Several years ago, I left a job that I mostly enjoyed, planning to take a one-year sabbatical to sort out what my next move would be. I was a development officer, also known as a fundraiser, for a large midwestern university with national name recognition. I believed in the programs for which I fundraised, the visual and performing arts, scholarships, endowments, and I met amazing benefactors, many of whom I still maintain friendships with. But I knew I needed a change, wanted to explore some of the stories that I carried in my head and heart. I had been able to spend time with highly creative people—artists, musicians, sculptors, actors, and writers, while in that position. When we had time, I asked about their processes, how they studied, when they found the time to practice and create.
One answer came up more than once for the writers and visual artists—if you are going to do your art, you need a place that is your own, a place where you do not have to scoop up the papers, the paints, the clay, the pencils. You need a place where you can keep things as they are, so that when you are ready to create, whether it is for ten minutes or ten hours, the tools of your craft are there, ready and waiting for you.
So, I put together a plan, my husband and I talked it over, and I gave myself a timeline for leaving that job. I knew it was time to go even if I was not one hundred percent sure what would be my next move.
Those who really knew me were confident that I would land in another position when I was ready to pursue one. Others asked questions that might have been well-intentioned, but were annoying. Questions like “Aren’t you concerned it will be hard to find a job as good as this one?” or “Won’t it be hard to get back in the job market after a year, won’t you be kind of old?” One person even laughed at my belief that I was a writer; I guess she thought it was a joke at the time, until I became one.
I think these questions tied into two concerns — who are you without the presumed shelter of an employer and a title, and what will you do for money?
The title question became easier over time. I am a writer. I am a writer because I write consistently, and even when I am not writing, I am observing the world, thinking of new stories, and working out revision in my head. A writer writes. Some people think that if you are not published, then you are not really a writer. Again, a writer writes (and revises, then writes some more.) I have had my work published, so I can say that I am an author, but I did not get there by authoring, it happened because I write.
The other concern, the one about money, is valid but because I had dealt with that concern years before, I was less afraid to walk away from a job. I had done it before.
I left a job with a Fortune 100 firm to get an MBA in my twenties when I was a divorced single parent of a five year-old daughter. My departure shocked many at the company, and my director, although he was very supportive and happy for me, told me that because of where I worked and my single parent status, some (the men) thought I could not have it any better than this and it was nervy to leave. Two years later, MBA in hand, I waved at my daughter as I walked down the aisle after getting my diploma.
As I focused on my career over the next ten or so years, I saw many coworkers trapped in jobs they hated, or so immersed in debt, they felt they had to stay. My parents had been good at saving and investing money, and both of them taught me about paying bills, and enjoying life, yet living within my means. They lived well, but I imagine it was just somewhat beneath their means —no flashy foreign cars even though my mother had wanted a Karmann Ghia as a young adult. We lived on nice streets in stable neighborhoods, but not the McMansion in the priciest part of the city. I remember asking my father how to manage to take a vacation, once when my money was tight. He smiled and said, “Well, sometimes you don’t get to take a vacation.” I can laugh now, but the idea had not occurred to me back then, that the occasional sacrifice would be necessary to manage my money.
My mother was an administrative assistant to a professor, and she intentionally saved and considered her spending. She always said if one day her manager came in with something scribbled on a piece of paper she couldn’t read and she could not take it anymore, if that was the day she felt like walking away, she wanted to be able to do it. When she retired, it was on her own terms.
I took this to heart in my thirties, and worked to find the right balance between earning, saving, and investing. I wanted to make sure I had walking away money, enough to take care of myself and my daughter in the event I wanted to leave a job and did not immediately have another one lined up. Always have walking away money became one of my mantras, and sure enough, when it was time to leave a job in my early forties, I left, knowing I had saved money to tide me over. And several years after that, when I decided to leave the university job, I was not worried, probably because I had done this twice before. This last time I was married, so I had a husband to sort it out with, but I did not worry about what came next.
I am not saying that I never splurge; I like to travel and see my family, I like a comfy home, concerts and plays, and take more pleasure in pretty table linens and stationery than some might think normal. But I also just last year replaced my 21 year-old car with a used car, because that was an area I could save. I try to pay myself first (after some designated giving) because if you learn to act like the money is not there to blow through it, you get used to living a slightly leaner, but ultimately richer life. I squirrel away a little something, my walking away money, because I never know when I might need to tap into it, to fund classes and workshops, to help someone I care about, and to have a little cushion in case life changes course.
I’m sharing this because I have had this conversation with other people, usually but not always women, often much younger, who have a dream, but haven’t quite funded it yet. These are often very creative and entrepreneurial people who want to write, or paint, or start a non-profit for a passion project. In more serious situations, sometimes it is because they are in a job or a relationship that is untenable and they want to get out. My advice is the same—always have a little walking away money, so you have the ability to go after your dreams.