The Year of Living Dangerously
Reflections on my first year of living tiny
It is one year since I took my tiny house project off its stumps, proved it would roll and transported it 500km south of Sydney to a small regional town at the base of the Victorian Alps. And one year of facing my biggest fears, leaving the rat race and attempting to work out how a highly skilled tech worker adjusts to small town living.
The situation I find myself in right now is not exactly where I thought I would be. However I couldn’t really see where I’d be in a year when I made the big move. It was just such an unknown with very few other people I could look to in similar positions.
I find myself at the 11 week mark of recovering from a broken ankle, as a result of a paragliding accident. I have not flown my paraglider or cycled my bike in over 2 months. I am struggling to keep up with the amount of work I am being offered as a remote digital business analyst for a start-up. I have established a large group of friends in my new home town, most of whom I did not know 12 months ago, and have developed stronger relationships with others who live further afield. I had time to create an initiative I feel passionate about, which has been an enormous amount of work but has been one of the most rewarding projects I have ever attempted. It taught me a lot about launching a commercial venture and introduced me to an incredibly inspiring bunch of women. I also took on a leadership role in my local sporting club that continues to challenge me in areas I thought I had left behind in the big city. A visiting friend asked me recently if I ever got bored here. In short, this year has been anything but boring.
If you are reading this article you probably want to know firstly, how it is that I can pay my bills moving to a small regional town, that is primarily an outdoor adventure tourist town, with skills in tech. I moved here without promise of a job. My primary income-earning skills are in running tech projects and there are few (if any) tech companies within 3 hours drive of here. I hoped I would find work remotely from a tech company but I was not sure I could do my work remotely. I had tried to establish this in Sydney, without success, and my back-up plan was to enjoy the summer in my new home town and return to Sydney or Melbourne and work full-time during the winter months. I had earned enough money prior to the big move to allow me to take the entire summer off, however, as Easter approached still nothing had materialised. In recent years, the universe had shined on me and ideal jobs were offered to me without having to even search. It looked like the sun was setting on that situation. I turned to Linked-In and hunted for the job I needed — remote part-time digital business analyst — but found nothing. Full-time job descriptions made my stomach turn as they described everything I had left the city for. So I decided to turn the traditional job hunting process on its head and wrote a post for work wanted. I described myself, what I loved, what I had achieved in the last few years and the ideal role I was seeking. And after a couple of weeks of stressing that this was not working either, a past colleague contacted me and said she needed someone with my skills on her new start-up venture. And yes, I could work remotely from my tiny house. The universe re-appeared for me.
That sounds like I just got soooo lucky, but the truth is that luck favours the bold and that working as a remote contractor has its challenges. To be clear, I am not complaining, but a lot of people look at me when I tell them how this tiny lifestyle is working and think I am the luckiest person on earth. I would argue that it’s less luck and more persistence and faith. Working for a start-up is a roller-coaster ride. There is a varying amount of cash available at any one time, which results in varying levels of work available for me. I have worked out that I need 17 hours of work per fortnight to pay my bills. I have achieved this but some fortnights I invoice for 5 hours and sometimes I invoice for 40 hours. I never really know if the 5 hour-fortnight or the 40-hour fortnight is an indication of how its going to be. Despite living the dream, I find myself often waking in the middle of the night worrying if I need to find a second job to ensure I can continue to pay the bills. Not needing to worry about this with a permanent job and a consistent income is definitely a perk of rat-race living. But it’s something I am determined to work through. At the time of writing I am in the 40 hour-fortnight situation, being offered additional work with another ideal employer but wondering if I’ll ever have time to fly and ride my bike if I do take it on. As one of my permanently-employed friends pointed out to me “Gee, they are terrible problems to have”.
As much as I had looked forward to a quiet lifestyle in the country, it seems I am physically unable to deliver this. During the 5 hour-fortnight period (which coincided with winter when there is less to do outside) I came up with an initiative to help address the low participation rate of women in my favourite sport, paragliding. Flexible working arrangements create time to explore other projects. I threw myself into this and applied my usual level of professionalism into it, smashing out a funding proposal and planning a series of events that, even at the time, I wondered if I’d physically be able to deliver. In hindsight, my gut feeling was right — it has been challenging to deliver. The initiative is not for profit but I factored in a payment to myself per event. I’m glad I didn’t track the hours I have put into this project because per hour I think I might have been better off working in a sweat-shop in a third world country. But this project has been more a project of passion, driven by the belief that what I was doing was going to change the world (the small Australian paragliding world, that is) and opening opportunities to deliver that message. I’m not the only person in Australia qualified to deliver such a project, but given my flexible working arrangements I am probably the only person who could deliver it. I could never have done this whilst working full-time. Tiny living has allowed me to work part-time and created space for me to explore my passions.
So space to explore my passions has definitely been a huge bonus, but the other huge benefit has been the space to explore relationships. I had read stories from other people who had moved to tiny living and they had talked about how they had more time to spend on relationships so this wasn’t a huge surprise, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Before I had established exactly where I would park my tiny house, I had visions of finding an isolated paddock where I would enjoy the solitude of nature and off-grid living. I ended up living about 50m away from my landlord’s house and a 5 minute drive to town. I am now very glad I didn’t take the isolated living option because despite being introverted and enjoying my own company, moving from Sydney to a quiet regional town requires some adjustment. I think it was precisely my need for company that drove me to create friendships that now make my life extremely rich. I started to hang out with the novice paraglider pilots flying conditions that I would not normally have bothered with (deemed not challenging enough). These people have now become my closest friends. I joined the local gym to enable exercise during the wettest, coldest months given that my tiny house space does not quite allow for much indoor home exercise. I got to know other people in town through the gym that means I am often greeting various people in the supermarket, at the post office, at the bank that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I developed a deeper love for mountain bike riding and joined a local group, frustrated that I couldn’t get my paragliding friends to go out with me. Now my network of outdoor friends has doubled. Tiny house living for an introvert definitely pushes you to get out and make new friends. Home is just too small not too.
The biggest surprise of this year has been how I dealt with injury. Only a week prior to my paragliding accident I was showing a friend my tiny house and gazing up at my loft bedroom commenting “The loft is great, but I’ll be screwed if I break a bone. I don’t know how I would climb the loft ladder”. Well, I found out. I broke my ankle at a paragliding competition in Queensland and arrived home, unable to climb that ladder. I was incredibly lucky that my landlord’s granny flat was vacant. It was supposed to have new tenants move in that week but they had delayed their arrival. So I slept in their granny flat and otherwise lived in tiny. It turns out that a tiny house is pretty good for such injuries (apart from loft bedrooms). I was able to use my kitchen benches to support me moving from the couch to the bathroom and nothing was far from reach. I could move my breakfast stool into the middle of the galley kitchen and cook swivelling to access the sink, the fridge, the stovetop. My new circle of friends helped me ease into the new situation, which was pretty seamless given they mostly lived less than 10 minutes away. I had friends checking if I needed anything from the shops as they went in, collecting my mail, assisting me with showering, driving me to medical appointments and taking me out for coffee. I eventually learned how to do most of these things myself, particularly once I borrowed an iWalk to replace the crutches. I even learned how to climb my loft ladder with the iWalk and moved fully back into my tiny house after 2 weeks of staying in the granny flat.
It would have been easy to say “Oh, I can’t live by myself in my tiny house” after my accident but I was determined to make it work. However, I could not have done it by myself. It was through the friends that I had made, the relationships I had invested in, that enabled me to get through that period. If I had been able to see the future a year ago, and known that I would break my ankle I might have faltered on the whole living tiny thing. I guess the thing is that such fears are based on other people’s experiences. We often refer to someone else’s experience when considering such situations and how it affected their life. Everything I have experienced this year has turned out the way it has because I wanted it to turn out that way. I wanted to work flexibly, I wanted to get out and make friends, I wanted to continue to live in my tiny house despite my injury. It’s amazing what you can do if you really want it.
The by-line of my first year of living tiny, is that community is everything.
The by-line of my first year of living tiny, is that community is everything. Stripping away the excesses of a consumerist life leaves space that you instinctively fill with relationships. Moving to a place where others are also less exposed to excessive consumerism makes that transition a lot easier. Once your eyes are opened to just how much we are locked in to a certain lifestyle due to the debt we take on, you just can’t un-see it. My life is richer than I ever expected it to be and yet I am financially poorer than I have ever been. I am extremely privileged to be in a position where I can choose that financial situation, knowing that I could leap back on to the more affluent train at any time. I know that this particular lifestyle is afforded by the fact that I am single without dependents and I am taking on these decisions without needing to consider significant others. The decisions I have made this year have all been extremely personal and in my own time. I’m not saying that someone with a family could not have achieved such a change in lifestyle — it just would have looked quite different.
It’s true that you attract like-minded people in whatever journey you take and as such I find myself surrounded by friends taking on similar journeys. Similar in that they are finding the courage to say no to the rat-race and forge their own path. Our adventures look quite different on the outside but we are facing similar challenges — the feeling of dread as we make that decision to leave that well-paying job, followed by the elation as our gut tells us this is the beginning of the life we should be leading. The uncertainty as we start to realise there is so much we don’t know about what we are taking on, and as adults in our 40’s the reluctance of our minds to accept we will just need to learn it all. Feeling overwhelmed by the administration involved in working for yourself and realising that you can’t bill for all the hours needed to get yourself up and running. Trying to work out what your rate should be — not wanting to undervalue yourself, but wanting to ensure you attract work to get yourself established in that first year. The stress we all feel as we navigate our way through weeks of lower income than we need and wondering if we have done the right thing after all. And then the satisfaction of finding we have managed to get through that first year, paying all our bills and never, not for a moment, regretting taking that first step into the unknown.
Forging a new path is scary and dangerous. Your mind will want to plan everything out to ensure it is satisfied that what you are giving up is worth it. But just like that back-packing trip you took so many years ago with no firm agenda, you could not have planned a trip that allowed you to discover so many adventures, meet up with so many amazing people and find yourself in towns you never knew existed. You have to be willing to accept that if you follow your heart you will be rewarded with the adventure of a lifetime and that the universe will provide for you if you really want to make it work.