What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part One

[The following essay was originally published in 1999, as part of a short-lived monthly column in a webzine called Mr. Ridiculous, and it was later archived on whywork.org. Except for the short bio at the end, this is the original, unedited version.

Although I still like the basic approach of this essay – focusing on the emotional and psychological work necessary along the path to freedom from wage slavery – my thinking has changed a lot in the years since it was originally published, and I no longer agree with some of the assertions I made when I wrote it.  (Ah, the idealism of youth…)  I’m posting it here because I want an archive of it in its original form which is maintained by me, its original author. If I were to re-write this today, it would be in a much different tone.]

What I Learned When I Quit My Job: Part One
by D. JoAnne Swanson

Three years ago, I quit my dreadful, low-paying temp job.  After years of wage slavery, I was sick of jobs altogether.  I dreamed of a different kind of life, one where I could choose my own activities and meet my survival needs with ease.  It’s possible, and in the long run it takes something more than winning the lottery, having a rich spouse, or inheriting a fortune.  But before I delve into “survival without a job”, I’d like to offer some new definitions of terms we often use when discussing these matters.

  • JOB:
    Drudgery.  Alienated effort expended for someone else on their terms, often a corporation or boss, doing something you don’t care about, in exchange for external compensation – money, health insurance, benefits, pleasing others.  Something done against one’s will for the sake of a paycheck.  See “wage slavery”.
  • WORK:
    Satisfying, self-directed activity, sometimes (but not always) with tangible results, done for its own sake, driven by interest or fascination, sustained by intrinsic motivation.  Distinguished from “job” by the fact that work can be done with joy, deep care, and pride, whether or not money is received.  See “leisure”.
    Satisfying, self-directed activity, sometimes (but not always) with intangible results, done for its own sake, driven by interest or fascination, sustained by intrinsic motivation.  Not the same thing as “free time”, since that phrase suggests that everything else is “non-free (wage slave) time”.  Distinguished from “work” by…well, hmmm…see “work”.
    Being driven by an unhealthy work ethic, lacking a fulfilling sense of leisure (thinking of it as just “free time”), and/or feeling trapped in a soulless, alienated job you hate just for the sake of a paycheck.  Failing to see possibility for joyful work OR joyful leisure.  Feeling trapped in a cycle of spending most of one’s time at a job, and much of the rest recuperating.  Never being fully present in this moment; holding out for an elusive future promise.  Unfortunately, a very common condition.
    Defining work and leisure a whole new way.  Knowing deep inside, not just intellectually, that you don’t have to hold a job or be a wage slave to meet your needs in life.  Being able to enter that space in the present moment where the distinction between work and leisure is blurred.  Being committed to a job-free life, often while simultaneously working to free others from wage slavery.

“I’d quit this awful job in a heartbeat if only I had the money.”  That’s what I told myself for years.  But I’ve come to believe that lack of money is not the only thing that keeps most people stuck in wage slavery.  It’s a factor, yes, and my intention here is not to dismiss legitimate concerns about money – but for me it was by no means the whole story.  I know society makes it hard to live without a job, but what about that slave-driving, destructive work ethic operating in our minds and hearts?   Many of us never even question it.  We think it’s just the need for money keeping us stuck in our lousy jobs, but I’ve learned that the problem runs much deeper.

When I tell people I’ve been out of the 9-to-5 grind and happily job-free for three years (not unemployed – I write, after all, but my time is all my own), the first question I get asked is how I manage to support myself.  The short, incomplete answer: a combination of good fortune and deliberate, methodical planning.  The good fortune part: I’ve never had any trouble getting jobs when necessary, I’ve had supportive friends and family, and I received a small family inheritance (enough to pay my expenses job-free for about six months).  The planning part: I invested my money, made a few unpopular life choices, saved earnings from the years I spent being a wage slave, and embarked upon some serious self-exploration until I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life outside the bounds of a traditional job.  That planning part is not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s much better than wage slavery.  So I started, at a young age, to make choices that would allow me freedom to live a self-directed life.  To wit:

1)       I’ve consciously chosen to live simply and avoid debt.  I know I can be quite happy with few material goods.  I’ve also chosen not to have children or keep pets.

2)       I’ve shifted my perspective on wealth.  Wealth has little to do with greenbacks.  No matter how little money I may have, I can always find something to make me feel rich – like the fact that I can hear a bird sing a beautiful melody outside my window, for example.

3)       I’ve invested time in friendship and creating community.  As a result, I have a lot of very good friends who are happy to share their resources (homes, food, etc.) and barter services with me.

And that’s just a start.  I think most people who want to free themselves from the wage slave grind have other options.  It’s not very widely acknowledged, though, that if we hate our jobs, the questions we need to ask are much broader than “how do I get money once I quit?”  Dispensing suggestions to would-be job quitters is all well and good.  However, I feel I’m leaving out a crucial factor if I offer suggestions on how to get money outside the confines of a job WITHOUT addressing our deeper attitudes on work and leisure.  Our attitudes are a whole lot more important than most of us would like to admit.

For a long time I thought that the only thing keeping me stuck in a job I hated was fear of not having money to eat and pay rent.  That’s a socially acceptable way to complain about your job nowadays – after all, gotta pay the bills – so I had lots of company.  Like many of my “slacker” intellectual friends from comfortable white middle-class backgrounds, I spent untold energy griping about my job, The System, being a cog in the machine, and selling out to The Man.  But then I had an experience that baffled me, and made me question everything I used to believe about what kept me stuck in shitty jobs.

With the financial support of my partner, I gratefully quit my job to write a book.  Although I made a bit of progress, I still felt very stuck (for reasons I could not identify at the time), and did not get far on the book, even after a year’s time.  I felt terribly guilty about my “laziness”, which added to the problem.  Rather than accepting my partner’s gift gracefully, I felt weighted down – I owed, I was in debt to my partner, and this made me feel pressured, which I hated.  I felt obligated to repay my partner’s generous support by being “productive” (read: earning money).  Even worse, I felt that I was unworthy if I did not.  There was a healthy part of me rebelling against the idea that I should measure my worth by my accomplishments, but deep inside I was convinced that I’d have no friends or supporters if I didn’t earn money.  These two parts clashed, sapping most of my energy in fighting a psychological battle, and of course that left very little energy for creative activities like writing a book.

After years of therapy and wrestling with why I remained “stuck” even after lack of money was no longer keeping me stuck in a job I hated, I’ve come to believe that my biggest obstacles to living a job-free life were in my own mind and heart.  I had to unearth some very deep-seated beliefs and re-think my slave-driving work ethic before I was able to successfully live, guilt-free, without a traditional nine-to-five job.  Once I began this process of re-thinking, I noticed that it became a whole lot easier to attract money and/or find ways to provide for my needs.  It’s an ongoing challenge, of course – some days I still feel guilty if I don’t live up to others’ ideas of “productivity” (or worse, my own hidden fears that I won’t measure up if I’m not “productive”) – but then again, all of life is a process of unfolding, isn’t it?  It isn’t as though I suddenly woke up one day and had all the answers.  I’ve learned to love the process instead of seeking instant solutions.

So…back to the “how do I survive without a job” question.  I struggled with this for years, until I realized that there was a hidden layer of confusion, often unconscious, motivating that question at the root.  I think that’s why I sensed that the source of my problems was not addressed simply through having my food and rent taken care of.  A list of practical suggestions (for example: live cheaply in a trailer, join a squatting group, shop at food co-ops, don’t own a car, etc.), doesn’t really address the core question, helpful as such a list might be.  So I’d like to delve a little deeper.

When I directed my focus to wondering how I’d survive without a job, I asked questions like these:

“How will I pay my bills if I don’t have a job?”

“Where will I live when I get evicted or the bank forecloses on my house?”

“How will I feed myself and my family without the security of a paycheck?”

“Doesn’t everyone need to work to get money?”

Although there is a certain amount of legitimate concern involved here, I phrased these questions as though I believed some secret magical ticket to job-free life would be suddenly and completely revealed, without me having to search for it in earnest, in my own mind and heart. I wanted someone to tell me the secret.  Suggestions can help, but I now think the ultimate solutions will come from inside.  My experience suggests that there’s no instant solution – it’s more like a process that we kick off when we make a commitment to be free of wage slavery.

I conducted my life as though it were a foregone conclusion that losing my job would mean homelessness, hunger, or complete insecurity.  But the lesson here for me was that no matter how much we may want it to, security does not come from outside ourselves.  Security does not come from having a job or money, despite what we may have unconsciously absorbed from living in a money-worshipping and job-focused culture.  We can live in a shack and feel secure; conversely, we can live in a mansion and be filled with fear and insecurity.  Real security, the kind that will last a lifetime regardless of job status or bank balance, comes from facing up to our fears and mastering them.  We may have heard this before…but do we believe it?  Failing that, are we willing to at least give it a try, and act as if we believe it?  It couldn’t hurt, and it might actually work.  This is not meant to suggest that we don’t need any money or support to live comfortably.  It is meant to suggest that if we’re afraid that we can’t survive without a job, we have a perfect opportunity right now to face that fear and master it.  We can use that fear to learn how to find real security!

My surface questions about how to pay the rent without a job were a red herring.  They covered up my unexamined and deeply ingrained fears of scarcity and lack.  Once I learned to ask myself some deeper questions, I was able to address what was keeping me feeling stuck in the daily grind regardless of whether my survival needs were met.  Here are some examples of how the voice of my fears cropped up.  Each is followed by the response my deeper awareness gave when the question was posed.

1)       “There isn’t enough wealth to go around, and if I don’t work hard and strive and compete and achieve, I’ll be homeless or hungry or destitute.”

(Are you aware that the World Game Institute, the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, and many others have confirmed scientifically that we live in an abundant world with sufficient resources to care for every person on the planet?  Are you aware that the only obstacles to all of us manifesting this abundance in our lives are personal and political – e.g. our deepest beliefs about wealth, and how the resources are distributed?  Are you willing to let go of your fear of scarcity, work toward more equitable distribution of the world’s abundance, and ALSO replace your fear with trust in an abundant world?)

2)       “I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid of what would happen if I quit my job and had that much freedom every day.  For one thing, what would get me out of bed in the morning?”

(An understandable fear indeed; it’s very common to fear change and cling to the familiar, even if it is stifling or harmful.  Are you willing to gently push yourself past the fear, trust that you will find a joyful reason to get up, and seek your freedom anyway?)

3)       “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I just know I don’t want to work at this shitty job for the rest of my days.”

(Can you find and nurture within yourself the desire to discover what it is you really want to do?  Can you be happy day-to-day even if you never find an occupation that gives you that “A-ha, THIS is it!” feeling?  How about just trying different things out for awhile, and cultivating patience?  How about entertaining the possibility that the “a-ha” feeling you are seeking might come more from what kind of person you are BEING in each moment than what you are DOING?)

4)       “If I quit my job, people will think I’m lazy…and what’s worse, I’m afraid they might be right.  What would that say about my character?  Would my partner leave me?  Would my friends shun me?”

(Where did you get the idea that there was some kind of character flaw involved in being lazy?  Are you willing to re-think that assumption, and adopt a new, more humane attitude toward leisure and idleness (and maybe make some new, less judgmental friends)?  Leisure has brought us great works of art, created memorable moments in life, lessened our burdens, and contributed immeasurably to our culture.  Is it really so bad?)

5)       “I’m too busy (because of my job) to take the time to figure out what I really want out of life, and even if I had the time, I don’t think I could get it anyway.  I have to be realistic.  Living without a job is nothing more than a pipe dream.”

(We find time for the things that are truly important to us.  Even five minutes a day of focused thinking, if you use it well, can be enough to get you going on a plan toward a job-free life.  And history is full of examples of people who brought things into being because they believed in themselves and their abilities to go after their dreams.  Why not try believing in your own ability to create the life you want?  It couldn’t hurt to at least TRY, before you dismiss the idea.  “Realistic”: a word that has killed so many dreams!)

6)       “If I were to quit my job, I’d have to be totally responsible for finding something else to do, and maybe even dealing with my family’s objections and criticism.  And I don’t think I’m prepared to face that.”

(Are you prepared to deal with the alternative: abdicating that responsibility to others, and living under their rules and restraints?)

7)       “I don’t want to give up the material comforts I’ve become accustomed to, even for a short time.”

(Are you willing to spend the rest of your days living in fear that you will lose those comforts, in exchange for the “instant gratification” of not giving them up now?  Are you willing to entertain the idea that you might not HAVE to give them up, but that it will loosen your psychological shackles to at least be WILLING to do so?)

8)       “I’ve always been taught that the way to financial security is to have a job and work hard.”

(Are you willing to open your mind to learning different ways to financial security, besides having money through working at a job, particularly a job you dislike?)

I hate to admit it here, but even after I started asking the kind of questions above (and listening to the answers), I wasted a lot of energy on self-blame.  It took me a long time to realize that I was not at fault for my struggles simply because I felt stuck.  The System is set up so that very few other options are feasible besides earning income through a job.  Not to mention that our hyper-individualistic American attitudes make us labor under an additional psychological burden: our mainstream political and social discourse convinces us that any failures to find jobs are due to individual faults, ignoring the role of larger forces.  We hear that we are “lazy bums” if we can’t find or don’t want a job.  (I hope you don’t fall for this garbage the same way I did).  But it won’t help to use all of our precious energy lamenting the state of The System, either.  We still have choices.  We could be using that energy figuring out how to live a job-free life instead.

Although I don’t think we should fault ONLY ourselves or ONLY The System, I can’t emphasize enough that even though there are coercive forces at work in The System, we still have the most important of freedoms: to change our attitudes, and claim the power we DO have.  That power turned out to be very crucial for me.  It helped me immensely on my quest for a life free of wage slavery.

I’ve come to believe that wage slavery is, at its core, a mindset.  This does not mean it’s solely an individual problem and that all we have to do is adjust our attitudes and our job-related problems will disappear; there are definitely systemic factors involved.  But it’s just as important to remember that it’s not entirely the fault of The System that we feel stuck in jobs we hate, because blaming it all on The System discourages us from recognizing our other options (and no matter how limited they may be, we DO have other options).  It’s even possible to have a “normal” job and not be a wage slave.  But that’s another topic for another time.

The way we interpret events has a lot to do with the filters we have in our minds.  Let’s say that, like me, you already realize that you’ve spent a lot of energy battling fears – energy that could be used to pursue your dreams.  And let’s say you realize that focusing on scarcity thoughts creates barriers to getting what you want before you’ve even begun.  Why not continue on by digging deeper until you find your most stubborn block?  For example, I once believed, unconsciously, that the only viable means to ensuring an income (and thus survival) is to have a job.  That meant that jobs which provide a paycheck, or make-money-fast scams, were the only income opportunities I ever noticed.  That “belief filter” made it as if I had blinders on – I didn’t even perceive the other possible ways to survive or receive money, or even more commonly, I quickly wrote them off as “impractical” before giving them any serious consideration.

Once again, because I think this bears repeating: I don’t mean to over-emphasize the role of the individual in achieving a life free from wage slavery.  I want to make it clear that I recognize and affirm the necessity for social change work.  I certainly don’t intend to trivialize the concerns of those who suffer from severe poverty, homelessness and hunger; people in those situations often don’t have the luxury of considering the kind of questions I pose here.  In fact, I believe that the more thought we give to what it might take to have a job-free life ourselves, the more we will understand that as long as wage slavery exists, for us or anyone else, we can never be truly free as a society.  When I realized that, I felt drawn toward working for social change and abolition of wage slavery, as well as my own freedom from the daily grind.  The two go hand in hand.

Here are some other questions I asked myself:

How committed am I to freeing myself (and others) from wage slavery?  Not how committed would I like to be “if only” – how committed AM I, today?  What would I be willing to do in order to be free to spend my time pursuing things I value?  Am I willing to face the fear that I might end up as a bag lady?  Am I willing to devote time to putting together a plan for how I’ll meet my needs without a job?  Am I willing to eat at soup kitchens, or cook and clean in exchange for room and board with family and friends, if that becomes necessary?  Would I take the time to write up a classified ad specifying what non-traditional living situation I want and try to connect with others who could help me get it?

These questions were scary for me.  For many years, I made a lot of excuses and used a lot of rationalizations.  The job-free life, in a job-obsessed culture, isn’t for the faint of heart.  It asks of us an “I’ll do whatever it takes for my freedom” kind of attitude, combined with the willingness to get very clear about what we want in life and face our fear of the unknown in order to have it.  But if we are devoted to doing so, and willing to find that quiet force within us, it will enrich our entire lives – not just our outlook on work and leisure.

The next step for me was to apply what I’d learned about where real security comes from.  I began a shift in my life that continues to this day.  Here is how I maintain it.

1)       Every day, I consciously cultivate a feeling of gratitude for the things I already have, and steer the focus away from endlessly pining for more.  If I just ate a good meal, and have a full stomach, I recognize that as a blessing.  If I have a comfortable place to sleep tonight, that’s certainly worth feeling thankful for.  If I can name friends and family who love and care about me, and who teach me to stretch my own ability to love, I am deeply blessed.  These are the important things in life – not “what I do for a living” or how fat my pocketbook happens to be.  Keeping the focus on the blessings we already enjoy (and away from those insidious survival fears) opens the way for more blessings to flow in life.

2)       I ask myself often, honestly and unflinchingly, what my life and the world would look like if I could wave a magic wand right now and miraculously cure all my money or job problems.  What would I do if I never had to work solely for the sake of a paycheck again?  What would I be doing?  Where would I be living?  These questions inspired me.  Once I got crystal clear on the answers (and it didn’t happen overnight), I didn’t want to waste another minute.  Life is precious and short, and this realization gave me the courage to take action now to move toward the kind of life I longed for.  It might not look exactly the way I’ve planned, but I don’t want to die without giving it a shot.  Of course, the kind of life I wish for may change over time, and that’s fine too.

3)       I make a point of re-thinking the nature of work, jobs, and leisure.  As mentioned above in our “new definitions”, work does not have to equal suffering; it can be done with ease and joy.  “Jobs”, on the other hand, usually involve doing things we’d rather not.  Even if I end up as one of the lucky few who happen to get paid for doing exactly what I’d be doing anyway regardless of remuneration, I know of FAR too many others who’d quit their jobs tomorrow if they felt money was not an issue.  I’d go to workshops on how to find work you love, and think to myself, “Well, that’s all fine and good that perhaps I myself can find a way out, but this just isn’t radical enough.  What about those without my privileges?”  This is a social problem that cannot be cured by “creating more jobs”, as politicians often claim.  I continuously educate myself about it, and am doing my part toward creating a world where wage slavery is a thing of the past.  Want to help?  You can start today, right now, with yourself.  Besides, the more self-respect you develop, the less you will be willing to settle for a job that deadens your soul.

4)       I remind myself daily that not wanting a job does not necessarily mean I am “lazy”, and even if it did, there is nothing morally wrong with laziness.  Wage slaves are sometimes driven to suffer in jobs they hate by the fear that others would think them indolent or somehow remiss if they admitted their love of leisure and their disdain for jobs.  Remember when people were saying that technology was such a huge blessing because it would take over much of the “grunt work” and provide us with more leisure time?  Do you think the people who spearheaded this movement stopped pushing for progress because they feared being considered lazy?  On the contrary…leisure was seen as a good thing, not just what you do when you’re not at your job.  Leisure is much more than just the time you have when you’re not getting paid.  Refer to our new definitions above.

For me the process I’ve described above was necessary before I could really, seriously consider the alternatives to taking a wage slave job.  I’ve gone into detail here about my struggles in the hopes that I’ll be able to shed some light on the portion of living a job-free life that can’t be addressed by having more money.  That part, I’ve found, isn’t very glamorous, but it’s a crucial step.  I know it’s only part of the story, though – so next month’s column will offer some down-to-earth, practical suggestions for the job-free life.  Until then…good luck.  Believe in yourself.  You can realize your own unique beauty and go after your dreams.

(Copyright D. JoAnne Swanson, 1999. All rights reserved.)