Are you trapped in the commuter / cubicle farm lifestyle?

Four years ago, I left my last corporate job after more than a decade of working in an environment which did not make me happy. Sound familiar? Driven solely by the need to earn an income and cash in on an attractive benefit package, put money into my 401K, and save for retirement– I woke up one day and felt suffocated by what seemed to be an endless stream of similar days. I was tired of the same coffee stains on the subway platform where I would stand every morning. I was tired of office gossip and back-to-back meetings. I was just tired. Tired of giving away more of my time to exhausting city commutes, trading hours for dollars, working long days and nights at a desk outside my home, and ordering take-out with colleagues paid for by the company. Too tired to go to the gym (mind you, the monthly fee was over $100), it all seemed like a huge chunk of my life. I was selling my soul for the profit of large corporations just trying to make ends meet and save very little in the process.

I honestly do not regret my experience in corporate America because it taught me a great deal about honoring my knowledge and creativity. Traveling for work was always a nice perk which I enjoyed, but today– I’m a firm believer that I can create my own version of work / life balance. How? By designing a lifestyle that combines work and travel. Granted, this way of life is not for everyone, but for me– this is something I’ve always wanted to do. Be my own boss. Call my own shots. Create my own schedule. Work when and where I want as I’m learning more about myself and meeting new people. And if I catch a cold along the way, I don’t have to worry about how many sick days I have available. In fact, now that I no longer work in a traditional office, I’m healthier than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

Let’s take a step back:

In college, I was a dual major in communications and French. While working full-time in restaurants to pay my rent and bills, I never seemed to have enough time to just BE a student. I became an expert at multi-tasking every area of my life. After graduation, I launched myself into an exciting stream of career options in the following arenas: television / radio broadcasting, journalism, academic administration, web services, financial services, and content management– to name a few. I was fortunate to land very good jobs at prestigious firms, universities, banks, and corporations. I traveled internationally for work– and when I look back over the years, I can say that I earned honorable credentials at highly reputable, well respected companies. Throughout my professional life, I have always had a knack for getting every job I wanted.

In June of 2001, I moved to New York City and accepted a position at a financial institution directly across the street from the World Trade Center. After experiencing first hand and up close all that unfolded on 9/11– the number one lesson I learned is that every day is a gift and time is limited for everyone. We just don’t know how long that time frame will be. From that day forward, I knew that I had to create a work lifestyle which did not require me to be locked up inside a tall office building in the middle of a heavily populated city. It would be far better to live in that same city and work from home or from a park than at the mercy of an environment over which I had no control.

Take this scenario, for example:

A couple months after 9/11, one night I was working the late shift– all alone on my office floor– while outside my window, cranes were tearing down the smoldering remains of Tower One. The distinct smell in downtown Manhattan that night was something that will be etched in my brain forever; it lingered within the walls of the office building, and it was even stronger in the subway and the streets. Not to digress on the after-effects of that day, but on one particular night while feeling emotionally trapped, the phone rang. It was yet another impatient financial analyst yelling at me while I was teaching him how to access data on mergers & acquisitions. He was nasty, unfair, cruel, and condescending. Job satisfaction was at an all-time low. And yet I knew that the economy had just tanked and job mobility was not an option for many. Companies were downsizing rapidly, and I was ‘lucky’ not to be let go– as this was my new job. So I believed.

Later that same night, while commuting through the bowels of Lower Manhattan, I told myself that this was the beginning of the end of working for someone else. But it took from 2001 – 2007 to get my mind in gear after what felt like one setback after another: I ended an unhealthy relationship, then my grandmother passed away, then I developed a severe respiratory condition (which thankfully has now disappeared), then I started menopause very early, then my cat died, then my father died, then my mother needed my help. It was non-stop. Being divorced without kids, it was so overwhelming. Yet, all of these events have strengthened my character, and I’ve learned what I no longer want to do for work. That’s always half the battle, isn’t it?

Time to learn something new:

So I enrolled in a life coaching program and a real estate sales person course. I completed the coaching program in 15 months and aced the real estate licensing exam. I was on a roll, redirecting my life. But let’s go back to my father’s passing in 2007. It was time for the family home in Maine to go on the market, and there were mountains of possessions to be sorted, purged, donated, and sold. At the same time in New York, I was knee-deep in training for not just one but two new fields as part of a five-year plan.

At the same time, I had also landed what I believed to be the ultimate dream job, but one month into the role– I knew that many aspects of the position were too technical for me and it wasn’t the right fit. While I was great at technical writing, I did not have a background in coding and math was never my strength. I found myself working with great people who encouraged me a great deal during my learning curve, but every day I struggled to make sense of what seemed like second nature to my colleagues who were mostly young males. All the while, the effects of menopause were heating up– and there seemed to be such an imbalance, not only with my hormones but also with the energy that surrounded me daily. Massaging financial data was not my strength or my calling.

Trusting my intuition:

As months passed after accepting the position, I couldn’t sleep at night. An element of my job required me to troubleshoot at all hours of the day. While I had done this sort of thing many times before in previous jobs, the clients deserved quick solutions. I struggled to provide answers to questions in a timely manner, and I always had to rely on colleagues to help me out (often at 6:00 a.m.) Clearly, it was the wrong job for me, and I knew it. The company where I was employed was highly regarded, but my gut told me I needed to leave. Urgent family matters also beckoned, so the timing was right.

During my lunch hours and after work, I frantically applied for short-term contracts and made the decision to freelance. In early 2008, I finally resigned from the job after six months of trying to make it work and embraced contracting wholeheartedly. It was a bit scary to take this step, but I was able to get a contract fairly quickly with the help of an agency. The point is this: listen to yourself and trust your instincts. Believe that you can and will attract what is right for you– and it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.

On the first day of the new contract, my boss had a screaming match in front of me with one of her superiors. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and that was it. Take note. This was the first of many similar scenarios to unfold, including door slamming to punctuate a last-minute request while others looked on. Not good at all. On the flip side, I made friends with three other contractors who kept me laughing when micromanagement became unbearable. And it was in the midst of this assignment that two of my new friends inspired me to take a complete leap of faith and follow the entrepreneurial lifestyle.

Then came the unexpected Friday afternoon: pressure was escalating in such a way that every aspect of the work situation went against my boundaries. It was the end of the day, and just before getting ready to board a crowded bus on the commute home– I was asked not to report some of the hours I had worked (by request) and accept less pay. I was a contractor, not an employee. Every single fiber of my being told me, “NO! Enough is enough. Contact your agency immediately and explain the details. That’s it!” And in short, it was.

For reasons of confidentiality, the specific details of this incident are nonessential to illustrate my point– but for the first time in my entire career, I ended a contract based on 100% self-respect. As contractors and entrepreneurs, of course we must maintain positive communication with our clients and establish a good rapport– but above all, you do have a choice in the work you accept. You owe it to yourself to honor your own voice, especially during an economic climate where jobs can easily be outsourced online. If a job is not right for you, it may be better for another contractor– but don’t allow yourself to be disrespected. Stand up for your hard work and know that you can and will find excellent working relationships by listening to your inner voice.

Money and security are important, but when you find yourself caught in an unhealthy work environment– I strongly encourage you to consider breaking out on your own.

On the heels of the work upset, I made a quick decision to move back to Maine (where I grew up) temporarily to be on site to help my mother clean out and sell the family estate. One month later, I was mourning my last day of living alone in New York. I crammed my possessions into a small white van and went back to my childhood home. My heart sunk. It was so hard– unbelievably difficult, but the job had to be done. As a result, I have become more resourceful and have the opportunity to learn more than I have ever imagined in comparison to working within the confines of one job description, a predetermined salary, and a fixed schedule.

For years, I never fully trusted the decisions I made, as the choices always seemed to be sudden peppered with a dash of urgency mixed with intuition. But after years of taking risks and following my gut instinct, I know that I have made the right decision in my ever-changing career path: to work as a digital nomad, working 100% virtually.

What’s most important is that you value your time and honor the skills you have learned throughout your entire work life. I guarantee that you are an expert in your own special way in all that you have learned collectively. While it may be very scary at first to take a risk, you have the power to earn more money and create your own schedule, more so than you do when working within the confines of the traditional employer-employee relationship. In fact, I bet the moment you define and envision your ideal clients, you will attract more work than you previously thought possible. You will also have the power to buy health insurance and save for your retirement. With focus and determination, you can do anything you set your mind on achieving.

To your entrepreneurial success,

Stephanie Lomond Merrill

The Life Architect