I Promised Myself I’d Always Choose Life Over Work. This Is What Happened Next.

On a swing at the beach on Holbox Island, Mexico

It all started in one of my regular hot yoga classes. I was tired, sweaty, and really stressed from work. While in downward dog, my teacher calmly said to the class:

“Ask yourself: are you living the life you always wanted? Have you ended up where you thought you’d be?”

It had been 9 years since I started my business, in which I had a dream to work from the beaches each summer and the mountains each winter, with a dash of cosmopolitan city life in between. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, I’d scaled a team of around 10 full-time staff and was working harder than ever. Every time I won a big project or hired someone new, the emotional load kept growing.

So, at that point in class, I took a deep breath on my mat and — out of nowhere — started sobbing (it’s ok, I’m pretty sure no-one saw). What was I doing wrong? Why was I so exhausted all the time? Is that what success is like? Why am I not happy?

From burnout to beach bum

This was a pivotal moment in 2018. To celebrate my tenth year in business, I decided I would take not one, not two, but three months off work — and NOT check my emails (gasp!). After almost a full year of careful business planning, I booked a flight to Mexico and spent my days kitesurfing, scuba diving, eating tacos, drinking cocktails and practising Spanish. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but boy, when I did: Life. Was. Good.

Eating fish tacos at Mango’s Cafe, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I know a 3-month vacation isn’t realistic for many business owners, but if you’ve ever felt the way I did on my yoga mat, I strongly suggest you do whatever it takes to give yourself a decent break. Completely switch off. When you’re out of your routine and regain cognitive space, it’s amazing what might happen to you.

My break went without a hitch — but there was just one problem. I had always struggled with maintaining personal relationships because work took up all my time. So, upon returning to work, I had to confront this gaping chasm which was my love life.

While I’d missed my team and the sense of identity that came with my job, living in Melbourne for 18 years had me feeling like a big fish in a small pond. Most of my friends were shacked up in coupledom or already had children, and I swear I’d already swiped on every eligible man I could find in Melbourne. I knew most people in the marketing and communications industry too, so my sense of personal growth felt challenged. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. What did I have to lose?

When a 3-month sabbatical just isn’t enough

To avoid the tragedy of throwing away the business I’d built, I started researching how I could set up an office in the US and start incorporating more travel into my life. Doing stints on the other side of the world would give me independence (a career path I could control), a sense of freedom (a higher likelihood of taking long weekends whenever I pleased), and maybe an encounter with a fellow traveller that would spark a romantic relationship (pft, here’s hoping).

To prepare for more travel, I spent every waking hour examining how my business performed while I was away. What worked? What didn’t work? What else could I do to make the business run even better? There were major ups and downs. I seriously tried every trick in the book — from upskilling existing staff and bringing on more managers, to culling the team back down again because there were just too many moving parts. I almost gave up so many times. Couldn’t I just be happy with what I already had? Nope. I was determined to create a new normal in my life.

To keep myself accountable for making shit happen, I threw a big party and announced to the world that Austin was going to Avion’s first international office. There was no going back now. USA, here I come.

Avion’s Fourth of July party 2019

Deciding whether to fly solo or with a wingman in tow

Ironically, not long after I’d decided to open an office in Austin, I met Mr Right at a Melbourne pub. Just my luck. This brought about all sorts of emotions. If things were too good to throw away, would I ditch my plans to travel so that I could put him first? The good news is that I didn’t have to. Mr Right, AKA James, was also ready for change. He decided to travel with me.

I had so many reservations about this. What if it didn’t work out? This was supposed to be MY adventure — not someone else’s. But that was the ambitious career woman speaking; the one that never made compromises for anyone. I told her to stay quiet this time and thought about my promise: personal life first, professional life second. Heck, I brought James along for the ride.

We started planning. We sold a lot of stuff. We packed what was left and dumped it at my parents’ place before ending up with two suitcases — and now, at the time of writing this, we are in Austin, Texas. Funny how I ended up here, when back in 2018 all I thought I needed was a decent vacation.

A selfie taken at Walnut Creek, Austin, TX

Making new friends in America (before a pandemic hits)

Adjusting to a new city or town is hard. And when you’re out of your depths, it’s easy to start doubting yourself. Why did I do this to myself? How do I make friends? What do I know about the industry here? Where is the nearest convenience store?

The upside is that people are nicer than you think. Bite the bullet and get out there. There are plenty of meetups you can join — identify your interests to find likeminded people. I signed up to tons of women’s events. James made some great friends by joining a group that watched the English Premier League each weekend at a bar. Embrace being new; it’s actually quite fun to start with a clean slate.

Before we arrived, we were also fortunate enough to be introduced to some locals who took us under their wing. They’ll tell you where all the good bread, beer and coffee is at. So, don’t be afraid to ask your friends for any connections in your city — you’ll be surprised who they know. You may just get an instant support network, hooray!

Obviously, the spread of a global health crisis threw a spanner in the works. But there are ways to stay connected. That’s another topic, for another day.

A group of friends at Matt’s El Rancho holding margaritas

Enter: imposter syndrome and second-guessing myself

Of course, while all this was happening, I had a voice in the back of my head that began to make me feel insecure. I had achieved so much in Melbourne, but America was next level. People I met worked for tech giants like Facebook and Google. They had shiny offices with free-flowing kombucha. Other people worked on start-ups that would change the world and save people’s lives. Or they worked remote making good money with various side-hustles for just a few hours each week. The worst? I met so many talented, experienced and well-connected content writers. How could I ever grow a business here? Did I just throw myself to the sharks?

I had to keep telling myself that it was ok to feel this way. There was no point comparing myself to everyone else all the time. “Appreciate who you are. Know your value. Practice gratitude,” I would tell myself. Before going to networking events, I would recall what my strengths were. I didn’t need to be like everyone else. The truth is it’s far more rewarding to collaborate rather than compete.

Reconnecting with my purpose

Building confidence in a new environment is easier said than done — so when I was feeling down, I’d reflect on why I put myself in this position in the first place. My goal was to grow as a person and liberate myself of the routine I lived back home. My dream was to build a life with more adventure, less time at my desk, and a long-term partner by my side (hello James). This wouldn’t happen overnight. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d gone back to my old life in Melbourne either.

Natalie Khoo standing on the beach at Isla Blanca, Mexico

“Ask yourself: are you living the life you always wanted? Have you ended up where you thought you’d be?”

A growth mindset is one of the most valuable assets I own. If you’re not quite happy with a new life choice, consider it an experience, not a waste of time. You always have the option to change your mind, but avoid getting stuck in a cycle where you’re constantly looking for something else. My psychologist once told me: Pressure makes diamonds. I think she’s right.

About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.

To find out more: Visit the Avion website or follow Natalie on Instagram.

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