Cat Bells Lake District

On prioritising a life of travel and experiences over climbing a career ladder

Cat Bells Lake District

Fresh out of university, a social science degree in hand, I found myself at the doors of BBC Leicester in the early autumn of 2007.

Having blagged my way into writing two articles for the student section of the local BBC website whilst in my final year at university, I had somehow managed to secure myself a weeks work experience at the local offices. 

Task were varied, from brainstorming ideas for a mid-morning chat show phone in pieces (hated), to interviewing students on a variety of opinions at freshers week (loved). I moved between the online and radio team, a certain level of shyness and imposter syndrome pulling on the reins to spur me forward. Whilst the week was fascinating and insightful, there was one thing I had become aware of that didn’t sit right with me.

Having spent the summer working as a children’s club leader in Italy, living in a tent in the woods and running various activities, desk and office life felt a little like being a caged animal, even if it was in the fast-paced world of media.

It just didn’t really feel like ‘me’.

Plus, it turned out I was really crap at coming up with unique ideas for the mid-morning phone in’s.

One of the girls I was doing work experience with that week now works in the editorial production team for Channel 4, she had the passion to go far, a passion I just didn’t have for media.

After a brief stint working as a Christmas temp in a toyshop, I applied to do my first ski season, cooking and looking after guests in a private chalet in the French Alps. The pay was woeful (although we got numerous benefits such as free rent and lift pass for the season), the hours were endless 60-70 hours a week over 6 days of split shifts.

But, to my amazement, I found that I absolutely loved it.

The weekly change of guests from various backgrounds to get to know each week, the couple of hours gap between shifts to explore the mountains on my snowboard, the go go go of cooking, shopping, cleaning, nights out, early mornings.

A whirlwind five months.

Meribel Mountains

Whilst uni mates carved out graduate style careers, I ended up doing three back to back winters with summers spent in Scotland, Switzerland and eventually leaving the UK behind for two years to live and work in New Zealand.

Having spent the previous years working in kitchens, I was now pretty handy but lacked the confidence to apply for a role in a professional kitchen. But a conversation with a fellow chalet chef coaxed me into giving it a go.

With the unbridled confidence that comes with being in your mid 20’s, I applied for a number of restaurants in Cuisine Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants, the monthly foodie magazine in New Zealand. I scored a trial with a vineyard restaurant on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, where to my dismay, I was offered the role of a junior pastry chef.

Despite a slight wobble (namely, not thinking I was “good enough”, running away from the job to New Plymouth, the restaurant finding out about my woes and inviting me back) I grafted away all summer and was invited to extend my working holiday visa for a second summer. Surrounded by an amazing calibre of chefs who had worked in top restaurants in Melbourne and Singapore, my knowledge, creativity and skills blossomed,

But in the back of my head, I knew I was short on the absolute precision and drive needed to progress to a senior pastry chef. And most importantly, as I had done on the previous work experience at the BBC, I lacked the out and out passion, to work 16, 17, 18 hour days to rise up the ranks.

I valued my work-life balance too intensely to completely immerse myself in kitchen life.

On my return to the UK, I returned to the Alps for a tough season with a gourmet ski company (expectation worries playing another familiar role) and switched back to working front of house, after realising my passions lay with working with people. I took a role at a fusion restaurant in London, lapping up the variety of life, but eventually falling out of love with the pace of life and commuting.

By now, I was not far off my 30’s, many friends now in more senior jobs with houses, husbands and a sense of security. On good days, this never bothered me, but on low days a sense of underachieving crept in.

Why couldn’t I just settle somewhere and rise up the ranks?

Why am I constantly seeking newness?

A friend recently questioned if it was actually a senior position I was craving – but this would be all wrapped up with problem-solving and dealing with complaints, late staff and attitude problems. I am more content with walking out the door at home time, my chosen location before me.

If you’ve chosen to climb the career ladder, I’m not demeaning this choice. I admire you. A nomadic life of travel isn’t for everyone and not every career sector is akin to it.

The subsequent years were an eclectic mishmash of adventures: managing a tiny cafe on Yell in the Shetland Islands, solo backpacking in Brazil, a Workaway adventure at an art school in Italy and recently coming full circle and returning home to Nottingham to run a small cake business for two years.

I adored the challenge, but surprisingly missed the buzz of working in a team, and financially it was a difficult nut to crack. I returned to my love, Scotland, to do Workaway on the Isle of Skye, a fifth ski season in Meribel, this time running my own chalet, a summer working in a cafe in North Devon and a winter backpacking in Patagonia and South America.

I returned this February in a mild state of panic. I was back in a familiar place of unemployment. but the difference this time, I was weeks short of my 34th birthday.

I mourned this fact to a friend on a night out in Nottingham, “Look at me”, I sighed, almost 34 and still at the bottom of the career ladder”.

My friend, a successful business owner, put down his pint, looked at me, and shrugged.

“No, you’re not’ he chimes in a matter of fact manner, “You’ve just got different priorities. You’ve chosen a life of travel over a career ladder and look where you’ve been – more places than the average person you’re age – the things you’ve seen and experiences you’ve had.”

I’m not sure if it was the two glasses of wine, or his familiar rational viewpoint so different from my overthinking, creative mind, but his words bought comfort and a sense of joy.

It would be naive to pit climbing a career ladder above travelling, but society generally favours those which have made upward progression.

But is this a narrow indicator of success? I may have risen to be a senior pastry chef, but if I was burnt out and unhappy, would that count as a success?

If I spent all my waking hours at work with no time to fulfil my passion hobbies and volunteering, would I have “achieved more”?

Shortly after that night out, I was offered a team member role at a popular hostel in the Lake District.

The pay is minimum wage.

But to me, the opportunity to live in the heart of one of the UK’s most spectacular national park’s where in my free time I can roam the fells, develop my photography and writing, finally giving some much-needed love to this blog and return to a volunteering role with Girl Guiding.

A happy balance of work and life in a stunning location.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your own definition of success and happiness which matters the most.