.
It was at that point that I effectively dug myself out of the pity party, and started taking steps toward my dream. First off by quitting my job a few months later, but that’s another story for another day.
When Gaia and her family did it in the 90s, their income wasn’t technically location independent at the time. The way the internet was used for business was different back then. They moved to Bali and set up a consulting and training business where clients and delegates would fly in internationally, or they would fly to Singapore and other nearby countries for business collaboration.
These days it still takes some grit and clarity of vision, but there are just so many more income-earning options on the table.
Every time I read “A Patch of Paradise” between that first time in 2002 and the last time in 2011 (just before we moved to Costa Rica) it renewed my feeling of freedom and appreciation for life.
I was reminded that you don’t actually have to resign yourself to doing what’s expected of you, especially when you’re not happy doing it. You always have a choice, even when at first it may appear like your hands are tied.
My definition of paradise is the environment or situation in which it feels effortless to be your true self – free from suppressing, pretending, hiding or conforming – really just living life on your own terms.
And it turns out that many people report experiencing that exact sense of liberation and authenticity when relocating to new environments – aka traveling.
When you can match up an uplifting environment with a fulfilling, flexible way to earn income, it’s a pretty powerful combination: your own unique patch of paradise!