Deborah Fitzgerald: Choosing to live differently

Making the move to Amsterdam reconnected me with my values and changed my life.

Human beings are spectacularly bad at predicting outcomes; the evidence is all around us, positive and negative. Sometimes the benefits and costs, the risks and rewards seem obvious, but often it can take years for the impacts of one or other decision to fully unfurl.

When we’re making choices we tend to identify with the benefits and rewards of a particular option (convenience, for example), but are not so good at predicting the downside (climate change).

While we can conceptually grasp that change – in us and in our universe – is constant and inevitable, and that what works today won’t necessarily be fit for purpose tomorrow, our first-line response to change is often resistance.

Getting comfortable with the idea of uncertain outcomes is at the heart of disruption and innovation – it can be liberating, and help us make radical choices and better decisions, just when we need them most.

In 2008 I chose to leave a successful, high-profile career, and my life in London, to move to Amsterdam with my husband.

It has been a life-affirming and liberating choice and just what I needed. A good outcome, so far. It’s a revelation to live somewhere else; even if you think you know the place, you learn a huge amount about yourself.

We’d been living in London for almost twenty years. My husband worked in social services for local government; I was marketing director of a global branding consultancy.

I’d had a rewarding career working with exceptional people, brands and organisations. I’d worked hard and was at the top of my game, well paid with a six-figure salary and the rest. With a small loving family, an active private and professional social life, and a lovely flat in town – what’s not to like?

I’m miserable. I feel guilty, ungrateful and weirdly angry. I’ve lost balance. It feels for the first time that I’m doing this job because I have to, not because I want to. I fear I have become a rat. A rat with a nice handbag, but a rat nonetheless, in a race I no longer care about winning. I feel seriously disconnected from my values and I’m anxious and disoriented.

March 2008 – We go to Amsterdam for a weekend break to help us recalibrate. It is our third visit to the lowlands this year. My Dad lived here for a few years and we stop at a bar that he used to frequent. We’ve been talking about how much we like the culture and rhythm of life here, it feels more in sync with our values. There’s a domestic, friendly scale to the architecture of the city. It’s a very creative and livable environment. We both feel relaxed and free and are sad to leave.

I start planning change. We need to work. Initially we think about decamping to the UK countryside, maybe Yorkshire or Dorset. I briefly flirt with an idea that focuses on distributing regional produce.

Just this simple act of imaginative thinking starts to shift my mind into a positive place and reconnect me with what I value. I begin to feel excited about the possibilities ahead.

I start exploring opportunities to live and work in Europe. I find a lovely flat on the river Amstel and interesting work through my network. A beloved friend calls and tells me he is moving to Amsterdam with his partner and it feels like a deal clincher for me. We take the plunge and by June, we’re living there.

I was shocked by how difficult I found the first year of living somewhere else, particularly as I’d lived abroad and travelled a lot as a child, and in my work. I missed my friends and family profoundly and it took me time to adjust.

As for life in The Netherlands: well, the Dutch are famously ‘direct’, and they say what they think. This can be difficult if you’re English or having a sensitive day. In business it can be frustrating – everyone has something to say and consensus can be hard to reach – but generally, I’ve come to prefer the straight line to going around the houses. You know where you stand.

The work culture is surprisingly different, considering the country is only 100 kilometres or so from the UK. On meeting you, the Dutch tend not to ask you what you do for a living as a first or even second question. They don’t define themselves or others by their work or profession. It’s an innovative and entrepreneurial environment. It’s refreshing and liberating and has allowed me to be more fully who I am in all parts of my life. Biking everywhere and being able to make it to yoga classes every evening if I choose are simple daily pleasures.

Of course research, reconnaissance and planning are important when you are making big, life changing decisions. But truth is you can’t know everything that lies ahead. I’ve found that making a positive choice, taking a big leap becomes possible when you are able to let go of certainty, are open to different outcomes and trust yourself and your innate adaptability.

• Trust your instinct
• Practice a bit of imaginative thinking
• Let your values lead your big life decisions
• Embrace uncertainty
• Be prepared to be surprised
• Listen to your feelings and emotions
• Draw practical support from trusted advisers and people who have your best interests at heart

I’m mindful that the right and freedom to choose the life we want to live has been hard won and is still denied to many women by their circumstances. If you have the opportunity to live a life you can truly choose – I say why not grab it!

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