Twenty months ago, we stepped away from the 9-5. I knew we would be gone for at least a year, but our lives changed in that year because we changed. Honestly, most of the change I never saw coming. If you have ever considered taking a career break, mini-retirement, or sabbatical, to pursue other goals or dreams, here are a few of the unexpected things that we have learned along the way. Plus, what you can do to prepare NOW for laying the foundation.
1. Long term burnout is REAL.
I knew we were tired. In the span of 5 years, we had: moved from Germany to the US, bought our ugly house, buried our oldest child, bought our first rental, worked a job I hated, adopted 3 kids, bought another rental, constant renovations, and had a baby…yeah, we were tired.
I didn’t really see the full effects of the burn out until it started to wear off. It took about 3-6 months before we started getting our bearings. Then 12 months in, everything started to shift.
Prepare Now Tip: Plan out a rest/decompression time, either at the front of your block of leave or try to get a 1-2 month break at some point. Your ideas and vision for planning that time will be much clearer and truer if you’re not exhausted. There are some things we just can’t see correctly when we are burned out. The week we left the 9-5, we started filling our calendar to the brim. If we had taken a month of rest first, I think we would have made MORE progress the rest of that first year.
2. I’m so glad we did this “too early.”
A week before I found out we were expecting sweet baby #5. We had talked about being able to retire in 6 years. As far as early retirement goes, that would have been a very traditional path. Then, when the most unexpected pregnancy test came back positive, we came up with plan B.
Plan B was to take a year off and figure it out from there.
Sometimes our very best plans are the B plans.
I had NO idea. Not even a clue of all the good things that would come from taking this time. It’s been a 180-degree turn in our lives.
Prepare Now Tip: Don’t be foolish, but don’t base all your choices on fear either. For most people in the personal finance space, fear is much stronger than impulsiveness. Actually, weigh the risks of taking a year off, plan for it, prepare, then jump. The planning and preparation is a safe, comfortable stage. Jumping will scare the crap out of you. But the good stuff starts with jumping.
3. We get more job offers now than when we were still working.
It would be very easy to go back to the 9-5 job. We still get offers. Some of them are very interesting and very tempting. The craziest thing of all: they are all better offers than the jobs we use to have. Better pay, better hours, better work. This fact totally shocked me! But after talking with a few others who have taken time away, it’s rather common.
Prepare Now Tip: Establish great relationships in your field. The year before you take time away, be intentional about investing in those relationships, and producing amazing work.
In most fields, the best way to get a 20% raise is to switch companies. Your time away from the 9-5 might be the perfect opportunity to find a great promotion. If there are 10-20 people who 1. Like you, 2. Respect your work, and 3. Know you could be available in the next few months: you might get some amazing job offers. (If you don’t have those first two, work on that over the next 1-2 years as you prepare for your time away.)
Send out a nice letter to all your connections in your field before leaving, with your new contact info, a summary explaining that what you are taking time for (…). However, for the few, you are very close with, include a subtle plug in your letter that implies you are always interested in any great fitting spot that might come available. After you leave, continue to maintain those relationships. Don’t completely fall off the grid.
4. Finding balance isn’t automatic.
It still takes effort to make time to go to the gym, or do a girls weekend trip, or meet up with friends. All those things didn’t become super easy or automatic once we left the 9-5. Life is still full, and we have to be intentional to carve out space.
Prepare Now Tip: Start laying a foundation of good habits now. Investing in meaningful relationships. Learning to practice self-care. Develop hobbies. Don’t wait until your first day away from your 9-5. When you have more free time, it’s far easier to build on something you’ve already started.
5. Our life is slightly off the norm, and that’s uncomfortable to some people.
Most people are slightly confused for a lot of reasons. Even now, I feel a slight hesitation in some conversations. But money is a weird thing for a person to ask about, so most don’t ask. People also have what we like to call “big feelings” about work, income, and personal value. As in, if you work and if that work produces lots of income, then you have value as a person. The only “work” that has value to society is the work that produces a good income. Take this blog, for example; it doesn’t matter how many hours or how much effort I put into it or how much impact it creates in others’ lives. If it makes a lot of income, I’m a success. If it doesn’t, then it has no value, and I am wasting my life. Same work. Same impact but a far different perception for 90% of the population.
Prepare Now Tip: The more clear you are on your values, purpose, and vision for your life, the easier it will be to handle others’ confusion. If you aren’t crystal clear, their hesitation and disapproval will shake you. Your “why” has to be bigger than “I hated my job.” If you simply hate your job, get a new job.
In the year or two before you leave, take the time to really work through this stuff. What you really want out of life? What are the most important areas of your life? What kind of legacy/impact do you want to leave on this world? Read all my mentoring questions, and really take the time to figure out your answers. Consider hiring a mentor. Start a blog to think/write through it. Find a community of like-minded people who “get it” and will support and encourage you.
My point is: This is important work. And you need to do it NOW. Start 10 years out, 5 years out, 2 years out. Don’t wait until Day 1 of your time off. Others strong opinions will throw you about like a ship at sea. It’s better to invest a bit of money and time upfront in developing a clear vision and maximizing the value of your time away.
6. Time is still our biggest struggle, not money
If I could get an extra $1000 a month or 20 hours a week, I would take the time, hands down. Even without 9-5 jobs, we lack time SO much more than money.
I don’t stress over our expenses at all. But when I plan out the schedule for our week, we have to make a lot of trade-offs.
I really thought that by leaving 2 45+ hour jobs, there would be time for EVERYTHING. Nope. We still make trade-offs. We have to prioritize.
As the burn out has worn off, there are interesting, important, cool things EVERYWHERE that I want to do. It’s a bit overwhelming at times because so many options are on the table. But I can’t do everything, not all at once. I’ve had to really consider the most essential thing to pursue in any given week/month/year and focus on that.
That means saying no a lot. Often to myself. Because as much as I would like to, I can’t blog/mentor/write/renovate/travel full time around the country with my kids/start a hobby farm/flip houses/open a churro cart/build treehouse rentals/write a book (or 10)/ get in great shape/ give financial talks/ custom build a house/master the art of Norwegian wedding cake baking….all in the same month. Shocking right? Without the 9-5, I can do any of those, but not all of them. Not all at once, at least.
But here is the awesome thing, I could do one of those each year. And I hope to have a lot of years left on this Earth. So I’m going to pick one thing each year. In 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, I am so freaking excited for the highlight reel I can create. Most people have 2 or 3 big, lofty dreams. By leaving the 9-5, I have 100% control of my time/life. I hope to tackle 20 BIG dreams before I check out of this life. (Or 50 things! I see myself as the 85-year-old gray-haired lady still creating, building, producing in BIG ways! I won’t go out quietly.)
Prepare Now Tip: Leaving a 9-5 job won’t give you time for everything. So start choosing wisely now. Learn to look at all the options and narrow it down to 2 or 3 that burn in your heart like a wildfire. Read Essentialism. And start practicing. Because without jobs, this will actually be more important, not less important.
7. If you aren’t burned out, have some time, and don’t need much income, there are hundreds of options to make money.
Isn’t it annoying when some entrepreneur, self-employed, or early retiree talks about all the ways a person could make money? Because you are exhausted, time-crunched, and don’t see any way to make a full-time income. You have tried and failed—more than once. Yup, I’ve been there. I wanted to punch those people in the face.
20 months away from the 9-5, I’ve become that annoying person. There are literally hundreds of ways to earn money without a 9-5 job. But, and a big but… you can’t approach it from a place of burnout, you need to have some time, and it won’t replace a full income. Not at least for the first 2-5 years.
Every week I come across another good option. Some very interesting and very tempting. This is why #6 is so darn important. I don’t have the time for everything and don’t need the money. So the option better fit right in the middle of our next lesson, #8. If not, and it’s an idea I really love, I’ll pass it on to one of the people I mentor. I might pass it along to a reader or friend. Or I might keep it in my back pocket for a few years down the road.
Prepare Now Tip: Trust me. When you get to the point where you aren’t burned out, have some time, and don’t need a lot of income, you will find ways to learn a little bit of coin. Read, study, build skills, lay a foundation now. Don’t wait to show up on day 1. Do a bunch of stuff for free while you work your job. It will help you figure out what you like and what you are good at. Learn the market. Immerse yourself in the area that interests you.
For example, I wrote for free for about 8 years. I spoke for free for the last 12 years. I mentored others for free for 14 years. I did it because I loved it. Because it mattered to me and created change in others. And I built those skills, slowly, behind the scenes. It never occurred to me that those we marketable or profitable skills.
Now I’m not burned out. Now I have a little bit of time. And now I don’t need any income. Well, now I have to turn away work for all three. I do as much writing, speaking, and mentoring as I can fit into my life in this season.
I know a lot of people poo-poo the idea of working for free. Working for free is how you build skills worth paying for. Don’t do it for “exposure,” don’t do it to build a portfolio. If you love it, do it to learn it. Do it to become great at it. Master your craft. Consider it the most affordable college degree you can earn.
And don’t worry about getting paid. Not yet. For example, I really enjoyed photography. I thought about doing that for-profit about 10 years ago. So I took photos of over 50 families. For free. 1. To see if I loved it. And 2. to build my skills. I wrote that you Can’t Waste Good. That effort wasn’t wasted. I learned that I enjoyed it, but that it’s not a deep passion. I became better at capturing moments (something that actually improved my writing). And I created cherished pictures for dozens of people I care about.
8. Meaning, purpose, and impact
I think about this ALL the time now—every single day. I use to think about it occasionally. But we only have so much focus and attention. 90% of my focus was on our jobs, income, investments, and just keeping our heads above the grind. 10% of my focus could go towards the kind of impact I want to have and how to chase down my biggest dreams. Now that is flipped. 90% of my thoughts are on impact/purpose/dreams, and 10% of my thoughts are on income, investments, expenses.
Prepare Now Tip: Create the time and space to start thinking about this more, now. Most of our success, I credit to consistently planning, dreaming, and thinking about this. Because you can’t plan it all at once. You need to do some thinking, and then you need to walk the path for a while. Then you need to rake some things over again. Ask new questions. Learn some new ideas. Then walk the path some more. It’s the reason you don’t work with a mentor for one call or read one book and then are set for life. Our personal development just doesn’t work that way.
Plus, saving is boring if you don’t have a bigger meaning. If we don’t have a vision of how life will be different or better, saving 10% seems like a boring but responsible plan. We will never find the motivation to stretch if we don’t have anything we are stretching towards.
9. There is more than one path to create financial freedom.
And you might not need as much as you think to start. If we had waited the extra 6 years, we could have done a traditional 4%. But I am SO glad we didn’t wait. We would have missed out on so many good things. There are several ways people in real life piece together time off. Maybe you want 3 months to write a book, 6 months to hike the Appalachian Trail, 2 years to get a business off the ground, or a year to travel the whole US with your kids. A 4% withdrawal probably isn’t the best method to get there.
Prepare Now Tip: For those who want to create a change sooner rather than later, the 5 bucket approach is the best method for finding the financial freedom needed to start custom creating your life. I will be offering a private invite for extra help customizing the 5 bucket approach for my awesome email subscribers. If you’re interested in learning how to customize this for your finances, make sure you sign up for all the info!
10. It takes a lot of courage, but then you gain confidence.
90% of the fear you feel will be before your last day of work. You will run the numbers, you will look at the income/expenses, and you will be scared. Scared about all sorts of things. You will need a darn good reason to make that leap and a bucket full of courage because it’s easy just to stay. You will start to think, “Well, this isn’t so bad. My life isn’t bad. Maybe we should just stay here a while longer.”
You can’t see what you are missing until you have it.
20 months into this new life: I get it. I see what we were missing all those years. I see the deep benefits. I see the opportunity. Now seeing what this new life is like: we now have the confidence we lacked when we started. You can’t weigh one against the other until you have been in both places. Once you have lived life your 9-5 life AND a life without the 9-5, then you can weigh them against each other accurately. You will feel confident in your choices going forward.
Maybe you will get an amazing 9-5 offer and happily take it. The time off will have filled your cup and done its job (travel, adventure, a new hobby, time with family, etc.), and you are ready to dive into this 9-5 with more energy and excitement than ever before.
Maybe this new life will open doors you hadn’t seen before, and life will move in a new direction entirely.
It’s scary and unknown before you jump.
After you jump, the fear melts away, and you gain confidence in your choices.
Because you will see both sides of the coin.
It’s no longer an unknown or a gamble.
Prepare Now Tip: All the fear lies just before the start line. If it seems like a hard thing to pull the trigger on, you are absolutely right: it is hard and scary and unknown. Feeling fear isn’t a sign your making the wrong choice. There will be fear. But the fear will also fade away. Unknowns will be traded with first-hand experience. And you will gain confidence.
After a few months of being with your spouse full time, you’ll figure out whose job it is to unload the dishwasher now.
After the first person passes along a job offer, you know there are still options out there. Maybe better options.
After a few months of tracking your new expenses, you’ll know what your post-work expenses look like.
After your first big trip with your kids, you’ll see the growth in them, in their relationship with each other and with you, and if you’re like me, feel a twinge of sadness that you didn’t do this MUCH sooner.
After 6, 12, or 18 months of traveling/adventuring full time, you know how you really feel about having a home base and maybe doing some part-time work.
After you write 80,000 words, you’ll know if “author” is the right fit for you.
But you won’t know until you try.