On February 28, 2010—the final day of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver—I found myself driving a tiny cube-van with my wife, Lisa, heading to a ferry terminal. We had just closed on the sale of our condo, a small glass box in the sky located right in the heart of downtown Vancouver. We had also sold or donated almost all of our possessions, and we were moving to a town in the middle of nowhere, literally at the end of the road on Vancouver Island.
Our new town—Tofino—was proudly billed as “life on the edge.” As in truly the edge of nowhere. This island is the setting for the reality TV show Alone, where the actors grapple with living and surviving in complete isolation; it’s filmed a few hours north of town. Fewer than 2,000 people live in Tofino—mostly surfers, old draft dodgers, and other assorted hippies who are still very happy living in the twentieth century.
At the time—before, after, and even during the move—I was working entirely online as a designer and online business consultant to everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Microsoft to Marie Forleo. My work and life depended on being hyperconnected. But now I was trading all of that for a town with zero other people involved in tech and, even worse, a really awful internet connection.
In short, for someone like myself who was coming from the tech world, this move was going to be a bit of a massive adjustment.
The main reason I was hell-bent on leaving civilization was that I had simply had enough of “business as usual” city life and the constant push from others to grow my successful business into something bigger. My wife, Lisa, too, was sick of her daily career demands. We were both done with the constant stimulus and stress of our urban existence—the lights, sounds, and distractions, the constant and incessant “buzzing.” To save our sanity, we made our escape as quickly as we possibly could. And living on Vancouver Island seemed like the perfect tonic.
Yet we soon learned that living in the woods on an island does something funny—it forces you to go deep within your own thoughts. There’s not a whole lot else you can do, especially if you don’t have a television or even Netflix. And at first, exploring your own thoughts is one of the scariest things in the world. (A study at the University of Virginia by Timothy Wilson found that people would rather get electric shocks than simply be alone with their thoughts.) But then again, if you sit with your thoughts for a while, they can reveal some mind-set-changing ideas.
But scaling down wasn’t just a plan for getting rid of our physical belongings; it was also a plan for achieving mental clarity. In creating a personal life that was bare of all but the essentials, parallels to my work started to become evident—what was truly necessary and what wasn’t. By decluttering my thoughts (creating an “inbox zero” for my brain, if you will), I was able to look at my day-to-day business much more clearly because the distractions were now gone. I hadn’t been able to clearly express my reasons for the way I had been working until that moment.
This clarity highlighted something I had unconsciously been doing for nearly twenty years, even before going out on my own, and that was building a business full of resilience, driven by a desire for autonomy and, on most days, enjoyment. In other words, by scaling down every aspect of my life, I realized this was how I had successfully built my business all along. I had benefited immensely by resisting the typical avenues of growth and business expansion. (Hey, I was able to move to the woods on an island.) And now, for the very first time, I understood why.
I had been building a company of one.