How Karen Willis ended up running retreats in Bali

“How did you end up running retreats in a Bali village?” is a question I’m often asked and one that I ask of myself when having a reality check. I’d like to say it was the result of chasing a heartfelt dream, or a well-planned career shift. But truthfully, it’s the result of a deep-seated restlessness, the will to walk through new doors, and a healthy dose of intuition.

Karen Willis

When asked for advice on making a similar life shift, I have two big tips. (Hindsight is a wonderful thing).

I’m mindful that every situation is different, each with a different time frame. I didn’t get here in a straight line, in fact my story evolved over twenty years. I had a career in the fashion lifestyle industry, travelling the world, working alongside and being mentored by amazing people. In my early 30’s I made a decision not to follow the executive path, intuitively knowing I needed freedom to travel for myself at times.

Taking time out in Indonesia after a “I can’t do this anymore” meltdown changed my life. Swapping designer hotels for village huts, trekking through jungle instead of retail stores temporarily satisfied my internal nomad spirit. I had to find a new way.

Gradually I built a life that allowed for periods of working remotely (initially pre-internet… think fax machines!) combined with intense project work back in the office. I lived a ‘double life’, bouncing between Australia, USA and Bali. I would fly overnight from Bali, shower at the office and be at my desk as my co-workers arrived from their daily commute.

I have no regrets about the gradual move as it allowed me to build the retreat business slowly on the side. The business knowledge and experience gained during my corporate years has been invaluable to my new chapter in life.


Ask the ‘WHY?’ question…‘Why do I want to do this, what am I looking for?

Make a list of reasons. For example…

  • A more affordable way of life.
  • To start a new business.
  • To create a new ‘base’ enabling working remotely.
  • Your skills are in demand in that region, providing an opportunity for growth.
  • Climate for health reasons…the tropics are calling (I get that).
  • To be exposed to a different culture, language, way of living.
  • To build a life around a hobby/passion/ belief/group of people.
  • A lifestyle/career change with the support of an expat community.
  • A simpler way of life. (Be careful with this one. It only happens when you make changes within).

This gives you direction. Be honest or else the same struggles in life await you. Start researching, networking, preparing around the strongest reason. It takes work.


Unless you’re free to dive in with a ‘what the hell, let’s see if this works’ attitude, nothing beats a live trial.

Find a way to spend a month or two in your destination at least once. There’s so much to learn. On test trips you need to be the most open to possibilities and the most honest about how realistic it is to get your ‘WHY?’ to work.

Rent a place, get local, get into daily life, absorb the culture, get out of holiday mode. Go for intense immersion. This is about living, not visiting.

Karen Willis retreat in Bali

You may land on your feet, slipping into a new way of life effortlessly, wondering why it took you so to get here.

Or you may find that a reality check on internet speed and time zones reduces your remote working life dreams to dust. You can see legal hurdles and hidden costs causing financial stress. Etc. etc. It isn’t necessarily the end of the dream, test trips are the opportunity to find alternative solutions.


Some other thoughts to consider….

Think outside the box. Maybe you don’t need to relocate your whole life. In fact, reorganising your life to have 1 or 2 months a year there with a specific focus could give you the best of both worlds.

Being isolated by language is challenging. You don’t need to be an instant expert, but gradually learning the language and immersing yourself in local culture builds relationships, respect and helps avoid awkward cultural faux pas. Making the effort is worthwhile.

Deal with the legal issues upfront. Unless you have a legal background or endless patience I suggest engaging an immigration or visa agent.

Family ties. Aware you may need to flip back and forth to family at home (elderly parents, weddings etc)? Is this viable and affordable from your destination? Allow for it in the budget.

Bali sunset

Sponsored Moves. If there’s a chance to work overseas for your employer, take it. It will test your adaptability and open up new networks. I worked in the USA for a year and commuted 3-4 times a year for several years. I learnt a lot about business and even more about myself during that time.

What’s the worst-case scenario? This one is usually financial. Are you prepared to ‘lose’ (it’s up to you to define that word) money.

Don’t wait for a meltdown (like I did) before exploring possibilities. It’s not a good starting place. Thankfully my employers at the time gave me the freedom to return anytime with a promise of a new role, taking the pressure off. Be in a good place (not desperate) to plan or to take up opportunities as they arise.

Expect hurdles, some higher than others, but if it feels right, I say go for it. Try it. I’m all for encouraging new chapters in life.



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