December 5, 2020

How the Death of a Close Friend Changed the Trajectory of my Life.

“Someone dropped out of the build, so we need you,” my friend Marcus announced over the phone. “What do you say?”

“I’m in!” I squealed, jumping out of my seat at work, startling nearby coworkers.

This was the moment I had been waiting for since Marcus first told me about Burning Man. I could finally experience it for myself.

After moving from my quiet hometown in Northern England at 18 to the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, I steadily built a career in brand marketing for a global agency. My work had sent me to some of the biggest events like Coachella, SXSW, Comic-Con, and the New York Film Festival, but this was going to be something completely unique.

Burning Man is a festival unlike any other. The 70,000 annual attendees make up the second-largest city in Nevada for one entire week of the year. In exchange for my ticket, I helped build an exclusive camp for celebrities and Silicon-Valley-elite types who were willing to pay a hefty price tag to stay in VIP style.

After driving the 593 miles to Black Rock City, the festival entrance guards ominously announced “welcome home” as we entered the grounds. We then parked beside the people who we were going to build the camp with. They were a friendly mix of people, most of whom were seasoned “Burners,” happy to give advice to this newbie on how to make the most of my experience. I kept hearing people say, “It’ll change your life.”

Amongst the chaos of building the camp, I made a friend. I had been putting together wooden joints and got a splinter in my hand. “Hey girl, let me help you.” A beautiful Texan girl with a golden tan and short blonde hair noticed my minor injury and helped me dislodge the splinter from my hand, and cleaned and bandaged up the wound.

Her name was Leslie. Noticeably different from everyone else, not just because of the soft southern lilt in her accent, but also because there was something in her eyes. I couldn’t explain it. It was like magic. Whilst building our camp, we became fast friends and I learned of her life as a traveler. She was in her early 30s but looked a decade younger. I wondered if living a care-free lifestyle might have helped her stay so young.

We swapped stories and jokes and sang our favourite songs together as we worked late into the night, using ratchet straps and putting beams of wood together, which were two things I had never done before, and probably never will do again.

The most ridiculous things seemed to happen at that festival—and, at times, it got weird. A lot of passing chatter mentioned things like auras, chakras, and all kinds of things that, at the time, I hadn’t heard of.

Incredibly decorated art cars drove around stunning art—installations and structures designed by the best architects around the world. There was no shortage of entertainment for the senses at Burning Man, but at times, it felt a little overwhelming.

I remember getting to the point where hearing people around me talk about things like the autumn equinox, shadow veganism, and chemtrail conspiracy theories started to give me a headache. I started to miss regular life, where I understood what people were talking about. But Leslie helped me get through my homesickness. She told me to “rock it til the wheels fall off,” to remind me that we have to make the most of every moment at the festival—because our time there was so short and there were so many adventures to be had before we had to leave and go back to “real life.” Real life would always be there—Burning Man wouldn’t.

We spent most of the festival together. She was my tour guide into this whole new world of Burners, hippies, art, and magic. I was so intrigued by her. She knew the healing properties of plants and taught me a lot about herbal remedies while we were together. She didn’t live in one place for too long, working seasonally trimming marijuana in California, and then spent the rest of the year teaching yoga and managing hotels at interesting places like Ecuador and Indonesia.

I quickly realised that the glint in her eyes wasn’t magic—it was freedom. I didn’t know what that felt like first-hand. Throughout my entire working life, I had been tied down to a job to pay rent and bills. I was only allowed two weeks off per year, so I couldn’t ever go too far from home. I was trapped in a corporate machine and experiencing freedom—even vicariously through my new friend—felt liberating.

Like all good things, the festival eventually ended. My “real life” commitments restarted, and I returned to the corporate world in Los Angeles for the next few years with this feeling inside me that there was something better out there waiting for me than the typical 9 to 5 life.

Leslie and I kept in touch on a regular basis, messaging one another on Whatsapp and following each other’s lives on social media. She often sent me articles to read about the healing properties of plants. We would chat about our worlds and find humor in the tedious inevitabilities of life. I would see my friend traveling around the world on Instagram, meeting exciting people, and fully taking her slice of life and devouring it in a way that only free people know how.

She eventually made her way down to Ecuador to help manage a hotel and teach yoga in the surfer’s paradise of Ayampe, where she often posted photos of herself surfing, swimming, and teaching yoga. In comparison to my world of office cubicles and traffic jams, her life in paradise seemed perfect.

One morning I woke up to a message. “So sorry about your friend.” I logged onto Facebook to find that Leslie had died in the Amazon rainforest. She had gone on an ayahuasca trip with a Shaman and something had gone terribly wrong. When she was finally extradited home to be buried, she went to her family in Texas. I wasn’t able to get time off work to travel from California to go to the funeral. I was devastated. She added so much to my life and I never got the chance to tell her how much she meant to me as a friend—or say goodbye.

For a while, I wasn’t sure how to process what had happened. At least I knew that she had left us living her best life, which is more than I could say about myself.

In the car on the way to work that morning, a Drake song played on the radio: “I’m really trying to make it more than what it is because everybody dies, but not everybody lives.”

Everybody dies but not everybody lives. That’s the kind of phrase that will sit in your soul if you’re not living the way you are meant to.

My job involved working on campaigns with celebrities and managing brand partnerships for powerhouse brands. I was constantly monitoring social feeds filled with beautiful people living their best lives in tropical destinations, while I was stuck in a grey office with unflattering lighting, wasting away. I was always thinking to myself, “How do I give myself that life?”

I realised that being tied to a desk working for someone else’s dream of success wasn’t what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I needed to take my power back. I began to educate myself on how to translate my marketing skills to becoming a freelancer and help smaller businesses and entrepreneurs to succeed. This would be my ticket to freedom.

Less than a year later, I handed in my notice at work and transitioned what I had learned working for big brands to help small businesses and entrepreneurs succeed, while working from anywhere that I chose to be. I then bought a ticket to Bali to live as a digital nomad, learning to dive and surf while working from paradise. An act that I hope Leslie would have been proud of.

When I told family and friends of my plans to quit my job, I got a mixed reaction. Some were enthusiastic and supportive, and others thought I was insane. Maybe they were right, but it was more important for me to try and fail than to live the rest of my life wondering, “What if I had just gone for it?” Giving up a regular paycheque is scary, and can be unrealistic if you have important responsibilities like children or a mortgage. But I didn’t have those things. If you never try, then you’ll never know.

Anyone who has quit a stable job to start a business will tell you that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I have good days and bad days like anyone else. But ever since I made the choice to work freelance, I’ve never looked back. My long-term goals are to continue to work remotely, helping small businesses grow through marketing strategy, and hopefully, in turn, growing my own business in the process.

I’d also like to live in more countries and explore what life is like for different cultures. I find that a lot of people have reacted positively to the concept of remote work because it frees people up to work from wherever is best for them—be it a mother who would prefer to work from home so that she can also take care of her children, or someone like myself, who would like to explore the world while working.

I’m also passionate about the work that I do. Helping other entrepreneurs and business owners succeed means so much more to me now than it ever did helping to market big brands. Now, a successful marketing campaign means helping to put food on the table for a family-run business, rather than filling the pockets of corporate giants.

As a digital nomad, I have lived in Indonesia, Switzerland, and Italy. I don’t travel too often because I’ve found it too distracting to be able to get any work done. So I now stay in the same place for at least six months at a time, so that I can acclimatize and get into a rhythm to be able to focus on work when it’s needed. I’ve also found my people. I have supportive friends who work online around the world, and I’ve learned so much from them. It’s amazing how our life and social circle changes when we choose to do the things that inspire us.

I stopped living the life that others expected of me and started to live authentically, to begin experiencing more of the world and not wait around for some big break to help me get out of my situation.

I stopped waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel and lit it up myself.

But I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t met Leslie. If she hadn’t taught me to “rock it til the wheels fall off,” I might not have had so many adventures. She showed me that there was another way to live than to get a full-time job just to pay off debts of assets I had acquired to keep up with expectations.

I now know that living an authentic life isn’t just for celebrities and rich people.

When you let go of the societal boundaries of what you think you’re supposed to do, there’s more room to be who you were meant to be.

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