Building Someone Else's Dream: Lesson Learned

I'm back to freelancing full-time.

It's a strange thing, to have a steady paycheck then walk away from it when you aren't sure that it's the right thing to do (but in your heart, you know it's the right thing to do). 

The lesson was learned once before: steady never really means steady. At any point, a higher up can decide you are dispensable, your talent is replaceable, your earnings can be given to a new employee who asks for less to support themselves, or whatever other whim comes to mind.

The first time I learned that lesson, I'd given up to 60 hours a week meeting the demands of an agency. Anything over 40 I didn't get paid for. I was happy to be challenged, happy to be working on accounts I respected, happy to create things that helped my co-workers. 

But while the owners built second homes, spent thousands purchasing and revamping a space in the downtown area of a capital city (for a second office space—with two people to fill it), and took their significant others on vacations under the company name, they simultaneously announced that they were not going to be able to afford staying open much longer. 

Now, I'm no accountant, but no kidding, geniuses. 

Two weeks shy of me purchasing a little piece of land so I could build a home for myself, the layoffs and—people leaving—began. 

More than half of us no longer had jobs, but the company stayed open. The rest of us scrambled, and I moved back into my car. 

It was then that I realized I never wanted to rely solely on someone else's whims for my income. 

This time, I was more—though not entirely—prepared as I walked away from a job that a few of us employees felt wasn't being entirely upfront with its team. Though we'd all rushed to meet last-minute demands, worked weekends when needed, and did what was necessary to improve each clients' accounts (and the agency's relationship with them), we felt baited along. 

We all walked. 

Leaving the job still felt like being laid off. It wasn't directly forced, but it was implied in several ways. The feeling was that I was dispensable and my contributions meant very little to the agency. Though I'd kept contracts open for them and helped bring in more than 50% of the agency's revenue, I was passed over for a new hire to take over a senior position. 

To add insult to injury, I was asked to train the new hire to cover my responsibilities and clients. 

But here's the thing: Neither of these agencies were mine. In other words, it wasn't my dream I was helping to build, it wasn't mine to create an operations strategy or growth strategy or team culture strategy for. And with the second agency, I already knew the lesson plan: don't keep your eggs all in one basket. No matter how much I wanted to believe I was working toward a future there, I knew what living someone else's dream meant: if a better opportunity opens up for them, they may very well take it. 

So while I wanted very much to help the agency succeed, I kept writing jobs open—at a minimum level, but somewhat maintainable—and kept a focus on my nonprofit. Neither earned me a living wage as I increasingly dedicated time to this agency, but I didn't stop practicing my other skills, I didn't stop looking at opportunities, and I never stopped learning. 

Though it might not sound like it from the above, there's no ill will for either of the previous agencies; I know many come into business ownership with the idea of "it's not personal, it's business." The approach to business comes from many different perspectives, it's created from varied personal needs, and has a lot to do with the values an owner holds. 

However, I want to work with people who create jobs because they love people and want to see them reach goals, provide for their loved ones, and succeed together. I view entrepreneurship as a way for people to teach each other, a way that allows learning and personal growth—both in personal and professional goals. It's exciting, demanding, and yes, it forces you to make tough decisions. 

Sacrificing your own proven employees for a shiny new unknown on the horizon or wanting to put on a front that your business is bigger than it is (e.g., do we really need to renovate a historic building's eighth floor in the most expensive area in a state across the country so we have a trendy-looking office for the two employees who live there just to impress clients who we actually fly to meet in their offices around the country anyway?) aren't what I consider part of a positive work culture. 

In one situation, I was laid off. In the second, I realized my own worth and left—with a few eggs still in my basket.

Pivotal Moments in One Road Tripper's Life

Pivotal Moments of a Road Tripping Life

There are pivotal moments in your life. I’m still trying to figure out mine.

I don't know where the impulse came from; maybe it was the culmination of spontaneous midnight road trips I took in college. Maybe it went back further to my mom and dad getting the "caged bird" itch every fall and heading north to the Smoky Mountains for a change of colors and scenery. Whatever it was, the feeling hit hard and then was cemented.

I needed the open road.

At the time, most of the people living in vans (and cars) were those who were doing it out of necessity. In time, this turned true for me, too, with the loss of a job. But it started with being a dirtbag climber and skier who couldn't afford hostels—or heck, even campgrounds—but wanted to see her continent.

Like most things, I researched the heck out of what little info I could find on living in a car. A van was out of the question; it wasn't in the budget to drop money on a new vehicle or even to fork over that much cash for gas each month. I'd be living on savings from my post-college internship, splitting costs with one other person in the front cabin, and stuffing all necessary belongings for days of climbing, bouldering, sleeping and eating in a four-door Mazda 3.

My apartment downtown was subletted. My bank was alerted that I’d be traveling—wherever for whatever period of time. For the first time ever, I was completely four-wall free and had only a rough idea of where the seasons would take me.

That initial “plan” was to last five or six months and traverse 16,000 miles across North America. It ended three years and so-many-miles-that-I-stopped-counting later. The same car, one less passenger, and, still, an unquenched curiosity.

Yet, even with a mind that wondered what I was leaving behind, I returned to a form of normalcy: four walls. There was reluctance and there was gratefulness in that decision.

For the first few months, I’d go out into the cool of the night to sleep in my car. That faded as I grew used to the climate-controlled house and the ease of access with water and facilities. Belongings started accumulating again, now that I had somewhere to put them. Before a year had passed, I’d gone back to being a normal person doing and living in a normal way.

The pivotal point: was it the decision to actually go? Was it when I decided to continue on, solo, at the six-month point when my climbing partner wanted to go home? Was it after my return, in a moment of reflection of what I had just done? Or was it when I realized I was living just like I had before my excursion—as if the whole thing was a movie I’d watched of someone else?

Girl, be brave.

I have to be brave.

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