I wrote a post earlier this year about how I sometimes dream about my alternate life. You know, the recurring daydream of leaving behind cities and corporate jobs and expensive trips and living a quieter, more at peace with the Earth kind of life. Well, this week, I haven’t been daydreaming. I’ve been living on a tiny island, diving literally every day, and I am so happy that it is really making me think.
I love being beneath the surface. I truly love it. Despite not having dived for a year, and not having dived for over seven years before our two dives last November, I back-rolled off that boat and descended into unfamiliar water without even a blip of nerves. Breathing underwater feels as natural as breathing from a plastic hose attached to a tank could ever feel, and I can happily watch shoals of fish, explore the wreck of a boat and snap photos of turtles without worrying for a second about where I am or what I’m doing. I feel so at peace and always regret the moment when my tank reaches seventy bar and I have to signal that it’s time to surface. Exploring the ocean, zipping up my wetsuit and observing octopuses, orangutan crabs and anemones in their natural habitat is just the most special experience – and doing it somewhere where the water temperature hovers around thirty degrees is not too shabby either. I would love to do this all the time, certainly more than once year, and certainly more than only a couple of times a decade, as has been the case the past ten years. Alas, there is not much diving in the UK – though I plan to spend some time next year exploring what is on offer! – and what is available seems to be devoid of turtles, tropical fish and requires a drysuit due to the freezing water temperatures.
The plethora of Brits, Americans, Canadians and Australians who have made various islands of Indonesia their home, often to teach diving, makes clear that I could have this life if I wanted it. But, even putting my concerns about what role I would play in my new community as an expat aside, I still don’t know if I could bring myself to do it. I do think that I would be happy heading out on the boat everyday, showing people the underwater world, and trying day after day to tell a story about scuba diving with my camera. I think I could maybe convince Jake to come with me. But I still know, deep down, that I am not about to quit my job, sell my things and become a scuba diving instructor on a remote island somewhere beautiful, no matter how much part of me admires those who do.
I am putting plans in place to make my life a little more flexible on the location side, and a big part of 2020 will be forcing myself to make changes that feel big and uncertain and then working hard to make it work out. I would love to be able to travel more while also working towards a career and projects that I think are meaningful. It feels like it’s an either-or proposition: save up a load of money, quit your job, travel the world, burn through your cash reserves and turn up at your parents’ house totally broke a few months later and get a job, any job, to save some money again or commit yourself to one place, put down roots, spend literal decades working in the same career – if not the same job! – and squeeze in your other interests on the side. Neither sounds quite right for me. I want a better balance, as greedy as it sounds.
Because I can spin tales about how it’s my wonderful friends and family that keep me grounded in the UK, and that is true to some extent, but that’s only part of the story. The other part is that I feel a deep drive to work, hard, at things that I think are meaningful and (here’s the less flattering part) that convey some sense of who I am to other people. I am definitely a little bit status driven, which is understandable as a twenty-three year old just starting to dig into their adulthood, but I already recognise that the path to happiness to almost certainly not found in making decisions based on what will impress other people. But part of me can’t help it! My mother runs a company with offices all over Europe, appearing as an expert in high courts all around the world and winning accolades and applause constantly for her intelligence and leadership. My dad is a professor and a senior leadership figure in a London university, who is partially responsible for running a school with thousands of students. The world I grew up in made clear that there are deep rewards for leaning into your career and working hard, not just financial but emotional and psychological. As someone who fears closing off doors for myself – I have always wanted to keep as many options open as possible – a quote from Angela Duckworth’s book Grit has always stuck with me: “Being a promising beginner is fun, but being an actual expert is infinitely more gratifying.” I feel instinctively that that is right, at least for me.
Another book that influenced me heavily a few years ago was the Defining Decade, by psychologist Meg Jay, about how to make the most of your twenties. She implores young people to use this new life stage, this decade designed for exploration, fun and freedom, to the fullest, and not waste ten years waiting around for your life to start because you think not investing in your work, relationships and skills is what freedom looks like. Shop around, sure, but do things that help you grow. I want to spend the next few years growing up and setting the stage for many fulfilling decades. I want to be building towards something, even if I don’t know what is. And while more travel, more freedom and more education all fits into that, so does diligent work.
Because of course, I do like to work. I don’t mean I like to sit in an office for eight hours each day, though I’ve made my peace with that for now, but that I like to be diligent and determined and put hours into something that matters to me. That’s why I spent as much time training as studying (uh, if not more) at university, even though my course was known for its extremely heavy workload. It’s why I flew home early from my post-grad South East Asia trip to do an internship. And it’s why, even though I work full-time and have plenty of other things going on, I stay up late and get up early in order to write thousands of words for this blog each week, even though I have very few readers and no promise of anything more than that. So even though I would like to travel and dive more, I am given pause by the thought of missing the opportunities that would come from truly committing to one of the most opportunity-filled cities in the world. Half my mind is away, thinking of the amazing landscapes, dives and museums I could be learning from, and the other half is at home, wondering where I would be in ten years if I wasn’t always yearning to do something different.
I know these are concerns for the privileged. To have options like these available to me is something of which most people could never dream. To be deciding between a freer life and big career in an amazing city is hardly to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. But these are the things I think about, and finding the balance between the part of me that is happiest underwater, with a camera in hand, and the part of me that feels such power in commanding a room full of people twice my age will always be something at which I’m trying to do better. Today, sitting on a beach, flicking through the photos I took of wild turtles mere hours ago, I feel the pull of the world stronger than ever. I wonder how I’ll feel a few weeks from now, when I’m safely back at home.