Despite the existence of the lifeworking choices that I described in my previous blogpost, there are powerful barriers that prevent individuals from embarking on a new journey, even when the possible path ahead can be at least partly visualised. Perhaps the two most powerful blockers of all are the need to define a purpose and address the fear of financial insecurity.
To understand what we both wanted from our future my wife Anne-Mie and I spent many hours talking together during our last year of a five year stay in Berlin. These discussions culminated in a drawing exercise in mid 2009 when we sat together with a large sheet of paper in our apartment and co-created a hand drawn picture of what success really meant to us.
The pencil and ink sketches we created revealed a much wider definition of success – we aspired to have a loving relationship and to live in a semi-urban environment in which our three children could play and be free. We desired more family leisure time, and the opportunity to actively participate in our children’s social, artistic and sporting activities. We both wanted to work, but to engage in professional activities that we enjoyed and which would still provided the opportunity for occasional international travel. And of course I also dreamed of returning to elite-level competitive cycling.
Shortly after completing our lifework picture I found myself watching Eurosport and by accident witnessed the opening of the World Masters Games in Sydney. The World Masters Games is built upon the concept of the Olympics, but for people over the age of thirty-five. Cycling is just one of the more than 20 sports in the Games, and at that moment I promised myself that I would strive to compete in the cycling road race at the next iteration taking place in Torino in 2013. I remember my wife looking at me with a rather strange expression when I announced my intentions – I had not raced a bicycle for more than twenty years, and I had the waistline to prove it.
But before embarking on the journey towards lifework, and of course my Torino dream, I recognised the need to confront a number of deep-rooted fears. The first set of fears for me were intensely personal. I had grown up the second youngest of seven children in a small country town in Australia, and as a small child money was scarce. My Dad was a musician and held scores of daytime jobs just to pay the bills, but it was not always easy to make ends meet in a family with seven kids. Mum did not work outside the home.
To make matters worse my father was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 1987, the same year that I competed in the Australian National Road Cycling Championships as a junior. His illness intensified my family’s financial problems in my final years of High School, and meant that part-time work was a necessity for me, even as I pursued my cycling goals and prepared for my final exams.
Our financial problems also brought a sad realism to my decision of whether to pursue professional cycling or studies. In the end, and as I have discussed in my previous posts, I chose the study path and was lucky enough to get a grant to go to University. But I would never have been able to complete my first degree without the financial support of my older brothers and sisters. Sadly, my Dad did not get to see me graduate as he took his own life shortly before my 21st birthday.
So financial stability meant a lot to me, and the fear of economic uncertainty for my family weighed heavily on my mind when I was thinking of following a new path in my late 30s. I was earning a very good salary, close to one-hundred and fifty thousand euros a year, and now I was thinking about walking away from that. Therefore, a critical element of our lifework project involved us calculating how much money our family really needed to live a fulfilling life.
I actually created an Excel spread sheet and calculated how much money the picture that I had drawn with Anne-Mie would cost – the amount was much less than I expected, and only a fraction of what I had been earning. But I also needed to step back and realise that I still had at least twenty years of productive working years ahead of me – plenty of time to take a year or two out to try to build something new. As Anne-Mie said to me: “If it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to doing what you did before.”
The fear of financial insecurity is one of the most important hurdles that I have witnessed for people who are thinking about lifeworking, and I think that far too people ever go through the exercise of thinking about how much income is really is enough. But unlike my fear of financial insecurity which came from childhood want, I think that for many other people this fear is a consequence of society’s obsession with status which results in the financial over-commitments that many people make during their 30s and 40s.
I recently spoke at an Alumni event of a top-tier business school in London and was asked by a 40-something Brazilian guy about how one should respond if wanting to pursue lifework, but your spouse or partner does not understand? Luiz explained that he and his wife came from middle-class roots in San Paolo, but the two of them had fallen into the status trap that required him working incredibly long hours to earn accordingly. Luiz spoke of the apartment in an exclusive neighborhood, private schools for the kids, expensive family holidays, and prestige cars. He seemed desperately unhappy, and said that he did not really care about these things – he wanted to change to a less stressful and lower paid job. But his wife could not accept a ‘downgrade’ in lifestyle, and the shame this would entail within their circle of friends. They argued constantly, and Luiz quietly told me that he was considering divorce.
When I stepped away from full time academia and consultancy to pursue other lifework goals my wife Anne-Mie had not yet returned to work and our family income level dropped by more than 70 per cent in the first two years. After several months of reflection and exploration I decided to focus my professional activities on becoming a keynote speaker, but to do so I recognised the need to write a book, take acting lessons, connect with speakers agencies and create a website. I studied stand-up comedy intensively. At the same time I needed to engage much more actively in family life and ride my bicycle at least ten hours per week.
The decline in income meant that our family needed to think about our living expenses – but this became much easier when I realised I had been earning money to buy things I didn’t really need, to impress people (ie. assholes-see previous post) I didn’t even like. Our first decision was to rent an inexpensive 1970s era house near to Brussels, which was certainly far from luxurious but was all that we needed. It had a small garden, and was close to some beautiful parkland. We bought a second-hand Fiat Doblo, a shock to some of my German pals, and we stopped flying places for our vacations. There was no designer furniture, no Nespresso machine and no private schools for the kids.
I remember feeling a little bit embarrassed when I first invited colleagues and clients to that house, but I told myself to get over it. We lived in it for almost five years until we were in a position to buy the place where we now live on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s a beautiful house with a big garden, and its something we can afford. The shift towards keynote speaking has been especially fruitful for me, and it pays well. Or as I tell my friends, keynote speaking is the best job in the world as you work a little, and you earn…enough. 🙂
Our long summer holidays are now spent in a tent, usually camped beside the ocean or a river somewhere in France and in the midst of some beautiful cycling country. We might spend a couple of hundred euros a week while we are away, and the kids run barefoot and wild. There is nothing luxurious about those weeks away, but I think we are giving our kids the richest memories and experiences they could ever wish for.
I do have to admit, however, that I still wear my Cartier watch from time to time. I bought it when I felt the need to show off to my colleagues at London Business School many years ago.
But I don’t wear the Cartier as a status symbol anymore – I wear it as a reminder to myself of how stupid status anxiety can be.
Oh, I also own a few very nice bicycles. I raced one of them to a bronze medal in Torino.