Category Archives: Smart Travel

9 ways to afford international travel in the next 12 months

1). Save $3 a day. In a year you’ll have enough for a round trip ticket plus lodging & food for a decent international vacation. 2). Find a job as an English teacher. Here are countries that pay decently: South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand 3). Start an online business. You can do that from anywhere. (This is the model I currently use) 4). Become a freelancer. Same thing. You take your work with you. 5) Accompany a rich older person who needs assistance/translation and is happy to pay for the help. 6). Budget airlines & couchsurfing 7). Get hired as an expat professional (chances are good your current lifestyle will dramatically improve if you take this option as you represent the rare commodity of someone who is foreign educated and trained. You will likely be compensated well.) 8). Crowdsource your trip (hint: if your travel qualifies as a do-gooding where you are going to help others, donors will give) 9). Credit card (OK no, don’t choose this option:)

Move to a country with less than 1% unemployment

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Just one of the reasons I love Bangkok, Thailand…

The first time I heard it I was totally blown away. Thailand, the county I had relocated to had less than 1% unemployment. Pretty much everyone that wanted a job had one. The job market was literally humming.

Coming from a Western employment context where people were spending months and years searching for jobs and thousands of those that had them were making unhealthy choices to keep them, I was offered multiple job opportunities as soon as I arrived in Southeast Asia. Never had it been more clear to me that travel and flexibility in where you choose to live can create excellent opportunities in life.

If you live in the United States it is easy to feel like this is as good as it gets. We’ve been conditioned to think that way. We are supposed to have the greatest opportunities, to make the most money, to have the best prospects in life. That’s how this is supposed to work. I spent at least 10 years believing this. I stayed in a suboptimal job situation because I believed that I had to make my American dream work. When I finally found the guts to realize that this kind of thinking was holding me back, it was as though the floodgates of real opportunity had opened.

The fact is that although I still live in the US for 1-3 month stints here and there, I don’t miss the scarcity mentality that has somehow supplanted the optimism that is traditionally associated with America. I am still inspired by the traditional American dream. I just think you now have to travel internationally to properly pursue it.

No, we didn’t die

Jammie and I in Hawaii a few weeks ago
Jammie and I in Hawaii a few weeks ago

There’s a danger in taking a break from a blog for several months right after announcing that the country your are living in has just experienced a military coup: people start assuming the worst. So here’s the update: We didn’t die. We traveled: Singapore, Manila, General Santos (Southern Philippines), Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Reno. I also got busy with the biggest project I’ve taken on since I quit my job back in the Fall of 2012. I’ve repented of my ways though and am recommitting to posting. Expect shorter yet more frequent posts. Can’t wait to catch up!

Think you can’t live and work abroad because you have kids? Think again.

 

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The Bernhardts – living a life of adventure a long, long way from home

Are you putting off the experience of living and working abroad because you have kids?  Children are often the reason people give for not traveling and living internationally.  People seem to be very fond of telling Jammie and I that as soon as we kids we may as well pack our bags and head back to the US. We’ve never quite agreed with that assessment but since we don’t have kids we’ve had precious little to say in return.  Until now.  To find out more about raising a family overseas I have started interviewing people that are doing just that. For this post, I reached out to some good friends of ours, Daniel and Marlise Bernhardt to give me their perspective as parents who have chosen to raise a family far from home.    Here are my questions about their very international lives and Marlise’s answers:

Describe yourselves in 140 characters or less

We’re a married couple from Argentina living in Thailand. Daniel is managing a food factory, and I’m staying home with our son (expecting our second baby).

How did you grow up?

When I was six my parents went to Lesotho, Africa, to work in a mission hospital. We lived there for seven years before returning to Argentina, so most of my childhood memories are set in Africa.

Daniel’s dad was a pastor in Argentina. At that time, this meant being transferred every couple years or so to a new area. So he did 12 years of schooling in 8 different schools and 5 different provinces!

How did the two of you meet?

On the Internet! Daniel was living and working in Buenos Aires and I was doing some volunteer teaching in Thailand. I was a bit lonely and got into this denominational website to socialize, and well, I met “this guy” who was actually interested in my adventures and misadventures in Thailand. We soon found out we knew a lot of people around us, but just not each other – I knew some of his cousins and even his brother – and some of my friends had had Daniel’s dad as a pastor. It took us a while to actually start dating because I was afraid of getting into a relationship with someone I barely knew (even though everyone around me who knew him kept saying he was great!), but things worked out really well!

Why did you decide to move to Thailand?

When we started dating I moved to Buenos Aires to be closer to Daniel. Then, just as we were planning our wedding, we received an invitation to return to the university where I’d volunteered in Thailand. Daniel had flown to visit me while I still worked there, so the admin had gotten to know him personally. They happened to need lecturers for the Business and the ESL (English as a Second Language) Departments – and we both fit that profile. Then two and a half years later, Daniel was offered his current job, which allows me to be a stay-at-home mom.

Looking back, it’s surprising we made the move at all. We were both enjoying our jobs and our friends back in Buenos Aires, and the move to Thailand made no sense at all – not socially, nor financially. But something pulled us to go there – in my case, I had always dreamt of having an overseas experience with my husband, and this was our opportunity. In Daniel’s case, he’d always wanted to work abroad. He was willing to go even if it meant switching from corporate work to teaching for a while. We were free to travel then – no kids, no debt, our parents were healthy – if we didn’t go then, we knew we’d settle down in Argentina and live there forever and that moving abroad after that would become increasingly difficult. We could always come back after a couple of years and re-settle. So we took the leap, and we’re glad we did.

Thai sightseeing... unbeatable...
Thai sightseeing… unbeatable…

How do you like it in Thailand?

Thailand is a great country to live in! It’s safe, and salaries go a looong way here. There are so many beautiful (and affordable) places to visit, such an interesting variety of food, and it’s exciting to learn about a culture and language that is so different from our own. We’ve faced our cultural challenges and sometimes still do, but we love Thailand.

The village (i.e. gated community) we live in now is purely Thai, so we’re forced to learn more Thai to communicate with our neighbors, since very few can speak English. I’m glad we’re being pushed into language learning though – it’s helping us understand Thais so much more and it makes our stay much more pleasurable. A whole world has opened to us since we began learning Thai.

Maybe the hardest part about living here is being away from our family and friends. Thai people are warm, helpful, polite and friendly, but somehow making deep friendships is a huge challenge when you face cultural and linguistic barriers. In Argentina we were surrounded by warm friendships and loving family – and that is what we miss the most.

What we hadn’t expected was how living abroad would bring us even closer together. We went from being in a place where each of us had our own social circle to suddenly being just the two of us!

Looking back, we have no regrets about our move out of home – we feel it’s the best decision we’ve made together (besides getting married, of course!).

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Parenting in tropical Paradise…

You are parents – how does it feel to raise a child overseas?

I guess having been raised overseas myself, I never had a problem with it! Especially in a country like Thailand, which is a great place to be with a baby or toddler. Thais love small children and are very helpful and understanding. We were pleasantly surprised to notice that right after our baby was born here in Bangkok. We live in a safe place, and our son gets to listen to three languages and taste food we didn’t get to try until we came here as adults. We feel that an overseas experience is very positive for any child – what was once strange for us is simply normal for him; he’s not limited to just one culture and one way of doing things. I feel that offering our children an enlarged worldview along with bilingualism or multilingualism is a huge gift we can give them.

In Thailand there are plenty of products, good hospitals and anything you might need to comfortably raise a child here.

What are the main challenges of having kids overseas and how are you tackling them?

I guess being so far away from the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Both Daniel and I are quite close to our extended family, and we’d like our children to grow up with that same sense of belonging. We keep in touch often through Skype with our parents and siblings, and we go to Argentina once a year to visit for a month (hey, so many people see their relatives even less often than that!). We also look at family pictures with our son and say their names. As our son grows, we will have to find other ways to connect him to family.

With having extended family so far away, I often miss the support and help I’d get with the baby if my mom, mother-in-law or sisters-in-law lived nearby. If I’m sick, we need to pay someone to come and help me instead of just calling a close friend or relative. All our “date nights” are with our baby – good thing he loves restaurants and is fun to be with!

The other challenge is cultural identity. We’re still just beginning, but we often talk about how we will help our children forge some type of cultural identity. Even if they won’t totally identify with our culture, we want them to feel comfortable with it and a part of it, because that’s where their family comes from. As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, I understand that if you’ve grown up overseas, it’s inevitable to be a bit of a hybrid. Yet somehow, I do feel more Argentinean than anything else and I do find value in feeling a connection to my roots. I hope we can offer the same to our children, even though they will be TCK’s themselves.

As our kids grow, there will probably be social challenges too – but we’re not there yet, so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there!

Gorgeous Thailand
Gorgeous Thailand

What do you think your son is learning from this kind of childhood that he would not had you stayed at home?

I kind of answered this in a previous question, but I’ll add one more thing: open-mindedness. I’m not saying that someone who’s never traveled is not open-minded, but traveling and living abroad are natural ways of opening yourself up to new experiences. I feel sad when someone has to be coaxed into trying a Mexican burrito, or refuses to take a bite of ruccula, just because it’s something they don’t usually eat. I want my children to not judge a person because they’re using a spoon or their hands instead of a fork – and to think that it’s normal for there to be different approaches to doing the same thing; that people have different accents or sometimes use expressions we don’t use, but are still trying to say something that as humans we can relate to. This open-mindedness can be so positive for building relationships with different kinds of people, and also for any other area in life.

We also believe that by choosing to live abroad, we’re helping our children break an invisible mental barrier that would give them greater freedom. They won’t be initially limited to only one country or culture. By exposing them to a multi-cultural setting, they will learn that there are other options, that if they want, the world can be their home. We believe that the advantages of being bi-cultural or multicultural far outweigh the disadvantages.

What would you say to young families that would love to travel but feel they can’t because of their children?

I won’t lie – it’s not as easy as traveling without kids, but it can still be very rewarding. Jet lag is harder to recover from when you’re forced to stay awake because your baby won’t sleep, and you probably won’t be able to sight-see as many places as you would without kids, because let’s face it, kids do slow us down. But that’s ok since we do have so much fun with him! Depending on the needs of your kids, you might need to plan around nap times, choose kid-friendly places – you know, that kind of thing. But this doesn’t mean that traveling with kids is terrible. We enjoy traveling with our son. We don’t let our kid become an obstacle to traveling, unless there are safety concerns. Last year on our way to Argentina we had a stopover in Austria and it was precious. Yes, there were limits to how much we could do, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. Our son, one year old at that time, got to experience using shoes and thick jackets and a blanket for the first time! That was a struggle!

With regard to safety issues, what I recommend the most is getting in touch with people who’ve actually been or are in the country; they’ll know which places to recommend and what you should avoid. Embassies can tell you whether your family might need any vaccines. Most of the time, the news presents things as way worse than they really are, and people often get twisted ideas that make them more scared than they should be. Of course you need to be careful, of course you need to be informed – but get your information from people who actually know the place.

It helps to pack light when with kids – makes things so much easier. (Sometimes we still find that we’ve packed a thing too many!) Our son is usually more interested in us or the trip than in toys, for example. And we’ve found that if we really, really end up needing something, it’s usually available at our destination (this might not be the case for specific brands of healthy snacks or medicine, though).

If you’re thinking of a long-term overseas move, I’d say it’s different with babies/ toddlers than with school-age kids. Babies or toddlers will usually happily follow their parents and won’t have much input on the matter, but older kids will need more preparation, encouragement and emotional support for a move like that. But it can be done. When we moved to Lesotho I was six years old: old enough to miss my grandparents, cousins, and even a dog we had to leave behind. But my mom was very supportive and helped me through my grief, and now as I look back, the move to Lesotho was one of the best things my parents could have done for our family. A period of grief is healthy and normal when you make a move like this; don’t let it stop you – just do learn ways to help yourself and your kids through it. There are books that will help you with this.

How does the future look?  Do you plan to keep traveling and living in different countries?

A few years ago we would make plans and schemes… Then we were invited to Thailand, and things turned out so differently than what we’d imagined – but in a good way. So right now, we know that we won’t live in Thailand forever, but we’re not sure where we will go next. We trust that God will open doors at the right time. But yes, we do see ourselves living in yet another country. And if it’s back to Argentina, we’ll be OK with that too.

What happens when your son reaches school age?

If we’re still in Thailand by then, I’d like to homeschool him, at least for the first few years. I know plenty of families who homeschool or have homeschooled and for them it’s usually been a positive experience. There are International schools here, but they’re quite expensive and their school days are very long. We’ll see where we are when that time comes, and what the possibilities are.

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It’s time to change your life

Outside our apartment building in Bangkok, a million miles away from the old life...
Outside our apartment building in Bangkok, a million miles away from the old life…

Are you enjoying “paying your dues” at your job?

You know what I’m talking about: the conventional wisdom that perseverance and dedication in a job or other sub-optimal life situation will eventually pay off.  The belief that keeping your head down, saying “yes” to the boss and shuffling through the mundane day-to-day will somehow lead to something better some day.

I used to be a big believer in paying my dues.  I did really well in school.  I was valedictorian in high school.  I was an honor student in college.  I graduated magna cum laude.  I scored a well-paid job, moved on to an even better paid job within the same company and networked like crazy to the point where I had a reliable set of supporters and allies in the right places. I worked long hours.  I was consumed with work.  Even my time off was spent thinking about work. Work took over my life.  By the time I was five years in to my career, I was miserable, stressed, suffering from sleep disorders, gaining weight and wondering where I had gone wrong.

I had to get to the bottom of this.  What was I missing?  After working so hard and spending years paying my dues, why did life suck so bad?

To answer the question I started recruiting highly successful mentors.  I befriended CEOs, wealthy entrepreneurs, savvy investors, local politicians and a handful of very successful doctors and lawyers.  I ate lunch with them, met with them in coffee shops, I joined their clubs and associations,  I visited their businesses, went to their churches and hung out with their families.  I asked them how they had gotten to where they were and what advice they had for me.

Gradually, as mutual trust developed and they started to open up, a common theme began to emerge: these ultra successful individuals had gotten to where they were by breaking a lot of the rules that the masses around them followed.  They had rejected common career goals.  They had fired bad bosses.  They had dared to dream dreams that some would call unrealistic and even arrogant.  They had decided that “normal living” simply was not enough.  They had decided that, no matter what it took, they would break out of the regular rat race.  They would take the big risks and work their tails off for a higher calling. They were going to win and no only that, they were going to be victorious on their own terms.  They challenged me to do the same.

My closest mentors started to get really personal with me.  “Bjorn, you’ve got to get out of here!” a lot of them said.  “If you stay here and just do what is comfortable, you will miss your calling and you will regret it for the rest of your life.  Don’t sell out!”

As the chorus of voices telling me to make a change grew louder and more insistent, I had to start listening.  I had to confront my fears about what it would mean to make a major change in my life.  I started to believe, as my mentors did, that more than ever in world history, we live in an age where we can and we MUST pave our own way.  There is nothing wrong with dedication.  It is essential.  But why dedicate yourself to a bland job at a boring company?  Why dedicate your own finite days to an unworthy cause?  To someone else’s game?  Why not focus on exploiting your full potential?

In the fall of 2012, a switch flipped in my thinking.  It was do or die time.  I had to make a change.

As I’ve shared many times before on CultureMutt, my wife and I quit our jobs to live, work and volunteer internationally.  That was 15 months ago.  I have never once regretted my decision to leave my old life behind.  In fact, I am happier than ever that I made it.  Paying your dues just doesn’t work if you are paying into a bankrupt system.

Paying your dues can be destructive

Here’s what all my mentors said, in one way or another:  there is something soul-sucking about surrender to the system that most of us default into: The supposedly safe 9-5 of the average job where you trudge along year in, year out until you can retire. You cannot be yourself.  No matter how much you may want to deny it, you are completely scripted.  Your advancement and your every move is, ultimately, decided by someone else.  As you live in this kind of system it gradually wears on you.  You become less assertive.  You believe in yourself less.  You forget what it is like to lead.  You become strangely dependent.  It is horrible.  It is like living a perpetually bad dream.

Conventional work is stationary, the future is global

Especially if you are a young person, starting out in today’s work environment, you cannot bet on the world staying as it is.  Having a safe, provincial mentality and only thinking about professional development in one company, town or even country is a recipe for desperation because there is less and less guarantee that these traditional structures will stand the test of time.  If you are unwilling to be flexible, to take risks to go where the work is (or create your own work as freelancer or entrepreneur), your “safe” choices today could mean unemployment tomorrow.

Paving your own way means you have to take ownership

There is something almost magical that takes place when you stop marching to the beat of someone else’s drum and instead have to think for yourself and create your own future: you take ownership on a whole different level.  I know this with my own work.  I have never EVER been more focused or enthusiastic about work than I am now that I feel I can determine my own destiny.  It is incredibly freeing.

Over to you

Do you feel like I did in the fall of 2012?  Like you are trapped and need to get out?  Rather than paying your dues to the conventional rat race, how about switching things around and paying into your own future instead?  I am not talking about being selfish.  I am talking about consciously investing in your own future so that you can ultimately give more.  Only you know what this enhanced future could look like.  Only you know what is really on your heart.  Only you know what the dream really is.  I am not telling you that you should spend your life the way I have for the last 15 months.  But what I am saying is that breaking out is absolutely worth the effort.  Do not stay put if you know deep inside that life can be better.  You deserve more.

See you on the other side.

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Bombs in Bangkok and how they are Affecting our Plans for Living There

“People are gathering in the streets everywhere awaiting your arrival,” joked a Bangkok-based expat friend in a Facebook conversation asking me when Jammie and I were arriving coming back into town.

Protests and grenades

The gatherings my friend was referring too are no joke.  The attempts to overthrow the government had already started around the time we flew out of Bangkok to return California for the holidays in December of last year.  Since then they have picked up steam.  “There have been a few hotheads firing and shoving grenades at protesters so, you need to keep your senses about you when wanting to go somewhere and do things,” said my friend.

Our empty Bangkok apartment

For about two and a half months now, we’ve been paying rent for our apartment in Bangkok that has been unoccupied.  We had intended to only spend December in Los Angeles.  The unpredictable nature of the protests had kept us in Los Angeles to try to wait them out.

Here’s the background:  Protestors consisting of mostly urban Thais are trying to get rid of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra claiming she is being controlled by her brother, ousted former PM,  Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in exile.  Since the start of it all there have been several deaths and scores of people injured in the protests.

What to do?

It was hard to know how to react.  The government scheduled an election and later declared a state of emergency in Bangkok.  The election took place on February 2, 2014 and because they were disrupted by protestors, they will need to be held again.  There is not much of an end in sight.  The flow of tourists into Bangkok has slowed.  Many foreigners are staying away.

Putting it all in perspective

Having said that, Bangkok has seen a lot of political turmoil over the years.  No tourists have been hurt yet since this round of protests began.  So a lot of the local and expat population is continuing with life pretty much as usual, confident this too shall pass.

Part of the confusion comes from the the tone of these protests.  As the people that are protesting are generally well-to-do urbanites, protest sites have take on a kind of carnival-like atmosphere, complete with celebrity sittings, pop concerts, food vendors and hawkers.  The airports are open as usual.  And the fiercest protests seem to be over.

Our decision… and our Plan B

We have finally bought our ticket to return and will be flying in early next week.  This is certainly an interesting start to the year but we are determined to follow through with our plan to live for a year in Bangkok.  We do have a Plan B though – if things get too bad we’ll head for another regional capital – Manila or Kuala Lumpur.

Overseas living teaches you a lot about flexibility.  As my expat friend said:  “am sticking around man … no plans to leave yet, but it’s always at the back of my mind”.

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What’s it Like to Move to New Zealand?

Tiffany's idea of entertainment...
Tiffany’s idea of entertainment…

Most people living in Southern California don’t leave.  Most people don’t marry Kiwis (people from New Zealand) – there’s not enough of them, for starters!  Most people don’t take up jumping out of airplanes or into canyons for fun.  Most people wouldn’t raise a baby half-way around the world.  In short, most people do not completely reinvent their lives.  My friend Tiffany Hodgson is not most people. She has done all the above and more. Inspired by her life philosophy and very adventurous lifestyle I was really happy when she agreed to be interviewed.

Here’s the Q&A:

How did marrying a non-American influence your life decisions about where to live and work?

Russell, my husband, was born and raised in New Zealand and although he has done a lot of traveling and living abroad, he was pretty set on raising a family in NZ. We looked into getting him a visa for the US so I could start working as physician assistant when I graduated but the process is rigorous and expensive. Russ was also just starting to follow his dream of owning and running a canyoning company here so we decided to take the risk in hopes I would get work here.

Tiffany and Russell - two of a kind...
Tiffany and Russell – two of a kind…

What kind of risk?

There was good chance I wasn’t going to be able to use my very expensive degree to work as a physician assistant here. PAs were non-existent in New Zealand four years ago. No one knew what they were but there was talk at government level of trialing them here because of the doctor shortage. Soon after I arrived, Russ had work in Wellington (the Capital) and so I rode the 6 hours with him down there, found my way into the city with all the government buildings and knocked on the Ministry of Health’s door to let them know I was a PA living in NZ and keen to help in any way possible. I had this pipe-dream before I moved here that I would help set up the trial and become one of the first PAs here. Long story short- that’s what happened.

Did you have family push-back on your decision to make the jump and leave the US?

Of course my parents were a bit sad but they couldn’t really say much because in their early 20s they left their families in Michigan and moved to Alaska. I know that’s not international but it might as well have been in the 1970s without Skype and mobile phones. They live in Hawaii now so that’s just a hop over the ocean to NZ.

How do you answer friends and family that question your decision to move abroad?

My grandparents think I pretty much moved to the moon and it’s impossible to come visit me but thanks to Skype and Google-voice we keep in touch more than when I lived Stateside. Not many friends or family have questioned my move. Most have heard that New Zealand is lovely and if they have been here, they usually agree that this is a great place to live. I could understand if I had moved to a war-torn country or a South American jungle, that I might get questioned or worried about…but New Zealand is pretty harmless.

Tiffany exploring her new home...
Tiffany exploring her new home…

What advice do you have for young professionals who are frustrated in their stateside lives and are thinking about moving abroad?

Do it! I won’t say the world is a “big place” but it’s a diverse place and just because you were born in one country, doesn’t mean that’s where you belong. I went to 4 different universities for my degrees in the US and only felt like one of them was home. It was the same with traveling. When I visited New Zealand 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to live here someday. It just felt right.

I took a year off from college after my freshman year to volunteer in Australia. It was amazing but but when I hopped over to NZ, it was love at first sight. I think a lot of us get the travel bug but sometimes we feel we aren’t even living in the right place. Up until three years ago I always had the urge to travel and move- that itch you can’t shake. It would settle for a while with each flight, holiday, or move but it would come back. Since I have been here, I can’t say the itch to travel is gone but I don’t want to live anywhere else.

What’s the most surprising thing about living in NZ?

It’s a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities. I think NZ is primarily thought to have Maori and European New Zealanders here but there are a lot of Chinese, Indians, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, South Africans, Sri Lankans, etc.

Another thing is college degrees aren’t valued here the way they are in the US. When Russ and I were dating, I asked once if it bothered him that I have a masters degree and he didn’t go to college. He laughed at me. Once I moved here I realized that the most successful people I knew hadn’t gone to college (a lot are farmers and entrepreneurs like Russ). University degrees aren’t mandatory to have a high status in this society.

What is expected here is an OE (overseas experience). Most people will leave New Zealand sometime after high school and live overseas for the minimum of a year. Russ did his OE in Italy and Turkey. You don’t have be 18 to do it either. We have a lot of married friends in their late 20s and mid 30s that have gone for 2+ years to travel and live overseas. They leave good-paying full time jobs here to go experience another country. I think it’s amazing!

How does work in NZ compare to work in the US?  If possible, be specific about your own career and then branch out to broader comparisons between the overall work environment in NZ compared to the US.

As a PA working in general practice I would say there are countless differences between working in the US medical field vs. NZ. The biggest being you can’t sue doctors or PAs here, so liability insurance is a lot cheaper, plus we can focus on treating the patient rather than piles of paper work required to cover ourselves in case there was a lawsuit. The work environment feels more laid-back here. Docs don’t wear white coats (even in the hospitals) and most prefer to be addressed by their first name.

New Zealand as a whole, values humility, hard work, and a sense of humor. One of the biggest things I notice here is the feeling of equality in the work place. The receptionists, cleaners, managers, middle-men, etc. all inter-mingle in conversation, social life, sports, and work. People don’t complain as much. They have the mentality of, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” or just “harden up”. I’ve never met a group of women as tough as Kiwi women and it’s rare to see a Kiwi male at my medical clinic unless he has been dragged there by his wife or is near death.

How do salaries in NZ compare to pay for your work in the US? (Don’t worry, I am not asking for figures here, just a comparison… )

I think most salaries here look the same on paper compared to the US but once you do the conversion, we would be making less here. The NZ dollar has been getting stronger lately which makes paying my US loans a little less painful.

Where can you save more, NZ or the US?

Definitely the US. The cost of living here is high. Honestly, I don’t know how people below the poverty line get by. Because we are so far away from other countries and so much is imported, the prices go up. Also because we are small we don’t have a lot of competing companies to drive prices down. Monopolies are an easy thing to have here. I wanted to paint a few doors in our house and a small can of grey/blue paint cost me $64! When Russ took me to the grocery store for the first time, I was physically gasping at the prices.

In saying that, if you grew up here, a university degree doesn’t cost nearly as much as in the US and the government gives you student allowance to help pay for your education so it’s a lot easier to come out of school debt free or with very little debt.

I'm guessing Tiffany doesn't miss LA...
I’m guessing Tiffany doesn’t miss LA…

How is your lifestyle in NZ different from what it was in the US?  What are the key differences, if any.

When I left I was living near Los Angeles so moving to a small farm town on the north island of NZ was a massive culture shock. Of course we have cities here if you want an urban lifestyle but most of NZ is made up of rural landscape dotted with small towns. The lifestyle here is relaxed and most people place value on spending time with mates and being outdoors. The feel I get is what I imagine small town America felt like when my grandmother was a child. I’ve seen semi-truck drivers pull over to help a farmer chase his cows back in the paddock. “Kiwi Ingenuity” is a real thing and nearly all babies are delivered by midwives here. Most people have a veggie garden or know how to grow one (I’m still learning) and kids can still go barefoot to school. Public holidays are taken seriously. Most businesses are required to close (even the clinic I work at closes) and people take the time off with friends and family.

How do you feel as a mother raising a child overseas?

I love that we will raise our kids in New Zealand. For Russ and I, this is the ideal place to be with a family. The only down-side is being far away from my parents, sister and friends in the States. One day, I’ll persuade my parents to move here…it might take another grandchild but we’ll get them. In the meantime visiting friends and family gives us an excuse to travel.

Who says you can't raise kids overseas??!
Who says you can’t raise kids overseas??!

How do you travel with Alaska? What are the main challenges? How do you overcome them?

I’ve only just come back from visiting family and friends in Hawaii with Alaska (my daughter). It was my first trip alone with her as Russ had to stay for canyoning’s busy season. I was a bit worried beforehand but I found that so many strangers are helpful and understanding when you are traveling alone with an infant. The 9 hour overnight flight was the hardest. I was juggling her and making sure she was comfortable and able to sleep which meant I didn’t get any. Coming home was also a challenge. I took advantage of the cheaper prices in the States and ended up with two big full suitcases, a car seat, a backpack full of books and a baby strapped to my front. I’ve never been more thankful for those trolley-carts at the airport and the kindness of strangers. Even the guy behind the computer, scanning my bags, in Customs got up from his chair to re-load my enormous bags on the cart for me. Every baby is different so I can’t tell you how to travel with one but my one suggestion would be, try to go with two adults.

Alaska learning what it's like on the trail...
Alaska learning what it’s like on the trail…

What do you say to people that claim children put a stop to overseas living?  (I get a lot of this feedback to CultureMutt posts so I would LOVE to hear your take on this.)

Children are adaptable, especially when they are younger, and they tend to mirror the attitude of their parents. So if you are open-minded and positive about going to new places, they are likely to be the same. Plus, just think about how much more well-rounded your world view is after you travel and if you expose your children to it, they are likely be more understanding, confident, well-rounded individuals. Take them to a country that doesn’t speak your native language and they will pick it up faster than you will. Isn’t that a dream for most parents, to have a multi-lingual child?

One of the PAs that is here for two years came over with her husband and two teenage boys. They had to get use to a whole new school system and culture but they are learning so much more about life and people than you can get in a classroom or staying in the same comfortable place. Have you ever talked with a kid that has traveled or lived overseas? Usually they are quite mature and confident for their age. What parent doesn’t want that?

This is how a life of adventure starts

What do you miss most about life back home?

You mean, What do I miss most about life in the United States? I consider NZ home now.
Mexican food.
My close friends.
The variety of stores and products.
Central heating and air-conditioning.

Are you going to keep moving around the world?

I can see us living for a year or two overseas but we would always come back to New Zealand. We will definitely keep traveling and take Alaska to see other parts of the world but I think this will always be home.

Would you ever move back to the US?

No. Ha…that’s the short easy answer.

"I think this will always be home..."
“I think this will always be home…”

What advice would you give someone that is reading this and wants to live a similar life?

Positive thinking is key. I could have easily gone down the path of “I’ll never get work as a PA in New Zealand. I’ll always be homesick and never make friends here. I won’t be happy because it’s different than what I’m use to.” Instead, I only imagine what I want my life to look like and then I try to go for it. So here I am, married to the man of my dreams that I pictured marrying 10 years ago, living in the country I want to live in and working in my profession that didn’t exist here 4 years ago. Haha…I’m embarrassed for making that statement. I would get slammed here for “self-nomming” (self nomination) because Kiwi’s don’t like a “noter” or someone who brags.

But I honestly believe you have to think that it is possible to have the things you dream of and keep those thoughts in the front of your mind. Also, if you believe in a higher power like I do, than I would say He makes all things possible if we ask Him…as long as we aren’t being the fence that’s holding us back.

 

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Tiffany was born in Alaska and lived all over in the US before she moved to NZ. Russ and Tiffany live in Te awamutu on the North Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand). They co-own a canyoning company with another couple and run one of the most adventurous tours in the country near Auckland. You can check it out at www.canyonz.co.nz.  Tiffany works part time as a PA in a family practice and the rest of the time she gets to be home with Alaska, her 6 month old daughter. Her days off are spent outdoors, exploring and enjoying all the natural beauty NZ has to offer.

Countering Conventionality

SHANNA CUMBIA
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Shanna gets an insider’s view of her host culture; here, she and a group of teens are pictured in traditional Colombian cumbia attire as part of a local foundation’s youth development program, December 2013

Jammie and I are huge fans of Shanna Crumley, the blogger behind this guest post.  I mean, how could we not be?  We first met her in Northern California when she was in college.  Since then she has traveled the world,  interned at the State Department and relocated to Colombia where she is volunteering as a Peace Corps volunteer.  In this post she shares how she did it and what it’s like to live the international dream:

Conventional wisdom says that I should be paying off my student debt right now, working a stable job with good health insurance and settling into a lovely life. Better safe than sorry. Save for a rainy day. Find Mr. Right before your clock runs out (aka age 30, obviously).

Conventional wisdom DID NOT say:

–Take 5 years for two liberal arts degrees and rack up private school debt
–Spend every penny (and peso and euro) on mission trips, volunteer trips, road trips and internships
–Buy a one-way ticket to Argentina for a summer in the hopes of finding a volunteer position that pays in food (note: I was lucky enough to volunteer with ADRA Argentina as a videographer for three months, documenting community development projects)
–Move to Washington, DC, for three months to be an unpaid intern at the Department of State
–Stay in DC an extra five months as an unpaid intern at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
–Postpone grad school plans to spend 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America.

…and yet, here I am, sitting in a South American hammock, eating fresh papaya, studying for the GRE and writing a lesson plan on irregular verbs. Conventionality is overrated.

shanna adra kids-1
ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) Argentina youth volunteers making the most out of a finger painting activity, summer 2012

Can my passions make a difference in the world?

Let’s start with the fact that there’s lots of debate right now about Millenials following their passion, and whether that’s practical or sustainable. Suffice it to say that I believe in purposeful and passionate productivity!
I had to zoom out and ask myself three questions:

1. “What could I be passionate about?” I get excited about new ideas, research, sustainable development, international politics and community development. Like Gary Vaynerchuk puts it in Crush It!, there’s a niche for everything! What do you get excited about?

2. “What is the purpose?” or “How is that passion going to help make the world a better place and also keep me off of food stamps?” In my case, my passions combine into international affairs and development, two areas that have purpose and jobs. Luckily, these are areas that meet my skill set.

3. “How am I going to make my passion useful?” Whatever the passion is, you have a unique set of skills, talents, experiences and approaches to contribute effectively. I am working towards a career that contributes to sustainable development and policy, where my travel experience, extroverted personality and NPR addiction come in handy. What are your skills and talents? How can you make them useful to your passion?

With these career goals in mind, I needed to figure out how I could get the experience and network to be successful in my career–who were the best organizations working in these areas? What were their projects? What skills did they look for in job applicants? What were the best graduate schools for this field? Who is making a difference in the world?
I did what my generation does best: I Googled it.

Foreign affairs and budget meetings : U.S. State Department

After a lot of research, prayer, brainstorming and resume-revising, I chose foreign affairs.  I decided to apply for a policy internship at the State Department, the U.S. government’s foreign affairs branch, to get a feel for the big picture of diplomacy and development.

It was a competitive and extensive application process, including six months for a security clearance and a move to DC. Finally, I was thrilled to land an internship in the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration, where I spent four months seizing every opportunity to learn about diplomacy and foreign policy-making, pitch in on policy and budget projects, take notes on countless meetings and get coffee with as many directors, foreign service officers, policy planners and co-interns as I could!

My State Department internship was a pivotal experience in my life: I left Foggy Bottom more certain than ever that I want to work in international affairs and development.

shanna with jfk pc poster
Shanna’s living one of her dreams: to serve in the Peace Corps, founded by President Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship.

Fundraising and NGO life: USCRI

Through my contacts at the State Department, I found a second internship, this one in fundraising & development at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration. There, I was able to cultivate a certain skill set in fundraising and data management while continuing to work with refugee policy.

Working at an NGO headquarters was an eye opener. I got to see the differences in policies, budgets and priorities between the government and public sector.

Grassroots development and Shakira’s homeland: Peace Corps

A natural next step was to apply to be a Peace Corps Volunteer: to serve at the grassroots level, gain international work experience and meet like-minded adventurers. On a personal level, I had always wanted to serve at a grassroots level, working directly with a community, and living abroad was a natural step. Professionally, the Peace Corps offered a chance to get two years of valuable international work experience, as well as membership in the “Peace Corps family,” a network of thousands of active professionals.

The application process took about a year, which required a lot of patience and flexibility on my part. It’s a huge commitment, both because of the length of service and because of the conditions: the Peace Corps can send you anywhere, to do any job, anytime!

The hardest part of the waiting game was the utter ambiguity of not knowing when or where they would send me. I spent the wait working extra hours at a gelato shop, wrapping up my internships in DC and practicing deep breathing. When I finally received my formal invitation–Colombia!–I did a Shakira-worthy happy dance on the spot and packed my bags for the Colombian coast. We arrived last August, receiving training in teaching methodology, pedagogy, curriculum development and other scintillating topics. Finally, we received our site assignments and began our work:  teaching high school English and working in community development (and surviving on lentils, oatmeal and Colombian arepas).

Qualities of a Successful Professional

Though I’m just beginning my career, there are a few defining professional qualities and character traits that I’ve noticed. The bright, engaging, driven and successful people were also the most patient, curious, committed and flexible. These are qualities that I strive towards.

1. Patience/flexibility–I hate to include these mantras, but they’re what gets you through the applications, the waiting time, the long days and the bureaucracy! Not to mention that in the Peace Corps, it gets you through the long bus rides and training sessions. As for flexibility, being open to any tasks, new ideas and changes of plans shows your employers that you’re adaptable and committed to the work.

2. Committed self-starter/perseverance–You have to drive your passion; nobody else is going to do the work for you. Stay extra hours; add extra finishing touches; show your dedication. Don’t get discouraged by the waiting game, the job search or the paperwork. Remind yourself why you’re on this journey.

3. Networking–This is a crucial skill! Once I “got my foot in the door” at the State Department, I made professional connections and friends that form an international network of advisers, references and perhaps future colleagues!

You don’t have to be a bubbly extrovert to be an effective networker; all it takes is a pocketful of conversation starters, a genuine interest in the other person and 90 seconds of courage to smile and shake their hand.

4. Say thank you and follow up–one of the best lessons my mother taught me was to always say thank you. Write a specific and gracious email; hand-write a thank you note; send a small gift. The important thing is that the person knows you appreciated their time and effort. This applies across the board, not just to new networking friends but also to colleagues and mentors. At the end of each job or internship, I made sure to hand-write cards with specific memories and things I appreciated, along with the person’s role in the experience.

Following up with someone is even easier, but still essential. People are happy to hand out business cards, but often the connection is your responsibility. Make sure to be timely, grammatically correct and professional! It’s the little things that count, right?

Passionate about the journey

Equipped with a purpose, passion and the above lessons, I feel better prepared to continue the journey of contributing my passion and skills to making the world a little bit better in some way. Conventional wisdom might disagree, but I think you and I have resources, talents and knowledge to invest in our world.

…And that brings me to my South American hammock. I’m five months into my two years of service and learning new lessons every day. After the Peace Corps, I don’t know what is next. It might be graduate school, teaching in Korea or going back to DC. But whatever it is, I promise you that it will involve a lot of traveling and passion and as little conventionality as possible! And another bowl of papaya.

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Shanna Crumley is currently living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where she spends her days brainstorming ways to make high school ESL more scintillating, learning to play tribal drums and testing the boundaries of her stomach’s tolerance to new and exciting foods. She is all about a life of adventure and service, which she blogs about over at www.pocketphilosophies.wordpress.com.

How I told my Filipino Father-in-Law I was Quitting My Job to Travel with his Daughter

The happy "after" pic. With Jammie's dad atop Baiyoke Tower II - the tallest building in Bangkok.... if only we could have skipped the "we're leaving" conversation...
The happy “after” pic. With Jammie’s dad atop Baiyoke Tower II – the tallest building in Bangkok…. if only we could have skipped the “we’re leaving” conversation…

I’m not going to say it went perfectly.

Just over a year ago, Jammie and I sat down with her dad and two brothers to give them the news that we had both handed in our resignations and were leaving on a 12-month service and travel trip around the world. It easily ranks as one of my most-dreaded conversations EVER (As a Swede in a Filipino family, there has been a steep learning curve on what to say and how to say it – see my last post for some of my lessons learned)… Here’s how we did it:

I practiced on my parents first – Since my own parents raised me all over the world, I decided to break the news to them first.  They were pretty good about it although there was definitely a little resistance to the idea of giving up good jobs for travel and freelancing.  The Swedish “hands off” approach to parenting adult kids made the conversation fairly easy.  Having done it once, I geared up for round 2…

Timing, timing, timing – Since Jammie’s parents lived 8 hours away from us (as opposed to on a different continent like my parents), we decided that we were goings to tell them in person.  Luckily, we had a reason to drive down to them (A LARGE family wedding).  We waited until about two hours after the wedding before dropping the bomb.

Group Dynamics – We gathered Jammie’s dad and two brothers around the table in the formal dining room that hardly ever gets used, took a deep breath and went for it.  “We have some big news…”  Everyone tensed up…. “We’ve done a lot of thinking and planning and…”  Yikes, this was harder than our practice sessions in the car on the drive down… “We have handed in our job resignations and we are going to be traveling around the world and doing service projects for a year.”  THERE! We said it!!

Charts and Projections – I pivoted quickly to the prep we’d done for the move.  I knew that a Filipino dad was going to be very no-nonsense about practicalities, i.e. just how did we plan on surviving?  So we talked about finances – how we’d saved up and found other ways to make money.  We talked about why we were doing this – the year was supposed to be an idea and relationship harvest for the future.  We wanted to make international connections for future career moves.

Prepared Answers – I’d done a lot of prepping for how to respond to family concerns and objections.  And sure enough, there were some (although, not a lot, surprisingly):  I had info on what the cost of living would be in the countries we were visiting.  I had planned a lot to make sure that career-wise, this trip would enhance my marketability rather than hurt my resume and I made sure everyone heard this.

Being real – We talked about risk.  The cities we were visiting were generally safer than your average American city.  Jammie’s dad made Jammie promise she wasn’t going to do any crazy exploring of back alleys on her own.

Wrap-up – As the conversation wound down we thanked everyone.  Amazingly, everyone gave us their blessing. We got out without too much lingering.  All things considered, things had gone well and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Final word – We were actually surprised by how easy most of our “we’re leaving” conversations turned out to be.  If you are planning on breaking big news to family, I think my big takeaway would be: be prepared but don’t over-think it.  It is hard to predict how it will go but don’t delay the talk because of imagined disastrous outcomes.  The most important thing thing is that you actually have the conversation.

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Sinking Ships

Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortes scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City.  Source: Wikipedia
Art by Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortés scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. Source: Wikipedia

This is a post I couldn’t have written in my early 20s.  I simply did not know what I know now.  Instead, I’m writing with a little more perspective, 10 years later.  It’s a post that may have gotten me fired back in my 9-5 days. Some will find it irresponsible. But I can honestly say I’ve found more happiness and better work from internalizing these ideas:

You see, after 10 years spent setting myself up for a good job, getting it, being well-paid to work that job and the next and the next for years, deciding it was time to really grow, quitting, traveling the world for a year, finding a lot more opportunity, talking to others that had seized that opportunity, reconfiguring a lot about myself and then reconstructing my own professional path, I’ve realized that…

Anyone can tell you to be cautious, play carefully and, above all, burn no bridges. It’s solid advice. But there’s a new reality that is even more fundamental.  It has nothing to do with burning bridges.  It’s the new reality of sinking ships.

For just as when in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés* commanded his soldiers to sink the ships they had taken to arrive in Veracruz (to avoid retreat), we have arrived at the shores of a New Reality in the 21st century and the ships people boarded to professional and financial success in the past, are starting to sink under the weight of monumental corporate screw-ups, shifts in the global economy, damage inflicted by disruptive new technologies and the innovative thoughts of new generations in regards to work culture. There is no way back to the good old days. The only way is forward.

A good step forward would be to identify the sinking ships.  Here are seven biggies (click on the links for more info on each of these sinking ships, there’s a wealth of info that shifted my thinking over the years and that helped me make some big changes):

Sinking Ship #1 – The traditional career track  – If you are interviewing for a job today, there’s a pretty good chance that you are not interviewing for the same reason the boss did 20 years ago. The boss wanted the job for a safe, secure track to retirement. The world has changed.  For starters, “the track” is disappearing.  Security now comes from breadth of experience, not hunkering down with one company and hoping for the best.  Also, as much as bosses will demand loyalty, the recent recession has clearly shown us that they will lay you off before taking a cut to their own salary.  We all know this, let’s not pretend otherwise by limiting ourselves to one source of income.

Sinking Ship #2 – Job security – I’ve never been fired but I was laid off once.  Fortunately it wasn’t a big deal because it was a summer job and I was in college.  But the memory of it burns bright even now.  I walked in to my office building one Monday morning and before I could even get to the elevator, the CFO of the company stopped me in the hall and said, “Bjorn, we need to talk.”  He proceeded to tell me that because business was down, I had been laid off along with 30% of the sales force.  “I’m sorry we didn’t get the letter out to you in time.”  They let me work a half-day more because I insisted I had billable work and then BAM – I was out.  To the millions that were laid off over the last several years, this story of fickle job security is painfully familiar.  And the consequences of this sinking ship are devastating.

Sinking Ship #3 – Landlocked living – I have personally been inspired by the response of some very brave people to Sinking Ship #1 and #2.  Instead of worried pacing in front of the water cooler and angry conversations in the lunch room, they’ve hunted down opportunities that are less obvious and less convenient: overseas options.  Rather than telling you their stories, here are some links.  Let them tell you for themselves.  These are all people that crafted their own financial and professional futures out of international opportunities.  These include young people and older people, singles, marrieds, families with kids, etc.  Think hard before you decide whether or not this is for you.

Here’s a beautiful young family with three little kids that took the entrepreneurial route and moved to Costa Rica.

Here’s a smart couple (interviewed on CultureMutt in my last post) that saved $80,000 in three years as teachers in Korea.

Here’s an enterprising young Irish guy who decided that he was going to use his language skills start an online blog/business to travel the world and learn even more languages.

This Aussie couple used their videography, photography and writing skills to make them some of the most successful digital nomads I’ve seen AND rake in all this good press.

Check out the major trend of Americans professionals of all kinds (definitely not just teachers) flocking to the best hiring environment in the world right now: the Asia Pacific Region.

Sinking Ship #4 – Fresh Faced Entitlement – I had a great boss for my first job out of college.  She told me that most 20 somethings entering the workplace (including me), had no idea how they came across and should therefore shut up in meetings and only offer their thoughts when asked to.  It was brutal and, frankly, embarrassing because it was the opposite of what I had been doing.  But I learned a lot.  I realized that, along with a lot of my fellow recent grads, I thought that past accomplishments in college or internships, entitled me to a good job where I was automatically respected and heard.  Oh, how the young are deceived!

Of course, this kind of young entitlement thinking is nothing new.  What is new, is the harshness of the hiring environment. Due to the economic downturn, it has been extremely difficult to land a good job even with years of experience.  New grads with a mere diploma are even worse off – they are on a sinking ship – not exactly a place for entitlement…

Sinking Ship #5 – Old Exec Entitlement – But entitlement is not just the curse of the young.  It also applies to complacent managers and execs.  I remember chatting with an exec who was mentoring me at one job.  I know he meant to be encouraging and positive.  But his words achieved the exact opposite effect:  “You know, Bjorn, guys like you and I are lucky.  As long as we don’t rock the boat and we do a decent job, we are set in this company for life!”  The complacency and the deep seated entitlement of the beckoning Old Boys Club made me sick to my stomach.

But even this is changing.  Thinner margins, higher demands for efficiency and the harsh winds of change mean that, in many industries, you won’t be an exec for long if you don’t understand the new world of tighter legislation, online metrics, data driven advertising and the online product platforms that are rendering dinosaur execs that rely on hunch and “years of experience in this field”, retired or job hunting.

Sinking Ship #6 – Gatekeepers – If you want to succeed as a writer, a programmer, an artist or pretty much any entrepreneurially-focused venture that required gate keepers (editors/purchasers/CEOs/producers) to pick you out of the clamoring crowd in the past, you are in luck.  Self-publishing, while not new, is far more prevalent and possible today.  It is changing industries and making it possible to circumvent big, boring companies.  Online platforms mean you can sell your own software, your own music, your own product while entirely dodging the bureaucratic hoops or the horrible odds of being signed by a gatekeeper.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that your job as an aspiring creator is any easier but it does make it more democratic as success is more dependent on your ability to hustle than on favor from on high.  Let those gatekeepers sink, we won’t miss them!

Sinking Ship #7 – Fearful Obedience – “What do you expect from a supervisor?”  It’s a classic interview question.  And, given our new environment of sinking ships and its accompanying threats and opportunities, you can give a political answer while knowing in your heart that the real answer is “I expect a fair shake and some coaching. But not a lot more.  I am genuinely grateful for anything you can teach me but I don’t see you as a path to riches or promotion.  Your career ladder probably won’t be standing when I’m your age.  This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s just… reality.  So while I want to grow professionally, I’ll take ownership of my future whether its here or somewhere else.  I don’t necessarily need to climb a breaking ladder…. especially not on a sinking ship.”

As I said at the start, these thoughts are going to be labeled irresponsible by some.  I know that.  It’s OK.  If I were boss, on the verge of retiring and just wanted to be put out to pasture with minimal fuss, I wouldn’t like all this disruptive chatter either.  But most of us aren’t that lucky.  We’ve got to face facts.  Real irresponsibility in this new reality is to ignore the sinking ships.

*Cortes was a horrible imperialistic mass murderer.  I am not holding him up as a hero.

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