Two years ago I joined the ranks of the unemployed, hung out a shingle and declared myself a sole proprietor. I felt like one of the lucky ones. I parachuted out of a soon-to-be-bankrupt company with a parting gift of several months’ pay and health-care contributions to stake me in whatever came next.
I thought carefully before taking a buyout from the Chicago Tribune during a round of layoffs in August 2008. I knew it meant trading a good paycheck and the prestige of working for a big newspaper for the vagaries of self-employment. But after more than two decades reporting, writing and editing while producing thousands of bylines, I felt ready to explore the world beyond newspapers. What better time?
What I didn’t bank on was how difficult it would be for my heart to catch up with my head’s careful reasoning.
I found I stumbled whenever I practiced my “elevator speech,” that pithy summary of qualifications and aspirations that every career-changer is supposed to drop casually into conversation, as often as possible, with friends and strangers alike. I choked when I called myself a “communications professional,” a description I thought would give me latitude to pursue many things including consulting. It sounded phony and pompous.
Worse still, I had trouble convincing myself that I hadn’t been fired. Others viewed me with pity when I told them I had taken a buyout from a good job; it reminded me of my own reaction when I interviewed people in similar circumstances. If they were so highly valued, I wondered, why did they volunteer to leave? And why did their employer accept the offer? Sometimes, for simplicity’s sake or sympathy or in solidarity with my laid-off colleagues, I said I lost my Tribune job, a phrase that suggests I had misplaced it, a mishap for which nobody is at fault.
I began dreaming about my decision. One night I dreamt the Tribune’s newsroom had become a kinder gentler place where an editor’s dog snoozed at her feet while she worked and a reporter relaxed in a lawn chair while reading his paper. I felt pangs of longing. Why had I left such a place? Or was this the place I was trying to create?
I commiserated with colleagues who also were “reinventing” themselves. I joined a writers’ group and a networking group and got to know other sole proprietors in my neighborhood. I worked for a variety of clients on a variety of assignments while continuing to practice my elevator speech. I put in a lot of time and effort while earning very little money.
The hardest part was not the stuff I had imagined would be most difficult, such as the isolation of working alone, but something deeper: a reordering of priorities and values. I left newspapers, in part, to downshift. I wanted to put more of my energy into pursuits other than work and to give myself time and freedom to explore whatever caught my fancy, without necessarily setting goals. I wanted to see where that outlook took me, and I was willing to economize to make it possible.
A lawyer I interviewed recently for a magazine summed up what I felt. He had quit a large firm to start a diversity consulting business that he planned to operate in retirement, and he said the hardest lesson after decades of striving was learning how to stop aspiring to a higher status. He didn’t mean relinquishing ambition; he meant revising his notion of success.
I’m still revising mine. But meanwhile, without noticing exactly when it happened, I have gradually found satisfying work doing what I enjoy. While some of my colleagues have turned their talents to creating new ventures, I’ve returned to reporting and writing. My elevator speech is simple, and it rolls off my tongue naturally: I’m an independent journalist. And lately, I’ve been thinking about getting a dog.