Ben Keene is a bit of a visionary. He has carved out his own unconventional career path in eco-tourism, enabling people to explore the world while making a positive difference. He has written a book and taken part in a BBC documentary, inspiring others to seek their own adventures and he is now working for an organisation which helps jaded City workers switch careers. Having pioneered alternative careers paths, career breaks and switches, he is now adding being dad of three to his portfolio career.
Ben realised early on that he didn’t want a conventional career path. The moment this crystallised for him was when he was at university in the queue for the milk round of companies looking for the next intake of graduates. “I was listening to all my friends who were interesting people who were about to sign up for uninteresting jobs because that was what you did,” he said.
He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but joined Madventurer in Newcastle which aims to assist local communities in developing countries through volunteer projects, whilst enabling travellers to gain life-changing experiences through cultural integration, challenge and adventure. It gave him an insight into the pluses and minuses of running an organisation.
From there he set up Career Break Cafe, which encouraged people to take structured time out both to benefit themselves and the world around them. He then founded Tribewanted, described as “a revolutionary eco-tourism project” which offers off-the-grid community experiences in Europe and Africa, and combined that with two years as a consultant at Right to Dream, working at a purpose-built academy and school in Ghana which he describes as “a great model for the future of leadership education in Africa”. Other roles include being a business advisor at Virgin Startup where he was for four years before starting as Escape School Lead at Escape the City while still juggling his role at Tribewanted. That role led to a book and a BBC documentary.
In his current role at Escape the City he sees a lot of people who are disillusioned and are questioning what they are doing. He says they want work that is more personally fulfilling. Those with families have particular challenges to overcome, but he adds that having children can also be the spur for them to do something different.
Ben says it is easier to carve out different career paths these days. “Technology has enabled this, but there has been a general cultural shift and there is a growing confidence around building a career in a different way. It’s not just about the pay cheque,” he says.
He himself is used to the portfolio way of life, but says that for some people their identity is tied up with one particular job, given the first question people tend to ask is what do you do. At Escape the City struggles with identity are common and the first thing the organisation encourages people to do is to look at what their interests are, to change how they view themselves so that it is less about their job and more about their interests. People are then encouraged to connect to groups and communities with similar interests or in spheres that reflect those interests. “You can see powerful shifts taking place,” says Ben.
The other big issue that comes up is resilience. Ben says some of the people who come to Escape the City have mental health problems as a result of being “battered” every day, doing jobs that are not fulfilling. “One of the things we try to help with is basic psychology. What helps build resilience is different for every person. For me it is regular exercise. It is a multiplier – it makes me a better dad and it makes me more productive. We focus with people on what their multipliers are,” he says, adding that there are a lot of parallels with the kind of resilience needed for parenting.
Indeed, he says, becoming a parent is perhaps the biggest identity change that people will undergo.
Ben and his partner have three children, aged four, two and one. Ben is the main earner and describes what he calls “a hybrid life” where he is working at home three days a week and can spend time with his children, even though he says his wife still does most of the childcare. This may change, though. He runs workshops in London two evenings a week and every other weekend during term time.
Having children has had an impact on his ability to travel with his work. He often gets asked to speak at events abroad, for instance, and now has to compromise on how much he travels and send others in his place. His last big trip was four years ago. “I’m now more focused on local adventures,” he says.
Ben says his relationship with time has changed a lot since becoming a parent. He finds he can focus intensely and get lots done in order to have more time with his kids. “Your relationship with time is constantly expanding and collapsing,” he says.
Despite the danger of slipping into gender stereotyped roles, Ben thinks a lot is changing. “It’s an interesting time to be a parent. It is more open,” he says.
Ben has a lot to say about the way work is changing. He thinks employers will have to adapt more to how people want to live and to the demand for greater freedom and more career breaks. Having set up Career Break Cafes, he sees the trend of more people wanting career breaks continuing along with a move towards more remote working and co-working, more entrepreneurs, more community engagement and greater focus on well being.
Bigger employers will have to build in breaks, he says. “As we become more entrepreneurial and more fulfilled without long-term commitments to big organisations this idea of building a career path on your own terms will become more normalised and will filter up,” he says. “There are exciting times ahead.”