Day job

The most helpful advice I’ve received about money is that it should not be the reason you’re doing something. And that’s very good advice.

Five years ago when I moved to Portland, I got a job at a law office. It was 2008, jobs were not that easy to find, and It was the first job to offer me an interview. I took it, because I just needed something to pay the bills while I got settled and tried to achieve lift-off with this whole illustration thing.

The problem was the law office was very difficult for me. It was divorce law, very intense in terms of work environment and the work itself. One would answer calls at the front desk from people in tears. Tension ran high, at all times. And I spent so much time removing this tension from my mind after I came home every day that there wasn’t anything left to paint with.

And even when I did manage to paint, the results weren’t really that interesting. My work was stagnant at that time, not growing or developing as it so badly needed to do. I didn’t feel free enough to explore or grow. All of my explore-and-grow neurons were all used up by the time I got back to my desk, because I’d spend all of my time fretting about my job. (Which is a gentle way of saying: I would come home every day, curl up on the couch, and sob.)

Aside from the bad fit that this specific job was, I realized something else very quickly, particularly as I saw how keen they were to promote me while I was there. A job at a law office — no matter how menial — is a career kind of job. Without meaning to I’d landed a career kind of job without realizing that what I needed was a more…day-jobby kind of day job.

Fortunately I came to this realization very quickly. I left and got a job cleaning houses.

Cleaning paid about a third of what I’d been making at the law office. So in some ways it wasn’t a smooth transition. I had to scale back big time — first eliminating the obvious extravagances like Netflix and eating out, and eventually re-thinking almost every aspect of my life. I had to learn to change the way I shopped for groceries, the way I ate, the way I went through durable goods at home. I learned to go without. I learned to be resourceful and maybe use something I already had in a new way. It was a lot of work.

However, it was good work. Looking back, I realize that I live more gently on the earth now than I ever would have dreamed possible then. And these concepts of scaling back and going without and making do lead to other concepts like learning to mend and celebrating simple things and making it myself. I learned how to make all sorts of things, from deodorant to oven mitts. This way of thinking leads to more robust things, like gardening and getting serious about recycling (it’s that nagging feeling of letting nothing go to waste).

And most important of all: settling into this way of thinking frees you from the reliance on Accidental Career Day Jobs, frees you from a life of feeling trapped.

When I tell people this story I often say: I make less than half of what I made at the law office, but I am ten times happier. 

The minute I left my law office job I was instantly filled with a contented happiness. Even when I was hungry because I hadn’t stuck to my budget properly, or when I was painting under the only working lightbulb in the apartment, I didn’t care. I was no longer trapped.

And I was painting — more than I ever had in my life, it seemed. I was making up for lost time.

And my pictures began to blossom, and take on a life of their own.

And the rest, as they say, is history.