Clue in, turn off, restart

One after another we go through the process. Some are fortunate enough to get far enough along before the moment of truth happens that at least they have a fat enough bank and brokerage account to fall back on (assuming, that is, that the endless frauds in the financial system don’t impoverish you as happened to so many others in the past few years).

Others have reality slap them hard around the face with a wet fish or two before they reach their comfort zone — and for a large number of newly minted graduates facing the transition from school days to work-a-day world that slap comes with the message “you’re just plain surplus to requirements”, otherwise known as “not wanted”.

This has been coming for a long time. People in Britain for years have known that if they were let go after fifty the odds were poor that they’d ever replace their place on the organizational ladder with anything other than self-underemployment or an entry-level permanent part-time position. That’s becoming the North American norm now, too, and it’s why so many people are contractors, or consultants, or trying to get someone, anyone, to allow them to establish a second career.

So the first step is cluing in and really seeing the world around us for what it is, not what we want it to be.

This is hard. My wife has acute myalgic encephalomyelitis. Working is out of the question — whole weeks go by where she does not even leave the house.

Our children are university age: our daughter is taking a gap year to restock her bank account before her assault on graduate school (she’s studied internationally at full fees and paid cash, so at least there’s no debt to act as a millstone around her neck for later) and our son leaves high school this year (he’s planning a working year as well). As any parent would do, my wife wonders aloud — often — what kinds of security they will have, and what kind of job they might hold (a “real” job, not the sort of “take anything just for the cash” types they’ve had to date).

When I tell her that they may never have “a job” in the sense she’s talking about, it scares her. (It’s frightening to me, too, but then I’ve been wrestling with this for over a decade now, researching, writing, and experiencing the endless shifts one makes to stay afloat without the traditional anchors, so at least it’s not a complete unknown.)

I think my daughter gets this world as it is, more or less. My son, less so: he’s more willing to spend, figuring that there’ll be more tomorrow to cover his needs.

The cluing in comes in two parts: understanding how the world and its opportunities has and is changing, and understanding what that means personally, especially when it comes to creating anchors that hold you back.

If you’re going to dance, you have to be free.

That means not living as others around you do. I choose not to own a car, for instance. It’s an unnecessary expense: why should I pay to park it, insure it, maintain it, watch it rust, when it will not be in motion over 90 per cent of the time.

I work from home. It’s less than ten minutes to the subway. All our needs — multiple grocery stores, banks, barbers, cleaners, etc. — are within walking distance. Sure, on the day I bring kitty litter home it would be nice to have a trunk to handle it. That’s why there are taxis. $13.00 once every two months for bulk purchasing beats the monthly expense of a “just in case” vehicle all to the devil.

Of course, this, in turn, is a limitation. I think twice about taking meetings in the suburbs. There’s work opportunities I don’t even consider because I don’t want to spend four hours/day getting there and back. But living well doesn’t require a lot of money — just a thick enough skin to deal with the people for whom having it all and slapping down a credit card to pay for it someday is the definition of the good life.

That’s the turn off part: turning off the unnecessary bits. Along with no car, we have no television — and hence, no cable bill. We have no options on our phone service (my in-laws will phone back, and no one else leaves a message I care to hear anyway). We eat better bread because I learned how to make it from scratch — and early Sunday morning bread-making time is a free luxury.

Turning off the consumer society is a battle especially if you walk a lot, like me, and keep seeing lattés and gelatos and other good things on every block. Don’t carry cash, never carry plastic: you can live without it.

But this is not a call to drop out completely. A future for each of us requires that, after having shed old skins and habits, we undertake a restart of our lives. We figure out how to earn enough, securely enough, to live well (if not “large”, at least well sheltered, fed, happily and healthily getting from one year to the next).

“Enough” means something different to everyone, but to me it means no debt, all bills paid, a little tucked away for emergencies, a pantry with months worth of staples stored, the ability to acquire a new skill now and then. For us, it does not mean a winter and summer vacation, the latest car, two restaurants and another night out every week. (I like to cook: it relaxes me.)

That, in turn, lets me explore a portfolio of things to do, some of which pay (assuming people do pay: I am sick and tired of corporate clients letting my invoice age for two to three months, then coming to negotiate a partial payment because “we have problems”, even while announcing record earnings) and some of which are volunteer or self-expression. Life is richer now than when I had a job with a fancy title that sent me around the world constantly and I made ten times what I do today.

Yes, these are tough times. They don’t have to be bad ones. Clue in to reality, turn off what you don’t really need, and restart on tomorrow’s track. Your life is to be lived, not fitted into a mould designed by others.

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7 Comments

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  1. Wonderful reading! I think I am in the process of “restarting” after a period of reluctance to “clue in”. It took a while for me to come to terms with the fact that moulded jobs where you can start at the bottom and work your way up just don’t exist anymore (or rarely do, in any case) In this age you have to create something for yourself, which is daunting. I love your ideas on becoming more minimalist and I think that will be the next thing I try to “clue in” to. 🙂

  2. I liked the idea of letting go of what you do not really need.
    I have partly done that, too:
    Material: Gave up my car about two years ago. I am happier for that.
    Less material: Some people have a burning desire to achieve a prestigious job of which they like the position, not the work – I let those climb the career ladder – and prefer to have a job I love.

    I could still let go of a lot of things I suppose. But for now I am content to get no more things I do not need – like a flat screen TV, a tablet PC and zillions of other new gadgets – or a facebook-account, another browser-game and other such time consuming “obligations” with no real value.

    • This week’s HBR Ideacast strongly suggested the career ladder is dead as a doornail. Maybe we can’t have it more than we give up wanting it?

      • A ladder, to stick to this image, is only a thing to get you somewhere. Some see the career ladder as their goal – just to find at the upper end of it that they have run out of reasons.
        Some people have even forgotten that we work to be able to live a life worth living. We are not living so that we can work. Work is a way – but it has to lead us somewhere.

      • The ladder only made sense when it was coupled to a social contract of not firing people just for profit. Today our lives may be narratives we can tell as some sort of connections between steps but in most cases the idea of a path the people we work for are developing for us in exchange for the loyalty we give is pretty much dead and buried.

  3. Continuate cos, bravi!

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