What Living In A Tent For 3 Months Taught Me About Being An Entrepreneur

Note: This is a guest post by Vicki Childs. You guys should check her out.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that psychologically strips you bare and forces into sharp focus the realities of who you truly are, both the good and the bad?  I’ve had that kind of experience.   What I learned had a profound affect on me, impacting my perspective on life even to this day.  As a solopreneur I still fall back on the lessons I learned and they help to hold my focus and keep my eyes on the prize.  

Totally unprepared

At the age of 22 I decided to go on expedition to Ghana in West Africa, a third world country nestled between Ivory Coast and Togo, two countries plagued by civil war.  The expedition was run by a charity organization that takes young British adults to developing countries to work on community and environmental projects.  Now believe it or not I’d never been camping.  Ever.  I wouldn’t even have known what to take camping.  I’d never been anywhere that wasn’t in Europe or the US, and then only with my parents.  I’m an only child who attended a tiny all girls private school in Windsor, England.  My graduating class was just 24 girls.  After school I attended a small university in Surrey where I studied psychology.  After college I fell straight into a well-paid consultancy job and it was at this time that I began planning my ‘grand adventure’. I must have been insane.  I had no clue what was in store for me, but soon I began to realize with growing horror what I’d got myself in to.

What the hell have I done?!!

The next 3 months in Africa would put me in situations I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

I tripped on hallucinogenic anti-malarial tablets, faced down poisonous snakes with sticks, and crapped in holes in the ground while groups of local kids watched with amusement.  I hiked 8 miles a day carrying everything on my back including tents, water canisters and medical supplies.  I mixed and poured cement to build rangers stations in the jungle, and I taught villagers about the risks of untreated cataracts.  For 3 months I ate and washed out of a 6-inch metal mess kit.  Yes – the same one.  It was an amazing experience, and I hated a great deal of it.

Finding peace with the madness

The first month was truly awful.  It was a soul destroying, unforgiving marathon of dirt, sickness, exhaustion, and loneliness.  I was miserable and nobody gave a damn.  I was a spoilt, privileged brat who needed to get over herself and just get on with it.   By the second month my perspective shifted and I began to come to peace with the madness that was my daily existence.  Even to embrace it.

Coming back to England was quite a culture shock.  After 3 months of living out of a stinky rucksack, having my very own closest filled with clean, ironed clothes seemed bizarre!  I now saw things that previously I’d taken completely for granted and that subtle shift in perspective has stayed with me ever since.

What I learned that I apply to my business today

 1.  Prioritize in the face of scarce resources:

In Ghana water was scarce and we were filthy.  When you’re allotted 2 cups of water to wash with every day it tends to make you prioritize!  I started to view a clean face and clean ‘essentials’ as the sign of a good day.  And hey – if there was a rainstorm I might even get to stand under the gutter and wash my hair!

Today in business I find that there are so many things I want to be doing but now my scarce resource is time.  I use that limitation as a filter for everything I do, constantly questioning whether a particular activity leads me to my ultimate goals.  So many entrepreneurs value their financial budget but squander their time.  They forget that time is just as finite and precious as money, if not more so!

 2.     Accept that very few people will truly understand:

It was so hard for me to describe my experiences of expedition to my loved ones.  I would write letters home while I was in Ghana recounting my daily trials.  My family and friends were horrified, impressed, proud and often just downright confused.  I think that unless you’ve actually experienced something like that you can never truly understand what it’s like.

I find the same is true for entrepreneurs.   Although those around you can sympathize and tell you you’re doing a great job, if they’ve never experienced the raw emotional roller coaster that comes with running your own business then they will always be to some extent, a supportive observer. It’s essential to find others who ‘get’ what it’s like to be on this journey and can give you support and perspective.

 3.     Reduce unnecessary noise.

It’s strange but one of my most vivid memories of my returning culture shock was standing in the cereal isle of a grocery store.  I couldn’t believe how many cereals there were!  Rows and rows stretching into the distance in a myriad colors, and I’d eaten nothing but porridge every day for the last 3 months!  I realized that we have so much choice in our daily lives, and if kept unchecked it can overcomplicate things unnecessarily, taking our focus away from what’s really important.

I see so many unseasoned solopreneurs fall into this honey trap.  There’s so much valuable information on the web that if you’re not careful you end up doing nothing but consuming more and more of it.  But that’s just an excuse for inaction.  You can read all the articles you like but you’re never going to make anything happen until you actually step outside the door and take a risk!

My question to you is this:  If you were forced to strip away all the unnecessary busyness in your day, if you could focus on only the most critical— If you were brave enough to step right out to the center of the stage not knowing what might happen, where could you take your business?  Sometimes what we’re most scared of is amazing things we could achieve, if only we were brave enough.

My name is Vicki Childs and my mission is to help successful women recognize and celebrate their brilliance while creating more balance in their lives.  I help them to re-focus, re-organize and re-prioritize, and ultimately release their true potential.

I qualified as a coach in 2009 and I have been working with amazing women ever since.


26 thoughts on “What Living In A Tent For 3 Months Taught Me About Being An Entrepreneur”

  1. “It was an amazing experience– and I hated a great deal of it”
    I felt very similarly about my time in the oilpatch. It was what they used to call ‘character-building’. I think the thing I took away from it was “I am incredibly powerful”. Not because I could effect change– the culture is quite intransigent. But because I could survive, and thrive, in the face of the exhaustion, the filth, the misogyny. THat’s very useful information to have, you know?

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Vicki! I love when seemingly unrelated areas of one’s life inform one another, as your trip to Ghana did for your business. And the lessons you extracted and shared with us are so true and so universal.
    I am one of those who fall into the honey trap of the internet! Sometimes I dread turning on my computer because I know I’ll end up lost in the maze of articles and social media, clicking and clicking on the shiny and intriguing headlines flying around. And more than it being a time-suck, even, I end up following someone else’s rules instead of figuring out for myself what it is I want to do. I almost feel like I have to shut out that world completely in order to get the things I want to do done sometimes.

  3. Vicki, though it wasn’t nearly the same culture shock, my wife and I learned lessons much like this from being nomads the past couple years. No permanent home. If it didn’t fit in the van, we didn’t take it. And anything can wait ’til the next stop.
    Everyone should take an opportunity to do something they don’t understand, and maybe their eyes will open as yours did.

  4. Vicki, what a great story and terrific takeaways. And a great question. Sometimes I think I have a handle on where I want my business to go, but I don’t feel like I have the clarity to bring my focus to that level yet. I think putting it in the perspective of ‘survival’ absolutely casts a whole new light on things.

  5. @Shanna Mann Thanks again Shanna for the opportunity to write a guest post for you.  Your tribe are such an insightful, engaged bunch that it’s a pleasure to share my story! 😉
    Thanks for the comments everyone!

  6. @remadebyhand I know – it’s so easy to do isn’t it!  The difficulty I find is that there’s just SO MUCH valuable information out there and I love learning and seeing new possibilities that I can easily lose an hour of my time if I’m not careful.
    I’m now quite strict about splitting my working hours into 3 distinct areas – create, connect and consume – in that order (this idea is totally stolen from Charlie Gilkey who’s fantastic – here’s the link http://www.productiveflourishing.com/create-connect-and-consume/)  That way once I’ve written some original material and had some business generating conversations I ‘allow’ myself some consumption time as a treat! 😉

  7. michaelwroberts

    I fall into the trap of planning. I’ll try to see a strategy all the way through in my head and imagine every possible consequence, rendering me useless for hours. Planning is essential. Coming up with a contingency plan for every possibility is just downright excessive.
    Thanks for sharing, Vicki!

  8. @spinhead Now that sounds brave to me!  I think it’s so liberating to know that you can live with less, even if you don’t choose to do it indefinitely.  It makes you a more pragmatic person and helps you see the possibilities in an ever-changing world.  My husband and I moved from England to LA when I was 7 months pregnant.  Most people thought we were crazy moving somewhere that we had no support network, nowhere to live etc but we just took it in our stride.  I think Ghana helped me to be able to do things like that.

  9. @sarahemily I hear ya!  I spent 3 years planning my business (9 months while I was pregnant and then 2 years before my little girl went to school.)  Of course when I finally launched things were very different from the theory! (much like reading parenting books before you have a baby.)  
    I’ve found that a lot of success comes down to just being brave.  I have to bite the bullet and just DO stuff, then see how it lands.  My business strategy is basically about DOING stuff consistently and then course correcting when I see where it’s taken me.  Its a bit like guesswork but just as Shanna said in her post about ‘ready-fire-aim’ nothing will happen until you commit to action.  It might not be pretty at first but it’s progress!

      1. @sarahemily I just checked out your website – I love your philosophy!  The structure of the site flows really well too – I felt like I was being guided by a warm and humorous host!  😉 
        Wish you all the best and hopefully we can stay in touch?  I’ve liked you through Facebook and Twitter.

  10. Hello Vicki.  The information in this post is so valuable, and I will go back to it from time to time to remind me of your advice (or transfer it to a desktop sticky with other gems!).  What I love is the organization of your post – so straightforward.  Ghana-solopreneurs-Ghana-solopreneurs. 
    Communities like this one are so valuable in dealing with #2.  Although our experiences are all unique, we can often find that common thread that makes you feel less like an island.  Although I am lucky to have a husband who runs a business alongside me (he-guitar, me-tutoring), we were unable to accept that few people will understand.  Now we each find that connecting with others adds so much to our experience.  We find ourselves asking, “Did you read what ______ (insert cool person like, say, Shanna) said about ______?”  The discussion that ensues leads us to deeper understandings and has an impact on how we run our business.  So glad to see you here, and thank you so much!

    1. @tammyrenzi I totally agree.  There are far too many newbie entrepreneurs surfing the web and reading content but never actually making real connections with people.  Some of my greatest insights and most energizing moments have come through skyping and emailing with other entrepreneurs I’ve met online.  Nothing beats an actual conversation eh? 
      Good luck to you and your husband it’s so fantastic that you are able to share this journey together!

    1. @ethanwaldman Hi Ethan.  I love your website!  How cool that you’ve written for Charlie Gilkey – if he had a badge I’d be wearing one 😉 
      To answer your question I try not to replicate unnecessarily, I try to leverage my time by following systematic processes, and I try to review in chunks.
      I use the post-it note philosophy of getting things done – think big but implement in small and consistent increments.  Now that sounds great but I have to admit I struggle with consistency.  I’m a sucker for the new and shiny and I go from being all about Facebook for 2 days to vanishing for a week to write new coaching materials!  I’m now using Remember The Milk to really structure my weeks activities, and I try to follow Shanna’s advice by having a decent planning and review process! 😉
      What tools would you suggest to help keep a consistent focus on essential activities?

  11. I have a hard time cutting the noise because I don’t know what’s essential. It never feels that black and white to me. Especially with creative work where we’re creating something that is non-essential, to be frank and honest. I think what’s essential becomes clear when you actually are in the situation where you have no choice but to consider those things. It’s like you said, it’s something you can’t understand unless you’ve been there. How could one realistically visualize themselves in that situation where things are scarce without having the experience? Any thoughts?

    1. @deniseurena I know what you mean about the noise.  The constant possibilities, the infinite possible consequences of every action – it’s like playing a full game of chess inside your head!  I find brilliant ideas flash past and then they are gone. There’s part of me that likes to indulge this kind of thinking – it’s exciting and energizing but unless I can write something down at the end it tends not to convert into anything very useful or tangible!

    2. @deniseurena I’m terrified by the thought of an artist classifying art as non-essential.
      I’ve lived without a home, without an oven, without a job, without all kinds of things many people would consider essential. But I’ve never gone a day without art in my life, not since before my memories start at age 3-ish.
      You can’t visualize it, you have to do it. It’s like my attempt to lose weight by visualizing what I’d do if there just wasn’t enough food. Well, I’d go to the fridge and get a snack, because there IS enough food, and all the unrealistic imaginings in the world won’t make us put ourselves in danger (which is what our unconscious spends all its time doing: protecting us from danger, real or imagined. You can NOT overcome it with conscious thought.)
      Wanna see what’s essential? Pick a small space (for us, it was a minivan, for some it’s an 8 x 12 tiny house) and tell yourself if it doesn’t fit, get rid of it.
      I thought I couldn’t get rid of my books. I lost a 1,000-book library once, and I’m a little obsessive about books. But when we gave up the house we rented in California to become nomads, I gave the library 10 large cases of books. I gave away 9 computers I couldn’t sell. We gave away 80% of our furniture and sold 19% and kept two tables in a friend’s garage.
      Constraints amplify creativity. Give yourself a very real constraint, and you’ll determine what’s important.
      Oh; what I didn’t get rid of was 3 guitars, bass, snare drum, keyboard, mandolin, and PA for performing. While I sold the big PA speakers, I kept the small ones. Sold the huge bass speaker, kept the powerful amp. My wife wouldn’t dream of us traveling without every musical instrument I own. We left behind other things so we’d always have a way for me to create music.

        1. @deniseurena Sometimes I come across angry when I’m really just excited. 🙂
          But I’m not speaking in a different context, honest. That’s what gets me excited. People assume we need food, clothing, shelter, air, but that if we didn’t have art, we’d still live. And, not just metaphorically, physically and literally, we would not. If you never had the emotional stimulus of art, you would die, physically, literally, just as surely as if you didn’t have food. Not as quickly, of course, but just as surely.
          But that was the least important part of my comment. The good part was about how to teach yourself what’s important.

        2. @spinhead It IS a different context because when I say non-essential, I’m speaking in terms of selling art as a product, like a painting or a book, for example. We can all go around making art all day long for ’emotional stimulus’ and enjoy what we create, but to *purchase* art as a product is unessential to *survival*.  Artist or not, I’m humble enough to admit that. And if you want someone to see the *good part* of your comment, try not starting it with an insult. 
          All the best to you.

        3. @deniseurena I’m sorry something I said upset you. Not my intention. I come to Shanna”s blog to interact with the smart people who hang out here and would never intentionally say something unpleasant. I apologize.

  12. Hey Vicki,
    This was powerful. I particularly liked the part about people who haven’t experienced what you have not being able to truly get it. Although I believe that all humans share a tremendous amount in common, the experiences vary so differently…even within a close family. For example, I’ll never understand what it means to carry a child inside you for 40 weeks and then forcefully push it out of you over the course of a day or so (or more).
    Thank you for sharing your story with us. The way you translated the lessons learned in Ghana to our entrepreneurial world are worthy of sharing. Protect your resources, help other people grow their resources, and always seek the common bond that binds you with someone else.

    1. @joeyjoejoe I’m glad you liked it.  Having done the baby production thing twice I’d say it’s not for the faint of heart! 😉 
      It’s great to share experiences that help others see their challenges from a different perspective isn’t it?  I love your website by the way – I’ve liked you on Facebook. 
      Have a great week!

  13. I lived in a tent in St. Louis mo for four months,was pregnant,homeless,and jobless thanks to parent who betrayed me,bad ex husband,and Walmart cut my hours and benefits.then Walmart tried to use me in slave labor,but I said no more!

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