Lily Cooper is an Architect at Gastinger & Walker from the US who is traveling with Remote Year Meraki.
Why did you decide to go on Remote Year?
I was feeling a little restless, and I’ve always loved to travel. I thought maybe it was time to shake things up a bit, so I was actually in the middle of a job search - hoping to land overseas somewhere. In the midst of the process, a coworker of mine mentioned Remote Year. She had a friend doing it who reminded her of me. I wasn’t on the website for more than forty-five seconds before I applied.
How did you find yourself a remote role?
I had never worked remotely before, and it’s not a big part of our firm’s culture. Remote Year led me through the process of creating a business case to present to my upper management - outlining what exactly Remote Year is, what it offers, why it’s good for me, why it’s good for my company, which of my then current roles could transition to Remote Year, and what the challenges might be.
I was nervous going into the meeting with my managing partner - having been told by others in the firm that I had little to no chance of making this happen - but it was actually well received. My boss was impressed I had the balls to propose something so new and more or less said “if we can work out the logistics and find enough work for you to do remotely, I don’t see why not. We trust you.” One week later, I had the green light.
The transition wasn’t easy, but I attribute that much more to the heavy work load (which exists in or out of the office) and trying to meet eighty people all at once and acclimating to a new city and lifestyle - rather than the actual working remotely. The world is changing, and at this stage in my career - I do the majority of my work on the computer. Difference being, with wifi and VPN and some serious discipline, I can do this by a pool in Cartagena or on a roof deck in Cordoba - rather than in a traditional office with very little sunlight and no fresh air.
What advice would you give to others considering Remote Year?
Stop telling me why you can’t. Stop telling me that your boss won’t let you. I understand that may actually be true, but right now - you haven’t asked. I’m speaking from firsthand experience when I say that I honestly didn’t expect my boss to say ‘yes.’ But they surprised me and have been more supportive than I ever dreamed. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Be bold, work hard, and run head first after the opportunities you long for. I don’t think you should ever expect to be handed things, but it literally won’t happen if you don’t at least try.
What are you working on for the year?
Oh, depends on the day. Within the perimeter of my “9 to 5” - I am designing, drafting, and modeling projects using 3D modeling and documenting software on my laptop. I am also project managing - coordinating with my clients, engineers and consultants. I spend a lot of time on the phone with different local jurisdictions, working through code requirements and permitting. And then I communicate with contractors/inspectors/building managers to moderate construction and see projects through to completion.
In my other life - I am trying to meet and invest well in people. I want to seek out and support inspiring, motivated people who are making a difference in their communities. My long term goals include immersing myself in human-centric, public interest and social design work. I think to be effective in that world, I need to understand both the real, root problems and also what the beautiful humans on this planet are already doing for good.
Lastly, I am sketching (pen and ink) and learning as much as possible. Sketching forces you to look at people - places - objects longer, and leads to a deeper and more beautiful understanding. I love photography, too, but it doesn’t have the same effect. If anything, if we aren’t careful, it can error on the side of not really seeing things at all. I make that mistake far too often.
What do you hope to achieve/gain by the end of Remote Year?
I hope to have proven to myself and those skeptical back home that this lifestyle is possible. That it doesn’t have to be this thing that’s confined within 2017. That I’m not just getting it out of my system. That it’s a life that is available should you want it, should it be the right time for you. I also hope to be even more adaptable, empathetic, and open minded. I hope for my heart to be more broken for the world and hardships that people encounter in very different places each day.
What does your typical work day look like?
Ha, I don’t know what ‘typical’ means anymore. My goal the last couple of months has been to listen to my body and release myself from professional norms that demand we be somewhere at the same time every day. That said, I suppose I usually work 6-8 hours during the day, so I’m available to my clients, consultants and coworkers. Then, there’s usually an event or a run or a dinner or a nap to attend to. And if that doesn’t go too late, then I’ll cap the night with a few more hours of work.
Or sometimes I front load my hours in the first few days of the week - and I’ll take a long weekend to hike Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. You, know, it really just depends.
I’m learning to be simultaneously diligent and adventurous - while being attentive to my needs.
Where does your passion for travel come from?
I’m pretty sure it was gifted to me by God in my genetic make-up. It’s a biological necessity at this point.
But my family was always big into road trips and family vacations to beautiful places within the States and Canada growing up. I’m so grateful for that. Then I studied abroad in Italy with my architecture program my fourth year in college, which rocked my world. This led to an internship in India with a non-profit architecture and engineering organization that does work in the poorest parts of the world. The pairing of those two experiences opened my eyes to a whole other realm of possibilities. I couldn’t unlearn or unsee those places or those people. I was hooked.
How has working remotely affected your current work?
The last five months have not been without bouts of poor WiFi or delayed phone conversations, but overall it has gone smoothly. And I would argue that I have worked harder and more productively here than ever before. Because I feel like I have something to prove (I have fabricated this fear that no one back home thinks I’m working, so I tend to overcompensate sometimes. I’m working on letting that go). Also because I have so many other things I want to be doing and places to see… sometimes you just have to get shit done because your flight to Mendoza leaves in T-48 hours. Typical Tuesday.
Do you plan to sustain this remote lifestyle after Remote Year?
I’ve had 1098245 people ask me what my plans are after Remote Year, and I’ve decided to stop making promises I can’t back up. I’d like to think that if things are still going strong by December, then I could continue this as long as I like. But I also have no idea what I will want or feel, what opportunities may present themselves between now and then.
What I do know is I am open to absolutely anything. I love this lifestyle and celebrate that it will always be available to me in some capacity, should I desire it. There have been a lot of discussions around months 13, 14, 15… I’m jonesing for New Zealand.
What is the most challenging part of being a digital nomad?
Finding some sort of consistency. One month in each place is not long enough to really develop a routine, so you have to work harder to ground yourself in truths that are as mobile as you are. I also find that Remote Year has stripped me of so many descriptors that I used to use to define myself. When you stop defining yourself by what you do and where you’re from (or what color your hair is), what’s left? It’s been a beautiful discovery. I won’t belabor this, but if you feel like reading more on the topic - please see my blog.
What is the best part about being a digital nomad?
FREEDOM. To wear what makes me feel comfortable and beautiful to wherever my office may be that day. To be makeupless and barefoot as often as possible. Business casual has been removed from my vocabulary. Locational freedom. Sunshine and sea breezes. And this community. Seriously, I am obsessed with these people. At the core of my existence is a true dedication to getting to know people and their stories. I’ve never met so many incredible humans all in one go. And now they’re my family.
What is your secret talent?
I’ve been told I’ve got a lot of rhythm for a white girl, but then I tried dancing salsa - and the jury is back out for debate. Ummm… I sketch. Which maybe isn’t so much of a secret anymore, but it makes me happy.
Where have you lived / traveled to previously?
All over the states, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, India a couple of times… and now on Remote Year we’ve been hitting South America hard. I love South America.
What book should everyone read?
The Harry Potter series, obviously.
And also Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. It is heartbreaking and beautiful. But mostly heartbreaking.
Your favorite digital nomad hack?
I am not this person. I don’t have the gadgets or the packing cubes or the cool neck pillow… honestly drawing a blank.
3 things you can't live without on the road?
My sketchbook, camera, and early 2000s hip-hop and R&B playlist.
What has been your favorite Remote Year city? Why?
I love different cities for different reasons. Mexico City was comfortable and easy because I did my thesis work there. Lima was on the beach and the weather was perfect, and therefore defaults as a favorite because I was outside all the time. However, Bogota and Medellin ripped me apart emotionally in the best way as I learned about the country’s history/current status and the hardships people my age experienced growing up. I feel the most emotionally tied to Colombia, even if it wasn’t as easy to live there.
Describe your Remote Year experience in 3 words.
Absurd. Enriching. Liberating.
Describe your perfect day.
Wake up without an alarm. Make banana/oat pancakes and slather them with peanut butter. Eat them on a sunshiney balcony overlooking some ridiculous natural landscape, book in hand. Go for a run. Meet with a local-do-gooder who will make me cry with their passion and humility. Take a Spanish lesson. Eat a couple more fantastic meals. Always outside. And then go dancing with my favorite people. Dance for hours, until I’ve sweat through most of my clothes and my friends have to kindly tell me - maybe you should go get some air. And then sleep for another 8-10 hours. Rinse (my clothes and the experience), repeat.
Where are you in 30 years?
This question is hilarious because no one has control over that. Nor have any of my biggest blessings come from opportunities that I fabricated myself.
I hope I am happy and fulfilled. Doing design/policy work that matters for people who need it and can’t afford it. Kissing no asses. Putting on no faces.
I hope to be a hell of a daughter, sister, aunt and friend… potential wife and mother, should the universe gift me in that way. I don’t know, honestly, and I’m happy to relinquish that control to a higher power.
What are you most passionate about?
People and their stories. Laughter. Vulnerability. Health. Faith. Equality. Sunshine.
Who is the most interesting person you've met while traveling?
Two people come to mind. Both beautiful, strong women.
One was a woman in Medellin, Colombia, who I hope to work with one day. She has worked for 20+ years as a consultant to the government, helping demobilized paramilitia reacclimate into society. Finding them jobs and renewing their dignity. She also works with their families and started an organization to employ/empower women in impoverished communities in Medellin. She does a million other things, and I only cried twice during our conversation.
The other gem I met over breakfast at a finca hotel in Salento, Colombia. I had decided I needed a few days alone, and was basking in the solace of solo travel. She was a Dutch woman traveling alone with her three-year old son. She had rented a car and was driving all over the country for a couple months. Last year they went to Panama and Ecuador, I think? And next year, she hopes to take him to Australia and New Zealand. I don’t know her full story, but I do know that she is living, breathing proof that traditional barriers between you and seeing the world do not have to exist. Break them.
Your favorite quote / words to live by?
"What is real to me is the power of our awareness when we are focused on something beyond ourselves . . . our ability to shift our perceptions and seek creative alternatives to the conundrums of modernity is in direct proportion to our empathy. Can we imagine, witness, and ultimately feel the suffering of another?" (Terry Tempest Williams)