Lessons from Island Life
by Ian Doescher
My family and I are nearly at the end of a three-month adventure in Europe. My wife Jennifer had a sabbatical from her job, and wanted to spend three months in the United Kingdom (she lived there two other years of her life). The Pivot leadership agreed to let me work remotely during these three months. (Thank you, Dave and Mark!)
For two of the three months, we were on North Ronaldsay, the northernmost of the Orkney Islands, which are on the northern tip of Scotland. The Orkneys feel more affinity with Norway than Scotland—you won’t find the traditional kilts and highland feel here. To give you an idea of what the island is like:
- The island is roughly 2 miles x 4 miles
- The population is about 50, which has dwindled down from an all-time high (in the 1800s) around 500
- There was only one other child in the school before our boys arrived
- The house we stayed in is, we hear, the oldest croft on the island
In other words, this lifestyle was about as far from our urban life in Portland as we could imagine. And it has been terrific. Here are a handful of things I’ve learned on this sabbatical, which I hope might speak to you too:
- Walk with your head up: I realized on this trip how much, in my busy-ness and my go-go-go daily grind, I literally don’t lift my head up and look around me much. I noticed that here because, when I did look up, without fail I would see some scene of remarkable island beauty—lush green fields, beautiful stone walls, lovely sheep, clear blue water, majestic crashing waves. Look up, because there is so much beauty all around you—even in the city.
- Let people help you: our first few weeks on North Ronaldsay, we were fairly clueless. We almost ran out of food because we hadn’t counted on ordering our groceries from the “mainland” (Kirkwall, the biggest city on the Orkneys, is called the mainland even though it’s on another island). Our car broke down several times and we had to call on a local mechanic who, like Michael Jordan, came out of retirement to be a star for us. In the business world, it is considered a virtue to be self-sufficient, to not have to ask people for help. They call you a maverick, a go-getter. But you know what? Sometimes it’s okay to depend on the helpfulness of others. Then turn around and be helpful to someone else!
- Try to take the rush out of your life: things don’t happen quickly on North Ronaldsay. It’s not a hectic pace of life. People drive slowly on the roads—after all, the island isn’t that large, so even if you doubled your speed you would only arrive about a minute sooner. The things you ordered might arrive on the freight plane on Tuesday, but if they don’t they may not show up until the boat comes on Friday. Of course, if there’s a storm, the boat might not come, so you’d best be ready to wait. I learned a lot about patience on North Ronaldsay, about not demanding my own schedule. And that was a good thing.
- Believe in the good life: on North Ronaldsay, there were all sorts of things I didn’t do: I didn’t lock the house, I didn’t lock the car. (One day, in the ultimate trust exercise, I left my MacBook on the front seat of my unlocked car with the keys in the ignition while I was visiting my children’s school for a couple hours. No problem.) I didn’t speed on North Ronaldsay, I didn’t worry about the weather, I never had road rage. I won’t say life was perfect on North Ronaldsay, but wow, it was pretty darn good. And if I stop and think about it, most of the things I love about life here are reproducible at home. I can’t make the traffic in Portland as smooth as traffic here (true story: the biggest traffic jams were when cows were being marched down the road from one field to another), but I can change my attitude about it. I can’t make Portland as safe as North Ronaldsay, but I can try to have a bit more trust in my life. The good life does exist, and honestly most of it has to do with our frame of mind. The good life is there when we believe we’re living it.
My family and I return to Portland this Friday, which is both a good thing and a hard thing. We’ve missed a lot of things about urban life in the United States—a reliable car, Mexican food, central heating, Mexican food, going to cultural events, having a supermarket down the street, Mexican food… but it is also bittersweet to leave this place that has claimed a little piece of our hearts. That said, if I’ve learned anything from this time away it’s that we can keep the good parts of our life here and reproduce them at home, if not exactly then at least in spirit. I look forward to the challenge of making my busy life in Portland a little more like my simple life in North Ronaldsay.