I’m not sure how I decided I was ready to ‘swallow the red pill’ and become a writer, leaving the Matrix behind. But when a friend of mine contacted me seeking advice about her own career change, I was forced to think about the actions and beliefs that led to that leap of faith. For my friend Lucy, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. As an Australian relocated to New York, she had spent close to a decade in the finance industry and was enjoying the view midway up the corporate ladder. The coffee runs and monotonous admin were far behind her; these days she was valued for her ideas and skills, and had earned a reputation and a wage that provided for a luxury lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to. But the artist inside her wanted more, a life of creative expression, connection and most importantly, freedom. Since ejecting myself from the machine to become a writer two years ago, plenty of writers and friends have approached me for advice on how they can do the same. It always sends a ripple of fear down my spine; no one wants to be responsible for someone else’s future and any advice I can offer is very specific to my own perspective of the world, experience, motivations and skill set. The following is what I wrote to Lucy. It’s just one perspective, in a sea of millions jostling for attention, so take it with a grain of salt and leave behind the points that fail to resonate with you. Having said that:
Leave your shitty job and never look back.
By “shitty”, I mean any job that doesn’t stimulate you creatively, spiritually and intellectually. Some people find bliss in accountancy, others in painting pictures. I wanted to become a writer. The execution is different for everyone, but feelings of direction, purpose and contentment are universal. The brief holiday you have on this planet is way too short to waste clocking in and out. And the greatest irony? Do what you were born to do and you’ll make more money and have more security in the long run, anyway. When I first wanted to become a writer, I never dreamed I could make more money in that role than in my marketing job. Here are the four factors I shared with Lucy, as she struggled with which path to take and tried to decide if she was ready to walk the talk.
Ready to Become a Writer? Ask Yourself:
#1: Freedom, or Ferraris?
We live in a time and place where expensive clothes, fancy cars and towering houses are the pinnacle of achievement and success. Would Christian Grey have been as sexy if he was tying up Anastasia in his parent’s basement? Probably not. You might not think society’s baubles mean much to you, but they are extensions of our egos and cutting them off can be more painful than you imagine, particularly if you’re part of a social set where they’re highly valued. Once you’re doing what you were born to do, chances are you’ll be so damn good at it, the money will follow. But an important part of clocking out of the system is deciding just how much $$$ you’re willing to give up to buy back your freedom, at least in the short term. For me, enforced austerity was a godsend. I was flippant with money, spending large amounts on high urban rents and slick clothes, just because I worked in an industry that demanded it. It was satisfying on one level; I could walk into any shop with the freedom to buy what I wanted, but after a while the shopping sprees felt more obligatory than exciting. Changing my environment was key to reframing my consumerism. Could I live without the trinkets if I was still in Sydney, hanging out with old friends? It would be hard. In Bali I drive a battered old bomb, but so does everyone. I quite like my eighties four wheel drive, but parking that same car outside my grandmother’s stately home in Hunter’s Hill would leave me feeling like the threadbare relative, visiting from the country. Context is everything. In essence, I’ve given up prestige and consumer flippancy to regain my freedom, independence, and creative expression. If you want to become a writer or follow any other kind of dream, but are grappling with what’s important to you, sit down and write a long list of the things that make you really happy. Then, go through and see how many of these are dependent on the wage you earn currently. Cross out the ones that require a high income and think about whether you could be happy if those things were to go, or be compromised in some way. Once you have that list, the path forward should be a lot clearer; you can enter the void with a greater sense of what it is you’re sacrificing, and regaining.
#2: Time Is Money. Literally.
By reducing your need to earn, you buy back your time, and so can spend it with greater discernment. The beauty of this is that when you take the leap, this extra time manifests into better health, social connections, happiness and money. The hours I was spending in traffic or zombified in front of the TV, are now dedicated to promoting my craft as a writer. As a result I’m discovering income streams I didn’t even know existed. One of these revelations was Fiverr, a website where you buy and sell services for $5. At first I went on and sold 2,000 words of editing for $5, simply because I’d been unemployed for months and decided that $5, while a pittance, was better than earning nothing at all. Little did I know that it wasn’t the $5 jobs that mattered, but the ability to connect with writers who, once they saw the quality of my work, would pay a commercial rate for me to edit their manuscripts in full. My depressing, demeaning $5 offering transformed into a trial service, with about 50% of my “trials” converting into projects worth from $200 to $3,000. From nothing, suddenly I had a well paid job. I had become a writer, paid for their skill. But I had to start at the bottom—with nothing more than time on my hands—to find the opportunity.
#3: What Have You Got to Lose, Really?
Okay, let’s go guru for a moment. I believe that you only live once, and in truth, you’re only ever really ‘living’ in the present moment. Your past and future is irrelevant, because the past is over, and the future is only an abstract idea that’s always subject to change.
As children, we’re taught to work hard in the summer of our lives, so that we might be more comfortable in the wintertime. Which effectively means that we miss half of summer, and only get to play when it’s cold and awful outside.
Embrace the fact that the future is outside of your control. I protect myself in reasonable ways, with health insurance and a rainy day fund, but my future is not dictating my present. I’m quite literally sitting on a beach as I type this, and there’s no place I’d rather be. I didn’t just want to read books on my time off, I wanted to become a writer. And what was once my four week vacation, is now my average day. Ask yourself: do you deserve any less? The best way to overcome fears regarding security or loss are to sit down and write out what it is you’re risking. If you quit your job and your visions of freedom went up in flames, you would likely emerge at the end of the experience minus a job and low on savings. You might also suffer a bit of shame after embarking on a new life and failing; the heartache of a dream that didn’t manifest.
That’s the worst case scenario.
But if you really deconstruct those things, are they so bad? After a year away, you’re still just as efficient, experienced and employable as you are now. In fact, unless you’re particularly hopeless, you’ve probably picked up a load of new skills. Money can be re-saved, and the people who love you will always respect you for following a dream. The fears holding you back are ideas, rather than realities, and that means that you control them, they don’t control you. It’s a gamble, but what you have to lose pales in comparison to what you have to gain: Your Life.
#4: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms.
Life inside the machine is fuelled by anxiety. Work pressures make that bottle of wine with dinner irresistible. The calories go straight to your thighs, and next thing you know you’re signing up for a gym membership. But when the new regime fails—and it had to, you’re exhausted—suddenly you’re back on the couch watching TV ads with slim, svelte women you wish you could be. The depression and self doubt fester as you buy cosmetics and clothes to look and feel better, and what pays for it all? The very same fifty hour a week job that caused the massive imbalance in the first place. Despite its many injustices, I was pretty happy inside the machine. I loved my job and was living in a beautiful city with the love of my life. But the little black clouds were there, waiting to turn into a health issue or a midlife crisis. I drank too much, lived off takeaway, refused to work out, and spent four hours each night watching sad people on reality TV. To become a writer was a distant dream, weekend ‘me time’ spent recovering from the week that was, and preparing for the week to come. If someone had come to me and said, “Quit your whining, and change!” they would have been absolutely correct. There was no reason I couldn’t give those things up and become a writer in my spare time, but no matter how hard I might have tried, the cause of those symptoms hadn’t gone away. Unhealthy habits weren’t born of a secret desire to harm myself, I was simply trying to make myself feel as good as possible in a difficult environment. These days I’m no longer tempted by fast food, alcohol, or days spent on the couch, because I no longer need them. It has nothing to do with willpower; if I had an iron will I wouldn’t have slipped into dysfunction in the first place. Instead, my life was being split into two halves: work-time and recovery time. Now I’m now in a single flow, a self fulfilling system. There’s nothing to recover from; the cycle strengthens itself. Each hour encourages growth and renewal, and no single activity depletes the hours that follow.
My Life Is <insert dream here>
It’s great to have visions of working on a beach and telling your boss to go stuff his quarterly reports, but for me the true gems of this journey have been small, and simple. I no longer ask myself each day, is this what life’s all about? Or, is there meant to be more? I hoped that having children or achieving more goals might fill the void.
But a happy ending wasn’t waiting in the future; it was there all along, and I was sleeping through it.
These days I’m living my life as I should be. There’s no single adjective that covers my feeling of joy, liberation and contentment. And I’m not alone. Since writing my initial thoughts on the subject, Lucy has left her job and pursued a career as an artist. Things haven’t been easy; she’s had to budget a great deal and look for income streams in an industry that’s notoriously hard to commodify. When I recently asked her what her greatest fear was, she looked at me and smiled. “Knowing that whatever happens, I can never go back.” Red pills are like that. They pull you from a dream that only reveals itself as a nightmare once you’ve awoken. And that realisation is terrifyingly final. Freedom, once tasted, is the most addictive drug of all. Thanks to the internet and remote working, it’s easier to become a writer, or artist, than ever before.
The question is, are you ready for the red pill?