I’ve never really given it much thought previously, it was something that hadn’t touched me, or to an extent, wasn’t part of my life. I simply refused to accept that I was being subjected to pressures of any kind.
You see, stress takes on so many different shapes and sizes that it’s actually quite difficult to spot with each and every person. We each deal (or not) with stress in our own unique ways, we all perceive its effects differently, and each of us fights daily to prevent the situation from deteriorating. And although the symptoms may vary from person to person, everyone tries to brush stress aside without too much conscious thought about its long-term effects.
But before we spiral out of control on the topic, let’s set the scene and introduce where it all began, at least for me.
After building a successful business over a period of eleven years, I finally decided to sell and go into what some would call, semi-retirement. The decision to sell didn’t come lightly, nor was it easy to part with something I’d nurtured and watched mature for so many years. Often though, when an organization starts out as a one-man-band and then rapidly grows to cover many time-zones, its demands become unbearably high. I simply wasn’t prepared for that kind of success and was naïve enough to think that I could carry the burden indefinitely.
When help eventually arrived, I was already suffering from chronic burnout, had no interest in the business and less than zero enthusiasm to keep it going. It was a roller-coaster ride during which I’d learnt life-changing lessons, travelled to more places than I’d ever dreamed of, and in the end, I walked away feeling as though the whole venture was a great personal success. The timing was right for an exit and I still don’t regret my decision.
But it took me almost six months to recover from the overly-indulgent and abusive lifestyle. The journey wasn’t easy and required frequent course corrections. Reparation of neglected friendships was perhaps the hardest to deal with, but given enough time most of these were mended enough to begin again. I was slowly ebbing into warm and calm waters.
It was like starting from scratch, reinventing my life and its direction. I had no idea of what to do or where to go. After relentlessly travelling the globe, Australia had become too isolated and much too far from the rest of the world. I wanted a more relaxed lifestyle without feeling as though I’m stuck at the arse-end of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love Australia and what it has to offer, but at that point in my life, it simply didn’t stack up to what I needed.
I’d been fascinated with the Mediterranean ever since visiting Greece in my early twenties. It was something that appealed to the adventurer within me. The water, the sun, the proximity to Europe and Africa, the chance of sailing from one port to the next, without too much thought for tomorrow.
It’s amazing how quickly we can transition to a new way of thinking when hang-ups are eliminated – our minds are incredibly flexible. I picked up a map of the world and searched for something central.
I found Sicily and Crete, Mallorca and Cyprus, Sardinia and Corsica – I traced my finger across that map back and forth until I was familiar with every outcrop and contour – I’d even studied the weather patterns to make sure that there’s a good balance of warm weather throughout the year. Finally though, my finger stopped over Malta.
A tiny limestone rock some ninety nautical miles south of Sicily and about two days sailing north of Libya. English-speaking, part of the EU and packed with thousands of years’ worth of history – enough to keep an avid historian entertained for decades. Without too much fanfare, I packed up my Australian life into a shipping container, latched the padlock, sold the unwanted and gave away the rest.
And so it was. I settled on The Rock (as my friends like to call it) and started living again. I got to bask in the sun, ran every day, cycled with local enthusiasts and sailed the Med to my heart’s content. I even joined a local swimming team – commitment like that would have been impossible during my previous life.
Malta was a melting pot for everyone and anyone who’d grown tiresome of their dreary surroundings and those who wanted more from life. I was meeting new and like-minded people on a daily basis. They too yearned to escape the rat race, cold weather, small-minded people and some, yes, even tax. Not a day went by where there wasn’t an invitation to a party, dinner, or a sailing trip with people thirsty for life, a good laugh and stimulating conversation.
It was an exciting time and I never got tired of the warm wind on my face. Each day was different. I rubbed shoulders with retired businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, insurance salesmen, adventurers, sailors, artists, musicians, retirees, perpetual travellers and the occasional madman.
Life on the island kept to its own slow pace and I was surrounded by happy, sun-drenched and stress-free people. My eyes, once again, glistened with optimism, and my health was returning after eleven years of neglect. Intercontinental travel, jetlag, hotel food and unsavoury surroundings were now a distant memory. The anxiety of it all vanished like a scuttled ship beneath the waves.
A few years later, recuperated, my mind was restless with the thought of “What next?” I wanted a new challenge, something that would let me use my skills in a productive and maybe even altruistic way. I craved something different, a fresh part of the world – I thought that exploration and travel would fit within my current adventure – a continuation of a lifestyle. But I didn’t want to take to the road like a tourist, I wanted a job that could deliver more than just a paycheque.
I wanted three things: (1) travel, (2) a variety of world-class projects and (3) enough flexibility to continue being based out of Malta. At that stage, I was just toying with the whole idea rather than giving into any serious contemplation or research.
Some months later and rather unexpectedly, while on a cycling trip through Laos, I was contacted by a global consulting company. They made me an interesting offer, one I couldn’t refuse. It’s strange how the subconscious seems to pave the road to a new life without ever lifting a finger. I’m a firm believer in positive thinking, a global consciousness and the whole “you are the master of your own destiny.” Two months later, I was living in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.
The new job didn’t disappoint and I was able to venture out and experience the rich beauty of African culture, its people and, of course, the spectacular environment. It was out of the ordinary, and I thanked daily for the opportunity to explore the continent while working in an industry I love. With one foot in Namibia and the other firmly in Malta, I straddled Africa with the aim of discovering as much as I possibly could.
But just ninety days into my African life, disaster struck. My Namibian visa wasn’t renewed (for political reasons) and no amount of haggling, bribery or lawyer intervention was going to change the situation. I packed my case and started to live from project to project and country to country. Jokingly, I began referring to myself as a nomad. It was just me, my case and a folding bicycle.
I remember my hiring manager being totally surprised that I’d happily leave the comfort of Europe or Australia to come and work in the developing world. “You realise that most people want to leave this continent? …. You’re a very unusual fellow.”
I couldn’t really see anything that unusual with it. Africa is a huge continent full of places I’d never been to, and that was drawcard enough for me. I think anyone in their right mind, given the opportunity, would just as easily make the same decision; perhaps with the exception of my uncle, who questioned my sanity and reasoning: “what on earth chased you out all the way to Africa?”
I lived from one hotel to the next; sometimes even a small apartment when the project was longer than a month. But having no place to call home, the travel, isolation, time pressures, work/life (im)balance, incompetent peers, logistics issues and an overall lack of support from my employer – the lifestyle was starting to become very demanding. I was, once again, completely unrealistic in thinking that I could maintain this way of life without a regular place to rest and recharge.
Although I didn’t allow the quality of my work to suffer, my health and sanity were coming in at a distant second and third. The projects started to get longer, the stays in Malta shorter, and not even the exciting African surroundings could stimulate me enough to offset the strain.
As time marched on, each week looked more like a blood-soaked battlefield than a schedule of civilized projects – the vultures had spotted my withering carcass and descended for a feast. With each skilfully torn piece of flesh, it would only be a matter of time before my skeleton was all that remained.
But it wasn’t all bad. There were plenty of side trips and new memories, smiling faces and new mountain ranges. Each country instilled within me its unique culture and its people brought a new appreciation to life. You see, as much as I would complain about the inefficiencies surrounding the projects I worked on, deep down I admired the African lifestyle: raw, life lived on the street, heart on your sleeve and eyes in the back of your head. It reminded me of Malta.
One of my fondest memories will always be volunteering at a small town called Moshi, situated at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here, if only for a short time, I taught English, played with orphaned children, served lunches and helped with raising funds for school supplies and building materials.
A magical moment that truly opened my heart and made me understand why I’d wanted to do it for so long. It was possibly the closest I’ve ever come to being selfless and human. It changed me and it helped me to step outside of my world – Africa changed me. But the pace set by my project schedule outweighed much of the healing gained through these altruistic deeds.
Whether the stress is generated by work, friends, peers, relationships, travel, finances, government, physical trauma or even the traffic on a busy freeway – they all have a tremendous toll on our ability to hold our heads above water.
Up until recently, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on stress. I was one of those people who used exercise to disarm any negative thoughts that swamped my mind. At the end of a busy day I’d go for a run, a cycle, a swim or a gym session – I’d be physically exhausted but mentally reinvigorated – ready to tackle the issues of tomorrow. It was like meditation and gave me a chance to contemplate topics for which I had little time during the workday.
The unfortunate truth is that many of us suffer, mostly through denial of the problem and our inability to recognize it early enough. In my case, the exercise acted as a buffer – one of the few things that helped me achieve equilibrium healthily and without spiralling into a self-medicated binge.
In a way, it allowed me (to paraphrase some spy novel) to compartmentalize the negative stimuli and avoid bringing it home. But even though I was able to file them away into murky compartments, my subconscious mind would never completely allow me to relax.
Suddenly, my buffer mechanism was damaged… I had an accident and needed immediate knee surgery. This one small event completely changed how I offset my daily stresses.
I was used to running a half marathon every second day, ride a bike for any small errand, and when the weather permitted, a few swimming laps at a nearby bay. This had the potential to entirely derail my physical aspirations.
I’ve always considered myself as a person who excels by motivation, be it the challenge, monetary rewards, prestige or even kudos; one of those who are able to turn difficult and challenging situations into a success no matter what the odds.
More often than not, simply being able to silence and prove wrong those who said it couldn’t be done, was reward enough. A personal victory; knowing that perseverance and hard work could overcome anything – that nothing was impossible if only you pushed hard enough.
But there was an element of denial underlying my every move. Although I could forget the events of the week – lock them away in that secret place – inevitably, I knew that one day it would all come crashing down. I could silence the events but I couldn’t silence the awareness of my limitations.
With the release valve gone, my stress was not the only thing that was on the rise. I noticed a considerable increase in weight from year to year. Actually, I started joking with people when they asked me how long I’ve been on the road, I’d point to my belt and count the holes to the right of the buckle. Roughly one hole per year, I’d say. Then I’d add, “…and I’ll quit when the holes run out.” Coincidentally, I’m on the last hole.
In the end, it’s not the stress that gets to you, it’s your own inability to maintain the speed at which you shelve the events without resolving them. A pile of unsettled problems pressing incessantly at each and every move you make; pressure that is ultimately self-generated because it subconsciously translates into the knowledge, that eventually, the shelf-space will run out.
If I were to model my stress after the world’s financial systems, it would be a simple matter of printing more money, paying off the immediate debts and surviving yet another financial period on borrowed funds. But the reality of such an existence has more to do with procrastination than confrontation.
Everyone knows that printing more money will only encourage inflation and the weakening of the currency. Eventually, the debts will need to be paid back and deferring an all-out settlement merely prolongs the suffering.
It’s true, stress can induce moments of brilliance, and I think it’s something we all benefit from on occasion. But sustained stress, over long periods of time, destroys creativity and, as a friend of mine says, “the human soul.”
Don’t worry, donning Buddhist colours isn’t something I’m going to be doing anytime soon, not that I haven’t entertained the idea of attaining enlightenment. Present challenges aside, my life is in need of a drastic course correction – it’s no longer sustainable in its current form.
Maybe it’s an age thing – but I’ve come to realize that days, months, years and decades whiz by with disproportionate compensation for the compromises we make. When you take away all the window dressing, the only thing we have that’s of any real value, is Time.