Updated: Mar 18, 2019
This is a story about my friend, Kyla, who went from Bottega Veneta clutch purse carrying marketing executive to Blundstone wearing permaculture farmer.
Kyla's story is not unique. She grew up in the UK, went to university, travelled to Japan (which is where we met), carved out an amazing career for herself, had loads of fun, travelled, fell in love, got married, got divorced and, through all of it, worked her ass off. She epitomises so many of the incredible women I'm fortunate enough to have met and count as friends.
Kyla launched her career in Tokyo by landing a mid-level role at the US retail giant, Costco. In five years she had become the National Director of Marketing for Costco's Japan presence and then became part of the team that brought Costco to Australia in 2009. It was great to have her in my hometown. We would go out, get drunk, flirt, laugh a lot - good times. We had so much fun.
Then, somewhere along the way there was a turning point. I saw her less and less. When we did manage to catch up, conversations were dominated by the shit time she was having at work, how she was being passed over for promotion to less qualified, mediocre white men and how she was working to the point where her life was a cycle of 14 hour work days that ended with four hours at the pub trying to decompress over a several pints of beer with other colleagues in the same boat.
What always confused, or annoyed me rather, was that every time I told her to: a) quit; b) that it wasn't healthy for her; c) that she was surrounded by assholes and she deserved to be in an environment where she was valued; she immediately defended the company saying how lucky she was to work there. It was like listening to someone with workplace Stockholm Syndrome. All I could do was simply nod and try (very hard) to sympathise.
It was five years from the day Kyla first told me she wanted to quit to the day she actually left Costco. This behaviour wasn't something that only manifested in her professional life. It also took her a year to leave a toxic co-dependent relationship with her man-child boyfriend of two years.
Strong, independent women, paralysed by an inability to let go or get out of the very situations that cause them grief are sadly a dime a dozen. Does Kyla sound sickeningly familiar to you? We all know a version of Kyla. And it's not just women, fellas.
While we do our best to hear them out, we keep wondering: "Why the fuck doesn't she just leave?"
Fear of the unknown
Fear of the unknown is crippling. It's why we stay put. Not liking but knowing one's current situation is usually a much more attractive option than leaping into the abyss. But hear me out - every person I know who has taken a leap of faith into the unknown has always told me: "It was the best move I ever made."
Human tolerance for disenchantment is incredibly high. A more euphemistic take would be to say there is a lot of merit in stability - however mundane - especially if the alternative is to suffer the 'follow your bliss' induced movement that most of us believe leads to a state of self-actualised anarchy.
Not everyone can just quit their job or their partner as I have written about here and here. And building resilience is just about the most valuable skill human beings need today to navigate a world that is geared towards making us crave validation. In Kyla's case, she had been incredibly astute with property investment so at the time she left her 20 year career, she not only had enough money to take a couple of (unplanned) years off, but also enough money to set herself up on her own permaculture farm.
"I knew I wanted something else, I just didn't know what that thing was."
The catalyst for change happened when Kyla, still working at Costco, took a couple of weeks of leave to travel to Thailand to stay at an off-grid farm.
"As soon as I stepped onto that property, something shifted in me," she later told me. The trip sparked her interest in alternative, sustainable, off grid living and through her research she came across permaculture. She registered for a weekend introductory course in permaculture and four months later, took two weeks of leave again to attend a short course in permaculture in Sydney. When she arrived on day one of the residential, she felt part of a community that was generous and supportive. These were her people.
The short course inspired her to apply for a three month internship at a permaculture farm in the Hunter Valley, NSW. She remembers being in one of the monthly exec meetings at Costco when her acceptance letter to the internship came through via email. She very excitedly but discretely showed her colleague who was siting beside her in the meeting. He responded with a wry smile and said, "You'll never leave."
It was that moment that pushed her from sitting on the ledge as a spectator to leaping off into what would later become the most fulfilling journey she had ever taken.
"That's what made me jump," she said. A month later she quit her job and became a caravan dwelling permaculture intern.
As clichéd as it sounds, she spent the next two years on a journey of self discovery. She travelled around Australia, New Zealand and Asia trying all sorts of very unglamorous things: pet-sitting, WWOOF-ing, completing a 200hr yoga teacher training course, farm-stays, home-stays, couch surfing - anything that provided shelter and didn't cost much. But most importantly, Kyla became friends with a version of herself that was distinct from her workplace or luxury goods or a relationship. She became the real Kyla.
Finding and living your 'thing'
I remember staying with Kyla in Sydney a few years ago and I moved one of her pot plants about 30º clockwise because some of the branches were poking my head when I sat near it. About four seconds after she entered the room she said: "What the fuck did you do to my plant?" and immediately rotated it anti-clockwise 30º to its former position. This was not atypical behaviour for Kyla.
Kyla used to get excessively pissed off with very small things over which she had no control; like a car in front of her decelerating so it could make a left turn, gym equipment that was not arranged in order of weight, building and construction laws that prevented tradies from working in rain or excessive heat, people taking sickies when the surf's up, other people's ringtones and message notifications, public transport, tardiness, tardy public transport, children in supermarkets (children in general really). She was unhappy, unfulfilled and I suspect, lonely. She felt displaced. She didn't have a tribe and she sought joy in things that were never actually going to bring her joy like alcohol, shoes and relationships with emotionally underdeveloped people. The cycle of discontentment ended up being the fuel of her existence which invariably led to more discontentment that would, in turn, re-energise her discontentment. I think she didn't even realise how unhappy she was at that time. Kyla told me recently that she still had lots of fun but it was superficial.
"I was happy and I had fun, but it was shallow and fleeting," she said.
That's the thing about unhappiness: we don't know we're experiencing it until it's over. We don't realise how unhappy we were until we become authentically happy.
When I visited Kyla last month at her permaculture farm it was like seeing the result of a real transformation. She is still the same person but her energy is directed at possibility rather than obstacles and grievances (like a pot plant being 30º off centre). Her scope is broader and involves a whole community that is full of open hearts and minds and gratitude. She is more centred, grounded and calm. Kyla had found the 'thing' that she always knew was out there and, rather ironically, it was inside her all along.
We all have our 'thing'. It's what makes us happy. For me, it's connection and sharing my wellness journey with others. For others, it's sport or travel or music or children. It is not Instagram; and if it is, I feel deep, deep sorrow for you.
Though gradual, Kyla's leap was radical. I would never suggest someone quit their job and couch surf for an extended period if they didn't have a financial buffer. But if you do have the means to take a break then ask yourself: what's stopping you?
When Kyla handed in her resignation and told people she was going to become a farmer so many people said to her, "You're so brave," and "I wish I could do that," to which she would reply: "Well then, why don't you?"
Allocating time and energy to something that makes you truly happy is never a bad investment. If sitting on the ledge is your comfort zone and it makes you happy, then stay there. It is a perfectly honourable position to be in. But if there is part of you that wants something else then go get it. You always have the option to take a time-out and try something different, even if only for a weekend. What you end up doing that weekend may not manifest into your life mission or key to authentic happiness but just training your 'try-something-new' muscle may give you some clarity of what it is you want (and don't want) or what is obstructing you from getting there.
As Kyla says; "You have to have faith and you have to take the leap. It's not about following your heart because I didn't know what my heart wanted at the time. But you have to get over your fear of failure."
Kyla's farm, Riverbend Permaculture, has just sold its first boxes of produce. It is no longer a pipe dream of hers but an actual working farm that is selling to the community under her personal and business value of 'Growing Together.' Kyla is part of the food security and food sovereignty movement, growing people and community through the transfer of skills and sharing knowledge. Being at her farm and experiencing the vibe she is creating is truly inspiring and reminds me that it's never too late to change your life, even if the change is simply the way you view your life.
"This may not be my life forever but it's my life now and I love it and I live it and it's what I want to be doing now. I may end up living by the beach in a little flat with a white tiled bathroom in a few years but it's not who I am now. Right now I'm a permaculture farmer."