Holy Ship! Lessons From Two Years at Sea

As crew members, we all have our own story to tell. This is part of mine.

I’ve portrayed my life as a dream on social media, but just like everyone else, I’m only human. I’ve struggled more than smiled in the past year and pulled away from friends to shield them from my Debbi Downer-ness.

In 2016, I completed my first contract with a wonderful Australian cruise line. I had finally landed my dream job – being paid to travel while being the life of the party (literally). I let loose as my naturally weird, quirky self and bonded with our chill, party-hard Aussie passengers. I adored my teams on both my ships. I rarely slept since I was out every night partying, drinking, and socializing after hours. I made the most of every second of my first ship experience. My friends onboard became my true family. For 7.5 months, I was the most social, exciting version of myself I’ve ever been. I was happy and overflowing with life.

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After completing that contract, I used every penny of my savings toward a 3.5-month vacation in Europe and the UK. It surpassed every expectation of my wildest dreams. Traveling freely again made me so unequivocally happy.

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Cinque Terre, Italy

When I came home, I landed a job with a different cruise line that sailed the world rather than just the South Pacific. It seemed like it would be another chapter of my dream job.

Instead, it was the beginning of a downward spiral of unhappiness.

By no means am I negating this company, especially since it’s provided me with the opportunity to see so much more of the world. It’s a wonderful cruise line for passengers with sleekly designed ships. This giant essay of opinions are my words alone and don’t reflect or represent anything related to my company (hence why I also never post company names in general). 

My unhappiness stemmed from many factors as I fell into a dark depression that enveloped my personality. I hid every shred of it (or tried to) for the sake of my job. I never once confided in anyone since I’m a private person – and I didn’t want to get fired or be judged. I felt myself crumbling, becoming so far removed from my quirky, chirpy self. I lost the ability to naturally laugh and smile. When I did, it was part of my act for the job.

I completely lost my passion for everything. I didn’t feel like writing, reading, or doing anything productive. I woke up every day frustrated with myself. I felt like a complete failure because I had left a cruise line where I absolutely loved my job and switched to another that left me feeling worthless. I developed severe anxiety and felt crippled even when making simple decisions. I went to the gym daily just to release my pent-up frustration. I isolated, ate alone to avoid bringing anyone else down, cried in the shower, then wiped all my tears away and pretended that everything was fine and dandy whenever I stepped into public areas.

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Golspie, Scotland

It was a complete 180 from my first company – the vibe was completely different. For starters, I didn’t feel a sense of community. I went from being one of the most “popular” kids on the ship to being a loner who didn’t click with anyone. I made myself miserable since I didn’t make an effort to meet people and kept comparing all my experiences. The ones who tried coercing me out (bless you, Sam, Sarah, David, Matt J., etc.) were so sweet, but I felt like I was this dark omen clouding everyone’s fun.

There were times when I was able to enjoy myself, particularly on the overnights off the ship. But even then, I wasn’t my usual talkative self.

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Liverpool, England: Overnight (SAM! We love you<3)

And then there were the passengers – the people who I had to entertain every day for 6.5 months. Never in my life have I encountered ruder, more obnoxious individuals than in the past year of my career. Of course, not all of them were like that – some, especially the gays, were the friendliest and most incredible people on earth. But the ones who talked to me in condescending tones or belittled me seemed to outnumber the rare and few gems.

They sucked the life out of me and left me deflated. I was being paid more, working less hours, given so much time off in ports, but my happiness had vanished. I know that most people would clamor for my job, especially since my role is probably one of the most coveted on ships (being Julie’s staff from “The Love Boat”). But I was drained, fed up with people, and constantly questioning what to do with my career in the long run.

How ironic that my job was to be one of the happiest people on the ship, whereas inside, I was probably the unhappiest. On the inside, I was broken; on the outside, I was a Barbie with a smile plastered on her face.

This wasn’t my first rodeo with unhappiness and depression. After I survived my second contract, I knew that I needed to make conscious steps to improve my ways of thinking. My everyday outlook on life was so convoluted with negative energy, so similar to 14-year old me who starved and almost killed herself. I had to change.

Recently, two respected public figures – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – committed suicide. I was at a loss for words when I heard the news. One was my favorite designer and the other had my “dream job” in food and travel, my two favorite things in the world. In my mind, they were two of the least likely people to be struggling with something as heavy as this. However, mental health issues affect everyone and anyone, regardless of social status and fame.

I started to re-evaluate my spiral of unhappiness in the past year. Like them, I had painted a fake portrait of my life. People would leave comments like, “I’m so jealous of your life,” and I’d never respond because I was truly suffering inside. Social media is deceiving, and I was ashamed of covering up my unhappiness with pretty travel photos on Instagram.

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Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

I’m not writing about my struggles for pity. I’m writing for myself, raw and uncensored, because I want to document my journey. As personal as a lot of these elements are, they’re also natural, relatable, and very much real. I’m tired of thinking, “If you only knew…” when passengers ask how I stay so cheerful all the time. I want you to know that I’m human, nearing the 30 mark, and still haven’t a clue what I’m doing with my life. And in the words of one of my favorite YouTubers, Anna Akana, I want you to know that it’s ok to not be ok.

“So it’s about time to live accordingly. It’s about time you start to turn this experience into something positive and learn something from it. You can’t change the past; you can’t alter what has already taken place. All you have control over is this moment. Chase it.”

– Anna Akana

Reflecting on the Positives

On the other hand, there were also wonderful experiences from my last (and current) contract that could never be replicated elsewhere. I work on ships because I love traveling. I love getting paid to see the world. There’s no morning commute – I wake up in a new country almost every day. It’s an easy, comfortable lifestyle that pays for my travels in between contracts.

 

While you’ll never truly immerse into a new culture off a cruise ship, it’s enough to get a taste of countries you want to visit again someday. The travel element is the best part about my job. For example, I’d host an hour’s worth of trivia, co-host a 30-min. gameshow, dance for an hour at a theme party, and then go clubbing in Ibiza that night and return to the ship the following afternoon. No big deal…

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New Orleans, Louisiana

The itinerary of my last contract was sensational. I had the privilege of exploring 43 ports of call in 24 countries – the Baltic, Mediterranean, UK, and Israel. We ported overnight 20 different times: Stockholm, Copenhagen, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, St. Petersburg, Barcelona, Athens, Ibiza, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Dublin. I revisited 14 ports that I had just seen on my backpacking trip. I was lucky enough to reunite with a number of friends when we ported in their countries.

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Belfast, Northern Ireland

However, the ultimate highlight of my last contract was when Joe surprised me onboard our Halloween cruise as a guest entertainer. Those were the three happiest days of my entire 6.5 month contract.

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From Australia to England to Israel and beyond: One of my favorites forever ❤

And most importantly, I’ve made lifelong friends in passengers and crew from all over the world. Many have inspired me, helped me grow, and ultimately shaped me into a better person.

 

 

Despite all the hardships (no pun intended) endured, I want to reflect back on my life at sea by remembering the positives more than the negatives. I want to be filled with gratitude for all the places I’ve seen, people I’ve met, things I’ve done, and ways I’ve grown.

Here’s a collection of the top lessons I’ve learned while working at sea.

Lesson #1: Be Thankful, Be Mindful, and Live in the Present

I’ve always struggled with being mindful and thankful for everything in this exact moment. I find myself complaining about the dumbest of things, like two hours of karaoke, when this doesn’t even matter in the greater scheme of life.

This is the bottom line: I’m working on a five-star cruise line with free gourmet food, free entertainment, a TV and refrigerator, and no living/utility expenses. My life is pretty lush and I should be grateful to have this job in the first place. And for an adult who still can’t cook (I even burnt an entire bag of popcorn last week) nor drive well, this lifestyle is ideal for me.

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Oceanview Hangs #breakingalltheruleshere

I also have a terrible habit of constantly living in the future. I’m always thinking ahead, which usually means I’m not enjoying or making the most of my time in the present. I’m constantly worried, stressed out, or wondering what I’m doing next in my life.

It’s a goal of mine to start meditating on my next contract. It’ll calm my insanely hyperactive mind, even for just a few minutes every morning. After all, we’re only given one life, one mind, one body – we might as well make the most of it. Now.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

Lesson #2: Balance Solitude with Socializing

At my core, I’m a solid introvert. I tend to get off in ports alone, spend my breaks reading or writing with music, and don’t go out of my way to meet people. I can spend hours and hours by myself, reveling in my own thoughts.

On ships, say goodbye to privacy and solitude. There’s also no such thing as being “off.” Your deck phone will always ring in the middle of a nap or right before you’re about to take a bite of food. When you go ashore, you’ll run into passengers and crew everywhere – so it feels like you’re still working. “Just smile and wave…”

Because of my introverted tendencies, I only invest my time in people on ships who I can truly learn from. Ones who are so intelligent, talented beyond all measure, and who inspire me to be a better version of myself. I used to think I was a bitch for only cultivating friendships with certain people, but it just means that I know how to choose my friends wisely. And I am an excellent judge of character – if you’re not a genuinely humble, respectful person, I’ll see right through you and won’t bother giving you time of day. The select few people who I’ve had shared in-depth, raw talks with – TC, Jonny, Matt, Nico, Rachel, Alisha, Sashi, Eden, Ally, Nic, Chantelle, Amy, Becs, Ruth – thank you for helping me believe in myself. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for always brightening my days, especially since you all probably had no idea what shit I’d been dealing with inside. Thank you to all of my teams and managers who may or may not have understood the extent to which I was struggling and trying to stay afloat.

 

I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have my own cabin for the past two contracts. However, as much as it’s been a blessing, it’s also been a detriment. I’d act like I didn’t exist – I’d do my daily duties as quickly as possible and then disappear into my hobbit hole. I used movies and TV shows as distractions from my unhappy reality. My cabin became my only safe space – the only place I could truly avoid everyone when I was “peopled out.”

It wasn’t until our two New Orleans overnights that I finally started realizing that I needed to pull myself out of this funk. I started hanging out with friends after work, watching musicians perform, and going ashore with friends rather than running off on my own. Making an effort to be around friends ended up improving my moods, contrary to my belief. While I still value my time to myself, I know that it’s therapeutic to chill with friends – whether that’s in the form of watching a Disney film or shotting vodka together.

 

My memories of particular ports were never really about the places themselves, but the people I visited them with. I’m still learning the healthy balance between solitude and socializing, and I hope that my next contract will be a nice blend of the two.

Both of my tarot card readings have also involved other people who are supposed to help shape my future, so I do believe that certain people are placed into our lives for specific reasons.

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Australia, America, Russia ❤

Lesson #3: Be Self-Aware

We work with about 75 different nationalities onboard – some as young as 18, others as old as 60. Some of my closest ship friends know me better than my friends at home, since our environment fosters in-depth, late night conversations. As a result, I’ve been forced to recognize all of my worst habits and behaviors and work on becoming a better person.

I’m aware that my lack of self-confidence, self-worth, self-love, and self-belief has affected me personally and professionally– not just now, but my whole life. My role as an Entertainment Hostess, where appearance is heavily emphasized, is quite possibly one of the worst jobs for someone with low self-esteem. I’m surrounded by confident, flawless, beautiful size 0 dancers who get a lot of things handed to them because of their stunning looks. I’m aware that I wasn’t born like them – I’m not “naturally pretty.” I’m Asian, flat-chested, ass-less, eyelashes-less, not particularly fit, and I rarely wear makeup. I joke that I look and act more like a dude than a girl, which might be why half my friends are guys.

I grew up in a loving, supportive family, but I wasn’t raised to believe I was beautiful – and I don’t think my mother was, either. We both are terrible at accepting compliments and our inability to see ourselves as ‘beautiful’ teeters on the verge of humility and sadness. I stopped caring about these insecurities years ago, but since being in the cruise industry, they’ve slowly seeped back into my mind like unwanted neighbors. In this case, ignorance isn’t bliss – it doesn’t solve the root of the problem.

In the words of Nico, our wonderful orchestra drummer onboard,

“You can only maximize your true potential if you come to terms with yourself. When you start being truly confident in your abilities, you’ll realize your full potential.”

I’ve been told time and time again that I’m too hard on myself, that I beat myself up over the smallest mistakes, and that I should give myself more credit and believe in myself more. It’s a work in progress. I’m aware that who I am at my core – a weird, awkward, yet quirky geek – will never change. I’m aware of how and why I’ve felt so empty in the past year. I’m aware that I spent a lot of my hard-earned money on things that only made me superficially content. I’m aware that my confidence, independence, and bravery plummeted when I joined ships. I’m aware that my anxiety and self-doubt have hindered me from being happy.

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Herp derp

But I’ve accepted myself for who I am. I’m the sweet, awkward, plain American host – not the funny, charismatic, beautiful one. I know that I’m the only one who can conquer my fears and anxieties. I’m the only one who can squash my harshest inner critic. I’m the only one who can make myself feel empowered.

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When it comes to dealing with these types of issues, you’re never truly alone. My favorite character in the Harry Potter series has always been Luna Lovegood because of the way she takes pride in being weird. Evanna Lynch, the talented actress who played Luna, battled several of my same demons and wrote a strikingly poignant essay about it.

Ships have also exposed the dangerous world of alcohol for me. There’s not much else to do on ships – you either sleep or drink on your time off. While I still rarely drink, I’ve consumed a fair share of alcohol in the past few months just to take my mind off problems. I started realizing that I would drink just to loosen up and to be a truer, happier version of myself.

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And therein lay the danger – I didn’t want to rely on alcohol to BE fun or HAVE fun. I came to the solution that I’d only drink on special occasions: Overnights, birthdays, and goodbye parties. Because as much as I love dancing to electronic music while drunk, I’m getting too old for this.

Lesson #4: Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe

On my last contract, someone called me Debbi Downer as an ongoing joke. “I only call you that since you’re anything BUT a Debbi Downer!” he said. I’d always laugh it off, but deep down, it stung… how ironic that this nickname actually hit the nail on the head.

I’ve been so negative this past year that profanity and the word “hate” have also crept into my everyday vocabulary far too often. “Is there anything you don’t hate?” my teammate asked. I became painfully aware of how this has grown into an unhealthy habit that needs to be broken.

Again, the roots trace back to my upbringing. My mum has always been the negative one and my dad has always been the positive force, balancing us out somehow. I’ve always wanted to be like my dad – the creative, adventurous, fearless, super laid-back musician. There isn’t a soul alive who has not liked my dad. On the other hand, my mum and I probably have a laundry list of people who find us annoying because of our negative energy and pessimistic attitude toward life. “Mom says not to go to Iceland because the moon will fall down,” my dad would joke while rolling his eyes…

A friend from my first contract always said, “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” and it stuck with me (literally – it’s a post-it note above my telly). You put out positive vibes and you’ll be rewarded with positive, warmhearted friends. Working towards a more positive mindset is something that goes hand in hand with confidence and self-belief. It just takes time.

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Lesson #5: #marketyourself #socialmedia

The amount of networks you build on a cruise ship is entirely up to you – and it can be gratifying or overwhelming.

I became stagnant in the past few years. I remember how ambitious I used to be when I worked for Disney – constantly networking, giving out business cards, and setting up informational interviews. What happened to that drive, that fierce passion for success?

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That’s when I started observing friends to become inspired again. I noticed a particular friend who casually struck up conversations with strangers wherever we went. Before parting ways, he’d always give them his business card and tell them to keep in touch. #mattsalvodrums

I’ve sat through dozens of leadership, marketing, and PR courses to understand the power of networking – the power of people. But I also had a sinking realization – has this job hardened my shell so much that I’ve become antisocial in public?

I’m so lucky that I get to travel for my job. I’ve taken it for granted the past two years. Don’t let any opportunity slip by if it’s an opportunity to market yourself – especially if you’re in a different country (especially if it’s a country you want to base yourself in someday). The people you have the fortune of meeting – whether they’re tour guides or locals in a café – may end up hosting you or being your employer in years to come. The same goes for passengers and crew – you’ll always cross paths again with the ones you really want to stay in touch with and/or visit.

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Some of my favourite Aussies ❤

As someone who wants to continue a career in the travel industry, I’ve seen the effectiveness of Instagram and Facebook alone. I mentioned earlier that half of my Instagram feed was a lie last year, only because I posted things that represented myself in the best light possible. On the flip side, this blog is my sounding board and my ability to showcase my raw emotions and storytelling. It’s not utilized as much as I’d like to, but I hope to use it as a space that documents my growth as I navigate these waters.

This is advice coming from a girl who met one of her favorite actors thanks to Twitter… and who met a fiercely ambitious, soon-to-be-famous musician thanks to a blog post on Kina Grannis. Never underestimate the power of social media and the internet. It’s more powerful than you think.

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Lesson #6: Ship Life is An Alternate Reality

I wish that I could explain ship life to all of my land friends, but it’s difficult unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s not just a job – it’s a lifestyle. It’s college on steroids. You eat, breathe, live (and sometimes sleep) with your fellow crew. It’s confining yet comfortable. It’s an escape from our “real lives” back home. It’s repetitive but addicting.

The myths and shocking stories you hear about crew members are mostly true. Heavy issues like sexual harassment and sexism sadly still exist in our workplace. It’s common for married folks to have ship and land partners without either party finding out. Lies, deceit, cheating, and a lot of drama go hand-in-hand with ship life. Loyalty flies out the window when it comes to ship “dating” unless you luck out and find that rare Arkenstone.

It goes without saying that you’ll also meet some of the strangest, creepiest, most socially awkward people onboard than in any other profession. Perhaps it’s because humans aren’t meant to be confined to this type of environment for months on end.

So yeah, ship life isn’t exactly real life. It’s a bubble that shields us from the outside world, sometimes a bit too much. We’re cut off from the most recent news, music, fashion, trends, and our onboard WiFi costs an arm and a leg per minute at the speed of dial-up. People clean for us, cook for us, do our dishes for us, and pay our bills. Half of us don’t even have homes (including me). Half of us haven’t learned to be proper adults. Half of us nap more than socialize. And we learn to adapt. We either sink or swim – love it or hate it.

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Costa Maya, Mexico

Lesson #7: Bring Honor to your Family

When I first started ships, I was pelted with questions like, “Where are you from? [America] But where are you really from? Like, where are your parents from?”

While I’m the most easygoing, chill person who doesn’t get affected by comments like this, it still frustrates me inside. It annoys me when passengers and crew don’t read my damn nametag or listen to my clear OC-girl accent. It annoys me when I’m told I have perfect English. It annoys me when I’m referred to as “the Asian girl” in comments when passengers clearly remember the names of the rest of my team.

I joke a lot about Asians mainly to mask my lifelong struggle as identifying as Asian-American. And while I’m definitely not the most patriotic person, I’m still thankful to have a passport that allows me the opportunity to travel the world without any difficulty. I’ve learned to accept my Japanese roots. I don’t look like a typical Japanese girl from Japan, nor do I look like a typical Japanese Cali girl, since my dad is from Hawaii and I’m tanned for life.

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I’m fourth-generation Japanese-American, meaning that my parents and I are extremely removed from our Japanese heritage. I’m more American than I ever will be Japanese. When I briefly lived in Japan, I also couldn’t have felt prouder. I come from a culture where people are extremely respectful, polite, hospitable, and so generous. But man, I could out eat 20 Japanese men any day…

So as much as I poke fun about being nicknamed Godzilla, Hello Kitty, or Mulan, I’m proud of being a female minority. I’m proud of being the only Asian-American hostess in our fleet.

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Lesson #8: Follow Your Passions

I’m still figuring out how to use my passions as my profession. But the fact that I get to travel for a living while listening to (and befriending) some of the most talented musicians in the industry is enough to keep me content for now.

While growing up, I changed my ideal occupation constantly– publicist, journalist, talent agent, entomologist, orthodontist, lifestyle blogger, librarian, food critic, adventure guide. I never thought I’d work on a cruise ship – the first time I set foot on one was when I was hired.

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Whatever I choose to do next, whether I stay in this industry or not, I hope it’s something I’m truly passionate about.

Lesson #9: Moderation is Key

I have a problem with controlling my food intake. I pride myself in loving food, but on ships, it’s hard to control portions since everything is buffet-style and the food is free. And dessert is everywhere, as is OPFGC, the crack of the seas.

 

When I’m home and traveling on my own, I tend to live off crumbs because I’m constantly on the go. As a result, my body has gone through all sorts of unhealthy weight fluctuations in the past few years. One of these days, I’ll find a happy medium…

Lesson #10: Only You Can Make Your Life One that You’re Proud of

I’ve met people who have challenged me to be a better person and learned how to work on my attitude toward life and myself in general. While the past year has been rough, I can only hope that things are on the mend from hereon out.

I owe a lot of thanks to a special band – The Badness – for truly being the highlight of this contract for me. TC, Jonny, Matt, Shaun – you guys are my brothers, friends, and absolute rocks. You may not have even realized how much of an impact you had on me, but my demeanor began to change because of you guys. You were the ones I wanted to hang around the most because I appreciated your positive energy, humor, and general presence so much. I didn’t come to a bunch of your sets to stalk you guys – I’d go to support, since you inspired me. Your high quality of musicianship always astounded me. You guys represent everything I’m working toward being: confident, creative, and chill. You were the cool kids of the ship that everyone wanted to be friends with. All four of you were so smart that I always wanted to be around you guys to soak up as much knowledge (and humor) as possible. You were the ones who gave me the most confidence, even on my worst days (zumba… hahaha). You were the reasons I’d laugh like a dying hyena in Oceanview over dumb fart noises or be enraptured by talks about supernatural beings. You taught me the importance of self-improvement through MATTivational talks. Three of you have been with me for two contracts – and the self-growth that I’ve done in the past months alone has a lot to do with you guys. So thank you, all four of you, for being the best part of this contract. And TC, thanks for becoming my best bro for life along the way.

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The best takeaway advice came from Nico, our orchestra drummer who is younger than me but wiser beyond my years. This was the general gist of a conversation I wrote down after a late-night conversation:

“The difference between people who achieve their goals and those who don’t is BELIEF. I believe that everyone has the capability to achieve their wildest dreams – you just have to believe in yourself enough to make it happen. Remember your passion and what inspires you. If you don’t feel fulfilled, if you don’t feel inspired and passionate about what you currently do, then leave and find something else. Go write to a travel magazine and propose some of your writing samples to do what you love and travel the world. You’ll never make it happen if you don’t take that leap of faith. You should do something you love – and practice it regularly. Don’t pressure yourself to always write – you have to be in the right mindset – but do it often. We were made to constantly strive for something higher and continuously improve ourselves – if we stay content or settle, then we’re not the best versions of ourselves. I believe you could find a base in London and aim for something higher than just working tables – think of yourself higher and don’t settle. If you know what you want, then go for it.”

One day at a time, I’m living – this bumpy, chaotic, exhilarating rollercoaster of life. I don’t have anything figured out and I still have no idea what career goal I’m headed toward. But I do have a feeling I’ll someday combine my love for travel, writing, music, food, and London or New Zealand (again) in some shape or form.

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