Dreaming of the open road? 8 transitioning tips from an expert

Dreaming of the open road? 8 transitioning tips from an expert

by | Jul 13, 2021 | Living

It’s been a year since GLWS co-founder Karen Gillespie packed up her campervan and headed off into the wilderness – physical, social, emotional and mental! In this very special guest blog, you’ll learn how a year on the road has treated her, away from all the stresses and strains of city life and a career.

COVID-19 has seen thousands of once-committed career-o-philes question what they are doing with their lives. Sales of campervans are through the roof, as are prices. As people dream of their sea/treechanges in unprecedented numbers, could rumours of corporate Australia being on the cusp of a massive talent drain really be true?

GLWS data shows an 8.2% drop since the onset of the first lockdown in Australia in the extent to which people in senior management and professional roles find their work meaningful and purposeful, and a similar decline in clarity about their future career directions. Professionals the world over are engaged in some serious contemplation regarding the choices they have open to them, and there’s a lot of dreaming and exploring of alternatives.

If you’ve found yourself wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side of the career fence, whether you need a gap year or if you should jump into early retirement, you’ll find Karen’s insights below fascinating.

Holy moly, it’s almost a year since I said goodbye to GLWS and commenced my next ‘adventure’. 

For me, this has meant taking to the open road in a campervan with My Significant Other (‘MySO’). Without the pandemic we would have been in South America, but have contented ourselves with the vastness that is Australia. (I am writing this in Darwin, having spent the past month travelling across the Kimberley region – absolutely stunning, an awe inspiring part of the country, highly recommend it to you).

As we have ambled along, I’ve often thought about my wellbeing, checking in on how I’m going – it’s a habit that I doubt I’ll ever lose! At the risk of being considered horribly self-absorbed, I thought maybe others would be interested in my thoughts and observations – only because I have effectively ‘retired’, even though I’m not sure if it’s a temporary or permanent state. So, what am I noticing that you might be interested in as and when you start thinking about your ‘next phase’?

Although I’m no longer living and breathing GLWS every day, I have to say it is a darn good framework of wellbeing! I can’t help but think about my wellbeing using the six domains from the GLWS. (Obviously the Working Well aspects aren’t relevant for me right now (sorry Audrey!), so my review is about the broader concepts of wellbeing as described in the Living Well section and items).


Authentic Relationships

The good news here is that despite being together 24/7, me and MySo are getting on famously! I didn’t have much concern about this as we headed into the yonder in a small van, but given that it’s the only ‘in person’, important relationship I have at present, there is the potential for pressure that might not otherwise exist. We have the occasional moments of grumpiness (all mine) but not many considering our living arrangements. I am very blessed with this relationship and, I hope, take nothing for granted about it.

Top Tip #1: It’s worth contemplating – how will your significant relationship(s) be impacted when you/they aren’t working every day? What interests do you have in common, what do you like to do together and what time do you need apart? What will you talk about on long drives when you have no phone reception, radio or downloaded podcasts?! And if you don’t have a life-partner, where will your day-to-day social contact come from without close colleagues? 

Regarding my other important relationships, this has been harder. I can attest to there being huge blackspots in phone coverage in this great country! Which makes it challenging to maintain regular contact with everyone ‘back home’ and overseas. I wouldn’t say I feel ‘lonely’, but I do feel ‘isolated’ at times (to borrow from a GLWS item). And I can’t always (to borrow another) ‘spend time and do things with the people I like’ at present. But I can use the tech at my fingertips to maintain connections and I try hard to be available to my family and friends when really needed. Again, I see this as a question for us all in later life when daily work routines aren’t dictating as much of our time and social contact.

Top Tip #2: Identify the people you really need and want to have in your life and think about how you will make sure this happens.

And yes, I miss my former colleagues and I miss my clients! One of things I loved most about my role at GLWS was the daily interaction with like-minded people who take wellbeing seriously and are highly committed to making a difference for others. So anyone reading this who feels like dropping me a note or catching up, please do!

Lastly on relationships: I have noticed myself developing an unattractive trait with regard to the general public. I’m intolerant, impatient and grumpy with people who walk too slowly, make too much noise, use their drones anywhere near me, park too closely to us, play music too loudly, etc etc! My best experiences are those which involve the fewest other people being around! After much consideration, I’ve decided I’m either suffering from age-related ‘curmudgeonly-ness’, or – with such limited space to call my own at present – I have become super-sensitive to the ‘great unwashed’ getting too close and encroaching into my environment.

Top Tip #3: Prescribe daily ‘Cultivating Kindness’ meditations to reverse the ‘grumpy old woman/man’ decline! 


Meaning, Purpose & Direction

This is a ‘biggie’ for all of us already or close to retiring. Am I making the contribution I want to, to the things I truly consider important, do I feel grateful for what I have and am I enjoying life and feeling fulfilled? All good old GLWS questions.

I can report that I am enjoying life and living it to the full! And I feel immensely grateful for what I have – at many levels and about many aspects of my life. I have an opportunity to see amazing places and do pretty much most things I want to. It’s an enviable position to be in and I don’t forget that.

Yet stopping/pausing work as an organisational psychologist after 30+ years raises some questions about identity that I am wrestling with. It coincided with my ‘empty nest’ – I’m no longer a ‘hands-on’ mum either. I don’t make many decisions; I don’t produce or create anything. I don’t write anything much at all (‘til this article – and a reason for doing it). What am I contributing to? Am I going through this new version of life on ‘automatic pilot’? I honestly can’t say that I’m currently ‘living my life in a way that is useful to others’. I have dabbled with DigiVol (which is a crowdsourcing platform developed by the Australian Museum and used by institutions globally to digitise their data) but contributing to this relies on good internet access ?.

Top Tip #4: Develop lots of interests that could steer you in the direction of community or volunteering work, and look at the practicalities of how you will realize these opportunities in your new circumstances (e.g. in a van!). 

I don’t have the answers, but I’m thinking about the questions. And van life will end eventually (if not for a few years if we are allowed out into the world again!).


Resilience & Equanimity

I have learned that when I am too hot, I lose all sense of equanimity – and indeed, I think, my frontal cortex short-circuits! Seriously, I actually cannot maintain emotional control when overheating and am completely certain that I don’t want to live any closer to the tropics than Sydney. I blame my Scottish upbringing and hot flushes!

Fortunately, MySo is ‘on to it’ and steps in to remove sharp objects and get me in front of a fan or aircon unit as soon as he notices my irrational behaviour creeping in.

Other than that (and the intolerance ?), I’m pretty chilled and, of course, experience no work-related stress or pressure. It is fair to say that a year ago my resilience was extremely low – burnout from work and two recent bereavements will do that – and that my new lifestyle has been extremely restorative. It’s a pretty simple daily task to work out what direction you are driving, where are you staying the night and what are you eating.

Of course, I suffer mild anxieties about my kids (on the other side of the country) and about day-to-day things like “Will we make it through this river crossing?” and “Are you sure there are no crocodiles in this swimming hole?”. But nothing lasting, and with all this time on my hands, I’m well aware of my emotional state and (aside from the overheating issue) I am doing ok at regulating this.

The one item from GLWS that jumps out as not working for me is “Home is a place where I feel at ease”. I love my van but sometimes… when it’s too hot, there are too many bugs or the mice have invaded (yes, really!), I don’t feel ‘at ease’. In these moments, I do look forward to living in my own house again.

And, I have to also confess to increasing self-doubt about anything related to work – even this article. Funny to think 30 years in a career can be so easily trumped by one year out of it. There will be some ‘work’ to be done if and when I decide on future career options.

Top Tip #5: When you change your life – recognise you may need a period of recovery, and that this could be 6-12 months – before you make any big decisions. 

All in all, I firmly believe that my Resilience & Equanimity is massively positively influenced by how much better I am at attending to my physical wellbeing.


Vitality & Energy

Life is a holiday! I don’t have to ‘schedule short breaks to rest or recharge’ – I can do it all the time. It would beg some questions if this wasn’t one domain of wellbeing where I can have a gold star. ⭐︎

My top contributors here are:

  • Still fasting (based on a 5:2 fasting diet) every third day – I lost a bucket of weight last year and am now maintaining that. Fasting days keep me off the alcohol and I am drinking loads of water.
  • We eat well – I like cooking and so despite only having a two-burner camp stove, we don’t eat out much and rarely have fast food.
  • Sleep is and always has been KING in my world. I get lots of it. Occasional bad nights (loud music, loud birds, loud ocean, loud generators) are always made up for. We sometimes simply pull over at the side of the road for a nap in the back!
  • Yoga – almost daily. I have chronic back issues, and this is what keeps me moving. We essentially don’t go anywhere or do anything till the yoga is done. I’m convinced it’s how I will stay active and flexible as time moves on.
  • Activity – we are hiking, swimming, kayaking and cycling daily (not all on the same day!).
  • Setting a routine is good – we are managing this without the discipline of fixed classes or a gym schedule and even without our dog to walk. MySo is the driver, I’d be more slothful without his influence, so bear this in mind – draw on the people around you to pull you along.

Top Tip #6: Retirement or semi-retirement lends itself to keeping well – be it through activity and exercise, taking time over sourcing and preparing food, getting enough sleep and managing your health needs generally. The key is to establish a deliberate rhythm and structure, and ensure you involve others in holding you to account. 


Balance & Boundaries

This is a tough one to review! I have no work demands and so balancing these with other aspects of my life doesn’t have relevance. Still, aspects of it make sense in our current lifestyle.

Sometimes, the ‘need for a slower pace’ becomes part of our conversation in a completely different way to how you might think of it! I’m sure MySo won’t mind me telling you that every now and then, I put the brakes on and suggest we stay more than one night in a place. Constantly moving on does get exhausting and really, I’m very happy staying put, when we have found a comfortable campsite (with only a few, very quiet people around!).

Reflecting on my thoughts about ‘Meaning & Purpose’, maybe I need more ‘demands’? Audrey and I were fond of explaining wellbeing as ‘the delicate balance between demands and resources, which can suffer when one outweighs the other’. For the vast majority of clients I worked with, it was a question of demands overwhelming the resources that individuals had available to meet them (both work and personal demands). For me, right now, I suspect the imbalance is in the other direction, and this is probably a common risk with retirement. I have plenty of resources and not enough demands!

I think demands come in many different shapes and sizes. I’ve left my veggie garden behind, I’ve left my dog behind, I’m not doing anything practical or tangible for friends and neighbours, my kids don’t need as much as they used to. My challenge will be to ‘create’ the right amount and type of demands when we take up a more static/settled existence again.

My situation might feel very far from your current vexed existence, but maybe think about it later, when the time gets closer.

Top Tip #7: Where will your demands, roles, responsibilities, and sense of self come from in the future? How will you feel needed? And how will you organise your life to accommodate these? 


Intellectual Engagement & Flow

Last I looked, we didn’t have a section for this domain in the GLWS relating to our personal lives (the missing Living Well items that we have been working on). Now more than ever I realise the importance of this concept for wellbeing outside of work. [Note from Audrey: Perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone Karen…. Get in touch if you fancy some part-time work creating the new Living Well items – I’m too busy ?] 

I love to learn, and I have a concern that not being actively engaged in my professional career for a long period may result in my brain seeping out or simply atrophying. Memory failings seem more common these days and the catastrophising voice in my head tells me this has to be early dementia! As an attempt to combat the decline, I do daily sudoku and am learning Spanish (for the South America trip, should it eventuate). Both MySo and I have some favourite podcasts that we work through while driving along and we are avid consumers and discussers of global news and current affairs.

One favourite topic of contemplation is what further study I might think about undertaking at some point – this ranges from a deeper dive into sleep medicine to horticulture/botany (with a special focus on fungi – yes really!). ‘Til then, yes I do feel that my intellect and creativity are under-utilised and I am not really playing to my strengths. [Note from Audrey: Just say the word Karen, happy to help solve this problem ?] 

It’s another ‘work in progress’ along with, and probably linked to, how I recreate a stronger sense of meaning and purpose. Again, my sense is that my experiences could be common, and I’d encourage this to be a further part of your pre-retirement thinking and planning.

Top Tip #8: What will you do to keep your brain active? How can you use your strengths in a way that absorbs you? What might you want to study or learn to do when you have time on your hands?

Final Words

Hopefully some of my thoughts have resonated or at least entertained you. And perhaps encouraged you to do a check in on your own wellbeing – it rests with each of us to create the lives we want. And, just in case it’s not 100% clear, I am loving my travels and would recommend doing ‘The Big Loop’ around Australia to you all when you can make this happen.

Who knows, I might see you on the road!

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