25th July 2014

The Intoxicating Power of Contrast

When I left my last corporate role in 2003, I’d spent 25 years or more in big organisations, from role to role and company to company, ever on and upwards. For the last years of this time, I’d grown increasingly disillusioned, and sought a new way. Allied to this, I’d never really taken a decent break from work in that time – sure I’d had holidays and seen a lot of the world, but I’d not taken a time out, a sabbatical or even just sat on the sidelines for long between companies.

So in late 2003, we returned to Sydney from living and working in New Zealand, and distracted by a new baby and a house to renovate, I found myself plunging into a new life, but with some hesitation – could I actually trust myself to tune out and turn away for a decent period? Greatly encouraged by my partner, I started embracing our new life back in Sydney, which became a life of contrast.

I found myself buying board-shorts – lots of board-shorts in fact. I found a certain tranquillity and pleasure in building a collection of boards-shorts. Far beyond the basic requirement – you could surf each day and get by with two pairs – I started to see a new richness in my life through their accumulation. Contrast to the past decade when I had virtually none, my wardrobe became resplendent in bright, patterned shorts. Oh, and I did start surfing every day, because that’s what you do if you have no job, diminishing cares and a house by the beach in Sydney. Again, a stark contrast to my former life at work – instead of burying my head in paperwork, I buried it in the fine aroma of surf wax.

I also soon rediscovered the satisfaction of physical work – hard labour in fact, as I set about renovating a house and overgrown garden on a steep block in the heat of February. I began to love that feeling of coming back to our rented place exhausted, but hugely satisfied with the visual progress one makes through physical labour. You have a pile of rocks in one place in the morning, and by the end of the day they have become a wall, or formed a path. By contrast, at times it’s hard to see your progress in a corporate life. My ex-boss at Lion Nathan Joe McCollum, recently told me that some days you can feel like that little squirrel in “Ice-Age” and his acorn. You spend all day pushing the acorn forward, and you come in the next day and someone’s rolled it back down the hill away from you!

The final piece of contrast was the joy of having a new baby. For me, after a break of more than 10 years, watching the almost daily development of a young child is a wonder in itself.

So in time, six days became six months and I surprised myself at how easily I changed my life, and the memories of my former corporate world became more distant.

And yet, the longer I went, I noticed some of the new joys started to become less attractive than I’d either imagined or experienced. The idea of surfing every day, for as long as you want, sounds idyllic when you can’t do it – but when you can, and do for six months, you start to grow weary of it.

It’s what I’ve come to call the power of contrast – we seem to be attracted to something when it presents itself as a contrast to what we have, or what we’ve experienced.

It explains why we like travel so much, or meeting new people, experiencing new cultures and generally taking ourselves out of our normal routine and contrasting it with something novel.

For me, it made me realise that an excessive amount of anything, no matter how rich and great it seems when it’s out of your reach, will soon lose it’s glow and will become the new norm if you have too much of it.

In the end, I spent more than a year living my life of contrast, of which I was truly grateful. It taught me the lesson of contrast, and how real appreciation for the things we desire is heightened with a bit of moderation (or even abstinence).

I ultimately did restart my career, but my time away made me realise I’d run my race within a big organisation. I started my own consulting business, and began taking the middle-path, keeping things more in moderation and savouring a range of richness in life.

And I haven’t forgotten the power of contrast – we’re all attracted to it, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you first break out into that powerful and at times, intoxicating feeling. It’s just as important to remember it’s an illusion of your mind, which will easily reshape itself to your new conditions and surroundings. And soon, you might be wishing for a new contrast, or even a return to the past you sought to move away from.

Alain de Botton pointed this out more eloquently that me in his book, “The Art of Travel”, where he asserts that the great disappointment of travel seems to be the ultimate discovery that while your surroundings are new, it’s still you in them – you haven’t escaped from yourself, but simply put your being in a new situation.

The contrast can wear thin over time, so savour it when it’s new and different…that feeling often doesn’t last as long as you’d wish.

Glen Petersen,

CEO Generator Talent

The Power of Contrast photo


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