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5 THINGS I LEARNED from a 12 month Career Break

A little over a year ago I dragged myself away form my desk and embarked on a journey to the Pacific, where I have spent the past 12 months in beautiful Samoa. Before you get any ideas of pool-side cocktails, palm trees and beaches (which there are in spades, of course) I need to clarify that I have been here on maternity leave with my second son. We moved when the baby was just 7 weeks old. Between cyclones, tropical infections, zika carrying mosquitoes and moving countries with a newborn and 4 year old, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

But it has been life-changing.

As with any big life moves, there comes an important time of reflection. Next month I’ll be returning to Australia and resuming my role as CEO at CoDesign Studio. I’m looking forward to re-joining the amazing team and the important work we’re doing on active citizenship and community building. But there are some deep life lessons from our time in the Pacific that I hope will stay with me always.

The freedom of letting go

Taking a year off from an organisation you founded is tough, but realising that the world will go on without me was amazingly liberating. It took me a good 6 months to stop thinking about work (ask the team), but after that, being way from the coal face has allowed me to pursue a whole lot of new thoughts and ideas. I have re-engaged with an international dialogue about cities that I have not been part of for a while, reconnected with colleagues working around the world, and reacquainted myself with some of the issues facing global cities. I haven’t had that much time (remember, the newborn) but I have had more bandwidth. I’m going to experiment with the 5-hour rule this year, to try and keep this up.

Slowing down

For those who know me you’ll know I’m not the slow island type. The idea of spending a year in the Pacific actually made me incredibly anxious. I was worried about missing out, being away from the action.  But I have, with time, slowed down (for me). This is greatly aided by living in Samoa, where you can’t move quickly even if you try. But as for being away from the action, that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is one of the most culturally rich, beautiful and action-filled places I have ever been. I’ve learned to be more mindful of the small things around me – my neighbours, the fruit growing in our garden, taking time to try to understand why things are the way they are (particularly with cross cultural communication) rather than jumping to pre-conceived conclusions.

Learning new things

I had a goal to read 12 books this year. I usually read one-two books, on a good year. I’m not a reader. And, sadly, I still only read two books. But I did take up other learning – like getting my Open Water Diving Certificate, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed pushing myself in a new direction. As an urban designer, I’m exceptionally interested in learning about cities and seeking out the latest urban innovations and trends. But I was challenged to learn something completely outside of my usual sphere. Learning new skills changes how our brain is wired on a deep level.

In Australia we talk a lot about work-life balance, but in the Pacific I observe work-life integration. They are not separate spheres.

Working cross culturally

Apia is a fast growing city with its own set of urban development challenges. Its small centre is getting chocked with cars, and its literally impossible to walk anywhere. I have never driven so much in my life. Then add in the pressing threats of climate change with storm surge events chipping away at the sea wall, and complex land ownership systems around customary land. There are pressing threats, urgent needs and great work being done. But the usual urban jargon ‘walkability, materiality, inclusive placemaking’ seems completely meaningless in this context. It certainly doesn’t translate well if English is your second language. Its made me think reflectively about the need to adopt far more collaboratively and participatory approaches to working cross-culturally. I expanded on this in an earlier blog post:  Six placemaking lessons learned from working across different cultures.

Family and Work, Work and Family

Its hard to spend time in the Pacific without noticing the central role of family and its defining role in identity. Family comes first, work second. As my colleague put it ‘ your work could let you go tomorrow, why would you define yourself by that?’. In Australia we talk a lot about work-life balance, but in the Pacific I observe work-life integration. They are not separate spheres. There are not artificial boundaries between what is work and what is family. There is so much we can learn from this.

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