[Radius Book Group, 224 pages]
Choosing a high-stress career can swallow you whole, putting both your physical and mental health at risk. It’s too easy, especially in a large city constantly on the move—where competition is fierce—to lose yourself in your chosen profession and forget to prioritize important aspects of your life such as family, friends and the activities you’re passionate about (for example, volunteering, music, travel or cooking).
Ben Feder recognized the toll his work life had taken on him and his family, and resolved to do something about it. His 2018 book, Take Off Your Shoes: One Man’s Journey from the Boardroom to Bali and Back, chronicles his year-long sabbatical from a high-powered career in New York City, during which he experienced the culture-shock change of living in Bali, Indonesia.
A shift in focus
While his career is a solo endeavour, the move to Bali was a family one, with his focus shifting to include his wife and children. In his book, Feder not only details how Bali changes him, but also how it changes his family in a significant and positive way.
Feder offers a specific point of view: that of a successful and financially well-off white Jewish man from New York, with a wife and four children. Admittedly, it’s a perspective that I sometimes have difficulty connecting with, as I differ from him in all aspects. Where I’m able to connect with Feder is within his personal reflections and observations on how Bali changes him. The more personal his account, the easier it is for the reader to appreciate just how transformative Bali is for the businessman.
From the beginning, it’s clear that Feder takes great pride in his work and resulting successes, admitting that before his sabbatical, victory was something he “craved like an addict.” Every so often, he reminds the reader what makes him good at his job.
However, it’s his humbler moments that draw the reader in. One key example lies in his relationship with Victoria, his wife and the driving force of the family. Aside from single-handedly managing their children’s lives and founding a community project, it’s she who makes the “radical” suggestion that he take a sabbatical, and proceeds to build the momentum needed to make this dream a reality. Reading about how he and his wife rebuild their lives and reconnect with one another is a definite highlight.
Before settling in Bali, Feder and the family explore the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where Feder has an eye-opening personal revelation:
So much of my life in New York was spent living in a world of abstraction. … I focused only on the most essential elements and discarded the details of anything that did not fit into the myopia I had deliberately cultivated.
This revelation paves the way for Feder to turn inward during his journey, and moves the reader to hope that he’ll emerge a different person from who he was before.
The concept of the “other”
Because the reader is seeing Bali through Feder’s eyes, the concept of the “other” is felt more acutely than it would be otherwise. This is evident even when it comes to the family’s living accommodations.
Feder and his family are staying in a rented villa surrounded by a high security wall, with Nyoman, the villa’s manager, acting as guide and chauffeur. They’re also attended to by Putu, who cleans the house; and Made, the gardener and handyman. When they visit Nyoman’s home upon invitation, Feder mentions how Nyoman lives “more humbly” in comparison to how they live in the villa.
“I hate being rich in front of other people!”
Most striking is the reaction of his daughter, Nava, who actually becomes tearful and cries, “I hate being rich in front of other people!” While children are generally known to be more observant and sensitive to their surroundings than adults, I’m genuinely moved by Nava’s heartfelt reaction.
The sincere empathy and compassion for the people, the animals and the environment that the family encounters on their travels comes primarily from the children, and it’s a welcome perspective in the book.
Finding peace and balance
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Feder’s personal journey is how he discovers Yoga, meditation and art. Although not artistically inclined, he persists in his learning and develops an artistic eye, noticing shadows, colours, movement and how those things speak to him.
These become important activities that he later integrates into his life when he returns home, not as “cure-alls” but as ways to help keep him balanced. “By regularly taking time to fall back from fierce engagement, I had opened myself to a strength I had not previously known,” he writes.
As Feder did, this book would best serve as an inspiration for going outside your comfort zone and discovering what helps you live a more mindful and fulfilled life. Finding what you can incorporate into your everyday life to help make you more centred, grounded and at peace is an activity certainly worth making time for.