Only a couple of years ago (in 2007), my life was very different.  I had all the so-called important stuff that society tells us is… well, important.  A happy marriage?  Tick!  Healthy kids?  Tick!  A nice, big house?  Tick!  A new car?  Tick!

And, of course, my own business.  (Nick had/has his own business too!)… I guess it runs in our blood since we both come from families of self-made entrepreneurs.

For those who don’t know me too well – I’m a graphic designer (among other things).  I had freelanced for many years before marrying Nick – but once we were married, I guess I thought it was an appropriate time to start ‘getting serious’ about my work.  And so, the more I worked… the more work I got… the more new clients came my way… the less time I had.  So, I did the only ‘logical’ thing:  I hired another graphic designer to help share the load.  And… then another.

And then, I had to buy new macs for said designers… so, off I went to the Apple store to purchase machines!  And then there were all the bills and invoices and admin – so I hired a secretary / PA!  And then – stuff needed to be sold and I needed people working on PR… so I hired 2 more people.   And opened a shop (as well as a studio)… and purchased a massive printer…. and… and… and…

And before I knew it – I had a business… new office furniture… new equipment… one shop, one studio, 3 graphic designers (excluding myself)… 1 secretary / PA… 2 sales people… and that’s excluding the home-front… because when one works like a dog – days, nights and weekends…. one also needs staff to hold down the fort at home… so we also employed a gardener (once a week)… a nanny (full time) to look after the kids and cook supper… and a housekeeper (to try and keep the large house and all the STUFF we had accumulated there – in some kind of order!).

The nanny looked after my kids for the first couple of months – while I worked in my refurbished home office.  When Morgan was abut 9 months old, I sent her along to Day Care.  When Joah was born, he started attending Day Care even earlier than Morgan (6 months).  Day Care hours were from 7:15am until 5pm… then I would collect them – and we’d go home to eat whatever the nanny had cooked… and we’d routinely slump ourselves in front of the TV for a couple of hours (unless we were working on a deadline, of course).

This is what life consisted of:  Working.  Eating.  Sleeping.  Watching TV.

One might wonder:  WHY?  Why did I live this life?

And ironically… I couldn’t answer the ‘why’ question for a very long time.  Was it for the money?  Sure – the money was streaming in… but it was streaming out just as quickly!  Salaries were, by far, the most expensive costs… followed closely by rent (for the shop), phones, petrol costs, admin costs and lots of new equipment and software and stock photography and, and, and….

Because it was my business, it was my priority to make sure that everyone else got paid first… which meant that often, there wasn’t much money left for me.  And even on the months there was decent money available – I had absolutely NO TIME to do anything with it.

THE WEEKEND I ALMOST CRACKED

One of the worst weekends I can remember was during “Indaba” Season.  As it happened, one of my biggest clients was a corporation which owned a number of hotels.  I did all of the graphic design and most of the photography for those hotels.  Their brochures, menus, promotions, posters, spa treatment menus, business cards – you name it!

Indaba, by the way, is a big deal for the Travel Industry here in South Africa.  Every year, they have a huge expo in Durban – and it’s ‘the’ opportunity for all the various hotels, game lodges, tour operators, etc – to get business (lots of international visitors, booking agents, etc – come to visit Durban during this time).

I had a MASSIVE (and this is an understatement) load of work that I needed to have ready for Indaba on a really, really tight deadline.  There were 18 different hotels and I needed to design and print all of their fact sheets, brochures, etc – and have thousands of copies PRINTED and ready… at the hotel’s Indaba stand… in Durban… at the crack of dawn on the first day of Indaba.

The pressure was enormous.  I couldn’t afford to lose this client – and so I worked solidly… through 2 weeks… living off coffee, Red Bull and tablets to try and keep me awake.  To make matters worse, I had to literally b-e-g the owner of the printing company to meet the printing deadline… and when he said:  “I just don’t see how it’s possible, Heather”… I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes and had to use all my willpower to stop myself from collapsing in a snotty heap of stressed-out-tears right in front of him!

To make matters worse, Nick was in the States on a 3 week shoot – so I also needed to hold down the fort at home without his help.

The day before Indaba… I was still in Johannesburg…. with all of the client’s printing which had JUST come off the printing press – and was still drying and being cut to size.  The job was finally complete at 6:30pm.

I dropped Morgan off at my mother’s house… packed a bag… and drove to the printing factory where I loaded thousands of pamphlets / flyers / fact sheets / etc into my car.  There was barely room for my handbag – and the packages were piled ceiling-high!  (I certainly couldn’t see out of my rearview window).

And then I drove… through the night… on my own… to Durban (which is 500 kilometres / 300 miles from Joburg!).  I was so utterly exhausted – and was worried that I would fall asleep behind the wheel, crash the car and kill myself.  So I drove with all the windows down, the music blaring – and I ate continually… gums… chocolates… more Red Bull… more stay-awake-tablets.

To make matters worse – my client (an ominous sort of fellow with a lot of money and power) left a really horrible message on my cell phone.  He was at Indaba already – and wanted to know where the fuck I was – and where the fuck the printing was!  When I heard his message – I was a gibbering wreck… utterly exhausted… utterly spent… going to this INSANE amount of (very unappreciated) effort for this man…. (and now I have to ask myself:  for what?)

I arrived in Durban at 2am.  I was booked into a 5-Star guest house in Umhlanga.  It was one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever had the privilege of staying in… a gorgeous suite… with all the trimmings.  A massive King sized bed – a huge library of movies to choose from… a big bath-tub (that could have easily accommodated Nick too… if he were there)… all kinds of soaps and luxuries.  Chocolates in the room… the best coffee… and a lovely view of the sea (which I awoke to the following morning).

And yet – it was just me:  alone.

No Nick to enjoy it with me… no family.  No time to relax.   Just me, alone:  tired, stressed and utterly, utterly exhausted.

I ran myself a hot bath… and I lay in that beautiful bath, in that beautiful suite – and just cried.

(PS:  You need to know this:  I am NOT a crier.  I am not the type of person who tears up easily).

The following day, I awoke early, had breakfast and went outside only to discover that my car had a flat tyre!  (Probably all the added weight from the mountain of printing!).  So… additional stress was added as I tried to find help (it was too early in the morning for most businesses to be open – including people who repair tyres).

Thankfully, my cousin and her husband came to my rescue (they were also in Durban for Indaba)… and, with their help, I made it to Indaba – with all the printing – in time.

As I arrived at the stand of my client, dragging a trolley laden with promotional material – I had hoped for some kind of acknowledgement… perhaps even a thank-you?  (After all – the short deadline had been their fault – not mine!).  But all I got was a brusque nod – and then he was gone.

I helped his staff organise all of the promotional material – and spent the day wandering through the halls of Indaba – looking at all the beautiful hotels and lodges on display and wishing… dreaming… for a different kind of life.

I stayed one more night in that lovely room which… just didn’t feel so great with nobody to share it with me… and drove back to Johannesburg the following day – where a small mountain of deadlines (from other clients) awaited me.

Yes, that was my life back then.

THE PROCESS OF PACKING IT IN

I shut down my business in November 2007… not because it was a ‘failure’… not because we were bankrupt… or any of the usual reasons one closes a business.  I shut it down because I was exhausted, disillusioned and tired – and none of it made any sense any more.  All that work…all those deadlines, the stress, the extra-hours, the ungrateful clients… for what?

I wanted a different life.

Everyone left (although the house staff remained)…  the macs were sold… (I still have that bloody big printer if anyone wants it!)… and I contacted all of my clients (including the big hotel company) and told them that Heather Costaras was no longer doing graphic design – for anybody!

In early 2008, I launched Beautiful Life Project (which was far more in line with what I really wanted to do with my life).  In 2009, I co-launched Tapestry of Dreams.  In 2010, I launched VENT! and in 2011, I launched WOODO (Women who DO!).

And then guess what?  Burn out – again!

That’s the problem with me!  I have an odd propensity to launch myself head-first into massive projects and ideas without giving much thought (at all!) to the consequences – or the toll it’s going to take on my life / time / finances.

To make matters worse – Nick has also been experiencing severe burn-out of late.  My amazing husband has been working like a madman – consistently – for all this time.  My income (and especially since I shut down the business) has been… ummm… erratic (to put it lightly).  Nick has provided the steady flow of income for our family – but at a cost.  He is also on the cusp of burn-out.  Last year, and the beginning of this year, especially – had him working absolutely insane hours.  I don’t think I know anybody who works the hours my husband works.  And I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband.  The man doesn’t sleep!

And again…  for what???

These are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves for the past couple of months.  How can we drastically scale down our lives – our expenses – our STUFF – and spend our time and money on what is most important to us.

What’s important?  Well – spending decent quality time with our children, for one!  Enjoying our work (another one).  Volunteering and/or doing something meaningful with our lives.  Travelling and going on adventures (high on the list of stuff we consider important to our well-being).  Living debt-free (very important!)… and so on.

THE STEPS WE’VE TAKEN SO FAR…

  • The first step was to ditch that time-sucking television set!  We’ve been TV-less for almost 2 years and it was one of the easiest and best decisions we could have made.  We now have far more Family-Time… and, when the kids go to bed, I can get productive on hobbies, research, art – or other things I enjoy… instead of mindlessly staring at the box.
  • We’ve gotten rid of a lot of debt (this is thanks to Nick – who is far better at money-management than me!).  We have 2 cars… both are paid off.  We’re donating one of them to Adelaide (our faithful nanny).  We don’t have credit card debt (the banks keep phoning Nick and asking him if he wants to increase the limit on his credit card, and he steadfastly tells them “NO!”).  We’ve changed medical aid coverage to a plan that offers us more options for the same amount of money.  We’re not paying anything off (except the house).
  • We both work from home.  Nick works in the studio – I have an office in the house.  This saves us lots of money.
  • We took the kids out of Day Care / Pre-primary School.  This is also one of the best decisions I could have made.  Morgan – at the age of 4 – was coming home and telling me about diets and thinness and how important it was not to get fat… (at the age of FOUR!!!!!) – and I thought:  “Hell, no!!!”.  Peer pressure – to be thin – from the age of f-o-u-r.  I have been down that awful road… (although for me it started at the age of 11 – not 4!)… and so, I’ve decided to homeschool the kids – for now (the peer pressure / toxic culture thing is only one of the reasons, by the way… not “the” reason).  Obviously – this is also saving us lots of money – and providing us with lots more time with our kids (which I am loving).
  • I am purging our stuff…  I have donated a small Everest to WOODO… and yesterday, donated another pile of stuff to a homeless man who just happened to be passing by our house at the right time.  All of the stuff makes me feel … itchy… irritated… burdened… as though I’m not in control.  All of this stuff needs to be constantly organised… tidied… cleaned… kept in it’s place (and up until this point, we have paid people to help us manage STUFF)… what if it just wasn’t there anymore??
  • I am learning to delegate.  One of the best things I have ever done (with regards to my projects) is to delegate!  Jo Stroebel is now running WOODO.   Roz Thomas now runs Tapestry of Dreams (from London)   I’m still involved – but it has taken a massive burden off my shoulders to not be trying to stubbornly do everything myself… and, of course, it provides me with more TIME!   Additionally, Janet du Preez is helping me organise Beautiful Life Project events – and I welcome her help!  Janet, Jo and Roz are amazing.  Amazing!
  • With regards to staff, we still have Banda coming once a week to do the gardening.  Instead of a full-time housekeeper, Mandy now comes 3 times a week.  Our dear nanny (and now, good friend), Adelaide – still works full-time… but not because we NEED her to.  Because we want to help launch her into a new life.  We’ve sent her on a computer course, she’s getting her drivers licence and we’re giving her one of the cars.  With WOODO’s help, we hope to set her up in her own business – so when we sell our house and GO… she won’t be jobless or in a predicament.  All of this has been going well – so far, so good.
  • We used to live off Woolworths food… now I buy our groceries from Pick ‘n Pay and the Food Lovers Market (much… much cheaper!).  We are making an effort to downscale our lives in every imaginable way so that TIME and MONEY can be spent on the important things… not on ‘maintaining’.

THE STEPS WE STILL NEED TO TAKE:

  • Finish renovating the house!  This is taking time – because we’re doing it with money we have (instead of going in to debt to do it).  I’m not the most patient person on the planet.  NOT!  I want to be on the plane already… this slow process of renovating makes me want to gnaw off a pinkie!
  • Once the house is renovated – SELL IT!  (and I really, really hope it doesn’t take months and months to sell!)
  • And then… ta-da! – our Family Adventure truly begins!

PS:  Apologies for this long-winded post.  Hope you weren’t bored!  I can ramble on at times, I know!