Not much of an anniversary.. rather that I’ve been in quite a reflective mood recently.. something to do with growing older perhaps… I wasn’t going to bother writing but it has been pointed out to me by folk more intelligent than I that there are people out there perhaps considering a career change or looking to change direction who might find it interesting.. who knows. Either way 5pm on a winter Sunday afternoon is too early to light the fire and crack open a beer, but too late to get stuck into anything else meaningful now that weekend toys have been washed and put away.
Somewhat incredibly it is seven and a half years since I left my career in aerospace without a clue what else I would do, and looking back of course it was the best thing I ever did. I am in a much better place now. It’s been an interesting journey via a few unexpected stopovers such as working as a kayaking guide and starting a cycle touring business with a mate, and currently successfully self-employed as a developer. I did not expect any of that when I set out, rather I just kind of went with it, a bit like I do when sometimes when I set off on my bike in some distant land. No plans except to just see what happens. You could say I’ve been lucky… but then luck does very much favour the prepared mind…
The conventional wisdom would appear to be that the whole point of starting your own business is to then grow it, make more money, employ people – whatever, but the key point being to work hard and make as much money as possible. Not to say that is wrong but rather that it is not for me so in that sense then I have failed miserably, and my failure has been a process of philosophical evolution, and personal growth.
I found myself trying to explain my philosophy to some new acquaintances recently who assumed, on the basis that I have in-demand skills, that I could work very hard and make lots of money, have ‘nice’ things, and therefore that was the correct, and normal, thing to be doing. Instead what I’ve learned works best for me, and perhaps makes sense in the context of a world stressed by over-consumption and greed, is to find ways to need as little as possible such that the pressure to earn is minimised and subsequently the prospect of working more to earn more becomes a simple choice… one of swapping life for the privilege of paying more tax. It’s not a hard choice but certainly to my new friends not an obvious one, especially when conventional protocol dictates that when one earns more, one can afford to service bigger debts.. bigger mortgage, bigger car payments, or just have more shit you don’t need… the latest iPhone, Sky TV, and so on… The phrase “digging one’s own grave” springs to mind… and guess what… now that I am in a happier place all the stuff I used to convince myself that I needed when at work is longer of interest or relevance. Surprise. It would seem that in my case a happy life is a cheap life. I’m certainly not missing out, rather what is missing is the fear of missing out. None of this is rocket science, lots of people have figured it out but nevertheless in a personal sense it’s still been something of a slowly unfolding epiphany.
The sense of just how far I’d come all solidified in my mind while on my bike on Tuesday morning; a bike is always a great place to find inspiration of course and I’d been feeling a little bit stressed and depressed after such a miserable January. I was making the 90 kilometre round trip to visit the girls at Design Room Cornwall, who have been an inspiration in themselves, with a view to looking at the designs for a couple of really great projects we’re working on together. It occurred to me as I trundled through the lanes that I was engaged in ‘business travel’. On my bicycle. I do it all the time but for some reason on this occasion the realisation made me particularly happy. Business travel used to be soul destroying.. it was motorways, traffic queues, service station coffee, airport security checks, stale aircraft cabin air and soulless chain hotels. Now it featured lungfuls of a fresh northerly, birds singing in chill winter sunshine, and a ride across the Fal on the King Harry Ferry. Conventional logic would mandate that swapping an hour and half round trip in a car for almost three and a half hours on a bicycle (it’s a very hilly ride, and the wind was howling…) is poor use of time when there is lots of work to be done (there is).. but really it isn’t. Incorporate a journey by bicycle into a working day and every minute of that day has value. Outside, fresh air, exercise, time to reflect, solve coding problems even. Make the journey in a car and that’s an hour and a half thrown away. Time driving is pretty much the lowest quality time there is. Cycling is also massively cheaper, and that of course is part of the reward that comes from making time in life for things that aren’t always about the bottom line.
I do have a car. I’d struggle to shift my sea kayak around without it unless I wanted to limit myself to very local journeys. It is old and dented. I do not care about cars, and I rather detest the power of the motoring lobby for what it has done to our towns and villages. Force of habit means I use my car very little, to not travel by bicycle is a conscious, and quite difficult decision. The local garage owner laughs every time he hands over the new MoT certificate every year. The annual mileage has been steadily declining.. and that in itself keeps costs such as servicing, tyres etc to a minimum. My car travelled just 3000 miles in the last 12 months. My bicycle more than double that. That got me to fiddling around with some numbers, just out of interest, and the results were really very interesting and an insight into just how much difference riding a bike rather than jumping in the car can make in life. Now, in the last 15 years I’ve ridden somewhere around 160,000km. Not as much as some folk I know but still a fair total. If I had travelled all of those miles in a car, in this case a small-medium car like a Ford Focus, then check out just what that would mean:
Money spent on fuel – £14,000 (approx at today’s prices, & you could probably add at least £2K more for tyres & servicing)
Kilograms of CO2 generated – approx 32,000kg
Of course exact figures depend on driving style but that’s based on my own typical mpg, and figures from Exeter University on CO2 emissions. It seems likely I would have replaced a car at some point during that period too so throw in a few grand extra for that and all of sudden that’s a massive chunk of, say, a mortgage. There are 37 million registered vehicles on Britain’s roads. Just imagine how much change for the better takes place when people ride instead of drive.
As I am sure all self-employed folk do I have moments of real fear about what the future holds. The security and certainty of a career can be comforting thing but it can be stifling for certain character types, and in my case stress was affecting my health quite badly. Companies do like to use phrases such as “career growth” but I’m not sure it is always “growth”. Rather it can be doing pretty much the same thing albeit with more stress in exchange for more money, and very little of what you might call personal growth. It depends on the job and the business I guess. When I do have these moments of fear I think about the interesting things that have happened, the wide variety of terrific people I’ve met – all of whom have been influential and inspirational, and the new skills and experience gained.. none of which would have happened had I stayed in my career. There is also the fact that given the last few years have worked out OK then there is no reason to suspect that the next few years won’t also work out just fine.
I sometimes wonder what my father would have thought. Looking back my upbringing was very much of the school of thought that says the key to life is to work hard at school, go to university, work hard, get a career with a bluechip company, earn as much as you can, retire…. There is an infamous phone-call home burned into my memory. Pre-internet days I was in a tiny village in northwest Sumatra. It was my birthday, I thought it would be a good idea to call my father, say hello, see how he was… and reverse the charges because, you know, it was my birthday. It wasn’t the brightest thing I have ever done. It took a half-hour to put the call through from the village telephone hut and when finally connected his first words to me were not “happy birthday” but rather “isn’t it about time you came home and got a proper job?”. Happily he mellowed somewhat when he finally got to read the journals and look at the pictures, but it is one of those seminal moments in my life when, looking back, it became clear that perhaps I wasn’t best suited to a career path despite stubbornly forging ahead with one because I didn’t know what else to do.
On reflection one of the most significant fears around leaving a career wasn’t the money.. rather it was the question of who I was going to be. Corporate life had indoctrinated into me the now strange idea that I was important and I became defined by my role… I was leading a significant program and that had some sort of cachet around it. Western life, and particularly western corporate life can do that.. go to a party and one of the first things people want to know is what your job is… I remember a conversation with an uncle in the early days of my career. He wasn’t interested in whether I enjoyed it, all he wanted to know about was that the company was high profile, that I was doing an ‘important’ job, and that I would have ‘status’ as a result. It is a trap and I think it traps a very great number of people. Now of course I am just me and it is for the best. Fulfilment comes from being able to make a big difference to the businesses and online aspirations of a significant and diverse range of people, and from just finding ways to live an enjoyable, low-impact life, in the company of friends.
As for the future… there isn’t a plan but I’m sure it will be interesting. In every sense I am just “winging it”, something just about every so-called life coach would tell you not to do.. however whatever happens I’m sure I’ll be a cheapskate at it and try to do as little work as possible.
There. I think it is important to state that having my career, such as it was, all 16 years of it, wasn’t a bad thing; it taught me much and I worked with some terrific people who were important to me, but in the end I think I just wanted to ride bikes and spend time outside so it turns out that it was a stepping stone rather than an end in its own right. I still marvel at the last few years. Ten years ago I would never have thought it possible.
Before I go.. a book recommendation that is particularly relevant perhaps. It’s a book I revisit from time to time when in need of inspiration. Called “The Only Kayak” by Kim Heacox.. it is not about kayaking, rather it is a personal story that may well make you feel like you’re doing life all wrong. It does me.. If you want a copy please try not to use Amazon.. Jeff Bezos has enough cash already…
p.s. As a late afterthought.. here’s a picture from riding through the Upper Kinnaur Valley that might be appropriate here for anyone reading and wanting to get off the rollercoaster…