“I gave up my job for something I truly believed”

Looking for a little inspiration to kickstart your week? As part of our Smart Mondays series, Gaia Vince recalls how she gave everything up to travel the world (and ended up with a book deal)

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By Hattie Crisell on

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Before all of this started, I was the news editor at the science journal Nature. I would send reporters out to different places to find out what was going on, and they would bring me the latest scientific papers, telling me what people had discovered in various parts of the world – everything from “We’re running out of fish,” to “Glaciers are melting,” to “We've made a new form of GM rice.” I started to realise that our world was changing in a fundamental way, and there was one common factor, and that was us. Humans were changing the planet.

I realised that I wasn't going to learn very much about this by sitting at my desk in King’s Cross. I needed to get out and meet the people who were living at the forefront of all these changes, and most of those are in the developing world. So my partner and I bought a one-way ticket to Kathmandu, and off we went. 

In terms of my career and my finances, it was completely stupid, because I had quite a prestigious job and I was earning a decent amount of money. I struggled to find anyone to rent our house, because the recession had just hit. I tried to save up a bit of money for the trip and we ended up spending most of it just to pay the mortgage while we were away. So it was difficult. There were times, staying in some grim backpacker hostel, when I wondered if I'd done the right thing. But for me, it was the only way. I didn't want to stay in the same job doing the same thing all the time. That wasn’t my personality at all.

Last month I became the first ever solo woman to win the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

I was away for two and a half years, and I travelled to more than 40 different countries in Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, the US and parts of Europe. I didn't have a plan at all. We would arrive somewhere and I would do some research, try to set up meetings with people, see what was going on there, and then we’d move on to the next place. The whole point of it was to have an adventure, so if I’d already had a conception of what was out there, and stuck to it, then it almost wasn't worth doing. 

I found some incredible material and some really interesting stories. At the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to write a book about everything I was seeing – how humanity has changed the planet, and how people at the frontline of those changes are finding ingenious ways to adapt. When I got back, I approached an editor and she bought it. I was very lucky. 

Writing the book was a hell of a job. I did it while I was pregnant, and then with a brand-new baby. I'd do childcare all day, and then put him down to sleep at about 7.30. Then I’d have my dinner and work until the 3am feed, and then I’d go to sleep. I would wake up and do the whole thing again. It nearly killed me.

My book, Adventures in the Anthropocene, was published last year. Last month I became the first ever solo woman to win the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. I’m still pretty shocked about it, but it’s happy shock.

I hope that I will carry on travelling, but that kind of wild abandonment, where you just go off and see what happens, is hard to do with children. My trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m really, really glad I did it.

Gaia Vince is the author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, and winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2015

As told to Hattie Crisell


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