Do you have a single defining moment in your life? Something that seemed totally innocuous at the time but ultimately changed the fabric of who you are as a person?

To celebrate graduating university in 2011, my fiancé Roly and I went for a 6 week holiday to the USA. It was my first proper overseas holiday besides a few work trips to New Zealand.

We ate seafood chowder on the pier in San Francisco, had our own Vegas hangover, went to a Broadway show and the Natural History Museum on my birthday, walked through Times Square at Christmas sipping hot apple cider, spent NYE in Miami with my sister who lived there at the time (need I say more?!), took a cruise to the Caribbean islands, went to countless shows and sports events and every experience in between. I thought I’d finally made it – a luxury overseas holiday, doing all the things I had only dreamed possible.

Then there was that tiny moment, 20 minutes in a whole six week holiday, that was the single most transformational thing to happen on the entire trip.

It was lunchtime on St Thomas, the last island visit on our cruise. I had that anxious, sad feeling that things were coming to an end and in less than a week we would be back home, back at work and the holiday would be over. I wanted every moment to be perfect and none more that this one.

When you visit any island on a cruise ship, you’re dropped near the main shopping street and everyone is supposed to descend on the jewellery, perfume and brand name clothing outlets. Thankfully Roly and I aren’t into that so we opted for island tours, hiring a moped or jeep or joining a trolley bus tour. One day we went to that crazy airport where the jet's tail hangs off the tarmac onto the beach and everyone hops in the water to be blasted out to sea as it takes off. Not safe at all so we watched from the sidelines but it was still a cool thing to witness.

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Anyway, once you get away from the main shopping areas and resorts, the smaller communities are visibly quite poor. We saw kids walking home from school with no shoes on, mud-floored homes with hotel uniforms hanging on makeshift clotheslines and lots of beat up old trucks. The people seem pretty happy but in the markets we visited there was that sense of desperation, I felt a little pretentious I have to admit. I know this is not the world's most poverty-stricken place but it was a culture shock for a spoiled Aussie girl nonetheless. And I do say spoiled as it made me acutely aware of just how lucky I am simply to have been born here.

So back to lunch – we had gotten back to roughly the area where the cruise terminal was and a local guide recommended a little area away from the main street to get some yummy lunch. We walked around a bit and saw a door with a sign pointing to a rooftop bar. We went up and discovered a pretty cool bar with all sorts of old signs and photos on the walls.

The sun shining through the green plastic corrugated roof gave the place a nice vibe and they had Caribbean music playing. It was still a little early for lunch so we were the only ones there.

We sat at the bar and got chatting to the owner. He was a guy who looked aged and was missing a tooth or two but spoke as if he wasn’t that much older than us. Roly ordered a beer and I was trying to choose a cocktail while Roly chatted to the guy. Turns out the place was just new, he was proud of his first business and had a fair bit riding on it.

I had decided on my cocktail and a rocket, walnut, pear and blue cheese salad. Yum! He looked at me and smiled apologetically. They didn’t have pears at the market that day but he could use apple instead.

I don’t know what came over me but I said quite rudely "No thanks, that won’t be as good". Roly was nearly finished his beer and was getting ready for another one so said I should just pick something else. Why didn’t I listen to him?

Instead, I got even more bratty and said no. I wanted that salad. "Let's go somewhere else".

Roly sighed but paid the guy and we left. As we walked out he smiled and thanked us for coming, the disappointment totally evident in his eyes as I snobbishly walked out, regretting it instantly but too ashamed to turn around and stay.

Roly humoured me but did say that he really liked that place, it was cool, quiet and the beer was nice. He was enjoying chatting to the guy and didn’t understand why I couldn’t just pick something else on the menu. I nearly went back in but then decided to keep looking around for another bar, even more perfect than that one, something exactly the same but with pears.

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Needless to say, we didn’t find anything suitable and ended up so starving hungry that we ordered some dodgy curry sort of meal from an equally dodgy kitchen with clocks that seemed to go backwards. The whole thing was a mess. By looking for the perfect experience I totally messed up the exact thing I was looking for. I was so ashamed of myself for how entitled I had acted.

I guess it was an experience I was meant to have though as it stayed with me for the longest time and often found myself drifting off into thoughts about that day and beating myself up over my behaviour. I’ve reflected on what that moment has meant for who I am and what I stand for.

At first I let the whole thing mean that money makes you a snob. It was a significant factor in self-sabotaging behaviour when it came to my career, thoughts about money and even building my business. I agreed with that ego voice that said I was a horrible person. I just couldn’t seem to make headway.

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Somewhere along the way, I decided to stop feeling guilty about it and instead turn it into a positive growth experience. The more I think about it that way, the more I realise there are innumerable lessons to take away from that tiny moment. I’ve since made it a priority to:

  • Support small businesses and spend a little more to do so if it’s appropriate.
  • Appreciate each experience for what it is, rather than constantly seeking to make it better.
  • Act on my intuition rather than talking myself out of a decision.
  • Show more compassion.
  • Be thankful for a life of abundance.
  • Take brave, inspired action every day to be my best so I can make space for others to rise up to their highest level too.
  • Have the best in life but not at the expense of others.
  • Be conscious of the way I speak to people and how that makes them feel.
  • Only buy things I need. It’s important to us to be conscious about what comes into our home. In fact, even our choice of home was influenced by this driving force. We could’ve easily spent twice as much on a big fancy house but choosing not to overextend ourselves financially so we can enjoy life and feel a sense of freedom was far more important to us.

It’s important to look at every experience in life, especially the ones where your shadow rules your decisions, as an opportunity to improve and grow. A tiny moment where I acted in a way that is counter to my usual self has taught me more about the value of being a good person than almost any other in my whole life.

The most important thing though? You have to make a conscious choice to see it that way.

I’d love to hear your stories of tiny moments that made the biggest difference to your life. Tell me in the comments below.

Rachelle xo

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The Big Lessons I Learned from a Tiny Moment on a Caribbean Island - Breathe Travel

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This post originally appeared on Rachelle Hawken and has been republished with permission.