A few months ago, I was trying to describe to a radio colleague what life has been like since I quit my job as the host of a national public radio show (Marketplace Money) in 2012 with no idea what I’d do next.
“I used to panic all the time,” I told her. I’d get to the end of a project or a temporary gig and I’d panic about everything: about money, about staying busy, about whether people would start to forget about me, about my place in the world.
But two years into a leap into the unknown from a two-decade career in public broadcasting, I told her the panic had finally started to subside. I was finally learning to trust myself, my decisions, and the fact that good things kept happening along the way.
“You’re riding the thermals!” she said.
Riding the Thermals
And she’s right. (For the uninitiated, riding the thermals is how birds use rising currents of hot air to fly higher without using all their energy.)
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When people ask me my story these days, I don’t even know where to begin. Some of it doesn’t seem real. So here’s the elevator version:
I had my dream job in broadcast journalism for 20 years. For various reasons, I quit that job without having a Plan B lined up or even any idea what I wanted to do next. I then flailed around for several months, berating myself for the most foolish decision of my life. Meantime I came deliciously close to, but got rejected for, what would have been the second job-of-a-lifetime.
Then I gave a speech about all this to an auditorium of nearly 3,000 strangers. An editor from a major publishing house was in the audience, and 11 days later I landed a lucrative book deal. (Leap Without A Net: Leaving A Job With No Plan B comes out in August.)
See? I told you it was unreal.
So I am riding the thermals.
What You Shouldn't Do
I am deeply fortunate, and sometimes that makes me hesitant to even tell my story because it seems unfair to set up the expectation that something so massively awesome will happen if you take a big risk. It doesn’t work that way.
I had myriad advantages going into all this, not the least of which is that I had a high-profile gig and people know my name (and voice). So no, don’t quit your job on the assumption that you’ll get a book deal. Please don’t do that.
But what I’ve experienced over the last two years goes far beyond just what I’m doing for work on a daily basis. I’ve had to figure out what I want the rest of my life to look like. That’s been a process full of surprises and, well, a lot of getting over myself.
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I’ve had to figure out who I am outside of what I do for a living. I’ve had to get comfortable with the fact that instead of “leaning in,” I leaned out. Instead of climbing up the career ladder, I stepped off and to the side. I’ve worried about losing my ambition, not to mention a steady paycheck, and I’ve freaked out on days when I didn’t stay busy for a full 10 hours of work.
Shedding the Tyranny of Conformity
But over time, you know what happened? I started to shed the tyranny of conformity… the idea that my day was supposed to look like X, my paycheck was supposed to be Y.
If I finished all the work I needed to do for a project in four hours and not 10 —whether it was a voiceover gig or a newspaper essay or preparation for emceeing an event —I started appreciating that extra time to do something else more fun or fulfilling, instead of worrying that somehow I was lazy or unambitious or that I should be scrounging for more work just so I’d be conventionally “busy.” (My border collie and black lab have benefitted greatly from this new outlook — our walks are longer!)
The significant reduction in income and the fact that without a salary any income now comes in fits and spurts, has also forced me to take a long look at what my spending priorities were and are. Over time, I’ve started to pare down to a simpler life.
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Obsessing Less About Money
Funny enough, I find I don’t crave new stuff nearly as much as I used to. I splurge on things that will bring me joy — like a trip or a new lens for my camera — not things that I feel like I should buy as a reflection of my success (the fancypants wine glasses I coveted for years… ridiculous).
I’m not saying I don’t spend money anymore, but I’m less obsessed with it than I was. You’d think I would have learned some of this in the six years I hosted a personal finance radio show, but sometimes life doesn’t work that way.
And admittedly, at 45, some of this is probably a mid-life reassessment of what’s important.
But living with less, it turns out, forces you to get comfortable with… living with less! It’s a lesson I’m glad to be learning far in advance of retirement.
Struggling With the Identity Issue
The issue of identity is the one I still struggle with the most.
I not only loved my job, but lots of people (millions, even) loved me in it, and I miss that. It’s hard not to have that external validation, and it’s even harder to let go of that relationship.
I miss my listeners terribly, and I miss being on air. I miss doing interviews (my favorite thing on earth) and I miss having colleagues and I miss the newsroom. I miss being there for big stories and I miss the privilege of helping people better understand and navigate what’s happening in the world.
Journalism will always be my first love and I still wonder if I can ever truly go without it. Luckily, I still have opportunities to be back in the studio. I’ve hosted a national show several times over the last year or so and I’ll be on the airwaves in Los Angeles in a few weeks. Each time I’m there, I try to soak in and absorb enough of that pure joy to get me through the time I have away from it. I feel like my identity is still “radio journalist” — but it’s also so many other things that I’ve learned, and am still learning, to embrace.
Time for a Traditional Job?
At the end of last year, after I handed in the second draft of my book, I started to think that I should probably go get a traditional job again.
It’s not because of financial pressure, though I do miss the predictability of a steady salary. I have enough money coming in from various projects that I don’t have to get a job — at least not right now.
The pressure was more an internal dialogue along the lines of “You need to start being a grownup again and go to work like everybody else.” Except… Why?
Why should I do that, when I don’t have to at this point? Why do I still feel the need to meet some expectation of what life, and work, is supposed to look like? I’m on a journey and the thermals are still popping up, so why go looking for the safety net before I absolutely have to? Why not see what happens next?
Not in a way of being passive about my future, but in a way that lets me keep being open to different opportunities that I’d have to say “no” to if I were leading a more conventional worklife.
A Confounding, But Relaxing Time
So, as you can tell, it’s been two years since I leaped without a net and life is no less complex and confounding than it was at the start.
But I’ve relaxed into this new phase of my career.
I was interviewed recently for a podcast and one of the first questions was how often I found myself regretting the decision to quit. “Oh I don’t know, 150,000 times?” I said. “Really?’ he replied. “It seems like everything is going so well for you!”
Well first of all, I told him, what you see on social media (especially Facebook) is not real life.
But I’ve also learned that regret serves a useful function: it allows you to constantly re-evaluate your decisions and what came of them.
You don’t have to wallow in regret but you don’t have to shy away from it either — that’s unrealistic anyway. Sure, I have regrets, even today, more than two years on. But when I think about those regrets, I’m also forced to remember all the good things that happened in the wake of them.
On some days, it seems like those things are because of the leap. On others, it seems like they’re in spite of it.
Either way, I’m always forced to remember those thermals and be grateful each time they help me rise above instability, right here on the ground. That’s not just hot air. It’s fresh air.