How to Design A Life You Love
American artist Christopher Marley says there is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way. This is the call Pangea makes, every time we empower people to "design your own life". Elemental to a thriving life, this is the one ingredient that adds effervescent liveliness to otherwise the same day and night we are all subject to. But it is one thing to hear about designing your own life as a concept and another to learn about a person who has actually done it.
Alex Napier Holland was our peer speaker during the second Thriving Life micro-retreat in Ubud, Bali. A digital nomad who created his own path, he gives us the answer to a most interesting question:
What force on Earth drives a man to turn his back from a six figure salary working in international sales for multinational companies and instead choose to shovel concrete for $25 an hour?
"I hit 30 with a well-paid corporate job, BMW coupe, and city-centre apartment," he says. "But I was overweight, drinking heavily, and struggling with deep depression. I went into sales for the money, but fitness, adventure sports, and playing guitar are what make me happy. I realised that my salary was irrelevant, because it could never buy back my time or freedom."
He found himself in an ironic situation. He had the money, but without a lifestyle built around the things he loved, he simply carried on wasting the money on accessible but meaningless things like expensive food, alcohol, cars and designer clothes. "My friends living in the mountains and by the ocean on lower salaries had more spare cash because the things they enjoyed were on their doorstep. And free," he reasons further.
A powerful thought started his quest for change: "If I lay dying right now, how would I feel about the way that I lived? And I was floored by my inability to provide a fitting, meaningful response." This realization was the tipping point. “I flew to Australia with a one-year working holiday visa and no clear idea about what to do next – but confident that getting closer to the ocean and adventure sports would help me figure out a plan. I took a month off when I arrived and quickly lost weight surfing each day and felt great.”
Alex did not have a plan how he would design his own life after leaving the UK and quitting his job. He just placed one foot in front of the other, figuring out each step logically. He was certain of one thing though: his old way of life will never allow him to thrive. “Putting a suit back on for sales interviews felt wrong. I knew I was finished with working for someone else. And as much as I love the Australian lifestyle, I realised that I would never be happy following orders – and it was time to learn how to make cash from my laptop.
I quit my career in Sydney (not a cheap spot to go freelance!) and spent six months working part-time on a building site shoveling concrete for $25 an hour, while surfing, free diving, studying SEO and digital marketing - then landed my first big client, before I moved to Bali.”
It sounds all smooth now but it is never an easy process to begin again. Alex explains, “Spending six months doing manual labour on building sites when I was turning away calls from recruiters asking me to interview for business development roles with big tech companies was pretty tough, for sure.
However, I knew my decision was aligned with my values. I realised that if I were to have that accident and was given a few seconds to reflect on my life, I would feel much more satisfied that I was on the right path as I left this world. And no, I would not die thinking about my salary, designer shoes, or the horsepower of my car.”
Alex is also fortunate his loved ones supported him while tackling a major life change. He says, “I’m lucky that my family and girlfriend were totally supportive and several friends with businesses and local entrepreneurs in Sydney gave me opportunities.”
Unfortunately this is not true for everyone. There are instances when families or significant others just could not fathom why a person would reject traditional roles, especially if he or she seems tremendously successful at it. And it could be a killer when one is in the middle of unraveling the self and going through the process with all its ups and downs, confusion, and risk-taking.
Alex admits to having doubted himself at some point, too. But he decided to keep going because there is no other way – his old life will never make him happy, no matter how much others think it was a success. Despite the uncertainty, he moved forward and pursued the life he wanted. "I had experienced depression, despair, and defeat," he explains. "And I knew that I was at a pivotal point, with a truly awesome opportunity and sense of energy and purpose that I had to leverage. Nothing that inspired me was tangible or quantifiable. I placed my faith in values, dreams, and deep feelings."
And his inner self told him one thing – to be true to himself and live a life filled with passion, to do things out of love, and not fear. This makes all the difference but not everyone has the guts to evolve. Alex reasons, "Pursuit of your dreams is challenging. We’re taught to define ‘success’ using arbitrary goalposts - like salaries, qualifications, and possessions. So, pretending that you’re happy because you have a German car, a four bedroom house and invitations to social events with attractive people is far easier than identifying with your deepest feelings, walking away from safety and security - and building a unique life.
The key, he realized, is authentic living. “Outdated ideas about success are a huge obstacle to growth. Most people’s goals are aligned with impressing other people and ticking boxes set by their family, local community, society and - worse - people they don’t even like.”
It pays to remember that you are responsible for your own life. Everything about it, up to the tiniest detail, is all in your hands. If you only claim independence and authority, you can transform your life into anything you can dream of. But your thriving life will only happen if you create it consciously. It will not manifest if you only live on the terms of others, fulfilling expectations and succumbing to pressures.
Alex elaborates, “Success can - and often does - include walking away from safety, familiarity and routine, to do things that are uncertain, unlikely and which haven’t been done before. Be authentic. You are the exclusive expert in creating a life that’s meaningful and rewarding for you. Also, when you are honest, impassioned, and unafraid to be yourself, you encourage others to be the same."
For two years, he has been living his life this way – doing what he loves and inspiring others to do the same. “When someone says, ‘I am so lost and unhappy’, they have entered the top 1% and set themselves on a path of change and growth that many people will spend an entire lifetime trying to avoid - until it’s too late. When I can see that someone is struggling, it’s wonderful to hear them say these words - because it shows they’re ready to change their life. It’s people who think that buying a new car or property will make them happy that we should be worrying about.”
Alex offers the following advice to anyone on the path of designing his or her own life:
Start now. Failing faster = succeeding faster.
Intelligent risk-taking is critical for achieving any kind of success. Safety and security taken to the nth degree will destroy all the things that you are trying to protect.
Intelligence and rationality are powerful tools, but are useless without values. Your values are the foundation of any business worth building. Start with and return to exploring and defining your values, whenever you feel unsure about your direction.
Health and fitness are the top ROI for any human, ever. If you’re ever unsure what to do, choose fitness. You will never regret this choice.
Don’t watch TV. Ever. (Netflix is OK, as you’re in control.)
Be highly selective about who you pay attention to and spend time with. Seek out and make friends with people who offer you valuable criticism.
Read ‘Four Hour Workweek’ by Tim Ferris and pay particular attention to his advice about setting 1-2 meaningful goals a day and eliminating ‘pretend productivity’.
Working when I don’t feel great is a total waste of time. Most people waste most of their time in salaried jobs, so if you’re doing five hours of quality work a day then you’re way ahead of them.
Passions become awesome when they intersect with strategy.
If you’re not encountering disapproval, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
There is no denying that designing a life you love is not easy. It can be excruciating. It will strip you down to the bone, isolate you, and challenge your deepest and longest held beliefs. You may get hurt and you may hurt the people you love in the process, too.
But the ultimate prize is freedom and loving every moment of every single day you are alive. Finally, you grow into who you truly are and bless the world with your presence. How is that not worth every effort?