I’m approaching the 5th anniversary of a big turning point in my life, when I quit my job in the IT sector in order to return to college and finish my undergraduate degree in English. Two years later, at age 26, I graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in English. The year after, I worked in the IT department at SU, and the year after that I began the master’s program for Rhetoric and Composition at Texas State. Now, in two and a half weeks, I’ll be graduating from that program, and I’ve made the commitment to continue on for three more years of grad school for an MFA. It’s been quite the ride.
Dropping out of an IT career that was about as unsatisfying as it could get in order to pursue what I’ve wanted to do for most of my life (write, teach writing) has been a 100% positive experience. Ask anyone who knows me; I’m happier and healthier (on the complete psychosocialphysio spectrum) than at any other phase in my adult life.
That said, there has been one aspect of this transition that does occasionally pop up and induce tiny tremors of guilt and anxiety. The transition from IT to grad school has also meant a transition from being a two income household to an effectively single income (cost of university and employment during university have roughly equaled out). This is something my wife (Carolina) and I have talked about and are both comfortable with in theory, but in practice it was still pinching at me every now and then. Recently, though, I’ve started thinking about it in different ways, and I think I’ve finally made peace with it, and I want to share some of that thought process. Some of this might seem kind of obvious, and I would agree. I know there are things that I was telling myself a while back but didn’t really sink in until lately.
Cash flow is more than a paycheck. “Working” is a weird concept for me these days. I work set hours in the Writing Center and in classes, but my other work (writing, submitting) comes in 2-4 hour blasts at different times in the day, at different points in the week (and, of course, this fluctuates heavily). Then there’s the things that are borderline work: reading books, articles, and websites related to my research and writing topics. Add this all together and you get a number of “working hours” that is probably close to the standard 45ish hours. My hours, though, are flexible, and while other people in academia may disagree, I don’t get to the end of a day of work feeling exhausted like I have at past jobs (not counting days where class ends at 9:30pm and is followed by an hour commute home). This leads me to being able to do things that save/make money that I would not be able to (or not want to) do in a traditional job. A few examples: I cook. A lot. Lately, I even make our granola (which doesn’t really save money, but it tastes better and is healthier/more ethical). Cooking is a great pairing with writing, because your kitchen can be ten feet away from your workspace, and you can keep turning over your topic in your head while stirring a pot. When Carolina and I were both working in IT, we ate out 2-3 lunches a week and 2-3 dinners a week, and a lot of that was a feeling of not having enough time. (Big aside here – we still had free time, but the limitations of that free time [tiredness, limited daylight hours to get things done] pushed things like cooking off the priority list.) Now, we eat out maybe twice a week, and we get to be very choosy about when and where we go, because we’re eating out for pleasure, not convenience (not to mention the long-term cost savings by being healthier). Besides our food, there were other things we were outsourcing but no longer do, such as minor car repairs, lawn care, tax prep, etc., as well as things we’ve encountered since I’ve started that we might have outsourced under different circumstances (financial planning, minor home repairs).
Time is money and so is happiness. Above, I limited the examples to things that save us money. Saving time and adding happiness to our lives are just as important and just as possible. Anything I get done during the day while Carolina is at work is one less thing we have to spend our leisure/off/together time doing. We don’t have to use our lunch hours to get oil changes. We don’t have to (but we still do, sometimes, of course) fight the 5:30 crowd at the grocery on our way home from work. We can cut back on how much of our weekends get dedicated to laundry and errands. If we need someone to come to the house for a service, I don’t have to take a day off to be home for it. Same for pick ups or drop offs at the airport. Our dog gets walked more, probably a lot more, than she would otherwise. It opens up a lot and makes us more flexible, and this isn’t even beginning to account for the amount of happiness that the career shift itself has given me.
Not all of this has to do with a career shift or even a career at all. Part of it has just been getting in a mindset of thinking about (or altering how I think about) what I spend my time doing, what my time is worth, and what I’m achieving when I do something. Part of it is being very cognizant about my values and how my day to day life is matching those values. Part of it is seeing the people around me who are happy and the people around me who are unhappy and looking at what is shaping that. As far as the whole financial aspect, a shout out to /r/personalfinance (smaller shout outs to the more hit-or-miss related subreddits of /r/financialindependence and /r/frugal) and related sites that got me thinking about this. And, of course, I can’t end this without mentioning how awesome my wife is for being amazingly supportive and how important having communication is in a relationship.
I’m really curious to see how the movement to encourage opting out of standardized testing will go (FairTest, Seattle teachers, United Opt Out). I purposefully failed the standardized test administered to me in 9th grade, primarily out of defiance, and while I’m not sure if the short-term losses of large groups opting out is worth the long-term benefits (I hope they are but am unsure), it’s an accomplishable idea in a larger discussion about education reform that’s primarily theoretical.
Another cool idea I’ll be watching is the organization Sponsor Change which is organizing sponsors to make payments on student loans in exchange for “volunteer” work.