Monday, 29 April 2013

How Sydney Got Under My Skin

I still remember the day, time and place.

A typical summer's day - expansive blue skies, not a cloud in sight, and the world around us painted with colours so bright they seemed almost unnatural.

Directly below, the harbour water sparkled under the intense gaze of the sun. As the plane banked to the right in the direction of the ocean, I pressed my nose to the small oval window and peered down. Before me, I could see one yellow strip of beach after the other forming a chain of golden lines running off into the distance. Gaining altitude, I could still pick out the people on the beach, towels, umbrellas, marquees for the surf life savers, children in the water, surfers and boogie boarders further out, then sail boats, fishing boats, power boats and cargo ships.

I watched and I wished.

Wished that I wasn't leaving. Wished that I wasn't returning to frozen Ottawa in the middle of a Canadian winter. Wished I could stay longer. Wished I could live in Sydney and experience these summer's days for longer than an annual three-week holiday. Something about the startling natural beauty of the place had got under my skin.

I knew I had to live in Sydney.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Gino)

Other things about Sydney affected me over the years making it difficult to forget or give up. Other things got under my skin.

When we holidayed there, I would watch people running in the Royal Botanical Gardens and along the harbour wall at lunchtimes in the sunshine. I remember thinking what a fabulous experience that would be, so different to the occasional chilled jog along the south bank of the River Thames.

After moving to Sydney, I joined a running squad that ran a Botanical Gardens circuit during lunch. The heat in the middle of summer was unbearable and I regularly forgot to put on any cream, but there was something magical about running along the harbour wall with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge ahead of you, yachts on the water at Farm Cove to your right, huge ancient Moreton Bay figs on your left. As white ibises scratched around beneath the vast canopy of these trees, I couldn't help but marvel at my unique environment.

Weekends in Sydney had always been something of a treat. When I worked by day in the city, the last place I wanted to be at the weekend was back amongst the office blocks and deserted alleyways. However, we occasionally treated ourselves to the odd night out in town, staying at one of Sydney's many varied hotels dotted around the harbour - at Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Circular Quay, the Rocks.

We'd spend a night at one of these hotels - stepping out to browse the night markets in the Rocks, walking arm-in-arm along the Quay admiring the diversity of the street performers, sampling the growing number of small bars cropping up in the CBD - and I'd always feel as if I were on foreign soil for the first time, the vibrant pulse of the city never failing to invigorate me.

There's also something about the light in Sydney.

The way it seems to give the water a deeper tinge. The endless blue skylight making the lagoons and ocean appear bluer. The plumage of birds like the lorikeet and rozella exploding in a variety of greens, blues, reds and yellows. The never-ending sunshine, lighting the sand a hundred different shades of yellow. Colours seem magnified in Sydney. The light is extraordinary.

It's an extraordinary city all round.

From its location on the banks of a deep water harbour to its lengthy summers, diverse immigrant influence, outstanding coffee culture, exuberance and confidence, sheer over the top-ness, exotic and traditional dining fare, passion for the great outdoors, love for anything linked to sport, and its position on the edge of a vast landmass at the far reaches of the earth, Sydney is quite simply unique.

As a city, it got under my skin many moons ago. As a city, it's a national treasure that needs to be discovered and explored, wherever it is in the world that you currently live.

What is it that you love about Sydney? What are the things that have got under your skin where you live?

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

No More Office Cubicle

No. More. Office. Cubicle.

I didn't even think twice about the decision. The opportunity came out of leftfield and I seized it with both hands, running hard and fast until I reached the point of no return. I knew it was time to quit that tiny grey box and when that time came, it felt right... and completely surreal.

So I've done it. I've quit the life of the city commuter, fled my government cubicle in a remote corner of the Sydney CBD, and I'm finally living the dream.

My dream.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Michael Lokner)

Craving change

I never wanted to be that pin-striped guy who works in the city from dawn to dusk. The kind of guy who leaves home in the early morning, bleary-eyed and in a state of 'just-climbed-out-of-bed' shock. I never felt comfortable donning a suit and tie, participating in the daily pow-wows, lengthy team meetings, liquid lunches and late nights in the office.

I don't like working in cities and I prefer time with my family rather than with my job.

We're not all built the same way and I simply crave a different life. One with location independence. One where I can work on my terms, not theirs. One where I can work until I get the job done, irrespective of how and where.

I left my blue-chip corporate job in the UK in 2003 confident that I'd finally quit the world of office workers and routine 9-5's. I was set on the path to adventure and travel, leaving behind the 50-hour work weeks, motorway commutes and wasted time away from family that I could never hope to get back.

It was never going to be that easy.

Before long, I was back in the office, this time working for government and in a slightly different shade of grey office box. For the next eight years, I would change my location, alter the view out the window and improve the lifestyle at the weekend, but I couldn't break away from the traditional office role no matter how hard I tried.

It was all too ordinary.

When the planets align

Family and lifestyle are so important to me, not money or career path.

Every minute I spend away from my wife and son, every minute I spend away from this Northern Beaches way of life we've fought tooth and nail to build around us, is a minute lost and a moment gone forever.

I couldn't live with that.

I soon realised it wasn't about work-life balance, but about work and lifestyle - and being passionate about both on my own terms. I wanted flexibility, a role that allowed me to be closer to home, less micro-management and more freedom, a job that built on the interesting things I did in my free time - blogging, social media, building communities and writing for love (and money).

Then I met Alison Michalk.

An innovator and true believer in reforming the way we work, Alison runs a global company comprised of location independent professionals who work in towns, rural communities, by the beach, in the country, whatever, wherever. She also works remotely and has successfully grown a business that is built on the very things I believe in and write about here - flexibility, innovative work practices, an emphasis on work and lifestyle passions, working smarter not harder, working away from crowded cities.

We shared similar visions and ideals about how we wanted to work, where we wanted to work, and with whom. On that regular working day in that average Sydney cafe, Alison was searching for someone to help run her company and I was searching for a drastic change to my working world.

The rest, as they say, is history.

I joined Quiip as its Operations Director in early April. A global leader in community management, social media moderation, and content creation services, Quiip is an innovative, exciting and fun place to work.

I now operate out of my home on the Northern Beaches, with no more Sydney commute. I hear the dull roar of the traffic in the morning and I selfishly smile. I'm done with all that.

Occasionally, I take the ferry from Palm Beach to Quiip's Central Coast office. I work remotely using a range of online platforms. I manage the day-to-day business and I work with a group of highly talented and intelligent young people. I'm enthused and invigorated by my work environment, I continue to write, and I'll continue to travel. I plan exotic retreats for our employees in far-flung destinations and I sit in front of my laptop wondering if this is all just a dream.

Lessons learned

I learned several things from the past four years of soul-searching and trying to figure a way out of the office cubicle.

  1. I learned that I couldn't handle being a city worker any more and I needed to break free. 
  2. I learned that if you want change, it'll happen, but not without hard work and a bucketload of patience. 
  3. I learned to network like crazy and use social media as a means to navigate my potential new career.
  4. I learned there are plenty of other people like me who believe that career is important, but having a certain way of life close to family and home is more so.
  5. I learned that this change was never about the money, it couldn't be - this was about doing something I loved and escaping that office cubicle.
  6. I learned that my writing remains important to me and this major life change had to allow for that - I'll continue to freelance, blog, and develop relationships with brands and other bloggers (Canada, here I come!).

And the most important thing I learned?

I learned that I went in search of a life less ordinary but I wasn't living it. Not entirely.

And now I think that I am.

Have you taken a risk to achieve happiness and have seen it pay off? Are you seeking a big change in your life? Did location independence or a significant career change work for you?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ten Years and Counting

Remember the book Marley & Me?

A young couple, John and Jen, move to the south of Florida and set up home near the beach while working as two local reporters. They get a dog as a practice run for parenthood and Marley the yellow labrador retriever arrives on the scene causing destruction and chaos wherever he goes. Later in the book, the couple have children and the family eventually moves to a rural farm in Pennsylvania where, after falling ill some years later, Marley is put to sleep and laid to rest.

It’s a heart-warming and tender story.

On reflection, the parts that resonated with me weren’t just Marley’s journey through his short canine life, but also the contrast between the couple’s early life with the sun, sea, and hustle and bustle of Boca Raton, and their eventual relocation to a quieter, more tranquil country setting.

In their Florida life, they spent long days on the beach with Marley, soaking up the glorious weather but also working hard as two early career professionals, crammed into a house that quickly grew too small for their family’s needs. They lived in the thick of it, young and adventurous, and I look at our own life here in Sydney as we grow our small family, and I wonder if parallels can be made.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Mel1st)

Like them, we live in a lively and active corner of the world. We enjoy a fantastic environment on the ocean’s doorstep with near-perfect weather all year round. We appreciate the vibrancy and youthfulness of Sydney, and we practically live outdoors, barely watching the TV, always eager to get outside.

We're witness to a robust and thriving economy. Wages are high even if the cost of living is also. We’re lucky to live where we do and our hard work to make a home for ourselves on the Northern Beaches is starting to pay off. We have friends and family here, established routines and practices. Our son will grow up spoilt for distraction and it seems obvious that this location is a sensible place for us to be.

But a part of me wonders if, like Marley & Me, this story of ours will one day change.

Marley's family expanded and they yearned for greater space. They needed peace and quiet away from the intense, hectic early years of their life. They sought out a gentler, less pressured existence and I wonder whether we should now consider the same.

I’m soon to celebrate my tenth year of expat life.

Ten years is a long time to be abroad. It’s long enough that you start to feel comfortable with being displaced and less comfortable with the notion of returning to your original home. Still, I occasionally allow myself to daydream about what life could be like if we ever went back.

As John and Jen did, I imagine a life in the country. I see my son in his uniform ready for the first day at his village primary school. I see us reconnecting with dear family and friends, returning to the favourite haunts of our twenties. I see walks in the countryside, annual ski trips to the continent, weekend getaways in London. I see us experiencing the different seasons in a picture-postcard kind of way – be it enjoying the spring blossoms, sampling lazy picnics in the peak of summer, Elliot's attempts at 'trick or treating' in the autumn, or relaxing as a family by warm and cosy firesides through idyllic winters.

I see our home - a period house oozing with character and charm on the outskirts of a quaint English village. I see us arriving in the warmer months, settling in to our new environment, sitting down at a large kitchen table, carefully arranging the utilities, car purchases, home insurance, household finances and so on. Life moves forward and, as we ease ourselves into a very English way of life, I see a quiet, regular existence. Nothing extraordinary. Simple. Easy. Routine.

Something niggles away at the back of my mind.

I’ve been away a long time and I know, deep down, that I’ve changed as a person. I'm fairly certain this life won't make me happy - living abroad has shifted my outlook on life, changed what I want and what I appreciate. I’ve seen and done too much, and I can't settle for this dream anymore. These memories of home aren't even real any more - I’m remembering what I want to through rose-tinted glasses.

After ten years abroad, I’ve grown comfortable with this expat life, wearing it like a much-loved jumper or a treasured pair of shoes. Packing up, removals, relocation, upheaval - these are emotionally and physically draining things and, with age, I want simplicity, easy living, and a heck of a lot less stress.

Unlike John and Jen, I don't think I need any more change. My heart might occassionally encourage thoughts of a possible return, but my mind tells me things are no longer quite what they seem.

Have you considered a return home? Did you do it? If not, why not and what stopped you?

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