My freelance career is nearing its best-by date. This realization didn’t come from some climactic third act. Instead, it was an acknowledgment of a simple truth: everything expires. The shiny and new loses its sheen and pallor. What once made you bolt out of bed becomes the thing you run from screaming. You tally the things you keep losing, which loom large and incalculable. You’re bombarded by seemingly motivational Instagram quotes that tell you to keep working, keep hustling, keep pushing through it. What the platitudes neglect to add is that some battles should be abandoned. Sometimes it’s okay not to play your hand and to walk away from the table. There is a difference, albeit subtle, between what’s hard and what’s Sisyphean.
Nearly six years ago, I left a job that had been slowly killing me. I worked for a textbook narcissistic, micromanaging sociopath who harbored a disturbing level of glee in firing people that rivaled that of investment bankers in the 1980s. I made these rules for myself when I quit:
- Don’t deal with abusive fuckwits.
- Be discerning. Some projects and people are never worth the money.
- Your health means more than a paycheck.
- Only the small make you feel small. When you spot their kind, keep moving. This is marketing, not open-heart surgery.
- Be a student. Learn from the young and the old. Once you think you’ve mastered something, go back to the basics. Learn it differently and anew.
Over the past six years, I’ve done the best work of my career. I worked on projects in industries that were foreign and unfamiliar. I published my second book, a novel, and two books worth of essays on Medium. I learned new disciplines and became semi-fluent in Spanish. I shot food photographs that were featured in international trade shows. I traveled through Western Europe, South Africa, India, Singapore, Bali, Fiji, Thailand, Japan, and Nicaragua. I started side hustles and businesses, and I moved across the country to Los Angeles the year I turned 40. I got really clear about the work I wanted to do (brand development and strategy) and, more important, the work I didn’t want to do (social media). I realized that being good at something doesn’t mean I ought to be doing it for a living.
But soon this seemingly fancy-free life became anything but fancy. I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression the year I moved to Los Angeles and was on the verge of taking my own life. Friendships ended because of the truth that only distance can breed. I fired my literary agent because he wanted me to write the big paycheck books that never interested me. I stuck around longer than I should have with abusive clients because I had bills to pay and there is no nobility in not eating. I felt disconnected, isolated, and lonely. Although I prefer the quiet of my own company, I’m starting to miss people.
Six years later, the things I once loved are now weighted down by the laundry list of things I don’t.
In designing a life that was the antithesis of the job I had abandoned, I cleaved to another extreme. Six years later, the things I once loved are now weighted down by the laundry list of things I don’t. I miss a biweekly paycheck and health benefits that don’t cost $600 a month. I miss the feeling of walking into an office with hot coffee and powering up my laptop. I miss not having to deal with the administrative aspects of my job, which often take as much time as the work itself. I miss having access to the tools and technology that would make my work easier and superior. I’ve become the MacGyver of brand strategy and market research, and it’s often exhausting. Although I’m a self-motivated Type A person who loves to create structure and develop solutions, I miss the formality of imposed structure.
And I miss people. I miss asking people what they’re going to have for lunch.
Before the sociopath, I worked at and thrived in companies I loved. Sure, I had to navigate office politics, open office plans that evoke rage blackouts, and a litany of forms and head-scratching rules, but I deal with politics and even more forms as a consultant. I spent the past two years trying to create processes and systems that would alleviate every one of my headaches. I tried Skype dates and freelance meetups, but I still wanted to return to an office. I spent more time trying to create the environment I want and hustling for new business than I spent on my actual work.
It’s okay to give the whole of yourself to something only to realize it’s not what you want. It’s okay to travel far away from yourself to define what you want. Leaving doesn’t mean failure; it means “to go away from.” Don’t assign unnecessary weight and value to words. Know that you return to your life changed from when you left it. I’m not the same person, with the same wants and perspective, I was six years ago. I’m stronger, more confident, and more professionally diverse, and that means something walking into an interview and a new office. The fact that I made the leap and went at it alone means something.
For me, leaving means abandoning where I am now for something new, exciting, and unknown. Don’t settle for the uncomfortably comfortable. Don’t plow through that which doesn’t feel natural and inspiring. Don’t let the word “failure” stop you from designing the one life and career that is solely yours.