It’s one of the most maddening posts currently trending on the interwebs—How I Quit My Job to Pursue My Passion. The cliché-laden narrative that follows goes something like this: The author hits a “breaking point” and quits her stable (yet unfulfilling) job to “follow her dreams.” Despite the financial and personal risk, “amazing” things start to happen that lead the author to realize that she doesn’t need a salary or benefits or even a permanent residence to be happy. She’s currently living in a van on the beach in the San Juan Islands. You can purchase her watercolor travel sketches on Etsy. #vanlife #livingthedream #followyourbliss.
At a glance, the narrative appears inspirational. The problem is that not all of us are repressed artists with nomadic souls, secretly begging to be set free. Some of us are better suited for working in, say, technology or science. Or serving in government or academia. Not to mention the fact that most of us want to be able to afford health care and earn a fair wage. The relentless rhetoric that espouses sacrificing a good job at the altar of “passion” is, more typically than not, a fable. And it ends up making good people working good jobs feel badly.
Which is why I hesitate to share my story—the one where I leave a good job as a project manager in the technology sector to become a freelance travel writer. Yes, writing is my favorite thing to do on earth, and yes I’m happier now, but let’s get real—going from making a six-figure salary to barely minimum wage my first year as a professional writer is hardly inspirational. Now, if you want to talk brass tacks about making a massive career change while still living within our culture’s standard for success, I’m game. Here’s how it worked for me, minus the smug hashtags.
Upon entering the workforce after college (I majored in Business Management with a focus on Computer Information Systems), I soon realized that I wasn’t going to be a technology lifer. I liked the money and the fast pace and my smart colleagues—but I was that person in the meeting looking around thinking, really? Do you guys really care about this stuff? I really didn’t. Not even a little bit. So I kept working my job and advancing in my field, while keeping one eye open for something that I did care about.
Finding that thing took nearly ten years of experimenting. While working in tech, I joined a semi-professional dance troupe, trained my dog to do pet therapy in hospitals and nursing homes, competed in triathlons, taught yoga, took weekend courses in alternative medicine, and served as a volunteer coach for a road bike race team. I made it a point to continually try new things and meet new people, flexing my passion (sorry to use the P word) muscle.
Ironically, my thing turned out to be writing, which is a hobby I’ve had since childhood. But it wasn’t until my early 30s that it occurred to me that writing was something I could (and should) do for money. I’ll save the details of that realization for another story, but understand this: once the lightbulb went off, there was no going back. It became very clear to me, in 2008, after receiving my first paycheck for a story I wrote for a bike racing magazine on the side of my desk job at Oracle Corporation that I wanted to be a professional writer.
Before I took action, I did some research. I needed to know if it was possible to make a livable income working as a freelance magazine writer. I joined a writers’ Meetup group and started asking lots of questions. I learned that magazine writers can make anywhere between $50 and $1,500 for a medium-length story of about 500 words, depending on the magazine. Local magazines dedicated to a niche, like Rocky Mountain Sports, pay at the bottom of that range. Wildly popular national magazines, like Oprah, are at the top. I would start at the very bottom. Oprah won’t even consider a story idea from an unpublished writer, or a writer with only a couple “clips” under her belt.
The leader of my Meetup group advised me that it would take 3-5 years before I started landing stories in big national magazines. At that point, I could expect to make decent money equivalent to a school teacher’s salary. Depending on how many story ideas I could sell and write in a given period of time (and how many of those were the big payoffs—the 4,000-plus word feature stories), I could theoretically be making six figures. Some day.
I understood I had chosen a highly competitive career with a steep learning curve, and that it would take time to establish myself as a writer, so my plan was to try and get a head start while still working at Oracle. I spent the rest of 2008 working my desk job by day, and writing magazine stories in the evenings. I didn’t get much work at first. I wrote a total of six stories for four different magazines that year, for a total of $1,525. More importantly, I learned, through trial and error, how to pitch a story idea. I also used vacation time to attend a magazine writing conference.
Then suddenly, the game changed. Oracle announced that there would be layoffs in January 2009. It was earlier than I would have liked to have relinquished my high-paying tech job, but I saw an opportunity. If I got laid off, I would get six additional months of salary. Six months where I could write and continue to earn a tech income! I sat down with my then-husband and ran the numbers. Could we afford for me to make only a couple thousand dollars in 2009, coupled with $51,000 in severance? Unfortunately, we couldn’t. Not with the mortgage payment (we owned a $450,000 home) and the credit card debt from a recent remodeling project.
I continued to mull it over during the holidays. Right before New Year’s, I heard that a new local magazine, focused on outdoor sports and recreation, had started up in my town. On a whim, I sent the editor-in-chief an email asking him if he would like an unpaid intern, and linked my recently-created website showcasing my six clips. He wrote back immediately: “I think I can afford that. When can you start?”
That was the turning point for me. Too many pieces were in place to pass this by. My then-husband and I came up with a plan. We’d sell the house, downsizing to a two-bedroom condo. We were lucky in that we’d recently decided that we didn’t want to have kids, so while it was hard to say goodbye to the home we’d lived in for the seven years, the extra bedrooms and the rec room didn’t make as much sense anymore. Plus, we’d cut our mortgage by two-thirds. We were also lucky to live in Boulder, Colorado, where the housing market wasn’t so negatively impacted by the recession, and knew we’d be able to find a buyer before my severance payment ended.
My boss at Oracle was surprised when I walked into his office after the holidays and requested to be one of the people he laid off. He said it was a first. It certainly made his task of cutting 20%, or four people, from our team a bit easier. At the time of the layoff, I was also able to take money from my 401k without major penalties. I took half to pay off the credit card debt. I also shifted my health insurance to my then-husband’s employer.
My first year as a full time magazine writer, 2009, I ended up making about $13,000. On top of that, my “unpaid intern” gig turned into a part-time contract position as associate editor, bringing in another $6,000. Plus, I had the six months of severance. 2010 was actually the toughest year, because I made about the same amount from writing, minus the severance. Then in year three, I started breaking into bigger magazines, like the leader of my writing Meetup group said could happen, and my earnings jumped to $30,000. Over the next couple years, I continued to work my way into bigger magazines, and bigger stories, doubling my income. And I’m still going—my income continues to increase year-over-year.
But it hasn’t all been all bliss. My then-husband and I rapidly grew apart after I changed careers; we divorced in 2010. My 401k hasn’t had a single contribution since I left tech, and man, health care is expensive when you work for yourself. I rarely take time off, and while friends joke that my whole life is a vacation, it’s not—I work seven days a week. I sleep less. I have less free time. But I care so much more, and for me, that’s what matters most.
Adventure Journalist Jayme Moye writes about human-powered travel and exploration (by foot, ski, bike, and paddle). She is based in Boulder, Colorado.
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