On choosing temporary freedom

By Philip Brewer on 6 March 2009 (Updated 10 February 2010) 4 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

On one side there's your typical job. It's clearer than ever that it doesn't offer the security it once did, but it still offers some, and it offers other things--predictable income, social position, a structure to your day. On the other side there's freedom. The way we've structured our society, it's hard to switch back and forth. Hard, but not impossible.

Why try to have it both ways?

Some people know which side of the divide they want to be on. Some people with regular jobs love their work and would never want to change. Some people who don't have regular jobs know that they'd never be happy with one. But other people would like to have the option to switch back and forth.

Why? Well, for a lot of reasons.

To do or make something

Probably the biggest reason people want to live without a job for a while is because they want to accomplish something that they can't do while holding down a job.

  • Travel
  • Get a degree
  • Finish a dissertation
  • Raise children
  • Build a house

People leaving a regular job to do something like this are really just looking to free up a chunk of time long enough to finish something that's important to them.

To be part of something larger

Many people want to help others or make a contribution to society or to some cause they believe in:

  • Missionary
  • Aid worker
  • Teacher
  • Researcher
  • Inventor

There are jobs in which you can do these things, but many people feel called to do them outside the context of a job. Many people are supported by institutions that try to provide some of what a job would provide--money, a place to live, food, etc. But many people do these things entirely on their own, simply because it's what they want to do.

Because they hate the structure

Some people simply can't stand "working for the man." In some cases it's just a personality quirk that they reject having a boss or can't bring themselves to follow rules. Some start their own business so that they can be the boss.

Others really can't handle a regular job because of physical or mental problems. Besides trying to start a business, there are kinds of work where it's possible to fit the work into whatever constraints your body and mind require.

I sometimes hear about writers and artists who were bipolar, suffered from depression, or had some other mental illness--with the suggestion that their problems were related to their creativity.  I don't figure it that way. My take on it is that someone who can't hold a regular job--perhaps because they sometimes have bouts of depression that make them unproductive for weeks at a time--has to try to find work that can accommodate those constraints. Sometimes, being a writer or artist can be fit in around problems of this sort.

Because they have no choice

Some people would like nothing better than to have a regular job. But--as the economy going kablooie has made clear--sometimes they don't have a choice. Sometimes the great job that you love (where you're well-paid to do important work) just evaporates. That can happen with any job, any time--it's just that right now it's happening with lots of jobs that had seemed secure right up until they vanish.

All too many people look up from their pink slip and see that not only has their job disappeared, their entire field has decamped for parts unknown taking their career along with it.

Don't think it can't happen to you.

Why not?

Although there are plenty of people out there who don't hate their jobs, in my experience there's a solid majority of people who would like to take a few months or years off from working and do something else. In fact, though, most people don't--at least, they don't do it on purpose.  The major reason is fear.

Among the things people fear are:

  • Lost income -- One loss is the money that's not earned during the period you spend without a job. On top of that, though is the reduction in future income that comes from being "unemployed" for a period of time--missing out on a raise, losing seniority, and simply falling off the radar of the people who are trying to move you up in the company.
  • Problems reentering -- Not many employers will keep your old job open for you, if you leave to "follow your dream" or "do great things." Even if you can get a leave of absence, you can be sure that people who are absent will be the first to be let go if there's a layoff. Seeking a new job can also be tricky--there's the danger that having left the workforce for an extended period will mark you as a dissatisfied or unreliable worker
  • Becoming a different person -- A lot of people seem to worry that a sojourn away from a regular job longer than a short vacation might change them into someone who cannot be satisfied with a regular job. (I've heard this from more than one person and I always think it's sad--people choosing to leave their blinkers on out of fear that once they'd seen the wide world their old life would seem smaller and more constrained than they knew. It may well be true; that seems to be a poor reason to refuse to look.)

Ameliorating the risks

Let me say up front that these fears are valid. There's no point in just hoping that these things won't happen. But there are actions that you can take to mitigate them--or even turn them into positives.

There are a few obvious things to do:

  • Keep up in your field so that your skills are up-to-date
  • Develop new skills
  • Produce something that demonstrates your value to an employer
  • Keep your network informed about the cool stuff you're doing

One less-obvious thing you need, though, is a good story. You need a story in which you took time off to do something important, and accomplished it in a way that makes you a better fit for the workplace.

The story is for at least two people. One is the person who might hire you for your next job. Your story can be a great hook to make you stand out from all the other people looking to get hired--how many of them vaccinated kids in Brazil or wrote a novel or sailed around the world? Almost no matter what it is, your accomplishment demonstrates many characteristics wanted in an employee--you're a self-starter, you can finish a large project, you're a can-do person who overcomes obstacles and gets things done.

If you tell it right, your story can make it clear that you're not the sort of unreliable person who might take off and leave whenever you get a wild idea. Tell it so that it shows you to be a solid performer who makes commitments and sees them through.

The other person the story is for is you. This is how you control the way in which your experience changes you. Make sure your story isn't one of a drone who briefly gloried in unlimited freedom only to return to the daily grind. Rather, make it the story of someone who felt a calling to do something great, accomplished it, and then sought a new challenge.

Ways and means

If this were a post about permanently leaving regular employment, this section would be about how you might earn enough money to support yourself, either by working outside the framework of a regular job or by investing for income.

This, though, is about a temporary departure from regular work. Although picking up a little money on the side can help, almost everyone does this either by saving up the money or else by living off someone else's income.

There's not really much to say about saving up the money. Almost anyone can save up enough money to take a few months or a few years off. It's just a matter of wanting it badly enough that you're willing to cut your expenses and put money away.

Couples (or, more generally, any households with more than one adult) have the option of allocating the "earning an income" task however they like. It's not unusual for one spouse to support the household while the other gets a degree--and getting a degree isn't the only thing the spouse without a regular job might do.

Spouses can choose to take turns working regular jobs so that the other can do something awesome--or they can both work and save and then do something awesome together.

I've long recommended that you find work worth doing--work that is so important to you that you'd never even want to ditch your job. But finding work worth doing is a process, not a goal. Sometimes the process includes ditching your job. Lots of people get stuck at that point, stopped by the fear that they're taking a perfectly good life and screwing it up in the search for something better. I won't say, "Be fearless!" because there are many scary things out there. Rather, I say, "Make sure that settling for a 'perfectly good life' is on your list of things to be at least a little afraid of."

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martha in mobile

I left my lucrative, full-time job in mid-2007 to be a SAHM (and freelance marketing/web consultant) while my child went through middle school (aka HELL, as far as I am concerned). We have dialed down our expenses (and I have finally learned to cook); I am especially glad I chose to leave, as my former employer went belly-up last month. Instead of feeling hurt, betrayed and abandoned (as my co-workers are now feeling), I feel that I took control of my life, made a great choice and am building my portfolio for when the economy turns around (and my child is in high school).

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Guest's picture
Janet

My husband was given a choice of early retirement or layoff and I left my job to be a stay at home mom to our three year old (yes we are very late bloomers, so-to-speak). Do you or any of your readers know if there are any forms of public assistance that are not asset based? We have savings but no income at all.

Thanks!

Guest's picture

After many years, I still am glad I became a teacher. For many years, I worked towards Financial Independence (a la Your Money or Your Life), but that was because I had a stomach ache inducing department head who disliked me. I wasn't planning to quit; I just wanted to say to myself, "I'm going to work because I WANT to, not because I have to."

Finally my dept head retired after 15 years (many stomach aches for me), and, of course, my savings have been decimated. So I still "have" to work; luckily I feel that I'm doing something good every day.

Love your blog! I know you hear that all the time, but I suppose that never gets old.

Catherine Shaffer's picture

I for one am glad not to be working for the man.

When I was in Alaska, I met many people who would spend summers working in the fishing industry and then take the rest of the year off.

 

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor