I sold my time at a bargain and did so for too long because I did not have any way to fully understand and value the benefits of not doing such a thing. This is the case for far too many people in today’s world and this state of affairs is only maintained because we have collectively agreed that indefinite full-time indefinite employment from the approximate ages of 22 to 65 is the only reasonable way to live.
Over and over again, when people take a step away from such an existence, they report that they were duped. Things were not as scary as they were led to believe and the upside of having more space and time in their lives was far greater than they could imagine. Many people even gladly return to their former paths with a better understanding of the hidden costs they were paying and a stronger set of principles to guide them.
Almost every week, I talk to someone who has solved the financial aspects of life but is impoverished when it comes to the things that matter in life. Over time, and seemingly without them being aware of it, they have lost their sense of joy, their creative impulses, and even more shockingly, any passion for the things they are doing – the ones that they used to be so excited about. They were led to believe, like me, that if we just put our heads down and worked and made a regular paycheck, life would figure itself out.
What we bought into was a silent conspiracy. One where as long as we remained employed, we could pretend that we had it figured out. The only thing that enabled people to keep existing in this state was our own silence. As the pandemic forced us to let our colleagues into our homes, we could no longer pretend.
The pandemic and the reshuffling of work have thrown a once stable equilibrium into flux. It is now common knowledge that many people have doubts about their relationship to work and are starting to wonder if putting their heads down and working most weeks of every year of their adulthood is the best use of their time on earth. And despite media organizations trying to quickly label things as a “great resignation,” “antiwork,” or “quiet quitting,” the truth is that we really don’t know where we are headed.
At the heart of this shift, many people, like me, are realizing that they priced and sold their time at way too low a rate and for far too long. Leaving my job in 2017, I did not expect that my relationship with time would change as much as it did. Before I quit my conception of “working on my own” was merely doing what I had been doing but with a little more freedom and flexibility.
What I didn’t realize was that for almost all of my adult life, including six years of higher education and eight years of full-time work, I was rarely present. I choreographed every step of my life, living in the future.
In the first year of being self-employed, I got a taste of something completely different. It was a state of being that was not tied to external metrics of achievement or even any sort of work identity at all. It was a state where I was simply existing, one step at a time, one breath at a time. For the first time, I had taken a deep breath and decided to look around.
It was experiencing this that convinced me that I had been insane to spend as long as I did on my previous path and when people ask if I have any regrets I tell them I wish I had left earlier! The opportunity to connect to yourself, others, and the world is one that should never have a price, and on my previous path, I had slowly been trading it away at somewhere around $50-75 an hour.
After working on my own for more than five years I’ve realized that the way I had oriented my life previously was completely unnatural. And I sense this is the case for many people. Structuring our lives working for a company most days of the week almost all of the weeks of the year is a crazy way to spend your time on Earth. Yet it is the default path and so we go along with it.
I like to tell people that I price my time now at a million dollars an hour. Of course, I’m only half joking. I’m not living a monastic existence and need some money to make my current life work. But it’s also not a lie either. Those moments where you’ve had enough space and time to connect to yourself and remind yourself that you only have infinite time on this Earth? They are priceless.
In the movie Up In The Air, there is a powerful scene where the senior consultant character, played by George Clooney, asks a guy he is firing a direct question, “How much did they first pay you to give up on your dreams?” The guy answers, “27 grand a year.” Clooney then responds, “…and when were you going to stop and come back and do what makes you happy?” The guy answers softly, “good question.”
I was once like Clooney, a consultant. And for the most part, I enjoyed working in the industry. Yet at some point, the upsides of learning faded away. I kept chasing the energy and excitement of the first few years of my career, jumping from job to job, and never quite found it. While doing this my salary steadily inched up, igniting the dopamine receptors in my brain every time. The crazy thing about my path is that if a few things worked out differently I might still be on that path. But I’m not and now I know that the costs of trading most of my weekdays for almost every week of the year was a terrible trade and I did it for far too long at too low of a price.
Unlike the guy in the clip, however, I didn’t have any dreams or an alternative path I wanted to chase. Which is why it took me so long to leave. If I had to plant a piece of wisdom in the brain of my younger self it would simply be to tell him that the state of existence, that of a worker who works most of his adult life, is unnatural. I would tell him that a different state of being is possible, and until you experience it, you haven’t quite lived.
Just published! The Pathless Path is Paul's book about walking away from a "perfect" job with a promising future and starting over again. Through painstaking experiments, living in different countries, and a deep dive into the history of our work beliefs, Paul pieces together a set of ideas and principles that guide him from unfulfilled and burned out to what he calls "the pathless path" - a new story for thinking about work in our lives. Learn More & Buy The Book Here