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What a Year in Fiji Taught Me About Business

I was on a plane headed for Fiji to work on the eastern side of Vanua Levu. During my time on the island, there were several lessons I learned that have since helped me grow my advertising agency, AdvertiseMint.

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Austin Distel/Unsplash
Austin Distel/Unsplash

During college, I attended an event when the speaker walked on stage and began telling stories about how he had been the chief scuba diver for Jeac Cousteau. He began showing photos of Fiji and spoke about how he came across a struggling school that was in need of volunteers. I spoke to him immediately after the presentation to learn more. 

Six months later, I was on a plane headed for Fiji to work on the eastern side of Vanua Levu. During my time on the island, there were several lessons I learned that have since helped me grow my advertising agency, AdvertiseMint. I wanted to share some of these lessons with you.

Be Relentless 

After applying to be a volunteer, I received a letter denying my application. I was shocked. I had asked to work for free and had been denied. I asked why, and they informed me that I didn’t have enough references. I later discovered that two students from my school had caused some issues the previous year, so by association I was being disqualified. I asked how many references I needed, and they replied with a number that shocked me: 15. At this time I was only 19 years old and had only three previous jobs. I really had my heart set on going, so I quickly set out on my goal of 15 references. 

I contacted every school teacher I had since kindergarten. Every single one of them wrote me a quick reference letter, and within a week, I contacted the organization to let them know I had 15. Now was their turn to be shocked. Two weeks later they approved my application. 

The world will always put obstacles in your way to keep you from your dreams. You need to learn how to be relentless and to figure out alternative steps to get what you want. 

Knowledge Is Power

When I arrived in Fiji, there was no electricity, TV, and internet where we were staying. After I was done teaching for the day, I was often left with nothing to do except sit there, drinking coconut milk or making something out of bamboo. The school had a small library, and I eventually got so bored, I would break in at night and borrow some books to read. This is where my love for reading came, and I quickly began to see all the things I had been missing out on during school. I read classics, business books, autobiographies. All of a sudden, I realized the tremendous wealth of knowledge that I was gaining at a rapid pace. Knowledge is power and if you want to get ahead, you need to spend time learning from others.

Simplify Your Life

I’ve often heard people say that if you want to be rich, you need to learn to live below your means. Fiji taught me how much that was possible. I lived in a small room, big enough for two cots and a sink. This was far more than what many of the villagers had, who slept on the ground in their bures. I was able to live very simply and realized that during that time, I was probably the happiest in my life. To this day, material objects don’t really mean much to me in life. I’ve had no issues selling my car, video games, or prized possessions if it meant I could get a little bit further in business. Learn to live simple.

It’s Ok to Reset 

My job in Fiji was to teach English to fifth and sixth graders. Because I assumed  it would be easy, I didn’t prepare much. My plan was just to teach them what I knew. 

I arrived at school, introduced myself, and proceeded to work on getting all the students to like me. For anyone that has ever taught kids, you know this is a fundamental mistake. The next three months for me were horrible. The students worked me over, and I struggled getting them on track and keeping class in order. 

I was blessed that the Fiji school system is opposite of the US, so students had summer break a few months after I arrived. It was during this time that I reached out to my sister, an elementary school teacher, for some help. She shipped me the paperback and audiobook versions of The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. It was exactly what I needed. I read the book and listened to the audiobook multiple times. 

When school started again, the kids walked in, expecting to get another year with their pushover teacher. This time I was prepared and began to tell them how this school year would be structured along with the new rules and reward system that was being implemented. The students’ mouths dropped and I began what turned out to be an amazing year of school. The lesson here is that it’s ok to make mistakes. When it happens, you need to figure out what is going wrong, seek advice and figure out what needs to change. Every successful person has needed to stop at some point, do a reset, and get things back on the right track. 

Focus on People and Relationships

If you ever go to Fiji, you’ll be greeted with a warm “Bula” or “Bula Vinaka.” This is the Fijian way of saying hello. Fijians have an amazing ability to put people first. They start their conversations with “You are the most important person in my world right now” or “It’s amazing to have this conversation with you.” They are warm and genuine.

I learned to be warm and welcoming from Fijians, and people still compliment me to this day at my ability to relate with others during a conversation. One time, I was invited to a funeral in another town, even though I didn’t know the person. When I arrived, family members asked me to sit at the head of the table and get food first. I politely declined and said that family and friends should go first. They turned to me and said, “You are family, and you are our friend.” Treat the people you meet in life in the same way, and you will build unbelievable business relationships. 

Explore Your Options 

I chose to work in Fiji because in addition to teaching, I could also work as a volunteer at the local clinic. Both my parents are nurses, and I had expressed an interest in becoming a doctor. I worked at the clinic in the afternoons, helping check patients in and helping with procedures. One day, a man came with a deep wound on his arm. He had been in a machete fight with another man. I was assigned to clean his wound. After about 30 seconds, I began feeling light headed due to the continual stream of blood squirting from his arm. To this day, I still get woozy around blood, and I’m glad to have pursued business instead. It’s a good idea to explore areas you are interested in and know that saying no to one path now brings you one step closer to finding and doing what you love. 

Take the Road Less Traveled

In business, one of the biggest tips I tell people is to look at areas where others are not. This helps define markets rather than going up against a lot of competition. During my time in Fiji, I would often help the men from the village with tasks such as planting crops, clearing a field, cleaning, and preparing fish. As we worked, we would chat about all sorts of things. One of the men was talking about a nearby waterfall that was beautiful. I told him I thought he was making it up and wanted to see for myself. We ended up hiking two hours into the hills to see an amazing waterfall. 

Instead of walking back, he quickly took out a machete and cut down two banana trees, then cut off the tops. He tossed them into the river and we ended up riding them down the rapids like torpedos. It was one of my favorite memories from Fiji, and I would have never experienced it had I stayed on my normal path. Be open to new things and new roads off the beaten path. You never know what might come from it. 

You Are Lucky 

During school breaks, I would often head over to Taveuni to explore. It’s a beautiful island, full of waterfalls and breathtaking hikes, where Return to the Blue Lagoon was filmed. I wanted to get a scuba certification and signed up at a local resort. I completed my certification over the next three days and headed back to school. Two weeks later, we returned to the island, only to see a large group of Austrlians who were there for a funeral. One week after I had taken my scuba certification, a shark had attacked and killed an Australian man in the exact place where I had been scuba diving for my certifications. 

Life is not always fair, and there are no guarantees. I learned that every day I am given on this planet is a blessing. When you can look at life through that lens, you let petty squabbles go quicker and focus on the things that really matter and bring you happiness. 

Every experience in life brings lessons that shape who we are. I will never forget my time in Fiji, and to this day I keep close to my heart the lessons I learned.

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