I thought I’d start out the New Year with a story…
Some folk (and especially those who are new and/or who don’t know much of my personal journey) may wonder how we ended up doing what we’re doing. What compelled us to turf all our stuff? What made us ditch the debt, rent out the house, take the kids out of school… and begin a nomadic existence of travel and exploration?
Well… here’s an important part of story: I call it my Bathtub Moment.
The moment… when I knew… with utmost clarity and certainty that my life had to change.
My life didn’t need slight tweaks and adjustments… it needed to change.
As in: completely.
As in: irrevocably.
The entire trajectory of my existence needed to shift on to a different course. It needed to be different. Very, very different. And I knew… with certainty… that I could never go back.
It was mid-2007.
At the time, I owned a graphic design and below-the-line ad agency called COPS Creative Corporation.
I don’t exactly know how I ended up with that company. It certainly wasn’t on my list of Life’s Big Dreams (to own a design agency). I probably ended up in that position for the same reason that (most?) people end up doing the stuff they do.
I kinda… drifted there.
It just sorta… happened.
It’s like I had been swept up by the tidal wave of life… and dumped unceremoniously on a shore I’d never intended visiting.
It went something like this:
- I have a creative talent.
- I started doing freelance design work for a few friends.
- Word spread.
- More clients came along and asked me to design for them.
- Eventually, there was too much work for me to be able to manage on my own… so I hired another designer to help me – and voila! a business was born!
By 2007, the business had grown significantly. I employed 10 people (excluding myself). 8 people were employed by COPS and, on the home-front, I employed another 3 – including a full-time nanny (who cared for 2-year-old Morgan) and a full-time housekeeper.
In 2007, my life was… kinda like a runaway train. It surged ahead, full-steam… and although I knew that I should have been up front in the cab, powering the train and tooting the whistle… it felt as though the train was driving itself, and I was limping on the train-tracks, far behind the train, frantically trying to catch up.
It was exhausting and disheartening.
At the time, Nick and I lived in a large suburban home which we had moved in to shortly after we’d married in Feburary 2005. Morgan arrived in November 2005. Joah followed in March 2008.
The house (and attached cottage) was our home… but was also a studio for Nick (a filmmaker)… and the headquarters of COPS.
My company created advertising and promotional campaigns for a number of clients. I once heard somebody (I think it was a copywriter) refer to this kind of work as “rolling other people’s turds in glitter”.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what it felt like.
Sometimes, I not only disliked the clients… but I thought their products and services were horrible. Horrible and turdish. And yet – I would need to don the polite-and-enthusiastic-smile… and invent creative ways to promote said turdish product… to glitterize it… to make it more palatable to the general public… to generate sales for my clients.
(Obviously this isn’t true of all of my clients – I had some lovely clients too) – but it felt as though most of them (and certainly the large, arrogant corporations) required me to do lots of turd-rolling.
One of my largest clients was a company that owed hotels.
LOTS of hotels.
They were a big, hotel-owning company and (like all big corporations) they were concerned about one thing: The Bottom Line.
I did lots and lots of turd-rolling for this company.
And I did lots of corporate brown-nosing in their bling-encrusted boardrooms (whilst sipping their shitty coffee). I’d talk the jargon-talk and dazzle them with assurances of how amazing their next campaign would be.
Then I’d go home… and my designers and I would work crazy hours in order to meet the demands and expectations of the client.
My Bathtub Moment was, in a sense, the fruit of this particular hotel-owning client.
And I remember it as though it were yesterday…
When it happened, Nick was away on an international shoot. Nick was usually my reliable buffer when the shit hit the fan. If I had crazy deadlines, he’d make sure that Morgan was taken care of (during the evenings… or over weekends and holidays when the nanny wasn’t there).
But, on this occasion, Nick was away. For 3 solid weeks.
And during those 3 weeks, my hotel-owning client suddenly decided (at the last possible moment) that they wanted to exhibit at Indaba (a huge expo for the travel & hospitality industry, held in Durban every year).
Not only were they going to exhibit at Indaba, but they needed thousands of printed fact sheets, posters, brochures (and every kind of promotional material imaginable) for ALL of their hotels.
ALL of these items needed to be designed, printed and delivered to their flashy double-storey exhibit by 7am on the first morning of Indaba.
We had 2 weeks to pull it off. 2 weeks!!
Usually… a job of this size will take the printing company – alone – 2 weeks to produce (at a push). And we needed to first DESIGN the whole lot… and have it all checked and proofed and signed off before I could send a single item to the printer.
To cut a long story short, I worked like a rabid dog for those 2 weeks. I lived on a cocktail of coffee and Red Bull. I slept in short spurts. I paid the nanny overtime to help me with Morgan in the evenings (she bathed her, fed her and put her to bed).
I sent the work to the printing company in stages. As soon as one fact sheet had been proofed and signed-off, I immediately forwarded the artwork to the printer. At one stage, I humiliated myself when I begged my printer… (like a dog!)… literally, I begged him… with genuine tears in my eyes to “Please, please, please… make it happen, please!” – when he told me that he just didn’t think it was possible to have everything printed by the prescribed deadline.
“It has to be ready”… I begged him, “Please, it has to…”
I was really worried that I wouldn’t have everything at the Indaba exhibit by 7am on launch day – as expected. I fretted about what might happen if I didn’t meet that deadline.
What if I lost the client? And how would we pay all the bills and salaries without that hotel-owning client?
A day before the deadline, I was pacing my studio like a restless, caged animal.
I’d phone the printer.
“Is everything ready yet? Can I collect?”
“No! Not ready yet!”
The hotel-owning client was also phoning me… regularly.
“Are you on your way to Indaba?”, they’d ask.
“No, I’m still in Joburg. I’m waiting for the printing to come off the press”.
“What? Why isn’t it ready yet?” they demanded, seemingly oblivious to how much of my life I had given up… and how much turd-rolling I had taken on for them. No, wait… I wasn’t turd-rolling. For this particular job, it felt as though I had submerged myself in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of corporate poo!
By 5pm, I was starting to get desperate. I phoned the printing company again:
“Please, please tell me that it’s ready”…
“It’s off the press. We’re just waiting for the ink to dry. Then we’ll score, fold and send it through the guillotine”
“It’s not cut yet?” – I asked, feeling the desperation and panic beginning to rise like bile in my throat…
“We’re doing the best we can, Heather” – said the printer, sounding distinctly unfriendly. He had a bite to his voice that suggested that his patience was wearing really, really thin.
By 8:15pm, the job was ready.
I had packed a small, overnight bag, dropped Morgan off at her grandparents and had driven my Renault Modus to the printing factory. The staff helped me to load 10 000 copies of fact sheets, brochures and posters into my small car. The printed material engulfed my Modus. It filled the boot, the back seat (I couldn’t even see out my rearview mirror)… and it towered precariously on the passenger seat next to me.
I was worried that if I made an abrupt turn in my car, that the mountain of printing would topple over and crush me like an insect.
The weight was clearly too much for the Modus. The axles creaked… the tyres looked as they would burst under the strain – but I didn’t care. I had possession of the completed artwork. Now I just needed to drive it all to Durban (700 kilometres / 435 miles away).
With my overnight bag, 8 tins of Red-Bull and a tiny car… overloaded with printed promotional material… I drove, through the night, from Johannesburg to Durban.
Oh – and did I mention…? I was also pregnant with Joah at the time!
I was beyond exhausted… beyond stressed… beyond sleep-deprived. I drove with the windows down so that the cool night air would (hopefully) keep me awake so that I (hopefully) wouldn’t plunge myself off a ravine… or something.
About an hour in to my drive, I received a phone call. It was from the hotel-owning-client (the CEO himself).
“Where the FUCK are you?” he barked into my ear.
Just as I was about to explain… in my most polite, brown-nosing voice… and tell him that I was on the road, that the job would be delivered on time… the battery on my phone went flat.
I drove the rest of the way to Durban with the knowledge that the CEO was foaming-at-the-mouth-mad at me… expecting me not to show up on time (if at all).
Just the knowledge of this, filled me with dread.
I arrived at my hotel at 3 in the morning. It was a beautiful, 5-Star establishment and I was shown to my lavish suite by a polite porter (I had tried to book a cheaper hotel, but, with Indaba on the go, every reasonably priced hotel room in the whole of Durban was booked up. Only super-expensive places were available).
I slept for 2 hours… woke at 5am… showered, dressed, ate breakfast… and returned to my loaded Modus, only to discover: a flat tyre!
The Modus was going nowhere.
I felt that familiar feeling of panic begin to rise: “Oh crap! Oh crap! Oh crap! I have to have all this stuff at the hotel exhibit… at Indaba… in the centre of town… at 7am! It’s now 6am… and I have a flat tyre!”
Thankfully… mercifully… my cousin was also attending Indaba (she and her husband own a lodge in Limpopo and they were also exhibiting that year). I phoned Clare, explained my predicament and her husband, Michel, drove to my hotel… helped me re-load all the shrink-wrapped parcels into his van… and helped me deliver the whole lot… ON TIME… to the hotel-owning client’s flash double-storey exhibit.
After off-loading the trolley… I sank down on to the floor in a daze.
It was at that moment that the hotel-owning CEO arrived on the scene (the one who had sworn at me on the phone the night before… and who had since left a number of threats and choice words on my voice-mail during the course of the evening).
He was striding, red-faced, down the aisle… followed by a small cluster of worried-looking, note-taking minions. Upon reaching his exhibit, he stopped abruptly… glared darkly at me and turned his attention to the mountain of neatly-stacked printed material that I had delivered. Realising that everything was there… on time… he glanced back at me, delivered a curt nod, spun on his heel, and left.
No “thank-you”, no acknowledgement… absolutely nothing.
I was simply the hired help – and I was expected to do whatever it took… to deliver the goods. If I had plunged the Modus off a cliff-face in the middle of the night… and died… his biggest concern would have been whether there were enough salvageable pamphlets for Indaba.
Michel dropped me back at my hotel.
I went to my suite, put on some music and sunk into a very hot bath.
I so desperately wanted Nick and Morgan with me. I wanted them in that hotel room with me. I wanted to lean against Nick and feel the reassurance of his warm hugs. I wanted to scoop up my baby girl and just BE with her. I wanted to see her beautiful face. I wanted to listen to her laughter.
But, I was alone in that tub… in that big, 5-star-suite.
Exhausted… stressed… and alone (well, not entirely alone… I had a baby boy growing inside of me, at the time).
And THAT was when my Bathtub Moment happened.
I started to cry… as in howl-cry.
Big salty tears plopped into the steaming bath water… and I howled some more.
And then I started to QUESTION.
“Why am I here? What am I doing? Why am I doing this work? Why am I putting up with these turdish clients? Why am I running this business? Is it WORTH it? Is it worth the humiliation? The stress? Was this my dream? Did I even want this? If I didn’t want it, why am I doing it? Is this all there is? Is this what life is supposed to be like? Is it possible to escape this? Is it possible to change this? Is it possible to dig myself out of this hole? Is it possible to re-imagine and re-design my entire life? …”
Deep down, I already knew all the answers to the questions that I was spewing out. Deep down, I already knew what needed to be done. The Bathtub Moment was simply the first time I had articulated it to myself… the first time I’d given myself permission to feel… and dream… and to decide that I wanted something else for my life. Something different.
And so, right there, right then… I decided.
Just like that.
The decision was made.
After I had returned from Joburg… after Nick had returned from his shoot, I told him what I wanted to do.
“I want to shut down COPS. It’s just killing me slowly. And the stress is not worth the money I make”.
Nick agreed. And that was the end of that. I closed the business. Shut it all down. My staff found other work. I phoned all of my clients and told them they’d have to find a new design agency. We sold the computers. Shut down the shop. Paid the last of the bills. And just like that… it was gone.
COPS Creative Corporation was no more.
And just like that… I had the freedom to decide: “What do I want to actually DO with my life?”…
And… I think… I’m only just beginning to figure out the answer to that question.
Thanks for reading!