Seven and a half years

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…

Business Travel… I took my old Salsa Casseroll for a change.

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.

Everyone has their preferred flavour of Prozac I guess. Mine has two wheels… and now I have the freedom to enjoy a healthy all-day dose whenever needed. It’s important. Here enjoying some chill late-winter sunshine on top of Gwennap Head.

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.

Quite

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.

A consequence of self-employment is that when there is a lot of work to be done self-moderation can be quite hard. I’d been feeling somewhat overwhelmed with work recently, a bit stressed and depressed with consequent declining mental performance.. so a mental health day was called for on Wednesday. Happily I have a number of willing friends who are brilliant to spend time with and equally able to go paddling mid-week. A chance to step back and remind myself that actually, despite the problems, it’s all pretty good really.

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.

The weather was cold and bright with a fresh northeasterly. I’d lost the motivation to get on the water this winter, in part because I am so in demand at the moment and had been always wanting to just go riding. The “reset” was perfect.

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…

The BRO (Border Roads Organisation) has some creative signage along the routes of the Indian Himalaya. Most are safety related, ‘Driving risky after whisky’ for example, but this one was of a different flavour.

10 thoughts on “Seven and a half years

  • A very honest account of a different path taken to the conveyor belt approach of normal career life Mike. I guess the answer is be brave, take a shot at something else, or regret not having a go. Certainly seems to have been a good move on your part and more to come I suspect. Many have lost sight of what is required or not required to be happier in life. It is definitely not just about working all the time, money and material wealth and earning more to buy more.
    Having also just read ‘The Only Kayak’, I could not agree more about how good the book is, particularly if you are a lover of wild and wide open spaces.

    • I think in my case I’d arrived at a point where not doing ‘something’ was no longer an option, and the only something I knew what to do was just stop what I was doing. Turned out to be enough… luckily..! The Only Kayak really is a wonderful read, and despite being set in a wild part of Alaska has so much relevance to everyday life here, and anywhere else.

  • Thanks as ever for such thoughtful and gentle ponderings. I relate to all that, but neither have the courage nor means nor talent to do what you’ve done. Oh, and I have two kids, now almost adults.

    I too received the conventional ‘wisdom’ of your father’s mindset, and even had a not dissimilar reverse charges experience! If I were to have followed your path (and don’t think I haven’t dreamed), my old man would worry “do you have enough for retirement”? Interestingly through my incompetence/utter disinterest in all things money, I’ve managed to work (hard) all my life without amassing any substantive assets (other than the kids I guess), so the silly old sod will have to pass on and leave me his in oder to save me from a retirement in penury.

    Life is ironic.

    • Hi Mark, thanks for writing! I agree having kids does complicate matters somewhat as a degree of security becomes more important, and children must come first when a parent I think. I have never wanted children, perhaps I am missing out and certainly I look at the joy children bring my friends that are parents.. but it is not for me and one cannot have it all. As for retirement, well.. yes it is important I suppose but I feel one must balance the need to be able to live well in retirement with the small possibility that one may never reach retirement. I also think that there are plenty of ways to keep some income coming in beyond what is considered ‘retirement age’, and it doesn’t have to be onerous. I think I’ll be OK. I’ve always been a natural saver, something good my parents instilled in me – perhaps because they experienced the privations around the war, so through living a modest life, and working hard when I need to in two months time my mortgage will be gone. I have a little pile of granite in an untrendy part of west Cornwall but it does me just fine. It is also very cheap to run. With the mortgage gone my ‘survival’ budget is now significantly less than £7000/year – utils, insurances, food, keeping the car on the road so I can go paddling etc… everything I make over and above that is gravy as they say. It is lucky that I enjoy cooking and don’t have expensive tastes. I also think that when you can find a place of being happy and fulfilled without wanting much then that will carry through naturally into later years. Cornwall has a large number of wealthy retirees… mostly their lives seem to consist of buying fucking great luxury houses and cars and spending their time on planning disputes, fights with the neighbours, and generally being a bit pissed off at the world around them. I have never seen anyone around here at the wheel of a Bentley or Range Rover, or whatever, with anything other than a sour face.

  • Wise words that I share in full. Having retired nine years ago, I don’t regret at all the lower expenditure in ‘fancy stuff’ associated with it. I am writing this note from a very basic cottage (the LP describes it as ‘rustic’)… at lake Posó in Sulawesi after a splendid day cycling along it’s shore… Who cares about a new car, a luxurious house? But sometimes I wonder if it is a selfish, purely hedonistic approach to life, taking advantage of other people’s hard work. Some of them do improve this world, while I just have fun…

  • haha, “selfish and hedonistic”.. well I have thought about a great deal too and I don’t think it is. Here’s the thing, you’re not a drain on a society, you’re a terrific ‘ambassador’ for your country based on our meeting in Nako.. you travel in a respectful (at least, I’ve not seen any naked selfies…), low impact way and will have had a positive impact on the lives of a very many people during your travels, so you are improving the world, and acting as an inspiration and example to others. I see a much greater problem with the person that works to accumulate a lot of wealth (regardless of the tax they might pay), takes a luxury holiday somewhere – very little of the spending on of which finds it way into the pockets of local people.. most of ending up in offshore accounts belonging to resort owners and so on.. so much of the conventional travel industry is based on exploitation, and is enormously damaging to the environment. You’re also not at home making poor lifestyle choices, storing up problems that in later life will be a burden to the health service. I have thought much about how society does need career people – medical professionals for example, particularly public sector healthcare workers. I see people stretched to the limit.. but often stretched to the limit because of those poor lifestyle choices – obesity, smoking, drinking etc that arguably would go away if people could break free from the ‘standard’ paradigm for life… And you’re not earning just to buy shit that’s going to go into landfill within 6 months. I think about when I was an engineer… I was stressed to the limit, it made me spend money on stuff I didn’t need, and cost the health service money when it made me ill. My career would have been great had the option been available to do half the hours for half the money, my employer having hired an extra engineer… but that wasn’t an option because the ‘system’ works on the basis that more is always better.

  • Mike – I don’t have the intellect to add to all the great posts above, and even less, possibly one of your most eloquent scribbles … but felt the need to highlight one awesome aspect of this post:

    ‘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.’

    For me this just highlights how wrong the western societal views of failure are … and that the majority of us are repeating the exact mistakes our parents made, with our own children. If only we could ‘borrow’ your quote to explain how we really should see the concept of ‘failure’: philosophical evolution and personal growth. When I say borrow, i mean steal … thank you sooo much, Mike … I’m just texting it to my daughter! … sorry, I know I should have written it in a letter!

    Mike … when you get a spare few months … would you please consider writing a book?

    All the very best, my friend!

    • “..don’t have the intellect..”.. haha, don’t believe that for a minute.. I don’t recall you purchasing your PhD online..! Anyway.. that aside.. please steal away! I’m rather touched by your words, but I do now have a concern.. you’re the second person today who told me they were sending my scribbles to their daughter to read.. what if I’m wrong..? what if actually I’m just ruining my life… and theirs.. and merely trying to feel good about my wrong choices?! So here’s a caveat that will allow me to cleanse my conscience: “it’s really important to work hard at school and get an education and some useful skills” (true). It is also true though, IMO that too much of “success” is defined purely by material measures…
      As for a book.. well I’m flattered that you think I could do so. I’m not convinced I have the patience or the ‘depth’ for that and really I’m not diligent enough.. perhaps as a way to fund my old age… !
      Thanks for writing and see you soon I hope! It’s been far too long.

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