It Took Me 8 Years To Quit My Job
Waiting for the right moment is key to freelancing longevity
What I really wanted to be was an artist. But things like that don’t happen over night, so after university I got a small job, nothing too taxing, certainly not well-paid.
My duties were menial ones, but I didn’t mind. My colleagues offered me the generous complaint of being too qualified for this type of work, but it really didn’t matter to me. My mind was entirely on painting, and I used to think of the three-day job as simply a matter of holding my breath until I could return to my canvases and breathe again.
I had the intention of staying in that job for just a few months, long enough to pay off a few nagging debts and bring my savings up a little. In the meantime, I would invest my spare-time into my true vocation. I felt 6 months would be long enough to see me through.
I settled in. I got tangled up in a dependable income, and in the end it took me over 8 years to leave.
The story of waiting
Before I got my job, I was living at home with my parents. That feels like a long time ago now.
I enjoyed my parents’ company, because they are wonderful people, but even so, I liked to spend as much time as possible in the garage. In this space, I began painting on bigger canvases and experimenting with new ways of applying the paint.
I also learnt to construct the canvases myself. I built the wooden frames, and ordered a big roll of what is called duck canvas — a name that has nothing to do with water-foul but comes from the Dutch word doek, meaning linen cloth. I learnt to fasten the cloth along the edges of the frames I had built, neatly folding in the corners, using a staple gun to pin the canvas.
The next stage was the most rewarding: when the cloth is coated in a mixture of water and glue, it contracts like denim and tightens itself over the frame as it dries. I found this miraculous every time. Drumming my fingers on the taut material, I loved to hear the deep vibrations singing back at me, the consenting murmur of a new canvas. Then I got out my paintbrushes.
I managed to last three months as a full-time painter. I say full-time, but that is to put a spin on it. I sold a few paintings, but the money I made from those sales was easily spent. I was not what I would call a professional.
By the time summer came, I needed to find work, so I reluctantly took the job at the local government offices for three days a week; the rest of my week would still be dedicated to painting. My intention was to stay in that job for half-a-year, but like I say, I got used to the money coming in and I found that leaving was not such an easy option.
Frustration is useful
Every year, usually around springtime, I would get especially restless. That is, more restless than usual. I think it was something to do with the dawn of a new year’s growth: the new sunlight in the sky, the new green shoots in the ground.
I was living with my older brother now, renting a room in the house he had bought. My brother had a proper job and could afford such things.
Countless times I audited my money situation, calculating how long I could last if I quit. Worst case scenario, best case scenario. What if I lived here, or lived there, gave up this, gave up that? I reworked the numbers by cutting out the luxury items like new clothes and a social life. I listed the pros and the cons of leaving, secretly wishing I could strike through the cons as irrelevant. Every spring I braced myself for the big-push, only to find my sense of caution returning to override my enthusiasm.
But what I realise now is that this restlessness was a necessary condition of my sticking with the plan. Restlessness is an aspect of the resolve it takes to make unusual things happen.
I look back now and think how important it was for me to not rush into quitting. If you are going to make the leap successfully, you have to be as certain as you can be. Your confidence about your first move will be decisive in how successfully the next one turns out.
So I waited and I listened to my doubts. They made me work harder and plan better. Each time that spring came around I would assess my position. “Not this year,” I seemed to conclude endlessly.
If you spend as many years as I did mulling over this quandary, you will know that doubt is somehow intrinsic to the issue and will always have a habit of seeping back in even when you feel you have quashed it. Don’t be hard on yourself for being risk-averse: you grow accustomed to the doubt and by growing accustomed to it, you learn how to listen to it and eventually silence it. Like thorns on a rose, doubts are ultimately there to protect you and allow you to prosper more successfully.
Choosing the Right Circumstances
Years passed by easily. I was living through my 20s, in no particular rush to be a great artist. I always had in mind that this decade would be the preparatory years, the years of learning before my 30s, which would be the years of action. As it turned out, I was only half-right about that theory.
Still, I was mightily tired of being in this flatlining job. Ultimately, the right circumstances came when the department I was working in moved offices and fell under new management. Office reorganizations followed, workloads assessed and redistributed. After so long in the team, all these changes seemed to me like the end of the road.
At the same time, I had just secured several paid opportunities that meant I had enough money in the pipeline to replace my wages for the next three months. I emphasize the word “paid” because I feel it’s worth underlining the importance of assessing your opportunities honestly. Unpaid work can be immensely valuable for lots of reasons, but to leave my paid job I knew I had to have a replacement income. Without this sufficient income, I would have worried too much and probably have let caution override my long term intentions.
The circumstances felt right for me. I acted quickly from that point. The central column of this idea is that I could foresee with a high level of clarity how things were going to turn out over the near-future. My bills and other outgoings were not likely to change. I had no surprise costs around the corner, and I had money coming in. I was in a position to be decisive.
As an aside from painting, I’d been doing some design work, and just at the right time I was commissioned to do a large piece of work. It wasn’t a life-changing sum of money, but it indicated I had prospect of winning further work in this area, and that gave me a further sense of momentum. I had found the right blend of work: between painting and design I could foresee genuine prospects.
Be decisive and believe in your own methods of working
Once I had made my decision to leave my day job, I was confident enough in my circumstances to follow it through. In reality, this meant working a further four weeks notice-period and handing over my work to other colleagues.
My boss was surprised and a little downcast that I was leaving, since after 8 years I’d come to play an integral role in the department. She told me I would be missed, and for about 2 seconds I wondered if I was making the right decision. But I knew I was, so any attempt she made to keep me there ultimately fell on stony ground.
That said, however confident I felt, I soon learnt that the future is never settled. After about 6 months of working for myself, I had to quickly address how I wanted the next few years to evolve for me. The internet is stacked to the rafters with advice articles like this one, and I’ve read my fair share of them and gleaned plenty of useful advice. But I arrived at an important understanding: that nobody else can quite describe the way things are for you. Nobody else has quite the same circumstances, nor the same prospects, resources or opportunities. No matter how much you read, you’ve ultimately got to learn it for yourself.
The journey is never over
My time these days is rewardingly divided between painting, design work (which tends to be better paid), writing and traveling.
Sounds perfect? Not quite. I’ve learnt that self-employment can sometimes feel like an uprooted existence, a cycle of weeks without the anchors of definite working hours and office colleagues. In such circumstances, peculiar feelings of waywardness can arise, especially if your workload and income are as erratic as mine have been.
I’ve since discovered that finding the right balance between a sense of freedom and a sense of security is not easy — perhaps it never will be. For me, the pendulum continues to swing back and forth, even years after becoming a freelancer.
Every springtime, for instance, I still get that sensation of restlessness, and I begin to think about all the things in my life I’d like to change. I wonder about the commitments I’ve made and worry about the degree of success I’ve made of my life so far.
Leaving my day job took me 8 years, but I’m proud and very satisfied that I did it. I do believe that in the end, the object of one’s hopes can’t be simply “to quit the rat-race”. There is always another chapter to write; or to put it less poetically, there are always new bills to pay.
To leave your job is not as dangerous as you might think, but it certainly helps to be patient and sure-footed. Only you’ll know what the right circumstances are for you. Be sure to get it right, like the old tailors’ saying: measure twice, cut once.