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Happy trials

After nearly three months we finally returned from our Life Work adventure a week or so back. It’s taken me a little time to write about it because a) I’m still sifting through all the memories to find the hidden gems of meaning; and b) the day after we got back I took off to Perth for four days to help an old friend celebrate his 40th birthday.

Two and a half months up and two days back

One phrase that has been with me over the whole journey is plastered across the title of this blog. I found the phrase left in the comments section of either a Facebook or LinkedIn post I wrote announcing our imminent departure a few months back. It was left there, amongst all the general platitudes and well wishing by a friend of mine Georgia Murch. Now there’s a small chance that this was just a typo and that Georgia really meant to wish us “happy trails” but knowing Georgia I would suggest that it wasn’t.

Campfires

At the time I first read it I wasn’t really sure how to take it. When you announce a big trip like this you kind of hope everyone will be joyous and perhaps just a little bit jealous and although I always appreciate a good pun it felt a little bit deflating as well. Weirdly though, I haven’t been able to get the phrase out of my head for the last three months and looking back on it now I wonder if in fact it’s the best, and simplest, way of summing up the whole experience.

Let me assure you there has been no shortage of happiness…but also no shortage of trials. Here is an excerpt from one of Naomi’s Facebook posts highlighting just a few of the things we’ve had to endure during the trip (she assured me this was the abbreviated list).

  1. No time together without kids
  2. Sleep deprivation
  3. Arguing in the car about our next destination
  4. Kids fighting
  5. Stopping the car in the middle of nowhere, getting out of the car and refusing to get back in the car
  6. Mess, everywhere you look
  7. No wardrobes
  8. Stressful packing up and setting up days
  9. Eating crap food at theme parks/on the road because there is no alternative
  10. Drinking bad coffee because there is no alternative
  11. Being pooed on by birds
  12. Missing our dogs terribly and worrying about them after one ends up with a nasty injury, and they dig up our friend’s tennis court and a nice big hole in our hallway carpet
  13. Finding a pediatric dentist along the way to remove a splint after Miss 7 nearly knocks her front teeth out
  14. Miss 7 then proceeds to chip a front tooth on the bath tap
  15. Miss 7 goes to first aid after she flips out of a raft halfway down a waterslide called the BLACK HOLE!
  16. Miss 7 gets bitten by a horse which is distressed by 300 tourists trying to pat it and her being caught in the middle
  17. Miss 9 burns her hand while toasting marshmallows
  18. Miss 9 wakes up in the night and proceeds to vomit in the campervan
  19. Miss 9 sprains her ankle after doing 100 cartwheels
  20. Being stranded on the Gold Coast while our campervan takes a trip to the mechanic for 4 days
  21. The drone gets attacked by a sea bird and now lies at the bottom of the ocean
  22. Leeches
  23. Simon’s flights being cancelled/delayed
  24. Really bad showers
  25. Did I mention the dirt and sand in our beds.

And yet when I read over this list again none of this comes with an ounce of regret. Not only have we had the privilege of enduring these trials as part of a once in a lifetime adventure, I also have no doubt that experiencing these challenges has made all of us better for it.*

*Along the way I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder and you could easily look at the above list as a list of disorder, things that are worth mentioning because they are both uncommon and challenging. The academic side of me that I’ve been trying hard to suppress over the last few months of blog posting would then want to talk about how the ability of each of us (both individually and collectively) to absorb and recover from each of theses trials has made us and our relationships stronger…but let’s not go into that.

So why does it take a trip like this to bring us all closer? Why couldn’t we have created such an experience without leaving the comfort of home? There’s no good reason for not doing it, but I can also tell you we didn’t. Perhaps it’s because that ‘in the moment’ conflict sucks. None of the above experiences were enjoyable at the time they occurred, their value is only when looked on in retrospect. Perhaps we just don’t have the energy for it, that after long days slaving away in the salt mines we don’t want to endure further trials…even if they are an opportunity for connection and growth.

Or perhaps we’ve just got really good at avoiding conflict in our day to day lives.

Not only do we live in more controlled environments that have eliminated many of conflicts causes, we have also become incredibly good at avoiding confrontation when challenges inevitably arise. We have smaller families living in bigger houses, we fill our lives with work and other activities, we go on resort holidays and lay on daybeds drinking cocktails out of coconuts…and we have a multitude of devices that require our constant attention. There are now so many other places we can go when the going gets tough that we can sometimes pretend that the challenges of human existence don’t apply to us.

But when you shrink your entire living space to something smaller than your dining room it becomes almost impossible to avoid these types of challenges. And once you can no longer avoid them the best strategy is to embrace them. For us that meant family gatherings around the campfire where each of us shared how we were currently feeling. We asked questions of each other to better understand what was going on and we collectively discussed ways of making things better.*

*In fact, we had one of our little gatherings the day after we got back (this time around a candle on the dining table) and much of the conversation was focused on how we can bring all that was good about our adventure into our day to day lives. The first challenge was how to deal with the incredible amount of unnecessary space in our house. To this end Nomes and I have decided to move out of the upstairs master bedroom and into one of the kid’s bedrooms so we can be closer to them. For their part they’ve agreed to continue to share a room for the foreseeable future (its relative luxury compared to sharing a bed in the camper trailer). In addition, the girls have also voluntarily committed to no screen time during the week in exchange for our weekly family movie (a ritual we started on the trip).

The very last questions I ask my digital champions at the end of a project, after everything’s been implemented and the feedback has been gathered is “Knowing everything you know now, would you do it again?”

And if I was to look back on the last three months and answer that question the answer would be an irrevocable “Yes!” In fact, Nomes and I have already been discussing how we could do a trip like this on an annual basis.

Rounding up the horses at night

So, as much as describing the adventure as a Happy Trial may not sound as appealing as drinking cocktails out of coconuts, I think the accumulation of experiences and where the journey has taken us is infinitely more valuable than any tropical holiday I’ve had in the past. And just because I really do encourage you to consider how you might swing an adventure like this yourself, how you might flip the life and work parts of your life for an extended period and enjoy your own set of Happy Trials, I will leave you with something a little more positive – a list. My list. A reflection on some of the incredible experiences and happy times we have had together over the last few months (and I can also assure that this list is abbreviated as well).

  1. The girls chasing waves in their best dresses and getting completely drenched
  2. Nailing all the rollercoasters at Movie World
  3. Rounding up a herd of horses at 10 o’clock at night in our dressing gowns
  4. Spending a day building a straw bale house
  5. Poppy catching her very first fish
  6. Three generations of Wallers abseiling off a mountain at sunset
  7. Playing story games around campfires
  8. Reading books for no reason except pleasure
  9. Driving my camper van Dennis for extended periods (being behind the wheel is one of my happy places)
  10. Jervis Bay at Sunset with the beach to ourselves
  11. Toasting marshmallows (even after Miss 9 burnt herself)
  12. The girls showing me up in their very first surf lesson
  13. Waterslides
  14. Following the locals recommendation, camping next to an isolated beach and being the only people on it
  15. Stews and other camp specialties
  16. Seeing the girls learn to love reading
  17. Our weekly family movie night
  18. Taking a detour and exploring where my Dad grew up on the Southern Yorke Peninsula in SA
  19. My camper van office
  20. Having the complete support of my team throughout the trip
  21. Seeing the whole team grow and develop in my absence
  22. Having so much time where it was just our family
  23. Having time to stop and reflect on where the world and where my work is heading next
  24. Getting home and starting back at work with renewed excitement and vigour
  25. The anticipation of getting to do it all again

 

Where’s Waller

 

Listen to the locals

On Wednesday we left Byron Bay to head up to the Gold Coast and spend a week at the theme parks. Along the way we had arranged to stop at an old friend’s place outside of Mullambimby. His property, aptly called Altitude 261, required ascending a road that was both rather steep and rather poorly maintained. In fact it was both steeper and less well maintained than I had imagined which eventually resulted in me having to try and reverse Dennis and the camper trailer back down the road, eventually abandoning the trailer in someone’s driveway and busting a seal in Dennis’s transmission.

Lunch at Rod’s place

I probably should have paid a little more attention to the phone call I had with Rod before we turned up. I just mentioned, I wasn’t paying that much attention but I think the conversation went something like this:

Rod: So, what type of vehicle do you have?

Me: I have a camper van towing a camper trailer

Rod: Oh, the last 500 meters or so of the road up to my place is a little rough.

Me: The van is four wheel drive

Rod: That’s good, you will probably want a four wheel drive.Me: What about the trailer

Rod: Hmmmm, I’m not sure about the trailer

Me: That’s OK, I can unhitch the trailer and leave it at the bottom and just come up in the van.

Rod: That a good idea, you can always call me if you get stuck. Lots of people call me when they get stuck.

So at this point I probably should have been a little more concerned than I was. And when I set off from Byron Bay I had every intention of unhitching the trailer and leaving it somewhere. But as we got closer to Rod’s road the lanes became narrower and the number of locations where I could safely unhitch and leave the trailer somewhere diminished quickly. So much so that when I turned into Rod’s road the trailer was still attached.

I think it’s fair to describe the road as ‘deceptive’. It started with a nice bit of tarmac followed by a bit of well graded gravel. With just 1.5km to go to Rod’s place things were still looking pretty good. Then the road started rising sharply, washouts started appearing and it became increasingly clear that the council worker tasked with grading the road had knocked off early.*

*I actually later found out that no one was actually tasked with maintaining the road. Responsibility for its upkeep had recently passed from the state to the local council but there was no money to go with it.

With limited opportunity to turn around I did my best to keep going. But as I dropped back through the gears and the wheels continued to spin, my confidence in Dennis’s ability to tame the mountain started to wane. With still another kilometre or so to go and with Dennis back in 1st gear, I slammed on the brakes just in time to save the engine stalling, which in turn saved us from starting an uncontrolled decent back down the mountain…in reverse.

Now as much as this situation sounds a little precarious, it is about as good as things got for the next hour or so. Given that we could no longer go up, the only option was to go down. I started backing the van and trailer down the hill and managed a tight turn into a narrow driveway. We got the trailer back far enough to execute a three point turn but as I started pointing Dennis slow back down the hill I realised that we were about to tow the trailer off the edge of the driveway into a three foot high drainage ditch.

Trailer positioned precariously

Without enough engine power to reverse the camper trailer further back up into the driveway, we were forced to chock up the trailer and unhitch it from Dennis. We then drove back down to the bottom of the road and called Rod for help…just like he suggested.

Thankfully Rod turned up with a far more capable four wheel drive than our one and after hooking up the camper trailer he successfully towed it out of trouble and up the road for us.

Initially I thought he was just going to tow it all the way up to his place and then perhaps back down the hill for us again after lunch. Then, at a small intersection about another 500 meters or so further up the road, Rod suddenly stopped the car and suggested we unhook the trailer. Initially I looked around expecting to see his house but instead I spied a washed out goat track strewn with gravel, heading up a near vertical slope. It was at this point I suddenly realised we hadn’t even got to the section of road that Rod had initially warned me about in our earlier phone call.

Next time, I’m going to listen to the locals.

Dennis at the doctors

Postscript: After returning from lunch we found a pool of oil underneath Dennis as result of a busted bushing at the rear of the transmission. We managed to nurse Dennis and Daisy to the Gold Coast where we were planning to spend a week at the theme parks. The van is now currently in for repairs and we aren’t sure exactly when we’ll be leaving.

Update

After leaving the farm stay at South West Rocks we spent three nights at an incredible camp site on the Clarence River called Michael’s Clarence Valley Retreat. It looked like the set of a Crocodile Dundee movie and the owner Michael, or Mick, was a Paul Hogan doppelganger. After leaving the Clarence our next stop was Byron Bay where we met up with a couple of friends who came up to escape the Melbourne winter.

Camping along the Clarence River

Out fishing with Mick

My office in Byron Bay

After Byron we stopped off at Mullumbimby, the location of this week’s blog, and then headed up to the Gold Coast for our week long ‘world tour’. We’re currently staying at Paradise Country at the back of the Village Roadshow Studios and on our world tour we’ve so far visited Movie World, Sea World, Wet n Wild World and the Australian Outback Spectacular World. There is little doubt that we’ve hit the ‘peak tourist’ phase of our adventure…I think it’s just about time to hit the road again.

Where’s Waller

 

The answer to poor short-term planning is good long-term preparation

We are now a little over a month into our three-month Life Work Adventure. One of the key motivators behind the trip for both Nomes and myself was to get a break from our tightly scheduled existence (fully acknowledging that neither Nomes nor I have schedules that are either tightly packed or terribly well planned). What this meant was that by the time we left home five weeks ago we had little idea of where we were going or what we wanted to do on the trip.

Our camp at Glenworth Valley with the bed in Dennis set up for Mum and Dad. Are we the only people travelling the coast with a spare room?

This approach, and its potential short comings, were on full display on Mother’s Day when a good three hours after we were meant to check out from the caravan park we were staying in we decided to depart and head off to do some camping in Booderee National Park, which was in the exact opposite direction from which we were meant to be travelling in.

The incredible white sands and amazing sunsets of Booderee National Park

Although a little frustrating at the time I shouldn’t really have been surprised at such lack of planning. In fact, right from the very inception of the trip any attempts I’ve made at planning have gone badly. Perhaps at some point feeling a need to get to ‘somewhere’ I tried instigating a pre-departure planning conversation with the girls. It went something like this

Me: So, girls (this includes Nomes), where do you want to go?

Nomes: I want to go to Byron Bay, and I want to go to Brisbie [Island] to visit the cousins

Girls: Yeah, we want to go to Brisbie!

Me: Anywhere else?

[insert three sets of big, beautiful eyes giving me blank stares]

Me: Does anyone want to go to the theme parks?

Girls: Yeah, we want to go to the theme parks…for a week!

Me: Great! Anywhere else?

[insert three sets of big, beautiful eyes giving me blank stares…again]

So, before we left our collective plan was, quite literally, travel up the east coast, get to Brisbie Island, and pass through Byron Bay and the theme parks on the way…oh and hopefully get back in time to wash the school uniforms before the start of third term.

Less planning means more preparation

So how do you prepare for a trip where you don’t know where you’re going or what you’ll be doing?

Well assuming that you don’t want to deal with the fallout of things going off the rails, the only possible way to prepare is to prepare for everything.

And I wasn’t quite willing to let things go off the rails. One of my criteria for the ‘working’ part of the adventure was that my clients shouldn’t have to pay for it. What I mean by this is that my clients should expect to receive the same level of quality, service and professionalism that they do when I’m working from my regular office.

So, to ensure that we could have all the flexibility we desired whilst also ensuring the client experience didn’t suffer, I set out to get really well prepared for everything.

Red Teaming

To identify the possible risks and challenges of associated with three months working on the road I ran a red teaming exercise* with my staff well before Nomes and I committed to doing the trip. From this we determined a number of things I could do to better prepare.

*Red Teaming is a concept I picked up from an interview between Tim Ferriss and Marc Andreessen, founding partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. The concept originally stems from the military but how Marc presents it, red teaming provides the opportunity to challenge or ‘torture test’ an idea even if everyone already agrees with it. The ‘red team’ is an internal group (with the privilege of insider knowledge) tasked with trying to pick an idea apart. A good red teaming exercise might not necessarily discredit the whole idea, it might just identify small weaknesses that need to be addressed. You can read more about this in Tim’s book Tools of Titans.

The two biggest potential challenges we identified was connectivity and availability. To address this, I ended up with two 4G mobile data plans on different networks to limit network availability, bandwidth and other connectivity risks and I also invested in a nine-metre-long squid pole that I could use as a mast to increase the range of my modem…but so far it hasn’t been*.

*This is something I learnt from my dad when we were sailing up in the Whitsundays a year or so back. I had no reception at sea level when we were travelling around some of the islands but when he hoisted my mobile phone up to the top of the mast with the hotspot enabled I was able to run Skype calls with my team from the front deck of the boat.

In addition, I committed to being ‘in range’ and available two full days each week so that Sunny could pre-book meetings and coaching sessions as required. This meant checking into a caravan park with suitable 4G coverage on a Tuesday afternoon and not leaving until Friday morning (this would leave me a minimum of five days per week for the Life part of the adventure which could stay relatively unplanned).

To assist with this my team would identify a selection of suitable locations for me to stay each week. They would use a combination of Google searches (for suitable caravan parks in nice locations), customer reviews, maps of Telstra’s and Optus’s 4G coverage and data from services like OpenSignal (where people voluntarily collect and share information on the strength and speed of their mobile phone signal) to identify three or four options and then plot them on a co-authored Google Map which I could then access from my smart phone.

Other risks we identified and prepared for included inclement weather (for which I’m carrying multiple different microphone options), lack of power (I bought both a car charger for my laptop and an external battery pack that would allow me to run my laptop for up to four hours), last minute keynote/workshop bookings (the team also plotted out regional airports along the route) and personal accidents and emergencies (they also identified and plotted out emergency medical facilities as well).

This might sound like an excessive level of preparation but as I mentioned earlier, it was important for me that the client experience wasn’t risked. And although it may seem excessive it is all relatively doable. From what I’ve experienced to date I would suggest the biggest risk with a trip such as this has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with people.

Preparing others as well as yourself

The biggest limitation when it comes to taking off on the road for three months is the patterns of work and engagement we have created with others. If you were considering something similar the question to ask yourself is

‘How will your customers and staff take it if you’re physically unavailable for three months?’

If you currently feel your physical presence is required to either do the work yourself, or get other people to do the work for you then three months on the road might be a bad idea. The truth is people take a lot longer to change their processes. It’s taken me a good three years to prepare the people around me for my lack of physical presence.

I started preparing members of my team the day they started working with me (for Sunny and Camille that was over three years ago). From day one they have never been accountable to metrics and I’ve never tracked the hours they work (even though I know that many of my peers do). In fact, for the last two years all my staff have had access to unlimited leave because I trust that they wouldn’t abuse it. Instead, we are collectively accountable to our purpose our values and the quality of the work we do.

My team are also all remote, Sunny lives on the other side of Melbourne, Camille in Manila and Marc is a true digital nomad, travelling, living and working across the many islands of the Philippines.

And I started preparing my customers two and half years ago when I moved from Melbourne down to the Mornington Peninsula. I didn’t want to have to commute backwards and forward to the city each day (and most of my clients are interstate anyway) so since then every customer has been directed towards engaging with me over Skype for small group meetings (Sunny positions it as the flexibility of a telephone call but with the engagement of a physical meeting). For members of my Digital Champions program they have only ever known Skype based coaching and if anything, it sets an example to them about what they could be doing with their own clients.

This is not to say you can’t take off for three months without all this preparation. Many people quit their job, take long service leave (or some other form of sabbatical) and take off on journeys such as this. But this option requires that work is put on hold whilst you do some extended living. The limitation of this is that eventually the life bit will end, and you will need to go back to work. If instead you want to find ways of better integrating your work with your life, well then…you better start preparing.

Update

We finally got our first few days of rain just after my last update. We were holed up in Jervis Bay for a few days but managed to escape down to the incredible Booderee National Park for a couple of days of free camping. On Tuesday we headed to Sydney where we met up with my parents and checked into a hotel for the night (I was running a workshop the next morning and the client was paying).

I attempted to valet park the van and trailer at our hotel in Sydney… but ended up having to park it myself

After the workshop on Wednesday afternoon we headed to Umina Beach on the north side of the Hawksbury River with my parents in tow. After doing some coaching sessions on Thursday and squeezing in a game of golf on Friday we got back on the road again and headed to Glenworth Valley for a couple of days camping, horse riding and abseiling.

My office in Lake Macquarie

Monday, we said goodbye to my parents (who headed home to Perth via Sydney) and moved north again to our current location at Lake Macquarie. This week I’ve had a chunk of work to get done in preparation for a couple of workshops and a keynote I’m flying out for next week. A few days in one place has also given the girls a chance to get the van sorted out and restocked before we head off again tomorrow.

Hitting the road less travelled

A quick word of warning: I’m taking a break from my usual style of newsletter for a few months to share something a little more personal…in fact I’m not just taking a break from my usual style of writing, I’m taking a break from my usual style of life.

For the next three months I’m going to be living in and working in a camper van as I travel up the east coast of Australia with my family. Along the way I will also be capturing what I learn and sharing it via my newsletter and on YouTube. I hope you join me on this adventure…or even better, start planning your own.

If you’re not interested in sharing in this journey, please feel free to unsubscribe here.

Back in August last year I announced my plan to take off on a three-month Life-Work Adventure (the announcement was posted to my YouTube channel that has but four subscribers so there’s a good chance you missed it). The idea was to spend three months travelling with my family in a camper van up the east coast of Australia but rather than treat it as just a holiday I wanted to see whether I could maintain much of my current workload and continue to support my clients while I did it.

The idea was spawned about a month or so earlier from an offhand conversation with my good friend, confidante and fellow schemer Mykel Dixon. We’d spent the day hanging out around Brighton Pier, talking about the need for professional speakers and other types of advice givers to more fully embody their work. Our shared belief was that in a world where more and more people start positioning themselves as expert consultants or ‘thought leaders’ it was no longer enough to just have a couple of spiffy models and throw away one liners. The validity of your ideas and ability to develop a sustainable following would ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate your ideas in a congruent way through your own life and work.

On that fateful day I also told Mykel about my unfulfilled dream of taking my family on a road trip uptake east coast of Australian in our camper van, a.k.a. Dennis (Dennis has his own webpage here if you’d like to check it out). Dennis is a 1990 Nissan Homy (yep, that’s what it was called) and I’d originally wanted to do the trip in 2015 to celebrate Dennis’s 25th birthday…unfortunately ‘stuff’ got in the way and it never eventuated.

Given that two of the things I talk about are a) how technology enables a better quality of life and b) how technology allows us to now work from pretty much anywhere, it felt like doing this road trip, not just as a holiday but as an experiment on how we might take a different approach to managing the way our work integrates with our life, would be a great way of me embodying the ideas I talk about with others.

The last six months or so have involved much planning and investment in the background. On the travel side Dennis has been gone through a roadworthy and the registration transferred from WA, we’ve had a tow ball fitted and trailer brakes installed, we’ve bought a second-hand camper trailer and kitted it out, we’ve arranged to take Miah and Poppy out of school for a term and spoken to their teachers about home schooling during the trip.

On the business side I’ve also been working with my team to identify potential challenges and risks that would stop me meeting the expectations of my clients and we’ve put in place plans to help manage this (a strong belief I had about the adventure was that my clients shouldn’t have to pay for it through greater inconvenience or a lower quality experience).

I’m sure there are unaddressed challenges on both the travel and the work side that we’ve missed but after six months I finally feel like we are ready to get started…and the truth is some things just won’t become apparent until after you’ve already started.

So here we are now, exactly one week out from our adventure starting. In seven days’ time we will be driving out of Melbourne in Dennis, towing our new home, a (yet to be named) Goldstream Storm pop top camper trailer. For the next three months it is my intention to do most of the same work as I do now. I will host coaching sessions and meeting over Skype, I’ll capture content and develop ideas for my keynotes, I’ll even fly out from the adventure on the odd occasion to speak at conferences or run events and then fly back in again. Oh, and along the way I also hope to get a good chunk of my next book finished…but more on that another time.

But most importantly I will be doing all this whilst embarking on an incredible adventure and creating amazing memories that Nomes, Miah, Poppy and I will look back on, and talk about, for the rest of our lives.

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