Passion for life – “This is one of the best weekends of my life… I have not felt so alive in months!” These were the words of a beaming Alistair Sawday, founder of the travel company Sawdays, towards the end of a weekend in nature with fellow change-makers. It was hosted by a social enterprise I started called Change in Nature, facilitating transformative experiences in pristine natural settings.
Sentiments like these are immensely rewarding. They are sometimes followed by a question along the lines of “how did you end up doing what you do?” On the surface, people want to know how they might be able to break free from the confinements of a 9-to-5 metropolitan day job and make a temporary camp village in the woods their new office. Yet what they are really asking is for some advice, some pointers, for doing a job that you love that’s full of meaning, purpose, and, above all, joy.
There’s no simple response to questions like these. It’s all very personal, and there are no universal answers. Often, when I reflect on how I ended up doing what I do, I feel it’s as much to do with a chance as with any ground-breaking blueprint. Yet, I also feel that it’s a lot more than just a bit of luck. We are defined by the choices we make, shaping who we are and how we spend our precious time here. I have found that certain ways of being and showing up in the world – often through trial and error – have been instrumental in my life journey. In this blog, I share four insights that I have found helpful on my path.
Passion for life
- Fortune Favours the Bold
When I was younger, I often hear from adventurers and social entrepreneurs about extraordinary career paths—people who seem to define their own destiny. I would be inspired but think, “that sort of thing will never be me.” I thought that I would be content with an engaging, stable, conventional vocation. And that’s what I was looking for after graduating from university and joining a civil service agency supporting teachers’ recruitment. It was a junior, temporary administrative role in a London office. It could not be further from campfires under the stars. However, as I soon became their environmental officer – when this wasn’t a priority – and this provided me with valuable experience that would help define my course.
I find that a common thread of those with inspiring professional journeys is making different and courageous choices. In Brene Brown’s words, “daring greatly.” Doors will only open to those who are bold enough to knock. I am fortunate that taking risks and big leaps of faith have always come quite naturally to me.
It was with this attitude that I got a job as a “Public Affairs Manager” for a new coalition that had just been formed called the Aldersgate Group, named after the London street where it held its first meeting. It was a coming together of a diverse group of environmentalists who wanted to promote green policies’ economic benefits. Often I was all on my own, no one had heard of us, and there were only enough funds to support a year of my salary.
Taking the position was a risk. I was told that I had to generate sufficient income for my own employment going forward if I wanted a more permanent role. I relished the challenge. Fast forward eight years, and I was “Executive Director” of a flourishing and influential campaigning group, with a permanent staff of five in a Westminster office, working in the corridors of powers with CEOs, Government Ministers, and MPs.
Despite its success, I slowly became disillusioned with this model of change. I was finding that systemic change rooted in rational argument alone was inherently transient and unstable. I felt this needed to be combined with a personal change to be more resilient and effective. As the poet Maya Angelou says, people will forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Yet, where do I start with inspiring people to feel differently? How do I transition to something completely new when I don’t know what that looks like?
I became convinced that the only way was a clean, radical break. Rather than going for coffees with like-minded people within my own bubble, I felt I needed to “dare greatly” if I could find the answers I was looking for. So I packed it all in, swapped my London flat for a Spanish mountain hut, and took some extended time out to work on my own development, cultivating deep reflective and meditative practices and learning from distinguished teachers.
- Passionate Curiosity – Be Silently Drawn by the Strange Pull of What you Really Love
Einstein said that our society tends to follow the faithful servant of our rational mind rather than honour our intuitive mind’s sacred gift. At some level, we have always known that we need to ‘trust our gut’ or ‘follow our heart.’ Yet it’s much easier said than done.
I faced a very challenging time when I returned from the wilds of the mountains. I still had no idea what I wanted to do, and every day, I seemed to generate a new idea, project, scheme, or life plan. I often found myself responding to job adverts that I did not want.
When I reflect on what helped me step out of this confusion, it is this. I stopped trying to work it all out in my head as if solutions would magically appear from the faithful servant of my thinking mind. Instead, I decided to do things that I was passionately curious about with no goal or anything I wanted to achieve. I would do things for the love of them. I ended up volunteering on several different projects, meeting new people, and having new experiences, from gardening on a country estate to forestry to supporting young people with learning difficulties.
This is probably what helped me the most in listening and following my heart. To experience things rather than to think about things. To do things that I was passionately curious about rather than get lost in the intimidating rabbit hole of uncovering my “life purpose.” To be silently drawn by the strange pull of what I loved rather than making compromises. Up until this day, my guiding question is always “what makes me come alive?” rather than “what should I do?” or “what does the world need?” In any case, what the world needs more than anything is “more people that have come alive,” as the civil rights leader Howard Thurman wisely exclaimed.
- Experiments with Truth – Trying New Things Leads Us to New Paths
I am currently reading Gandhi’s autobiography. Except he does not call it an “autobiography.” He calls it his “experiments with truth,” as he states his “life consist of nothing but experiments.” I share a similar mindset. All of life is an experiment, and, like Ralph Emerson says, “the more experiments you make, the better.”
My experience is that the more I experiment, the more closely I get to touch my inner truth. When you are experimenting, you are just giving things a try. There is no right or wrong. There is no destination. And, the best thing of all, you can’t fail an experiment!
Over the last few years, my experiments with my truth have included starting a cancer charity, sitting with hospice patients, volunteering at homeless shelters, mentoring young boys, supporting refugees in Greece, and collaborating with San Bushmen in Namibia. I never know where any experiments might lead, but they certainly enrich my life. And while I was not doing them for professional reasons, such experiences provide the foundations for the inner growth and character building that makes up all that you are and do.
In this spirit of experimentation, I founded Change in Nature six years ago with a dear friend, Chloe Revill. In a casual (or some might say destined) encounter on her Bristol doorstep, we shared several synchronicities, and in minutes had committed to starting the experiment of our social enterprise together. We had no idea where it might lead. I thought how great it would be if this could be my profession – but there were very few role models out there of people who made a living by bringing people out into nature. I had no direct skills or qualifications, but I did have bucket loads of passion and life experience.
I enrolled in a training program, and, at the same time, we gave things a go by bringing twelve friends into nature for a weekend experience for free. There was no business plan, and our model relied on us pouring in so much of our own time and energy that it felt financially unviable. In terms of earning a potential future livelihood, the whole thing felt impractical and unfeasible. Yet, it made us feel alive. So we kept on experimenting in our spare time and trying new things. We collaborated with lots of different people. Slowly we grew our network. And after a few years, we found a sweet spot – doing things we loved that could also support us financially.
Trying new things is what leads to new paths. It is amazing what can emerge from putting yourself out there. Our core offerings include facilitation courses, leadership training, days for teams and organizations to “think differently,” providing spaces for collaboration across generations, and even singing in the wild! None of this could have been dreamed up in the beginning. They were just not in our conscious field of potential possibilities. Yet, it is amazing how the possible can emerge by doing what seems impossible and just giving things a try.
- Alone We Can Do So Little; Together We Can Do So Much
Enough said. It’s so much better to collaborate. Together we can do so much more than we can ever do on our own, even if that means going out and meeting people whenever you feel stuck or confused.
So how did I end up doing what I do? I have no idea! The great beauty of life is its mystery and the inability to know what course it will take. What I have shared here are some learnings from my journey. Some of them could inspire others in little ways or be totally irrelevant to a different context! Of course, we live in very challenging times with much less opportunity than I have been fortunate and privileged to experience during my life. Yet, no matter what situation you find yourself in, there is always some scope for our challenges to become our teachers; and every day, we can often find opportunities to be bold, be passionately curious, experiment, and be together with others.
Change in Nature is a nature-based social enterprise that helps people and organizations to take meaningful action in this pivotal time. For retreats and training courses (including online and in-person facilitation courses), visit www.changeinnature.org.
Also read Graphic Design is My Passion – Stephanie