Writing and running in Austin, TX.
I just read an article about how to be a successful blogger, and it said that the most important element of every post is the title. Titles that start with “How to…” or indicate a list, such as “10 Reasons to Read this Post”, are preferred. So, I decided to combine both of those ideas, as well as drop a bomb on anyone who hasn’t heard the news: I just quit my steady, well-paying job of 7.5 years (for the curious, I was a technical writer) in hopes of finding “what I really want”.
Complete the following steps to learn how you, too, can accomplish such a feat:
It’s tempting to start this section with, “In these tough economic times…”, but forget that cliche. Think of the people you know who’ve quit “good” jobs. I’m not talking about the people you read about in the Oprah magazine (they’re not real), or the people who have to quit due to extenuating circumstances like family, illness, etc. I’m talking about healthy people who have no significant “pull” factors driving them to quit.
What do those people all have in common?
They are pissed off. (The technical term is “burnt out”.)
Burnout is a very real physiological reaction to a period of sustained stress. It has lots of interesting phases — all of which I traveled through — but I’ll let Wikipedia explain those. The salient point is that for me it led to lots of illogical reactions. For example: “He copied my boss’s boss on this whiny email, and I should just ignore it, but instead I’m going to get EXCESSIVELY ANGRY!!!“
In retrospect, I’m a little embarrassed by some of my reactions to things that just weren’t important (though I still hold out hope that I contained most outbursts to bathroom stalls and close friends). But, I’m also a little grateful to my mind for its propensity to…overreact.
Anger is one of the few emotions strong enough to override the fear of leaving your comfort zone. This is especially true if you’re not typically an “angry” person, because the fear of becoming someone you don’t recognize can outweigh the fear of making a change.
I contend that burnout is good for you, because it makes your comfort zone not comfortable anymore. And then you get off your butt and change something.
I have to throw a bone to the people who are just here for the running, right?
In all seriousness, there are two key ways that running (and swimming and biking) helped me make such a monumental decision. Okay, three.
One: Exercise broke down my ability to bullsh*t. If you want to know what your core desires in life are, go for a 4-hour run. Bonus points if you do this with friends whose BS tolerance meters are also low, and thus will call you on your crazy. I dare you to have the energy to lie to yourself when you’re in a state of complete physical exhaustion.
Two: Exercise made me realize there is something in life I love enough to put myself in such a state. Willingly. No large predators involved. It also made me realize that I did not have the same feeling about my job. And I’m just young enough to squeak into that Millennial generation that believes you should love work that much.
Three: Exercise gave me a routine of accomplishment. Running is something I can go out and do every day and feel like I succeeded at something. Do not underestimate the human need to feel worthwhile!
One of my absolute favorite things about living in Austin is the opportunity to attend SXSW. Not the music part that’s so famous — my radio only leaves NPR news when Morning Edition has looped back around to stories I’ve already heard.
I love SXSW Film. Specifically the documentaries. This year I went to 8 documentary sessions, one of which was documentary shorts. You want to meet someone who is passionate about what they do? Go talk to a filmmaker who focuses on documentary shorts. Even at a large, well-known film festival, they get maybe 50 people in the theater. They live paycheck to paycheck…with no guarantee that a paycheck is actually coming.
Now, pay attention to how inspired that filmmaker is by life. Sobering, isn’t it?
I don’t really like to talk about mental health in public, because I’m terrified that once a person knows about my struggles, that’s all they’ll see when they look at me. At the same time, I’m somewhat ashamed of contributing to the stigma by staying quiet. So, I’ll say this once on the blog, and if anyone wants to talk more about it, you’re welcome to contact me via email:
I’ve suffered from bulimia nervosa and obsessive-complusive disorder since I was 19 years old.
Running and an excellent therapist have really helped me get the former under control, but the latter has dogged me for years. And it was my own damn fault. Through some misplaced sense of pride, or some misguided belief that it wasn’t a “medical” issue, I refused to take any form of medication until about, ohhh, four months ago.
NEWS FLASH: It’s much easier to deal with an illness if you accept that you have it and do something about it. I lived in a constant spiral of doubt for 11 years. I mean really, I read that sentence over and feel like a complete moron. What the hell was I thinking?!? (Not entirely sure, but clearly I was thinking it over and over and over again. A little OCD humor…like it? 😉 )
Anyhow, obviously not everyone needs medication. But unless you’re the Dalai Lama, you probably have some issue you’re not dealing with that impairs your life in some way. Want to be happier? Deal with your sh*t. Yes, it’s uncomfortable at first, but actually doing so makes a WORLD of difference.
I don’t mean delusional in the hallucinatory way. If you are seeing or hearing things that aren’t real, I encourage you to take the previous point literally. There’s no good reason to suffer if you don’t have to.
No, I mean delusional in the little kid way. The way that when someone asks you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, you can give a different answer every week and mean it with your whole heart. (My childhood answers included scientist, taxi driver, and professional show jumper.)
When I finally let my mind wander to what I would do if I could do anything, I spent a good 5 days convinced that when I quit my job, I would become a professional triathlete. Yes, that was a completely irrational thought. BUT, it helped me see a theme in various passions I’ve had over the years: riding horses, running, triathlon…I am positively obsessed with Olympic sports. And sure, maybe I’ll never go to the Olympics myself (though I still haven’t ruled out a late-in-life career in archery), but at least I can start doing things that get me closer to that world.
So, this past Saturday, I worked my first ever sporting event as a representative for Clif Bar. My hourly pay was probably a third of what I made at my old job, and the work is not exactly 40-hours a week consistent, but at least I’m taking steps to get closer to the world I love so much.
I lied a little bit when I said I had no backup plan. I have 7.5 years of technical writing experience in a town that has no lack of technical employment. As the head of recruiting for my old company, I read hundreds of “Senior Technical Writer” job descriptions, and interviewed even more people who claimed said level of experience. I’m qualified. Most of them are not. Do not undersell yourself just because the economy is “tough” and you’re used to dwelling on how slow/fat/dumb you are.
If you’re smart and a hard worker, you CAN get hired again. Maybe not for exactly what you want to be doing, but this point is all about the safety net. If you’re thinking about a career change but are nervous to make the leap, go read job postings for your current field. Read between the “ideal candidate” BS and see what the actual qualifications are. Are you qualified? I bet you are.
What’s worse? Trying something new and deciding to go back? Or never trying at all?
Maybe I will decide that tech writing IS my dream job. But at least this way I’ll have some evidence to support that decision.
If you want a glut of unsolicited advice, tell people you’ve decided to quit your job. I’ve been breaking this news to people over the course of 4 months, and the variety of reactions has been fascinating. Many people advised me to reconsider. Some even made disparaging remarks about my plans to “freelance” and “explore”. Remember, unless what you “really want to do” would be genuinely harmful (or truly, truly, “I want to breathe underwater without diving gear” impossible), anyone who disparages the idea is probably just voicing their own anxiety. (For better or worse, it’s not always about you.)
Then there are the “faux-supporters”. These are the people who say, “That sounds wonderful! You know, you should really (insert one: apply with this other tech company/work at this newspaper/start your own consulting firm).” It can certainly be interesting to hear what others think you’d be good at, but again, remember that it’s hard to think outside your own box. Often what people think “you” would be good at is really what they think they would be good at.
I’m not saying you should really ignore ALL good advice. Just take it with a grain of salt (or, if needed, a thick skin).
There’s no sugar-coating it: Regardless of how much you wish it were otherwise, you DO need money to survive. I’ve been fortunate in many many ways. I was born into an upper middle class family that was able to send me to a good school with no debt. I got a good job (yeah, that one I just quit) right out of school, and was never a particularly spendy person. My parents – both of whom did NOT start out upper middle class – instilled in me a great respect for money/fear of not being able to support myself.
So, I have some savings. I also have an amazing husband with a well-paying job and a similar respect for money. A husband who is far more rational than myself. A husband who, when I considered not quitting my well-paying job because doing so would be “impractical”, responded, “You’re not allowed to back out because I can’t listen to you complain anymore.”
Whether it’s a husband, a wife, a partner, or a friend, you’ll know it’s true love when the other person isn’t afraid to give you a well-timed kick in the ass.
So that’s it. That’s why and how I quit a very good job at a very good company. I’m not just saying that to save face with any former coworkers who might stumble upon this post. I really did have a good thing going. I just didn’t love it.
So what’s next? More Clif events, hopefully some writing gigs, maybe a job at a running store. Who knows? I just know that for these next few months, if it inspires me, I’m going to try it. Scary or not. Because surely nothing will be scarier than taking that first step.
I’ll let you all know how it goes.