Sunday, March 26, 2006

When to Quit Your Day Job

Being more of a creative type rather than a business/marketing/webdev type, I had no idea that the concepts of "don't quit your day job" and "live with less" were novel ideas to some folks. I'm sitting hear listening to the podcast of Jason Fried's talk at SXSWInteractive and realizing that there are, apparently, a whole group of folks, who, during the ".com" days, did all kinds of strange things like quit their jobs, write kick-ass business plans, get investor money, and rent out fantabulous offices with big aluminum signs...and that the old .com strategy might not work all that well for Web 2.0...

And all I keep wondering is how many of these budding web-app developers will have the wearwithall to take Fried's advice and live the life of a creative type....

Since I'm creative, I've never had the experience of having a huge office or a business plan and investors. I have lived with people yelling at me to not quit my day job or to get a day job; to stop being irresponsible or to get more responsible; to buy a condo and get more businessminded, etc. for most of my life. So, when I heard Fried speak, I thought "oh geeze Maria! here we go again!"

What is an old saw to me is, apparently, sage advice to a whole different group of people.

So, Fried's speech got me thinking....when, actually, might it be a good idea to quit your day job?

Honestly, if you're not burdened with major responsibilities the time to quit comes when the day job is more trouble than it's worth. For me, a free-agent with no major responsibilities, I was working a retail job that should have been nothing more than a part-time pasttime providing some kind of income while I was writing. Often I found my work coming home with me--a boss calling to check in with me about what happened on my shift, or to inform me about new products, or to come in and cover for a co-worker. I was so good at what I did--exceeding sales goals for 9 out of 12 months, receiving sales awards--I got moved up the management ladder.

But I didn't want to move up the management ladder--because moving up the management ladder meant I'd be climbing more real ladders (and I have a fear of heights.) The long hours and physical exertion of retail wasn't worth the 40% product discount either--not to mention all the interruptions were clouding my ability to think and write.

One must always weight the benefits and the consequences of quitting the day job before doing so. If the day job is sabotaging one's passion or new venture, then perhaps the wisest thing is quitting the day job.

There were places I needed to go, people I needed to meet, and things I needed to do that required I have an open, flexible schedule. Asking my boss for a few days off here and there to attend a conference was a major headache--not to mention that when I tried to talk to folks about what I was doing/where I was going, I got blank stares.

If there is no benefit to your creative life from your day job, then it's time to go. Yes, lots of folks enjoy the schizoid life of mild mannered worker bee by day and wild-eyed creative type at night. They like the idea that no one knows what they are up to, and that there's no common ground between one job and the other. Nobody I worked with cared a whit about what I was doing, and cared only about what I was doing for the job. Dealing with the split lead to paralyzing depression and massive wrter's block.

Sometimes the need to create, to nourish one's creative soul, to be around like minds, or to have the time to cogitate and explore, is more important than a paycheck, benefits, and co-workers who find you entertaining but essentially think you're a weirdo.

In July of '05, I quit my day job. People freaked. People are still freaking--as when two friends ripped me a new one about the "bubble" I'm living in and how I need to get a day job again. People are wondering how I'm surviving.

This, however, is where I discovered many a creative type's secret--the significant other.

We all need people to believe in us, who will support us in our creative endeavors. Yet, there are times when a pat on the back isn't enough--and someone else paying the bills is just what we need.

Now, I know I can hear people all over the place, not just in the tech world, crying "foul!" at this one. We should always be self-supporting, self-sustaining monoliths. Horatio Algers in the making. But if your significant other understands what you are doing, and is behind you at least 95%, then you might be able to quit your day job. Don't be like Nike though and just do it. This is a decision that the two of you have to make, and it cannot cause a major and serious burden to the significant other. Creative types sometimes can't see the forest for the trees, and just because you think you're on your way to some kind of prize, if you don't show any gains to your significant other, it could put some strain on the relationship.

Treat your significant other like an investor--and show some gains. The money that comes to one through a loving and generous gift is a far more valuable and precious investment than one that is made through a bank or group of strangers. Pay it back--maybe not literally, but in special ways. Make sure to show him/her something that he/she can be proud to talk about. What that something is, initially, might not be measurable in grand dollars and cents. That might be okay--but don't squander the gift! Make sure that, eventually, it will yield a profit of some kind that will enhance both your lives. If it is in grand dollars and cents, that's great. But if the dollars and cents aren't all that grand, make sure there are significant amounts of love, appreciation and other ephemerials that add up to make your lives good ones.

Sometimes it's simply not having a grouchy creative around that's worth the investment.

So, there you have it. There are indeed times when it is necessary to quit your day job--but knowing when to do that is far different, far more nuanced, for a creative than it is for a business or web type. If business and web types are going to create, they will, as Fried points out, have to learn to to live like creatives. Yet I'm still wondering if the folks Fried was talking to will understand that being creative isn't about big bucks right away--it's about peace of mind and the freedom to simply be. If all the material goods and the flashy image are far more important, then by all means stay in your job. If you can thrive on quenching your curiosity, being your authenic self, and love--and you know deep down that you can make something great out of all those ephemerals--then by all means quit your job. You have nothing to lose and a wonderful life to gain.


zenyenta said...

This is something that's a huge question in our family. Not for me. For my son. There comes a time when, if you're making progress in the creative endeavor, that there's no room for the day job anymore. And that's usually before the creative work is providing a living. It's a hell of a challenge when, as in his case, there's no one who can afford to supply full financial support. Even without responsibilities to others, that's daunting.

I think that to some extent, how you manage that period is key to who succeeds and who has to give it up and go back to the 9-5 world. The next year is going to be pretty turbulent for our son and I wish I had the money to provide the needed backing, but as it is, I can't do a lot more than root for him and help out a little. It's going to be interesting times.

Tish Grier said...

I know what your son's up against! I'm in that "building a reputation" year myself, and it's very tough. I'm getting alot of bits and pieces here and there, little things that add up. What I'm most afraid of is that I won't know how to implement all these little gems and gifts and turn them into something where I'm earning a decent living.

I wish your son the best in his endeavors!