“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” – Lily Tomlin

September 10, 2012

Earlier this year, whilst experiencing a fit of boredom, general 20-something anguish “what am I doing with my life?” and a desire to actually live life instead of being chained to a desk, I decided to go to Africa for three months. My company runs a program to send employees on pro-bono assignments with our partner NGOs, and so I ended up in Tanzania working for a microfinance organisation. It’s funny how a split-second moment of madness can actually change your life.

I’m having a great time overall: the quality of life is good, there is a huge expat community to tap into, and Tanzania is a beautiful country with lots to offer. While I miss London, it’s also really interesting to take a step back from your own life and think about things, just for a minute.

I come from a world where things are busy, every minute scheduled and planned. I am not the only one like this. There are hundreds of men and women in scores of office blocks around the world, living like this.

We wake up, work out, eat breakfast, go to work, have endless meetings back-to-back, have a drink after work, run home for dinner with the partner, finish off all the odd jobs that need to be done before the day is out and then collapse into bed. Lunch breaks are filled with errands (not eating) and multi-tasking, that questionable activity that women cling to so dearly, is essential. Every day has a to-do list that usually doesn’t get done. The thing is, we love the hustle and bustle because it means that we’re being productive and that our actions have meaning and purpose. Complaining about how busy you are is almost a show of status in the city: look how important I am, I’m so in demand.

Pole pole is Swahili for “slowly.” You shout it angrily at your cab driver who clearly has a death wish, your colleagues say it to you when you are still in the Western “must-rush” mindset, the Kilimanjaro guides will not stop saying it if you undertake the mission to tackle their mountain.

Going slow is exclusively in the purview of holidays: the beach getaway where you sit in the sun, let life’s worries drain away and forget about doing anything other than reading a book, going for a swim and drinking copious wine.

Life in Tanzania is a permanent holiday.

When I first arrived in Tanzania, I was chatting to some people and commiserating over the painfully slow pace of life here. Then, someone else joined the conversation. He said: this is the only time in your life where you will have the time to do anything you want. There is no rush. There is no pressure. There is just acres of time, for you to use at your leisure. What do you want to do?

Now that turns things upside-down. So far, I’ve written a first draft of an ebook, I figured out what I want to do with the next year of my life and I’ve received my first paycheck for writing.

And then I wondered why on earth I had to come here to do any of that.

Sure, living in an apartment overlooking the Indian Ocean ignites some creativity. Having a housekeeper who cleans your house, does your laundry and buys the groceries helps to a certain degree. But the reason I did the things I wanted wasn’t because of that. It was because my slate was wiped clean.

The simple fact is that we never stop to think about what we really want to do with ourselves because there are so many other things vying for our attention. A lot of people, especially women, feel a sense of obligation to those people, be it colleagues, family or friends. We even like the activities, because watching TV with your partner is easy, and drinking with friends is nice.

But sometimes, the show is just one out of millions and the friends are only acquaintances. It’s just filler. The key is to cut the crap out, stop doing things because they’re easy or planned for you and give yourself the time you deserve. “Yes Man” by Danny Wallace was a bestselling book and movie, because people loved the idea of accepting what the world has to offer. Personally, I think the opposite is just as hard. You don’t actually have to move countries to start fresh. It can be done by carefully pruning away the things that you don’t need.

There’s only one question: what would you do if you had all the time in the world?

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