Tony Wheeler: 'One friend - a doctor no less - now runs bird-watching tours'
Saturday 18 February 2006
My working life started as an engineer in the British car industry, looking back it was probably like riding into a real-life crash test and neither my job nor the cars survived the impact. You certainly don't see many Hillmans or Sunbeams around these days. So with that career behind me (thoroughly broken, smashed even) I went back to university and then took a Gap Year break (in 1972, before the word had even been invented) that led to my new and totally unplanned career, writing and publishing travel guidebooks.
I'm certainly not the only person for whom a spell of travel has led to a totally new career. I've got two friends whose travels in the carpet weaving areas of the world turned them into textile experts and carpet dealers. Another friend whose shop-a-holic tendencies turned him into a professional shopper with a string of third-world craft shops. There are several friends whose interests in travel and photography led to careers as photographers and a recent acquaintance, a doctor no less, whose interest in bird-watching ended up with setting up a travel company which specialises in bird-watching tours.
My more conventional breaks were more like diversions or side trips than real career breaks. In the mid-Eighties I moved to San Francisco for a year to start an American office for Lonely Planet. Our children were still pre-school age, so there were no school-shifting problems, although our daughter developed a definite taste for the challenges offered by the excellent Californian pre-school she attended. We lived in Berkely, accurately described as "the only city in America with its own foreign policy". The year in the US may have concentrated on a different part of my career - more sales and marketing, less publishing - but at the end of the year I slotted straight back in to the business, although not so much re-energised as totally exhausted.
Conventional break number two came along 12 years later when we moved to Paris for a year. By this time I had much less of a day-to-day role in the business and a lot of what I did could be done just as well separated by a continent as by an office wall. E-mails are instantaneous no matter how far they travel. The second break was a much bigger challenge for the children, who attended an international school in Paris for the year, but my belief is that kids need the occasional shake up just as much as their parents.
And the next break? Today I'm very much a back seat driver in the business so perhaps the next shift is to that other current buzzword, the Portfolio Career. I've discovered that I'm very content with a life made up of a bit-of-this and a taste-of-that and furthermore not all of it has to be involved with making a living. Lots of the things I do could certainly be defined as work, except nobody's paying me to do them. A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno's terrific diary of what he did in 1995, perfectly describes that interesting blend of working very hard for zero return on some things and not nearly so hard for a big return on others.
Where to go on that next career break? I don't want to just travel, I get plenty of that without even asking, but nor am I sure I want to move somewhere else forever or even for a year. On the other hand lots of places would be extremely interesting for, say, three months. Three months in Venice could be fascinating. Or three months in Kyoto or Hong Kong... although New York just might require a whole year.
Tony Wheeler is the founder of the 'Lonely Planet' guides
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