Ben Steele spent his childhood in London, before moving to Brighton in 2009 to study at the University of Sussex. He enjoyed writing for The Badger while at Sussex, and he later worked as a Communications Officer at the University.
Ben and his family recently relocated to the small town of Kristiansund in Norway, where he is currently working as a freelance writer.
What attracted you to studying at Sussex?
I liked the fact that Sussex was a research university, and that as a student I’d be taught by people who were making new discoveries as part of their day-to-day work. I thought that these had to be the best people to learn from – the people who were actually broadening the scope of human knowledge.
I probably felt this most strongly when I attended an open day at the University and listened to an academic lecture for the first time. The ideas that were presented were so fresh and exciting; it was like a new world had opened up before me. After that, I had my heart set on coming to Sussex!
Did you have a goal already in mind when you arrived on campus?
Not really – all I knew was that I loved to read, and that I was about to embark on three glorious years of reading and talking about books! I felt incredibly lucky. My ideas about life after university weren’t very developed at that point, beyond a vague desire to get into publishing.
Luckily, I found my true calling while I was studying at Sussex. I got involved early on in writing for the Badger (I’ve still got the cuttings), and in my second year I was fortunate enough to get a job as a freelance writer for a travel company. More writing jobs followed after that, and I soon realised that this was what I wanted to spend my life doing. But I’ll always cherish my time at the University’s student newspaper.
What did your time at Sussex teach you?
Through the relationships I made while I was there, I learnt the value of respecting others and treating people with kindness. The fact that I am the proud owner of two degrees from Sussex taught me that hard work can, and does, pay off in the end. And lastly, being around so many intelligent and driven people has taught me that anything is possible. First as a student, then as a colleague, I’ve seen people achieve marvellous things. I’ve learned that it’s always best to surround yourself with people who inspire you, and then you too will be inspired.
What was it like working for the University as a former student?
It’s like drawing back the curtain and seeing the inner workings of a machine. I gained a newfound respect for the sheer scale and diversity of life at Sussex – and for the phenomenal amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. Physicists, librarians, counsellors, cleaners – everyone is part of life at the University, and everyone contributes in their own important way.
After working as a writer as well as a Communications Officer at the University, you decided to move to Norway and work as a freelancer. Why Norway?
Well, as is often the case, love had something to do with it. While studying at Sussex, I met my future wife. After a few years of living together we decided to get married. A little while later, our beautiful twin daughters Matilda and Josephine came along.
For a long time we’d been mulling over whether to stay in England, or move back to my wife’s home country. Norway had always seemed like the land of milk and honey – with high wages, a decent standard of living and a relatively calm political system (compared to that of the US and the UK!).
Living in Brighton with two children was becoming expensive, and there were job opportunities waiting for my wife back in Norway. So, we decided to take the plunge. We quit our jobs, booked our tickets and started the process of unravelling our lives in the UK. It was one of the most stressful periods of our lives, but also one of the most exciting.
What happens when you take a “born-and-bred Londoner’’ and relocate him to a small Norwegian town?
I won’t lie – moving from a big city in the UK to small‑town Norway has its challenges. Things are a lot quieter here, and the restaurants and shops tend to shut quite early. Luckily, we have two little toddlers who keep us very busy every day, so we don’t notice too much! The cold weather here has also taken some getting used to. We’ve had to stock up on lots of woollen clothes to stay warm in the winter. On the other hand, we have lovely views of snow‑capped mountains at the moment. That’s one perk of living here: we’re in the midst of Norway’s fjords, and the landscapes in this part of the world are truly awe‑inspiring.
There are some other upsides to living in a community like Kristiansund. For instance, everybody seems to know each other around here. It’s nice to run into friendly faces when you’re out in town, and stop for a quick chat – it makes you feel more like you belong to somewhere.
I’ll always cherish my time at the University’s student newspaper as the beginning of my journey as a writer.” Ben Steele
Freelancing has become an increasingly popular way to work. What are the main advantages?
The main advantage is that you can have more control over your work. You can (theoretically!) choose what you want to do, who you want to work with and how to manage your time. Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that, especially in the beginning, but I think that’s the aspiration for many freelancers.
Another, related advantage, is that you don’t have to rely on anyone else in order to develop your career. Your success (or failure) is entirely in your hands. Not your boss, not your colleagues – just you, your willpower and a mug of strong coffee. It can be a scary place to be, but it’s exciting too!
…And the disadvantages?
One of the main disadvantages, especially for someone just starting out, is the uncertainty that comes with freelancing. I’ve experienced days where there’s no work, and days where I have to work until late in the evening.
You also have to be flexible in order to accommodate your clients – for instance, I’ve found myself taking phone calls during family dinners, or in the middle of putting my daughters to bed.
But for me it’s all worth it, because I get to do what I love best.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone considering going into freelancing?
The most important advice I would have for someone new to freelancing is to always keep an open mind, and grab hold of any opportunity that comes your way.
Go to networking meetings, volunteer your time and expertise, get active on social media, and most importantly, say yes to new things. Paid work isn’t going to magically fall into your lap – you have to get out there and hustle for it!
Any fun facts about the Norwegian culture and/or language?
A fun fact about Norwegian culture is that over here, porridge is regularly eaten as a main meal in the evening. Norwegian porridge, or grøt, usually comes with cinnamon, a knob of butter, and some cured reindeer sausage on the side.
What has been the biggest culture shock?
There haven’t been any major culture shocks so far, but living in a country where they speak a different language is not always easy. I’m doing my best to learn Norwegian, but the dialect they use in this part of the country can be quite impenetrable!
This can lead to mix ups. For instance, the other day I had to sprint the whole way to my daughters’ nursery, after misunderstanding what someone had said about opening and closing times.
What would the soundtrack of your uni days sound like?
It would sound a bit like The Supremes, and a bit like Toots and the Maytals. There would also be some classical music in there. I was pretty eclectic at that point.
Sum up your time at Sussex in three words or less…
One word – inspiring.
Who do you admire?
My wife. She has a boundless energy, and always puts others’ needs before her own. We’ve been together for seven years, but I still have a lot to learn from her. Other than that, I’ve always looked up to David Attenborough, ever since being enchanted by his nature documentaries as a small boy.
Life’s biggest lesson so far?
Things will always get better. Everyone goes through hard times, and some situations can feel overbearing. But if you keep on going, just putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually leave your worries behind you.
Describe your perfect day…
All I’d say is that it would start with a lie in! As a father of small children, it’s not often that I get to sleep past seven in the morning.