It was the Spring of 2011 and I was sitting on one side of a long, glossy conference room table. I watched as beads of condensation built up on the outside of the San Pellegrino bottle the receptionist had given me and wondered if it was visible that I was sweating too. I was at my company’s corporate office waiting to meet my boss’ boss for my one-year review and the only “professional looking” outfit I had was a sweater that was itchy and too hot for the impending Houston summer. I felt super uncomfortable because the branch of the company I worked in had an extremely casual dress code and I wasn’t sure if this outfit was nice enough. I was confused when my boss first told me about the review, suggesting I dress up, but upon entering Corporate for the first time, I understood why.
A breathy receptionist had greeted me and led me down a long hallway. Every employee had their own office with mahogany doors. Their computers were state of the art, and the bathroom had silver fixtures, designer soap, and fresh flowers. If Corporate was the equivalent of a five-star restaurant, then the office I worked in was an unkempt Wendy’s in a bad part of town.
My boss, my associate, and I were sequestered in an old storage room off the side of a restaurant that the corporation owned. It had been lacklusterly transformed into an “office” when the company’s mail order business grew too large to run out of their old space. Our computers were old, the walls were stained, and the space smelled of beer and grease that wafted through the ducts from the bar next door. On more than one occasion dead rats or bugs were found behind the extra cubicles that sat empty nine months out of the year, only to be filled in October by temporary employees to accommodate the rush of the holiday season.
The only dead animals at Corporate were the unfortunate deer, fish, and ducks that had been baited, hunted, taxidermied, and hung upon the CEO’s walls as an homage to what hard work and dedication can get a young Texan boy. Easy for him, I thought, when he comes from a regionally famous family with strong ties to the Texas oil industry. Not to mention his inheritance of a successful restaurant and mail order business. But my qualms about his arrogance aside, he paid my salary. So when the vice president of the company, who also happened to be college fraternity brothers with the CEO, entered the conference room, I smiled warmly and answered all of the questions he asked me with half truths.
I said it was great working there, that I appreciated the opportunity, and that I was lucky to have found work with such a great company. In reality, I wanted to say that I hated our poor excuse for an office and was far from blind to the way the male-dominated board shut down my female boss’ great marketing and expansion ideas. That I knew they thought of dealing with our department’s needs as simply a necessary evil to continue making half a million a year through the mail order business that we ran completely on our own.
Upon the completion of the review, I was told that I would be getting a $0.75 raise and that they hoped I would stay with them for the long haul. My boss had told them how indispensable I was to our branch, and I appreciated that she saw potential in me. But when I began thinking of a long term career with this company, the most I could hope for would be to earn a good salary, receive health benefits, and maybe one day have my own office at Corporate with my name on a mahogany door. I wondered if that would ever be enough for me.
On my drive home that day I realized how easy it was to lie to the VP and to myself about my level of contentment in my work. Since temping there the year before and moving up to full-time, I’d eased a lot of my financial stress and felt the first sense of “real world” accomplishment since my graduation. Compared to earning minimum wage as a “Fashion Expert” at Express and slinging beers at a restaurant to try and make the rent, that stable paycheck I was receiving was so easy to find comfort in. I could pay my bills without stress, grab Mexican food from the expensive place on my way home from work without fear of my card being declined, and purchase plane tickets on the spur of the moment. I bought clothes whenever I wanted, grocery shopped without looking at the price tags, and bought concert tickets to acts I didn’t even care to see just because I could.
But when I sat in my one bedroom apartment, all alone, eating expensive Mexican food, I felt empty. My life was an endless cycle of wake up, commute against traffic for an hour and a half to get to work, work, sit in traffic again to get home, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to bed only to do it all again the next day. I lived for the weekends and counted the minutes during the work day, anxiously awaiting 5 PM. I had forgotten my dreams of being an actor, a writer, and an artist. I had reached a point where stability and security had trumped happiness and I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.
By that August I’d quit my job and forged a plan to move to Austin. I told my coworker and boss at the company that I was doing it to pursue my career in acting, but the truth was it was in pursuit of anything that felt more nourishing to my soul than sitting at the desk answering phones. I had no idea what I would do for work, but I figured anything had to be better than spending forty hours a week working to help someone else achieve their dreams. I decided it was time to start achieving my own and never looked back.
Since 2011 I’ve created a career out of freelancing and contract jobs. My income is piecemeal, created by writing, contract work at a web design company, being a remote assistant, and pet sitting. And that’s just what I’m doing right now. In the years prior I’ve worked for a casting director, been a remote social media manager, a personal shopper, and I’ve never scoffed at working on and off at restaurants during particularly bleak freelance times. I make my own work schedule for the most part and take jobs only if they offer me freedom, flexibility, and allow me to work outside of an office. I enjoy that I can take time off whenever I want and that my days are never the same. This control over my life and my schedule gives me time to work on my own personal projects and continue to pursue my career in acting and writing.
The money is never abundant and at times can be inconsistent. I now stick to a budget, checking the price tags at the grocery store and making plans to save for the bigger, more expensive things. But even though I can’t spend like I used to, my level of fulfillment in my life is so much greater than it was back then. There’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment and joy that I get from knowing I’m living (and working) on my terms.
Whether you want to open up a bakery or hope to find work as a freelance writer, the thought of leaving the realm of what society deems “normal” work can be terrifying. There are fears about financial stability, job security, and other practical issues such as taxes, healthcare, retirement, and sick/vacation pay. Those are valid concerns, and likely the reason the majority of Americans continue to choose to work in a standard 9-5 business environment. But what I can say to those who thirst for something more than the daily grind is that if my six years of freelance work have taught me one thing, it is that it all works out in the end if you set the right intention and believe you will succeed.
It is that belief, that intention I set for myself, that I fully attribute my freelance success. All the “X Steps To Take To Be A Freelancer” articles in the world will do you no good at all if you don’t first believe that you are capable of anything.
Because to follow your dreams, whatever they may be, involves great risk. We validate not becoming an artist or going back to school because of the practical, financial risk. We talk ourselves out of our ideal futures and call it logic when in reality most of us are just scared. Scared to prioritize our happiness over money. Scared to put our joy first and believe that we are allowed to design our lives.That we get to choose what we want to do for work. That if we believe wholeheartedly in the value of what we do, and put that same positive intention into our work, that someone, somewhere will one day pay us to do it.
I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe that I’ve “been lucky” to have found certain opportunities when and where I did. I believe that I set the intention of what I wanted in my life, and by trusting in that intention and myself, I was successful.
Maybe that sounds a little too out there for you, and if so, a more conventional career might end up being the right choice for you after all. But if your soul craves something different, if you can open up your mind to the power of intention, if you can find the sense of peace that comes from knowing that we all end up where we need to be eventually, you just might be on your way to finding true joy in your work.