Practical Approaches to the Impractical

Yesterday in the locker room at the gym* I overheard (forcibly—the participants were quite loud) a conversation between two women about a man they both know. As per usual when eavesdropping, I tried to figure out the relationship between the parties involved. The two women, I think, were friends, and one of them is romantically involved with the man in question. It sounded like both of them were romantically involved with him, but that’s just confusing. Anyway.

The man was intriguing because he had taken five months off to go to culinary school in Vancouver, pursuing a lifelong dream. This made him exotic and above the norm. When one of the women had expressed to him how lucky he was to have this opportunity, he had responded sensibly, “Well, I prepared for it.” He saved money and made investments and plans and then ultimately was able to do this wild and life-changing thing. Both of the women rather took offense to this concept, and the rest of the conversation was about how he didn’t understand that regular people CAN’T just DO that sort of thing; they have jobs and bills and cars and whatnot.

Now, I am nowhere near tactful enough to be a Life Coach. But I just wanted to empower these women by shouting, “You can do it too! You can follow life dreams that seem to break the societal norm!” but this would have been awkward, since we were all in the BSC shower area at the time. So I left, feeling like I knew a secret, shared with some guy with a confusing love life: it’s possible to get off the grid.

I’ve been self-employed for nine months now, after wanting to make that move for years, but not believing it was possible. And for all the fear and angst and financial calculations and nightmares leading up to that decision, it’s gone smoother than I really imagined.  Here are some of my thoughts on the non-traditional work lifestyle, as I’ve experienced it.

1. I work harder. I work harder as a freelancer than I did in either of my office jobs. I don’t mean more hours, but that I work with a greater intensity. Yesterday I sat down at 7AM on a project and worked without ceasing until 3:30 (it was due at 5:00). Literally, my only breaks, even mental, were to use the bathroom or get water. I didn’t chat with colleagues or surf the web or daydream—I was completely engaged, and exhausted afterward. In addition to working more intensely, I also have a greater responsibility for managing my workload. I have to generate business and please clients, because I just won’t get hired again if I have an off-day and botch an assignment.

2. My schedule is unusual. I have never liked a routine, never liked having ten vacation days in a year, and never liked having to go to work if I had no tasks to do just to sit at a desk.  Working from home, I start earlier (like yesterday, I’m often doing work well before 9 a.m.), generally finish earlier, but sometimes also work evenings and weekends. There’s no real Monday to Friday, 9-5. Sometimes this is a downer, like Saturday night when I was copyediting. When I want time away the boundaries can be blurrier than simply “I’m out of the office from February 12 to February 16,” but on the day-to-day basis, I prefer this style.

3. My income is less! No joke—I didn’t get rich becoming a freelancer. But I chose to value other aspects of my life over financial stability. I am lucky in my situation to have a spouse whose income has been steady, but we’re far from wealthy (I mean, we’re a freelance writer and a postdoc).  We’re just good budgeters and realistic about what we can and can’t afford (and by we I mean Tim).

4. My mental space is freer. I am more creative and my mind is more open and hungry to learn. I suddenly find I am interested in reading a history book, or tackling a problem I avoided before, or imagining the characters of a novel.

Basically, there was something within me that always wanted the more independent career. And I know not everyone wants that. But if you do, if you have some deep dream of becoming a chef or hiking the Appalachian Trail or taking a year off to see the world… I want to encourage you to find a way.

What I have learned is that you must approach impractical things practically, and then they become possible.


*You may remember I quit the gym. But then after I quit they gave me a month free for taking a survey on why I quit.  Good times.


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