I've mentioned on this blog that I've quit my day job, but I haven't really gone into specifics. Since everyone loves a good 'Quit Your Day Job' story, and I've been meaning to make this blog a little more personal, I thought I'd share my story.
Why Would You Quit A 'Good Job'?
It took me about seven years to quit. I was at the job for ten, so the majority of my time there was spent wanting to leave, but not being sure of how, what or why. There were a lot of reasons to stay: I liked my coworkers, the money was good, I wanted a permanent German residence permit which I would only get after five years of being consistently employed. I felt slightly guilty for being dissatisfied; what was I complaining about? I had good job that, on paper, was pretty sexy; I worked for large notable clients, traveled all over the world and built up a substantial knowledge base of all things digital, web and tech related. I knew I had a 'cool' job because my parent's to this day still don't understand what exactly it was that I did.
But in reality, a lot of it sucked. After a while, travel was more exhausting than exciting and the work became less and less creative. I found myself sitting in soul-sappingly boring meetings, watching PowerPoint presentations and otherwise smart people getting excited about what I increasingly came to see as nonsense. I witnessed the garden-variety politics that happen at any organization and became more cynical by the day. I started wondering if this was really the best use of my talents, my energy and my life.
I'm not one to give up all my worldly goods and dedicate my life to saving the world, but I did start to examine my role as a cog in the machine of our excessive consumer culture. While working on projects and trying to muster up the required sense of urgency and enthusiasm for the work, I started to increasingly ask 'Does the world really need this?', 'Does this matter at all?' the answer was consistently 'No'.
If you find no meaning in your work and you start along the 'What am I doing here?' and 'Why am I doing this?' line of thinking, you get to the 'it's for the paycheck' conclusion pretty quickly. Making a connection between my day to day work and anything that I found remotely useful, helpful or even enjoyable became increasingly difficult. Still, I felt like an over-indulged yuppie navel gazer for complaining. There are people living in dire poverty! Huge swaths of people are unemployed! and I want 'meaning'? get over yourself! but the dissatisfaction persisted.
No Really, It's Time To Go.
As usually happens when people need a loud wake-up call, my body did it for me. Late in 2006, while on a business trip a 'bad chest cold' that I had been ignoring, turned out to be a an inflammation of my lungs and heart-sack (pericardium.) So at age 36 I found myself in a hospital in Miami (where I knew virtually no one) hospitalized and needing emergency heart surgery. After the surgery I laid in my hospitable bed and thought: 'Okay, I get it, time to get OUT.' It was no longer a question, I was done. But...I still didn't know how or what I would do.
I lucked out. I was offered a less stressful role at the same company, which initially was interesting and allowed for a more balanced life with no travel. But this role, too, while minus the stress, became frustrating in a different way, and the sense of futility and ‘wasting my life’ set in anew.
I knew my days in corporate life where numbered, but what to do? Go to a design agency and make half the money? No. Freelance? doing the same stuff I hated, but making a lot more money? Maybe, but only as a bridge to something else. Better to figure out what 'something else' is and cut to the chase.
I read books. What Should I do with My Life?, I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was, I Don't Know What I Want, But I Know it's Not This, Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow, The Four Hour Work Week. In more desperate moments I even read books on how to get rich quick in real estate. I also read Small is Beautiful and Deep Economy which expanded my thinking about meaningful work and human-scale economies.
But, What Do I Really Want To Do?
It turns out finding out what your work is, is really hard. I started to think about what I liked doing: designing, writing, publishing content on the web. I am strategic and organized and there were elements of my day job that I did enjoy, like project planning. Part of the reason I stayed at my job was that I learned a lot about diverse things: user experience, marketing and communications, corporate design, web technology, project management, process design, business processes. I didn’t want to be an expert or specialist in any one of these things. I wanted to do a little of all of them, but on my own terms.
I spun my wheels and had a lot of false starts. I tried to re-start doing freelance book design for some of my old clients in the states remotely from Germany, that didn’t really work out. I wasted a lot of money on a UK-based Ltd. So I could start a freelance consulting business, which I never pursued.
In 2007 I was sitting on a plane with my boyfriend flying over California on the way to a wedding, when an idea ‘just came to me.’ Why not sell card designs in PDF format on the internet that people can print at home? It was easy enough to set up an online store, and everyone had good quality home-printers. Years ago, My friend Molly and I attempted a wedding invitation business, e.m.papers, but never got it off the ground. We always wondered what would have happened if we had really given it a go. At the wedding I asked Molly what she thought about me resurrecting the business but as an online, download and print greeting card business. ‘Great idea, go for it!’ was basically her response, so when I returned to Germany I slowly started working on it.
I started with a Yahoo store. I would check my stats, and get really excited when I discovered I had gotten 12 whole hits that weren’t from friends or family. I remember the day I got my first sale, $2.00 for a printable card. I couldn’t believe it. It was like some kind of miracle. To top things off, my boyfriend proposed later that day, things were looking up!
I was still at my day job though. Although $2.00 sales felt miraculous, they weren’t going to pay the rent. I just needed 60,000 more sales a year, and I would be golden! Needless to say, there was a bit of a learning curve around e-commerce, SEO and online marketing. But learn I did, slowly and steadily.
When I found myself crying as I read through each page of Pam Slim’s book Escape From Cubicle Nation and having subversive fantasies of hitting ‘send all’ of her ‘Open Letter to CXO’ to my company’s global mailing list, I knew I had to expedite things.
Taking the Leap.
By 2010 my new husband and I had saved enough money to take the better part of a year off from our job (we met at work). Our plan was to travel, spend time in California after our second wedding ceremony and work on e.m.papers.
We moved the online store from Yahoo to a more robust open source e-commerce platform and I refined my products. I was knee deep in wedding planning and had finally perfected an idea I had for printable wedding kits. I launched a free version of it and it went viral. Once I had a confirmation that the idea would work, I started designing more kits. From starting in around June of 2010 I started seeing real revenue, nothing close to my corporate salary, but nothing to sneeze at either.
In spite of this, I still planned to return to my day job. I couldn’t make the leap. I kept moving the bar: ‘I’ll quit when I make twenty sales a month’, ‘I’ll quit when I can pay my rent’, these milestones came and went, and I still couldn’t do it. I also thought it was kind of retro to get married and immediately quit my job.
When our year off came to an end, I met with a supervisor to explore options for a new role at the company. ‘What are you passionate about?’ he kept asking. ‘Really?’ I thought. ‘I have to be passionate? Can’t I just come in and do my job and be competent? I have to be passionate too?’ He was well meaning, and a colleague that I liked very much, but I left that meeting knowing it was now or never, the only thing I was passionate about was getting out of there. I quit a week later.
Small is Beautiful.
What made all of this possible? Several things. My husband still has his day job, is beyond supportive, and is a hands-on partner in the business. We live well but below our means, we don’t have kids which made it easy to save tons of money and feel freer to take risks. I live in a social democracy where you can opt to take free ‘start up money’ instead of unemployment and offers universal health care (Side note: Don’t believe the hype, European-style social democracy is awesome!) But even without these things, I’m proud to say my little business is profitable and I am able to contribute to the family budget each month.
So I have had a lot of personal and societal support to take the leap. I didn’t just leave one day in a fit of rage. It was a slow, seven year process full of false starts and much soul searching. There was a lot of careful planning and there were difficulties to overcome. The biggest challenge, though, was a psychological one. Change is hard. As frustrating as I found corporate life, it’s hard to leave the comfort of a regular paycheck, to tell your parents you left a 'perfectly good job'. I was also surprised and unnerved to discover that there was a significant adjustment in losing the ‘status’ of being associated with a large firm.
And there is this: I have never been happier. It’s not so much that I am deeply passionate about wedding invitations (don't get me wrong, I do love designing them!) and I don’t think printable stationery is the answer to the world’s ills. There are days when I get depressed or frustrated or doubtful and overwhelmed. It’s also very scary - if I fail I only have myself to blame. It’s a lot easier to be unhappy or unsuccessful and blame it on something external, like your job. Yet the excitement of firing on all four cylinders and using all of my potential to get my enterprise off of the ground makes it so worth it. The visceral satisfaction of knowing that all the money I earn is the direct result of my efforts and nothing else, is something that can only be understood through experience.
I appreciate that this isn’t for everybody. The world is filled with people who thrive and are deeply happy working in a corporate environment. I am also extremely grateful for my time in one. I can honestly say I worked at a good company, with many wonderful people and learning opportunities that I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere and the knowledge I gained in one continues to serve me well. In the end, though, I am just not a corporate type, and in some ways my time in one was a ten year long detour.
Many people need a direct connection between the work they do each day and their sense of livelihood. That’s what the DIY movement and the explosion of indie-entrepreneur sites are all about. Even cooking and food blogs speak to the fact that people are hungering for meaningful work.
People want to produce, they want to build and directly experience the fruits of their labor whether it be through earning money, enjoying a thoughtfully prepared meal or solving a household problem. It's also becoming clear that there isn't such a thing as a 'job security' anymore anyway. Leaving corporate life has been one of the most scary but life-affirming things I have ever done, and with each passing day I'm even more convinced it has been one of the best decisions I've ever made.
all images from Work is Not a Job