Half a year ago today my wife and I hit the pause button on our careers, waved goodbye to everything and began our quest for a new lifestyle. For me it also signalled the beginning of My Year In Flux, and today is the half way point in this, my life experiment of a lifetime. So what have I learned from 6 months in flux? Reflection time…
1. Embrace novelty like a small child
Why do we do less new stuff as we get older? Rediscovering the curiosity which is usually the preserve of kids is a great way to throw off the shackles of drudgery and get out of your rut.
“This special secret (to making dreams come true), it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Consistency” Walt Disney
Since departing the London lifestyle I knew all too well, I have enjoyed a continuous cascade of newness, learning Spanish from scratch, trying my hand at volunteering and surfing in Costa Rica, gambling in Las Vegas, meditation, speed-reading, a raw food diet and 20 other completely new experiences and skills; and all of this whilst traveling on a tight budget through Canada, USA, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and (right now) Argentina. Oh, and not having a home or job was also a novelty at the outset!
Through all those experiences I’ve become convinced that there are tangible psychological benefits to be derived from regular doses of novelty, and it really doesn’t matter what exactly you’re trying, so long as it’s new. For me it isn’t about learning new skill sets or ticking off experiences so much as opening my mind to new possibilities and throwing off the shackles of cynicism we so willingly embrace as age creeps up on us. So whilst each challenge might have taught me something different, collectively they’ve served to reveal to me who I really am, exposing all my defects (and talents) as I grapple with the frustrations and excitements during each new week. That personal insight is far more important than any new skills I might have learned
2. Let discomfort be your friend
Despite being in the enviable position of not working, traveling loads and having a really great time, my life is far from comfortable. I now realise that’s a very good thing.
When I decided to walk away from the real world for 12 months I was determined to make sure this year of flux didn’t just become a cavalcade of comfort and laziness. Many people have asked me why I felt I had to subject myself to a routine of Weekly Challenges and fairly intensive blogging, WHY NOT JUST HAVE A BREAK YOU IDIOT?! The answer is that I didn’t plan for this to be a year off, I planned for a year of intensive discovery, which necessarily requires for me to be living beyond the blinkers of my comfort zone as much as possible.
Whenever I’m considering trying something new, it’s only when I forget about my shortcomings and misgivings and jump in wholeheartedly that I get to feel any real benefits. Learning Spanish was easy, for example, but speaking it to strangers in stressful situations was at first extremely uncomfortable and brought out the worst in me. Yet every single time I understand or am understood in Spanish I get a massive kick out of it. Similarly, practicing swing dancing with my wife in a classroom with other novices was a piece of cake (even though I don’t like dancing!), but doing it in a dance hall in Oregon was really uncomfortable, yet it yielded an experience I’ll never forget and a determination to get rid of at least one of my left feet once and for all!
So step outside your comfort zone once in a while and give discomfort a try, it isn’t half as uncomfortable as you might think.
3. Make space for Mindfulness
I’m so glad I spent a week learning how to quiet my brain down and let the world in.
One of my biggest sea changes during My Year In Flux has been discovering mindfulness. Thanks to the ‘hero’ week (where I learned that Steve Jobs’ own heroes pushed him down the zen path), and a subsequent week learning to meditate, I discovered that through the difficult-to-master (but relatively easy to pursue) practice of zen meditation, I’d found an essential tool that is now helping me become a little happier and more balanced each day.
Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes and breath. You’ll never regret it.
4. Do more of what makes you happy
Above everything else, the last 6 months has shown me that we should be doing more of what makes us happy whilst quietly removing the non-essential things that don’t satisfy us.
That’s a pipe dream, right? Wrong. Let me explain why I’m so confident this is possible: until recently my lifestyle controlled me (instead of the other way round), and I felt trapped. Despite having my own business I found myself trapped into living in London and working long hours, I was trapped into continuing to run the business, as co-owner, director and an indispensable employee and trapped into earning enough money to pay the mortgage on my nice London flat, y’know the one I needed in order to be in town to do the job. It was a vicious cycle. I imagine this sounds like a familiar scenario, right? Trapped? Wrong.
After a little digging it turned out that my business partner was willing to buy my stake in the business, that the company itself was more than capable of functioning without me, and that we could rent our London flat (for an amount which covered our mortgage) just by sending an email out to a few of our friends and acquaintances. The insurmountable obstacles crumbled before my eyes. The process wasn’t at all easy, but I wasn’t trapped, I’d just been too scared to look at the alternatives. I now believe there are always alternatives.
If we’re tired of traveling these days, we stop for a while. If we don’t like somewhere (however great the guidebooks say it is), we quietly slink away and if I’m too excited by a new place/people to squeeze in a Weekly Challenge, I start it a few days later. If I’m tired of being awake, I sleep. It’ll be tough to continue this pattern when the ‘real’ world beckons. Tough, but not impossible. The happier alternatives are always there, you just have to look in the right place.
If you’re not happy, look for alternatives, don’t be trapped.
5. Travel really does broaden the mind
Yes, duh, I finally have to accept this old adage. It’s all very well stepping outside your comfort zone but physically getting away from familiar sights and into pastures new is one of the best ways to reframe your own perspective on life. I didn’t believe this 6 months ago, I do now.
My wife and I agree on most things (eventually), but with travel we were diametrically opposed. I was happy to work myself into the ground in London while she dreamed of exotic far-off lands. Despite admiring my wife’s wanderlust, I never saw myself becoming a gap year boy or a hippy travel bore, so the idea of backpacking through the Americas wasn’t one that sat comfortably with me. But it really wasn’t the worst way to spend a few months, so in the spirit of flux I threw out my misgivings, packed up my troubles in my old string bag and hit the road. 6 months, 8 countries and I-don’t-know-how-many mind-expanding horizons later, we’ve extended our trip and I’m a changed man who spots new benefits every day in the lifestyle attained from a sustained period of travel.
I refuse to bore you with reasons or anecdotes here, for fear of becoming one of the types I outlined in Why I Hate Backpacking, but I have shared travel highlights here from time to time.
Hit the road, leave some of your decisions up to fate, and watch the scenery change.
6. Lifestyle design is the new paradigm
The Internet, digital communication, cheap travel, new career paths and a global recession have all combined to offer YOU and ME and EVERYONE WE KNOW the opportunity to design our own lifestyles instead of letting outmoded traditions dictate our every move. Tim Ferriss is a major influence for me, but there’s been much written by others too on the subject of Lifestyle Design.
I list this point last because, while the first 6 months of My Year In Flux were spent dismantling and getting over the hangover of my old lifestyle, the next 6 months will be spent deciding what a healthy, happy and fulfilling lifestyle might look like. There’ll be work, rest and play just as before, but not necessarily in that order and DEFINITELY not 40 more years with a fixed-location 9-5 occupation, 5 weeks holiday and a long dull retirement. That just feels wrong now on every level.
I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out, but if I learn half as much in the next six months as I did in the first six then I believe I’ll be enjoying a happier and healthier life. That never would have been the case if I hadn’t decided to take one giant leap outside my comfort zone and into flux.
Who knows what the next 26 flux-filled weeks will bring me but if I were putting in requests, and to paraphrase Morecambe and Wise, bring me (even more) sunshine, laughter and love. Thank you, good night.