Life Lessons from Escape the City

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending Escape the City’s fabulous Winter Party at Guanabara, near Covent Garden. It was titled, ‘Start Something You Love’, and featured a number of speakers who have all made a business out of doing things they love. Ideally, this is something I’d also like to take part in, beyond spending my days in bed watching Mad Men, so I thought it best I go along and listen to what they had to say.

If you don’t know, Escape the City is a great website set up by Dom and Rob, who I heard from fellow conference attendees are a bit like Ant and Dec. Essentially, Escape the City is a network of people wanting to escape their boring ‘city’ jobs and do something different (and hopefully more fulfilling) with their lives. It has great job listings, and a lot of wonderful advice from wonderful people who have successfully escaped the city. You should really check it out, if you haven’t already.

Before Wednesday, I’d never been to a conference at a bar before. I strongly recommend it. Speaking at the event was Lara Morgan, founder of Pacific Direct, a soap supply company she sold for some large amount of money. Also speaking was Zarine Kharas, founder of JustGiving, Al Humphreys, who successfully biked around the world, and Ed Stafford, who once walked the entire length of the Amazon. Al and Ed have since become professional adventurers, and now busy themselves with challenges great and small (walking a circuit of the M25 in Al’s case) and talking about them afterwards. While listening to the speakers, I couldn’t help but feel supremely privileged to be receiving advice from such learned individuals. I learnt a lot that day, and would like to share these insights with you all, which I hope will prove helpful in business, and in life.

So, here you have it. Enjoy.

BE A CHAMELEON: Know who you’re selling to. Whether you’re brokering a deal, applying for a job, or building rapport with great people (making friends), gauge who your audience is, and what they’re looking for. Be who they want you to be. I mean this in the best possible way. I don’t mean for you to become a pushover, and bend your will to the fancy of everyone around you. That’d be just silly. Instead, be who you are, but learn which side of your personality to have on show at any one time.

NEVER GIVE UP: This one is a given. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a business, or trying to navigate your way through the Amazon Rainforest on your own. Don’t give up. Just keep swimming, and you’ll eventually win. At life. Or at swimming.

DON’T WAIT, DO ACT: Zarine Kharas admitted that in coming up with the idea for JustGiving, there was never a ‘eureka’ moment. We can learn from this. We’re all incredibly good at putting things off because it’s not the right time for action. Stop it. In most cases, that eureka moment most likely isn’t going to fly in out of nowhere and hit you in the face. This isn’t to say that favourable opportunities don’t appear; if they do, take them, but don’t get lazy waiting. Enlightenment is a process. Get to it.

EXPERIENCE IS EVERYTHING: Another pearl of wisdom from Ms Kharas was that entrepreneurship is a skill. You can learn it, which I’m sure is a relief to many entrepreneurship practitioners and scholars around the globe. After being an entrepreneur for a while, it makes sense that you begin to know how it works. This can be applied to most things in life. Experience all you can, and keep at it. If something doesn’t work out, try and try again until you get it right. At the risk of sounding massively cliché, never give up.

KEEP BUSY: Al Humphreys let on that in his spare time, between his bigger adventures, he likes to keep himself busy with a series of ‘mini-challenges’. I’m sure many of us don’t have an insatiable thirst for endurance challenges, but it’s important to keep yourself stimulated to keep on top of your game.

MAKE LOTS OF FRIENDS (BE NICE): Ed Stafford was forced into some pretty sticky situations whilst trekking across South America. He was held at gunpoint, spear-point, and even jagged rock-point, I’m sure. When his original adventuring partner dropped out, he thought his journey was over. It probably would have been if it wasn’t for his capacity to make friends. His talk was certainly inspiring, so I’m going out on a limb here to say that Ed Stafford is an inspiring kind of guy. Assuming this is correct (which I’m sure it is), he inspired many to accompany him on his travels, and even recruited one South American gent relatively early on, who stayed with him for the remainder of his journey. He also ‘inspired’ the chieftain of a Native American tribe not to kill him, and instead hired him as a guide to help him navigate his way through a particularly treacherous part of South America. Just as Ed’s ability to make friends ensured he completed his trek in earnest, we too must not underestimate the importance of making friends. We never know when they could (literally or metaphorically) save our lives, so be nice.

DON’T BE EVIL: One of Zarine’s parting entreaties was a warning to not be evil. Lara Morgan also echoed this sentiment in her talk. Indeed, it is very important to treat others how we expect to be treated ourselves. Be fair and accommodating, and people will want to do business with you. Be cold and miserly and you can expect not to benefit from much of anything.

JUST (FUCKING) DO IT: Zarine Kharas, before exiting, joked about her most favourite of corporate slogans. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. Go out there, and make amazing things happen. You have the power.

Well, that’s all, folks. Thank you to Escape the City, for putting on a brilliant night of inspiration and revelry, and thank you to the speakers for the much-needed kick up the proverbial. Thank you to you, also, for reading. I hope it’s been helpful.

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Happy New Year

Today marks the beginning of something amazing. I saw out 2010 in my living room at home, surrounded by my family and our close friends. There was champagne, lots of amazing food, and an air horn. It was fun, but it was mostly joyous as it marked the end of something else. Something that was horrific at times. Something that was (on occasion) lonely, painful, and somewhat miserable.

If I’m honest, 2010 was not a good year for me. Admittedly, a lot of good things happened, but I also let things get the better of me a lot of the time. The reasons behind this are irrelevant. I didn’t have a good year because like many people, I wallowed. I finished up with formal education (for now, at least) and expected the world to hand me a decent career and equally decent prospects, just like that. Why? I don’t know why. Maybe it was something to do with higher education’s repetitious but deserved routine of constant gratification. That’s just a shot in the dark; don’t read into it. However, expecting anything at all was my fatal mistake. It’s a mistake I wish no one to make in 2011.

A common term I hear bandied about is that if we’re down on our luck, we’re “owed something”. Whatever your religious or spiritual affiliation, we all have a tendency to mope when times are rough. To assert that we’re “owed something” is something quite special, however. What are we owed? All of our hopes and dreams coming true? Who owes it to us? Karma? Luck? Jesus? The FTSE 100 index? Also, why are we owed? What have we done to appease the powers that be, to warrant any reciprocation? A line from Fight Club, one of my favourite reads, comes to mind: “You are not the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but the sentiment behind it is interesting. The world is so much bigger than any of us can anticipate. Our actions are so minuscule, and our problems so tiny, that in the grand scheme of things they appear almost insignificant. If anything, this places us all at an advantage. It is only when we know our station that we can work to improve it. If we really are this ‘small’, then perhaps that’s an indication that we need to work that much harder to get what we really want out of 2011, or of anything, instead of waiting for something positive to rush by and hit us in the face. For me, at least, this was a much needed kick up the proverbial.

I don’t wish to drag you away from your New Year’s Day any longer, but I hope that I have imparted something useful to you all today. Don’t waste 2011 by sitting around, waiting for something good to happen. We’re each wonderful, amazing people in our own way, and we all have the potential to make this the year when you get a job, find that special someone, buy that house/car/ring, start a family, or just learn to be happy. I promise you, 2011 will be a great year, because we have the power to make it so. Smile, take a deep breath, and just go for it. This time, we’re going to win.