In the spring of 2013, Minneapolis entrepreneur Emilie Hitch put her life on hold to spend two months on a ship. Over 50 days, she visited 19 ports, mostly in Europe, as part of Semester at Sea, which runs global study trips for college students and adults.
Emilie refers to the experience a “life reset.” She’s no stranger to those — she likes to shake things up about every five years. When she was 32, she quit her job at a Minneapolis advertising agency to start her own consulting business. Before that, she moved abroad to attend graduate school in London. When she was in her 20s, she left New York City for a job opportunity back home in Minneapolis.
So by the time she turned 35, Emilie was itching for a change.
I met Emilie, who’s now 36, in the summer of 2013 after she’d just returned to Minneapolis from her adventures at sea. I was preparing to embark on my own version of a life reset –- a three-month career break to Brazil. I remember Emilie warning me about the slog of reentering your life on the other side of a travel sabbatical. When I had to face the reality of that slog, I reached out to her to commiserate. But to my surprise, Emilie was no longer here; she’d up and moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I was curious to find out what Emilie was doing in Cambodia, and how she’d catalyzed her two-month life reset into a longer international living experience. So in late January 2014, I interviewed Emilie to find out. As we peered at each other through our Skype-equipped laptop screens, I could see that a steamy day was just beginning in her tropical world while a bone-cold winter darkness had descended upon mine in Minnesota. Here’s an edited slice of Emilie’s story, as she shared it with me from over 8,000 thousand miles away.
Emilie Hitch’s ‘life reset’ at sea
I turned 35 that and I kind of have this five-year rule where every five years I take a good look at what I’m doing. I called it a ‘life reset’ trip. It started out more as an adventure and a vacation.
I’d been in my business three or four years and was at that point where I was deciding where I was going to go next. I really wanted to get out of my space in order to reexamine what my priorities were and what direction I wanted to take: ‘Which types of clients am I going to stick with, and which ones am I not going to pursue anymore? How am I going to do that? What city do I want to be in? How do I feel about my house?’ So I had all of that brewing.
I created this parking lot and put all those life questions in it. When I got to the ship I thought I would examine all of them. It went in a different direction because I met a boy and that put a monkey wrench in the whole situation. A lot of my time was spent with him instead of just with myself. But that was fine. For a lot of reasons, it was perfect timing for that as well. I hadn’t been a romantic relationship in a really long time.
A lot of the things I was thinking about like: ‘Sell my house,’ ‘travel again, live abroad again,’ I wasn’t ready to put a line in the sand and say, ‘Yeah I’m doing that.’ So that’s what I did on the trip. I didn’t need the full two months. I needed the time to get away to examine each of the decisions as separate things and not as things I was currently living. I took each of those decisions out of the box and made the decisions pretty quickly — It was like ‘I’ve already made this decision in my heart.’ I came home validated in the direction I thought I was going.
I created this parking lot and put all those life questions in it…I needed the time to get away to examine each of the decisions as separate things and not as things I was currently living.
I have a very strong community in Minneapolis. I have an amazing group of friends and an amazing family. I have good work. And so making a decision to live abroad again — a lot of my friends thought it was kind of crazy. I needed a good solid sabbatical life reset to have the time to think, ‘Okay I didn’t change my mind today. Let’s see what happens tomorrow when I’m just with myself.’ I was able to have a good two months in a row where it still felt like the right decision.
The hardest part of reentry was having recognized, yes, this is the plan that I want, yes these are the changes I want to make and fuck, it’s going to take four or five months to make them. And that’s four to five months of living the pre-changes that I’ve already decided I don’t like. I didn’t want to be in that house anymore. Because of the house I couldn’t just up and leave. I’m really impatient. Once I make a decision I really want it to happen. I came back from the life reset and I wanted it now. I wanted to be living abroad.
When I got home it took me a week to find the job in Cambodia. And it took less time than that to call a realtor. It was very fast how quickly I was able to put that plan into motion. The pieces just fell into place for it to be a good time to make the decision for my career and my consulting practice. And the timing was also good emotionally for me to revisit my traveling self and my expat self. My friends are all getting married and having babies. That’s not where I am. I don’t love infants. I do love toddlers. By the time I get back, their kids are all going to be fun again.
This is the third time I’ve lived abroad. I know myself pretty well. I don’t anticipate that I’d live in a place other than the U.S. for more than six months to a year at a time. That’s as long as I am interested in it and then I want to go home. The idea was one year in Asia.
Moving to Cambodia
I didn’t romanticize, ‘I’m going to move to Cambodia and it’s going to be this wonderful experience.’ It’s just a choice that I’ve made.
It’s pretty much like a job in a city anywhere other than the contextual things like the food is different, my motorcycle is a pain in the ass sometimes, traffic is ridiculous, pollution’s not awesome, the Wi-Fi cuts out all the time. For me the things that are more of a challenge are being away from a really strong community and sitting in loneliness in a different way. Every time I’ve moved abroad it’s been a bit lonely.
I’m being reminded that I don’t need to be productive socially or economically at every moment of the day. The city shuts down at 8 or 9 o’clock and I’m a night owl. And I have to be up at 6 or 7 every morning to come into a day job again. When I come home at 9 or 9:30 my block is empty and there are barely lights on. It’s quiet. The neighborhood is asleep. I don’t have that many friends. The process of making friends takes time so I don’t have plans every night. I don’t have plans every weekend. On a Friday night I’m at home sometimes thinking, ‘I don’t want to play this video game anymore. I’ve already read the three books on my Kindle. What else am I going to do for the next three hours?’ But then I remember, ‘Oh I don’t have to do something.’
I would never take a 9-to-5 job at home again. I just won’t do it. And here I did. And I like it. And I like the work. It’s a consultancy model. We’re kind of in and out. Having a 9-to-5 job here doesn’t stress me out the way that it does at home because everything else is so new. At the top of the list of priorities for moving abroad was the career experience and I needed a 9-to-5 job to do that.
The best way I’ve set myself up for success was to remind myself not to have expectations. I think having low expectations is pretty much the key to anything; to relationships, to being happy. That doesn’t mean be a pessimist. It’s just having expectations can be very troublesome.
Emilie’s ‘life reset’ advice
Travel — even if it’s in your home country. Just travel. Create space for yourself even if it’s just for a day or a morning or a weekend. Get out of your usual traffic patterns. Go to a coffee shop in a neighborhood you never go to. Read the paper somewhere you’ve never been before. Break your habits and patterns so you get used to breaking habits and patterns.
Break your habits and patterns so you get used to breaking habits and patterns.
Once you make a life change, it’s a lot easier to do the second time. I’ve life reset quite a bit. Like I said, I have this five-year thing. Selling a house is a pain in the ass but just do it. It was so easy to make the decisions this time around because I’d already made big decisions like that before. As long as you have some core values that you’re living and a direction that you want your life to take. There are a lot of decisions and choices that are going to come at you. Making the first decision is probably always the hardest. But it gets easier to shift direction and life reset to make big changes once you realize that starting over is not so bad.
Emilie Hitch is currently living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as the Strategy & Design Fellow for the Human-Centered Design i-Lab at iDE Cambodia, which pioneers and practices human-centricity in designing market-based solutions for the poor. A classically-trained cultural anthropologist, Emilie is founder and CEO of the anthropology-driven strategic consultancy, Thinkers & Makers.