And Now For Something Completely Different

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How about a nice change of occupation?

We all get tired of our jobs from time to time, but most of us hang in there and continue going to work each day. Some people burn out and (what is even more unfortunate) stay at their jobs, becoming less effective and more unhappy as the months and years roll by.

An increasing number change jobs and move on to a new firm or city and new challenges. Social scientists claim that this is no longer unusual and that today’s workers will have an average of five or six major job changes in their working lives. All right, so some job changing is normal. But what about people who give up everything they have and jump into something that is entirely different and completely beyond their previous experience? Are they crazy? Are they successful? What makes them different, and how and why do they do it?

Recently, in Spain, I met a couple of teachers from England who said, after nine years in the classroom, "Enough is enough. We quit!" What happened next is the stuff that dreams and nightmares are made of. Andy Chappell and Pauline Elkin were teaching middle (elementary) school in England when they became dissatisfied with their careers, lifestyle, and the English weather. One cold winter night, while they were having supper with another teaching couple, the conversation turned to job burnout. Someone made the apparently ridiculous suggestion that they all move to Greece, buy a place, and start a business.

The more they thought about it, the better it sounded. However, a little bit of checking soon disclosed that it is almost impossible to buy property or do business in Greece unless you are a Greek national. But by this time, the idea had sort of taken on a life of its own and no one wanted to stop. "Our biggest problem," Pauline told me, “was that we were teachers and we thought we didn't know how to do anything else. And we certainly didn’t want to do more teaching." Now this is where they were very wrong. Teachers have a wonderfully wide range of skills but, just like Andy and Pauline, they don't recognize them.

In any event, our heroes decided to relocate in Spain. Pauline spoke the language, the weather was certainly better, and, as for what to actually do... well, surely that would occur to them later. With this much of a plan in mind, Andy and Pauline took a two-week vacation in Spain looking for a suitable spot. With much help and perseverance and visits to many bars (the source of the best information in Spain), they found an old mill in the village of Benaojan, near the ancient city of Ronda and the seaport of Malaga.

The site was lovely, the building dilapidated, and the price too high. As for a business... well, why not turn it into an inn? The fact that none of the four had ever done anything like this didn’t seem to matter at the time. After persuading the Texan owner to take back a mortgage, the four sold their houses and flats in England. Pauline and the husband from the other couple quit their jobs and moved to Spain to begin restoring the mill. The other two kept their jobs to pay for it all. Now, of course this wouldn't be a true story (nor as interesting) if everything had gone smoothly, and of course it didn't. The about-to-become-innkeepers had set aside four months to get the property in shape and ready for the influx of guests.

However, there were a few things they hadn't planned on. To begin with, they discovered that the mill needed a new roof, new floors, and new plumbing, and it had to be completely rewired. This was bad enough, but a manana (do it tomorrow) attitude, is a way of life in Spain, and the four months were up before the work was done. By this time, Andy had quit his job and was ready to leave England, but the wife from the other couple had been offered a better job, and she and her husband wanted out of the deal. Not only that, they wanted three times their investment back! At this point, the mill was looking more and more like a money pit into which funds flowed without end, and the money had just run out!

Luckily, Pauline's parents came to the rescue, and a settlement was negotiated. Andy and Pauline broke with their former friends and Pauline's parents gained a new business interest. Three years later, when we discovered them, Andy and Pauline had turned the Molino del Santo into a small, charming, and profitable inn. Situated in a river valley, the mill has a wonderful spring fed swimming pool, an abundance of trees, lovely rooms, and views you wouldn't believe.

The food is outstanding, the hosts congenial and helpful, and the atmosphere relaxing and fun. Intending to stay one night, we finally tore ourselves away after four days. Operating from March to November, the inn boasts an occupancy rate of 70%, with roughly 45% of their guests returning or recommending the Molino to others. Now, how did they do it, and are they really different from other people? Let's look at their skills first. Even though they don't recognize it at the time, they really had all the necessary skills. It was just that they had never before applied them to this kind of venture. As teachers, they were used to organizing people and activities, planning, directing, delegating, controlling budgets, and researching a topic and then applying their new knowledge. Andy has excellent social skills, a good head for business, and a comprehensive knowledge of and interest in the local flora, fauna, and history. In addition, he has a wonderful sense of humour. In fact, staying at the inn is like living an episode of the television show Fawlty Towers, with Andy taking the part of John Cleese. Pauline's skills include a facility with the language, a genuine liking for people, a flair for decorating in the Spanish style, and great enthusiasm. They make a wonderful team and, as Andy points out, their success has given them a degree of self-confidence they never had before.

"We enjoy doing what we're doing and love what we've created, and each day brings new interests, new people, and new challenges," he told me. "How could we want more?" Are they really any different from you and me? Probably not. We all have ideas, skills, dreams, and frustrations. Andy and Pauline certainly didn't plan it out perfectly or have unlimited re- sources before they began. In fact, just the opposite was true. The thing that does make them different from the people who sit at home and mope about their lot in life is that Andy and Pauline dared - or were crazy enough - to take the first step that sent them off in a new direction. It certainly wasn't easy or without problems, but they rose to the challenges and created what must surely be one of Spain's most delightful inns. But what about their willingness to take risks like this? Were these people always risk-takers, or did something happen to make them this way?

Psychologists are divided on whether people actually change their personalities whether tendencies like risk taking are really there all the time but not being applied, it seems the latter is more likely. While the four original partners hadn’t taken such risks before, they did feel they probably weren't really risking everything, since they could always return to teaching if the venture failed totally.

As is often the case with changes of any kind, some event occurred that triggered the action. The motivation was there all the time and, in this case, their discontent was pushed to the extreme by a new announcement of further spending cuts for education. That was the trigger. By the time the other couple pulled out, Andy and Pauline could see the potential (so did the others remember, they wanted more than their initial investment) and they were determined to see it through to completion, These people weren’t really very different from anyone else just a little braver (or more foolish, depending on your point of view).

The moral is that if they can do it, so can you. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to visit them, talk with them, and see what they have done. Even if you weren’t likely to open an inn in Spain, it would be a wonderful excuse for a great vacation. And who knows, it might just be a turning point in your life, as well.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.