Updated: Apr 1
In college, I spent three summers working at school in East Sussex, England.
The place was like something out of a postcard, situated in a beautiful, old manor house in the English countryside.
During the year it was a traditional prep school, but during the summer it became an English language school and camp. Students came from non-English speaking countries to learn English and enjoy summer camp. The days were long, and we worked six days a week, but it was a blast. Most afternoons, we’d pile kids into a van, or mini-bus as the English called them, and to take them on an “outing.” One of the regular outing destinations was the “Dolphinarium” in Brighton, on the southeast coast.
Situated by the beach in an ancient building that looked like something out of a WWII movie, it had marine life displays, but it’s primary and by far most popular offering was a dolphin show.
The kids loved it. They didn’t seem to notice the rusty pipes and peeling paint or that the place had seen better days.
Being close to those dolphins was enchanting, but I was also casing the place to see if there was a way I could set them free.
The beach was literally yards away and something seemed inherently wrong about these animated creatures with eyes that gleamed with intelligence and curiosity living in a grotty old building, putting on shows in a tiny pool. In the staff common room, where the teachers gathered in the evenings, we had a discussion about it.
One contingent arguing that it was a horrible thing to keep wild animals captive, someone else commented that the dolphins couldn’t be released because they hadn’t learned to survive on their own.
My remarkably insightful contribution to this discussion was: “Couldn’t we just as well be discussing this over beers at the pub?”
Did I want to see these animals free? Hell yes! Was I a twenty-something with student loan debt? Also hell yes.
The best I could do was entertain fantasies about hitting the lottery, in which case I would immediately become a dolphin-liberating philanthropist. In those summers, I couldn’t know how relevant the idea and the very definition of captivity would become to me. After more than a decade of commuting, cubicles and conference calls, I realized captivity was a much more nuanced concept. About 10 years after graduating and well established in what most would consider a better than decent job and career, I was in England again.
This time training with a group of consultants at my company. We’d all gotten pretty close over the few days we were together and one colleague confided in me and asked, “Are you ok with doing … this … for the rest of your life?” It was a question I would hear many times, parsed in different ways with different words from various colleagues over the years.
I knew what he meant: the office politics, bureaucratic BS, the corporate grind.
We recognized the inhumanity of it, while right in the middle of trying to get ahead in it and be "successful." “I guess,” I said lamely. Curious if he had an alternative in mind, I asked, “What do you want to do?” He replied, “I’d like to own a lemon grove in the hills of Tuscany.” I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I’ve lost count of the times in my career when people pulled back the curtain and admitted, “yeah, I’d rather be doing something else, but this pays the bills.” Once you become used to certain environment, can you change? How do you get out? What’s the process? What steps do you take? During my last summer at the school, I was assigned to take a group of kids to the “Dolphinarium.”
I was expecting the same old grotty pavilion and the usual dolphin show, but what I didn't see that day I’ve never forgotten.
The Dolphinarium had been renamed the “Sea Life Centre” and the two dolphins were gone. The performance pool housed only a few barking seals.
In the now refurbished main hall, which still smelled faintly of new carpet and recently applied paint, stood a monitor display playing a video in which the story of what happened to the two dolphins unfolded. The pair had been shipped to a lagoon in the Caribbean, trained to survive on their own and set free. To this day, I can’t say why, but the part in the video where they release those dolphins into the wild completely unstitched me. It was all I could do to hold it together in front of the kids and spare them and their fragile young psyches the trauma of, “Oh my God, why is our teacher is crying!” In my experience, this kind of reprieve was unheard of. The unexpected justice of it left me stunned and elated. If we can free dolphins, why can’t we free ourselves? Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about successful emancipations and managed to orchestrate a few of my own.
Here are some observations and lessons learned: Recognize the advocates around you. These are the people who see that you’re capable of getting and being more. They are there. This could be someone who’s been where you want to go or who possesses the knowledge and has taken other people there.
Look for anyone who believes in you and your potential. It might be an acquaintance or a thought leader who make you think 'YES!'
If two Dolphins had a boatful of marine biologists and trainers preparing them for freedom, you’re justified in having a support team of your own.
Find someone to share all or part of your journey with you. If I had it to do over again, I’d have kept in touch with that lovely man who shared his dream of lemon groves in Tuscany, because people like that keep you believing in your own vision.
The people who will tell you you’re crazy and that you're being unrealistic are a dime a dozen.
People who will share their dreams of lemon groves are rare and powerful.
Yes, the risk will be yours alone, but you’ll find courage in company. When you discover someone who envisions something bigger than the next promotion, you’re probably on to something good. Make your move, Courtney