How I Went from Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

Kate Byars | August 25, 2016

This story is a continuation of “Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island” and “What Island Life Was Really Like.”

Having spent a full year away from the corporate world I felt tremendous pressure to return to my former life. I wasn’t sure how long I could put my career on hold before jeopardizing my chances for employment.

My sabbatical living in the BVIs had awakened me to the realization that alternate paths in life were possible, yet I still wasn’t sure what my path should be.

Should I continue off-the-beaten path or return to a life well-known?

Prior to living in the BVIs, my soon-to-be husband and I had become cave divers. With the inherent risks involved, we decided it would be best to pursue this extreme sport before we had a family. With Thailand no longer an option, we headed to Florida to live in the midst of world class cave diving.

I swallowed my nerves and pushed my career another year down road.

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Cave diving is a predominately male sport. The gear was created by men for men. If you are 6-feet tall and weigh 180-lbs then you are well suited to become a cave diver.

I am half that size. Yet, in order to safely cave dive I have to carry a minimum of 88-lbs on my back. This is problematic because accessing cave systems is not convenient. I have dived cave systems in Florida, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Every single one of these caves require the diver to gear up on the tailgate of a truck and heft your heavy load down long, wooden ramps, muddy slopes, or rickety, metal stairs.

Spiral Staircase Dominican Republic

In an effort to resolve my weight-carrying dilemma, I decided to try sidemount diving whereby the diver can place the heavy SCUBA tanks in the water one by one before gearing up. Once you are floating weightless in the water, you can clip the tanks onto the body, thus eliminating the need to carry weight on land.

I contacted the best sidemount instructor in the world to help me. His company pioneered cave diving gear and had a few, smaller-sized items designed for women. He was also a cave diving legend.

I crafted an introductory email and humbly asked if he would agree to train me. Just as I was about to hit “send,” My future husband added “P.S. I am a marketing expert and would love to work for your company.” Scott hit send before I could protest.

The rest, they say, is history.

My would-be sidemount dive instructor became my boss and I never did take the class. Instead, an unexpected door opened that allowed me to pursue my love of marketing and pursue my personal interests. I began to realize what had been missing from my previous life.

Cave diving scuba equipment on wooden table

When I first jumped aboard the career ladder, I was thrilled with what I did. I spent four amazing years climbing the ad agency ranks before taking a leap into international marketing. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to work abroad. At the age of 27, I found myself aboard a flight to the Czech Republic for my first international assignment. My childhood dream had come true.

For five years I was a part of a small, leadership team that traveled the world to support and grow our international subsidiaries. The parent company was not yet global and for the most part we were left to our own devices. That suited our merry band of mavericks just fine. We were creative, bold, and ambitious. We were kicking ass and taking names and it showed in the bottom line.

Occasionally the pace took its toll. Every time we made it across one finish line, a new target was set. We helped right-size Europe only to be told to do the same in Asia. We launched a new product line in one market and were then tasked to do the same in thirty more. I once asked my boss, (who I adored), why the pace never let up. “Because you get things done,” she explained. “It’s rare to find someone with the ability to see the big picture and bold enough to make it happen. You don’t ask mediocre staff to do more. You give greater responsibility to those who get things done.” I understood her point.

And it was hard to complain. My boss rewarded our small team handsomely and challenged us intellectually. It would have been difficult to walk away from such an amazing job.

Turns out I didn’t have to. Unbeknownst to me, a bloody management coup was taking place that would soon obliterate our entire team. Everyone I worked with was fired and my job became much less amazing. Although I tried to conform to the new global policies, I just didn’t fit in. I am a changemaker, not a tow-the-line follower. With equal parts fear and relief, I stepped down and began preparing for island life.

Prior to living in the islands, if I had been asked to work for a small, mom-and-pop enterprise for a fraction of my salary I would have quickly declined. Not because of the money, but because I never would have imagined the work to be interesting or challenging.

Appearances can be deceiving.

My sidemount-instructor-turned employer gave me full reign to do what was necessary to stem the tide of encroaching competition. A pioneer in every sense of the word, my new boss was keen for new ideas and new methodology.

And I was keen to deliver.

I began digital marketing in 2006 before it was standard business requirement. I found a talented agency who discovered the power of content marketing ten years before the rest of the world. Together we built an award-winning website, established an engaged social media presence, and crafted a legendary customer experience.

Content Marketing Institute Dive Rite

Although I didn’t realize it then, I was on the cutting edge of marketing and I was building success in areas I would never have been exposed to in my previous career.

It was epic.

Meanwhile I knocked off early whenever I wanted to go diving. I hung out with world-famous cave divers and swam inside a realm few dare to travel. I married and spent my honeymoon in Mexico cave diving. This new chapter in life was turning out to be pretty great.

Although my salary was one-fourth of what I commanded as a corporate executive, I was content. My work was wildly creative and challenging, yet at the same time it gave me flexibility to breathe. I no longer validated my worth by my accomplishments and was just happy with who I am.

Kathleen Byars at Mayan Blue Akumal

There is no doubt that re-inventing ourselves take courage. It’s not easy to see the forest through the trees, especially when the rest of the world tells you to stay the course and wait for tomorrow.

You don’t have to live on an island to truly live. But you do have to dedicate yourself to creating a life worth living.

Today my purpose in life is clear. I help people redefine what is possible and dare to step outside the status quo.

I am now an entrepreneur, building my own virtual company. I have given up cave diving to raise my two, young sons. And after several years of staying home, we are finally beginning to travel once again with our unschooled boys in tow.

Our life is far from ordinary. But then again, I bet yours isn’t either. Each of us is unique; living vastly different lives of our own choosing. Your life is meant to be extraordinary. How you define that is up to you. You can live on your version of an island, too. All it takes is that first leap of faith.

Thank you so much for following my story. I look forward to writing about more of my adventures, as well as the trailblazing stories of others. You’ll find my latest article here or on LinkedIn every Thursday.

I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you?  I welcome you to subscribe to my Sunday morning email. Each week I share personal stories of blazing trails in business and in life.

It’s my passion to create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

 If this article resonates with you, please share! Maybe we can all be inspired and learn from each other.
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