“Oh hey, you’re officially jobless now, right? Congratulations!” said a friend on Saturday, two days after my last day at my first company, after four years.
I’ve been offered a lot of congratulations since I quit my job, both from those who knew I was unhappy and those oblivious. “Thanks,” I say, unsure of how else to respond. Unsure if the congrats are sincere – does the other person truly appreciate what it took to quit a well-paying job to pursue my happiness, without something firm lined up in the interim? Are they secretly envious? Or is it a reflex – person makes job change → offer congrats.
Or do they know something I don’t? From my perspective, this could be a big mistake.
Personally, I’m not so sure I deserve congratulations.
Was it gutsy? Or was it a cop-out? On one hand, quitting feels like a defeat. “I’m not a quitter,” 15-year-old me told my mom with arms over my chest and my lips trembling, biting back tears as I faced the oh-so-dramatic trials of AP Physics. “Don’t quit,” quips the Nike bro-tank that whizzes past me adorning an ultra-marathoner on the bike path. “Never give up,” chimed the women at the inspiring and empowering Women of Influence luncheon in Milwaukee last month. But in the same breath, “Follow your dreams!” they shout.
What if following one dream means giving up on another? The message of “stay the course” bombards me from every angle. But what about a strategic pivot? Is there a difference between retreating to regroup versus running away from challenges?
Some of my friends ask a follow-up question: “Are you scared?”
YES. In fact, I’m terrified. I’m straying from the path. I’m leaving a job that grants me instant credibility with the backing of a community institution – when you say you’re a reporter with the Milwaukee Business Journal, people adjust to give your ego some elbow room with a respectful nod. Say you’re a freelancer, and that nod shifts imperceptibly to the side as the respect turns to doubt.
This is probably what it feels like to make a living as an artist. Mad props, artists, and my infinite apologies for all of the times my appreciative nod was tinged with doubt.
One major surprise is the reaction from my senior mentors. Without exception, they express support. This from the generation who valued toughing it out, staying loyal, slogging through to the end goal of a comfortable retirement. They’re the ones who criticize millennials for chasing pipe dreams of finding instant fulfillment in our first jobs. And yet, when I tell them I’m thinking about a career change, and quitting my job to freelance and devote my attention to discovering my true passion, they say, “Go for it.”
But the doubts still chant in the back of my mind:
Don’t quit. You won’t make it on your own. Make the smart move. You’re just not trying hard enough.
As a kid, I never dreamed about being a journalist. I dreamed about being a novelist. I started a half dozen novels, and spent weeks daydreaming complex relationships and plot twists. Somewhere along the line in high school, reality hit – 5-year-olds could have written these plots – and I set that dream aside. I decided to try my hand at journalism because, in the words of my 17-year-old self: “In journalism someone tells you what to write.” Little did I know. Later on I would tell people that I stuck with journalism because of the people I got to meet, and the fact that I could ask them things like “What is your deepest insecurity?” within five minutes of meeting them.
In this past year, while continuing to work as a journalist, I’ve actually begun to identify as a writer for the first time – mostly because of the success I’ve had writing on LinkedIn. And simultaneously, it’s also the first time since college that I’ve seriously considered making a living doing something other than writing, as I realized that I don’t have to make a living writing to continue to write.
But now it’s real. Olivia Barrow, writer for hire.
It’s a big step out into the unknown, away from the security of a salary. It may be a foolish move. It’s probably foolish. I may run screaming from self-employment in a few months back into the welcoming arms of an employer.
The good news is, the only person I have to answer to now is me. The bad news is, the only person I have to answer to now is me, and I’m my toughest critic.