"What Are 2 Oxford Graduates Doing Drifting Around Europe In A Motorhome" - Lessons & Moving Forward 2016

The question in the title of this post is perhaps the most direct way we've ever been asked this question but in one form or another it's a question we get asked a lot. It worried us, not because of what people were asking but because it tapped into a concern we already which is "what are we doing next?" Ever since we had extended our career break, part of us felt guilty and embarrassed that we had.  We couldn't pretend that we could put our heads in the sand forever. Were we just being selfish? Should we be doing something more with our lives and our skills? Were we just hiding? If we want to make a contribution in the world shouldn't we go back and settle down again?

In 2014 when we first set off after my health scare we were focused on physical recovery and getting some head space as well. However, when circumstances allowed us to extend our travels for a large part of 2015 we struggled with doubts like these.  We briefly felt like we had some purpose to our travels when we stayed put on a farm WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) last summer and were giving back to a local community. However, afterwards we felt even more aimless and like we were drifting. Planning where to go and what to do didn't inspire or motivate us. We started to think there must be something wrong with us. Why couldn't we be happy living what other people were telling us was "a dream lifestyle"?

For several weeks now we've stayed put in Cabo de Gata. The stability and time away from our motorhome, Homer, has freed up a lot of energy to actually sit down, look at ourselves, our past and try and understand the roots of these doubts and questions.

Our discussions came to a head last weekend when we dedicated time to considering what we could offer We-Van and their #driveyouradventure initiative.  This turned out to be brilliant for us. The deadline and the questions on the entry form were just what we needed to focus our discussions. It challenged us to summarise what we had learned on the road about ourselves through our adventure and what we could offer by combining our pre-adventure skills with these lessons. It also challenged us to consider how our relationship had evolved and what we could offer each other moving forward in order to work as an effective team on projects we care about.

We've tried as much as possible to summarise in the list below what we feel the last 2 years have allowed us to learn about ourselves and how we want to move forward in 2016 (each could easily be a blog post if not a book on it's own!)

Lessons

1. Dan has truly accepted his lifelong bowel incontinence (after hiding it for almost 30 years) and the effect it has had on his life, emotional wellbeing and on those around him. 
I (Dan) realised, through starting to writing a book about my experiences, just how much my life hiding my bowel incontinence left me closed off to my own emotions. Fearing rejection I felt very separate from others and this made me struggle to be compassionate, patient or understanding with both myself and other people. Over the past six months, by recounting my experiences and allowing unexpected, suppressed feelings to surface through my writing, I've learnt many lessons, especially that my way of dealing with incontinence (and everything else) wasn't the only way or the best way as I'd always insisted. (More to follow shortly).

2. Esther has come to accept that she has to respect her body more and has accepted the need for self-care, particularly routine, in order to achieve what to her is a successful life. 
Through struggling to come to terms with her childhood health problems (severe eczema) and the reality of her more recent ME / CFS diagnosis Esther has realised that she pushed her body too hard for many years (in work, home and sport) due to not wanting to let people down.  She neglected her body's need for rest and recovery, believing that taking time for herself was selfish when she could be doing even more for others.  However, because she didn't take downtime between commitments she'd reach a state of collapse, feel frustrated and a failure, recovering only just enough to function before pushing too hard again. Esther's come to see that nothing changed between these cycles in her past because she didn't change her mindset. By prioritising self-care (staying healthy, happy and strong), particularly the need for routine, she's come to see that she can contribute to others even more because she has so much more energy ("Put on your own air mask before helping others around you"), which fulfils her definition of 'living a successful life'.

3. We can work together as a far more effective team if we respect each others differences, particularly in communication.
Despite us being together for 14 years this month, it is only really this last 6 months that Esther and I have gotten to really know each other. There have been many many times when we could have easily walked away but each time something told both of us to stay, even if we couldn't always say why.  It is only recently we are discovering the reasons.  Without realising it before, on a surface level we are almost completely opposite - personality traits, strengths, weaknesses, ways of doing things etc.  It is only now that we are very grateful for the fact that we are completely opposite on most things because we can respect each others differences and work together, complementing and helping each other to be far more effective as a team than individually.   It is our shared vision and outlook on life which connects us far beyond what any surface differences can disrupt.  We've also come to understand through our relationship that communication is about far more than language because although we both speak English sometimes we might as well not be.

4. What does success mean to us?
We've both got 1st class degrees from Oxford, we've got postgraduate degrees from Durham, we've both worked for Cambridge University, we've started a social enterprise and business, winning competitions and securing investment, we've won national sporting titles and represented GB, we'd built a comfortable home and income.....and still we didn't feel happy. Although a health scare pushed us to go, we got to live a dream of travelling around Europe which still didn't fulfil us once the novelty had worn off. With no more excuses and nothing left to grasp at we needed to redefine what 'achieving success' even meant. Although through different routes, both of us have come to the same conclusion that 'success' doesn't come from reaching external goals but is much more simple: looking after ourselves so that we are happy and healthy in order that we can expand our capacity to contribute and use what skills we have to serve our communities (local and global) as it is this which gives us an authentic sense of fulfilment.

5. We can live and be happier with a simpler life.
Following on from above, success and therefore being happy doesn't mean getting more stuff to us. When we lived in the UK we weren't particularly materialistic but still we were drowning in stuff. Moving into a motorhome long term and travelling, being exposed to other ways of life in the communities we've visited, has made us evaluate what we really 'need' as opposed to think we 'want'.

6. Gratitude 
No matter what arises in life it is possible to learn something from it. Although sometimes it has been difficult to realise this we are extremely grateful for all of our past experiences, particularly the challenging ones because that's when we've grown and learned the most.


What does this mean moving forward?
We realise that learning and growing is a continuous process of reviewing success and failures as we journey through life.  However, whatever 2016 has in store for us, there are a few commitments we want to make right now to ourselves having reviewed the lessons we've learned so far.

1. I (Dan) want to raise awareness of bowel incontinence and what is commonly known as the 'poo taboo' - people don't need to suffer in silence or be embarrassed to talk about it.  More than that, because I've overcome my own 'emotional constipation', I want to share my story of how bottling up my feelings for so long affected me even more than the physical condition. Finally, after years of feeling different from others and living in a state of having no compassion for so long, I've come to seen that everyone has problems they are dealing with.

2. Esther wants to raise awareness of prioritising time for self-care and share the practical strategies which have helped her (nutrition, exercise, planning, sleep and relaxation techniques, etc).  As indicated by the increasing statistics of the number of people suffering from depression, excess weight and obesity, chronic fatigue and autoimmune diseases, it is clear that, like Esther, many people are, for many reasons, not looking after themselves.  When people are overtired and sick, however much they might want to contribute (succeed), they are being held back from living to their full potential.  It doesn't need to be that way.  When you are happy and healthy you have so much more extra energy to give back instead of just existing and getting by.

3. We both need to prioritise our own self-care and it doesn't need to be complicated! This doesn't just help with energy levels but miraculously with reducing the severity of my bowel incontinence as well.  If we are happy, we can be useful! Travelling these past two years in a motorhome, people have often said it must be great to have unlimited freedom, but we've found this can backfire. We're committing to having a structure and routine, whether travelling or based somewhere, which dedicates time to good nutrition, moving our bodies, being outside, getting good rest, meditating, talking, good music, social interactions, community involvement etc.  "You only have one true home, so look after it".  Importantly for us, having both been academic, we have recognised need to be far less serious and learn to have more laughter and 'fun-up our life!' The benefits on health and longevity from laughing are well documented!

4. Keep reviewing what we're learning by what works and what doesn't i.e. are we happy? - it's a clue! and remain grateful for ALL our life experiences, the challenges as well as the good times because, we've come to see, "the only failure in life is what you fail to learn from".

5. We want to keep practising, as well as share experiences from our own relationship and travels that show how communication transcends language.  This leads to increased compassion and tolerance to ourselves, each other and other people. We've experienced it time and again in groups of mixed nationalities that speaking the same language is not the only way to make yourself understood and share happiness. It also shows us that despite different surface 'labels' we are all just people and all share a common humanity of wanting love and happiness in our lives.

6. We want to travel and promote the idea of community-minded travel.  Through following the work and lives of some truly inspirational and world-changing individuals as well as 'normal' people we've met whilst on the road, we came to see that making a difference in the world starts with looking after the communities we are part of. 

7. Some people we have met while travelling have been very anti-social media and for a long time we were as well. At first we wanted to be anonymous and then when we did start using Facebook and Twitter etc. we felt embarrassed talking about our adventures online. Weren't we just being narcissistic and adding to the "Look at me, Look at me...." culture? That is why we sort of kept up with our posts on social media but never really engaged as fully as we could. However, over time we have come to see that even the most socially motivated and influential people engage in this way because it is better to be heard than make a stand by going to live in a virtual cave. In 2016 we want to renew our effort to engaging on more channels to raise awareness of the issues above.

8. It took many years of being dissatisfied with life before we considered taking a career break and even longer to get the courage to actually go.  As you can see the time and experiences we've had on our career break have completely changed the way we view the world and what we want to do with our lives. We're so grateful for the opportunity and subsequent changes in our own lives that we are passionate about sharing a few reflections on our experience and why we'd encourage anyone feeling dissatisfied with their current situation to seriously consider a career break.


So why continue travelling?
For us we've realised that personally we stay happiest and healthiest when we have regular access to being and living in the outdoors. Nature is harsh, but it is also fair. We used to spend so much of our lives in air conditioned rooms, indoors and cut off from nature. To us travelling in a motorhome is a great bridge between home comforts, so that we can contribute effectively on the issues above, and the natural world. Parking in wild, remote places and feeling more outside has reconnected us to the natural rhythms of the day and been crucial in bringing us back to health and vitality. We're also incredibly grateful to the internet and advances in technology that allow us to still contribute while travelling.   In addition we've realised that for us it is the travelling that provides the diversity and new experiences which keep us growing, providing exposure to different communities, environments and different ways of life that challenge our preconceptions on how to do things.

Although we don't know what the year (or years) ahead has in store we wanted to share what we have learned so far as well as make share what this means for us moving forward, making public these personal commitments of how we want to use our skills to our best ability in the future.

It's like our 2016 New Year's Resolutions.....just 2 months later!  :-)


Thank you for taking the time to read this post - it was a very important part of our journey to sit down and write it together and we are very grateful for you taking the time to read it.  If you have any thoughts on anything we've shared above, please comment, or if you have your own lessons and stories to share, we'd love to hear them.


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Adventures In Life, Love, Health, Travel... & Puppies!: "What Are 2 Oxford Graduates Doing Drifting Around Europe In A Motorhome" - Lessons & Moving Forward 2016
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