8 Lessons I Learnt from 88 Days on a Dairy Farm (Down Under)
Here’s a little look at the things I learned milking cows, that could actually apply in the ‘real’ world of startups.
Whilst countries like Canada and New Zealand offer two year Working Holiday Visas to under-30s, Australia is a bit different. In order to secure a second year, you have to partake in 88 days of ‘specified work’ in ‘regional’ Australia.
I won’t go into the extensive caveats that the government uses to complicate the process. But after weighing up the options, I, a vegetarian for my entire adult life, found myself bound for a dairy on the funny triangle-shaped island off the coast of the mainland. Tasmania.
It was nothing like I have ever done, which, as an English grad traversing through FinTech startups, is not unfamiliar territory. But despite working miles from anything, under cows or open skies, I found myself reflecting on lessons that could be easily applied to a startup environment.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you’re looking to give up dairy… well, do I have some stories…
Lesson 1: Sleep is important
It’s a revolution that’s certainly picking up more buzz, as science is waggling its finger at the hustlers who proclaim they can ‘sleep when they’re dead.’ Even Jeff Bezos boasts of his 8 hours, and Arianna Huffington has written a whole book on the sleep revolution.
For me, being away from any kind of distractions or stimulants (you can’t stop milking cows for a coffee break) and with little else to do on a work day (as the nearest convenience was a petrol station) sleep became a priority – and I soon noticed the tangible impact an extra twenty minutes could have.
With physical labour, you can’t take mini-breaks or distract yourself in ways you can in an office. If you’re tired, you struggle. Prioritising sleep started as a way to feel less like shit – but it ties in with balance.
When you have fewer waking hours, you balance them a bit better.
Lesson 2: Good bosses get dirty
Balancing the things I could control – like sleep – made the things I couldn’t – like cows – easier to deal with. But easier than that, was having a hands-on boss.
“I hope you’re ready to be covered in a lot of shit,” the farmer had laughed on my first day, his arm inside a heifer.
For much of my time at the farm, he was also in the dairy, also covered in shit.
Having worked my fair share of temporary and entry-level jobs, I’ve seen all sorts of management styles. But the companies with the best retention and happiest employees (at all levels) are the ones where bosses are willing to get their hands dirty, rather than simply delegating the things they don’t want to do.
It’s a simple attitude adjustment, but really feeling you’re in it together creates an all-round better community experience that starts within a company, and seeps out.
Lesson 3: Rather than glamourise grit, encourage respect
It’s a LinkedIn meme: entrepreneurs telling rags to riches story that show how far they’ve come and how much grit they have. They romanticise the hard slog put in at low paid jobs; jobs that are viewed only as a step towards entrepreneurial greatness.
But using these jobs as examples of something to slog through inherently implies they are lesser than the final destination. That working in a low paid or entry-level role is subordinate to success. That’s not true grit.
During my time as a dairy hand, knowing I had opportunities outside the farm motivated me to get through it. But for most of my colleagues, the lifestyle of early mornings and back-breaking work* is their life. And much like the rest of the service economy, it is work that keeps the world ticking over.
Donning another life is not heroic; showing an equal respect to people in all occupations is on its way to it.
*(One of my colleagues actually did break their back; slipping a disc when lifting a particularly heavy calf)
Lesson 4: Being kicked hurts
There is no metaphor here. Taking a hoof to the chest is bloody painful.
Lesson 5: Focus on value, not the status quo
The cost of milk is often used as a benchmark of inflation. But the assumption that a pint of milk should be cheap is in direct contrast to the economics, or actual hard work, that goes into milking cows.
Milking cows, though increasingly automated, is LONG. Some cows will only stand in certain parts of the dairy. Others will only enter in the penultimate row. Sometimes, they’ll decide to turn around and watch you milk, or they won’t leave until they’ve had every grain of food. Milking cows involves a lot of management; not to mention the feed, land, and other costs associated with care.
But it’s the distribution conglomerates and supermarkets setting the prices; creating a mismatch between customer expectation and industrial reality. Just as big corporates have set the current standards in various industries, much innovation is driven by in-the-box thinking to try make the current system work better.
Instead, we should be striving to create new benchmarks and new systems that create more value; for the community within a company, through to the one outside.
Lesson 6: It’s not all about the lightbulb moment
Within the startup ecosystem, the focus is often on forging these new paths. Looking for the big ‘aha’ moments. Building the next unicorn. On a human level, it’s often about trying to find purpose, or a true sense of self.
In between milking, calf-rearing, fence-building, weed-whacking and tyre-moving, there wasn’t so much space to seek these meaningful moments.
Instead, as often the only woman, least-skilled and physically weakest farm hand, I was put into a position so totally out of my comfort zone; I was truly humbled.
And in being humbled, it is easier to learn, and keep motivated. Being in a situation where I genuinely had no skills made me appreciate those I do have – and put that imposter syndrome aside, for now at least.
Although if you have a calf that won’t feed, I’m no imposter with my patient hand-rearing.
Lesson 7: Hustle isn’t everything
Being humbled is good to refocus. Compared to city living, farmwork is a significantly more sedentary lifestyle.
But living an existence that is either entirely at work or completely off, with no in-between, proved a timely reminder that hustle is not everything.
Seeing friends and colleagues push themselves to blackout levels of stress has always been distressing; but having also found myself close to burnout made me appreciate how easily it is to do.
It’s easy, almost addictive, to fall into that life and death, “this has to be done” psychology of startups. It is far more difficult to extract yourself from it.
On the other hand, working on a dairy IS life and death. Cows are living creatures that need to be fed and cared for. Just like humans; like employees; like your own mental health.
You see, unless you’re a manufacturer of nuclear buttons, a parent, or a medical professional, your startup isn’t really life or death, is it?
Working on a farm provided a wonderful mental break for me, where I found a state of meditation in menial work, and where there was finite work that started and ended fairly regularly, albeit when it was dark.
Whilst I’m not advising this as a course for everyone, take a moment to think. Sometimes you need to slow down to survive.
Lesson 8: Shit washes off
Much like the shit that would coat my wet weather gear, and the thin strip of face that peeked between hood and scarf, the shit you encounter in the place of work will wash off.
The bad bosses, cruel colleagues, tiresome tasks… think of them as debris of the day, not a reflection on you.
Whilst ‘brand you’ can be your authentic self, it’s ok to keep some of you for yourself, off the clock.
With thanks to Gav, for giving my cloudy days silver linings