It was 10:30 A.M. I was getting the reports ready for the upcoming management team meeting, running through the last of the quarterly newsletter details in my head and eyeballing a file on my desk that needed attention. So I was both surprised and slightly annoyed when the President of the company (my boss) and a fellow senior manager walked into my office. It wasn’t like my boss to just walk in and initiate a meeting. If he wanted to discuss something, he usually emailed, texted, or phoned to set up a meeting—even if it was only ten minutes away.
I spun around in my chair to face them and mentioned what a delightful surprise it was to have them both pop in. I was in a good mood and why not? I had been with the company for only six months and while I didn’t necessarily agree with all the decisions my boss made, I liked my job and had already received a raise that doubled my starting salary. As HR Director, I could already feel the positive impact I was making with the employees and was grateful to have a job after a long bout with unemployment.
Both men sat down and looked uneasy. I expected them to throw some human resources-related conundrum at my feet, but instead, my boss blurted out a sentence I’ll never forget. He said, “I’m no longer comfortable with our relationship.” At first, I didn’t know what he meant, so I asked him, “You mean you and me? Our relationship?” waving a finger back and forth between us. He nodded his head to affirm. I asked why he felt that way and he spat out some vagaries that I don’t even recall now. I do remember saying out loud, “This is surreal; I can’t believe this is happening.” He offered a separation agreement which included a meager severance by which I recall being insulted. The next few minutes were a blur. My boss walked out of my office while my colleague helped me pack up my personal belongings and then escorted me to my car. I drove home in tears; overwhelmed with shock and disbelief.
After a week of licking my wounds and slowly coming back to reality, I got angry. I deserved to know why my income had suddenly been taken from me! I re-ran the daily events of my tenure in my head hundreds of times, wondering what I could have done wrong. I had a stellar work record, received nothing but positive feedback from the entire management team (including my boss!) and had made huge strides in improving morale. The answer to “why” never came and probably never will. The worst part was feeling forced into accepting the severance just out financial necessity.
Eventually, I felt grateful. Yes, grateful. This experience had finally taught me the valuable lesson that there was no such thing as “job security.” That was a paradigm that died long ago. In the days of our grandparents, employers were patriarchal entities that provided security and peace of mind to their employees. In those days, people worked for a company for thirty years then retired with a gold watch and a nice pension. In short, they were taken care of. In modern days, if you can find a job, you’ll be lucky to keep it. Hard work alone will not keep you employed. Office politics, corporate downsizing and little to no investment made in developing a positive culture is now the norm amongst employers. Lest I be attacked by a group of marauding corporate suits waiving flags of legal papers, let me say that not all employers are indifferent about their employees. There are some progressive companies out there who are helping to foster fully engaged, satisfied employees that can feel secure about their jobs; they are just few and far between.
I mentioned that I had finally learned this lesson, because this was not the first time the lesson presented itself. In 1998 I started working part-time as an assistant to the CFO of a small manufacturing firm. It was a good company run by even better people and I thought I would retire there. The company put me through school and within four years I worked my way up to the position of HR Director, creating the department from the ground up. Within eight years my salary reached six figures. I loved my job and I loved the people I worked with. Then in 2005 the company was sold to a larger, very structured corporation. Many of us experienced culture shock under the new corporate ownership compared to the more laid back, fun-loving atmosphere we enjoyed under the previous owners. Two years after the sale, the last few of the original senior management team were released. My husband and I were among those last few. I spent the following three years taking classes and going to workshops and exploring uncharted territories within myself. I garnered certifications in life coaching and hypnosis, gained a Master Reiki designation and also became a Master Gardener. Even though I was looking for my niche in helping others, I always kept one eye on the employment ads, in case something showed up. I loved life-coaching and for a short time I ran a private practice, but never really committed to it, because I was still clinging to the old paradigm of job security. That’s how I ended up working in HR again and subsequently ended up without a job again, which brings us full circle.
Success means different things to different people. I thought success for me was making (and spending) lots of money. I also thought it was about feeling important—having some clout in an organization—some power. But I was wrong. Even while I was in leadership positions and enjoyed them, there was always a small voice nagging at me that I was supposed to be somewhere else, doing something different with my life. I came to realize that success for me meant freedom. It had nothing to do with money and everything to do with lifestyle. My husband and I now live on a five-acre educational micro-farm—something we’ve dreamed about for years. We make our living in a variety of ways: we run a landscaping business from April to November while continuing to develop the farm’s brand and create value-added products. I coach and hold workshops on gardening and personal development. I also write two blogs and recently started a line of dog products branded by our Dachshund, Max (the farm is named after him). The products will be sold through a farmer’s market, an Etsy shop and Max’s website. To save money, we grow our own food and I make homemade soaps, shampoos and household cleaners. We re-purpose as much as we can and we heat with wood. Our lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but for us, it’s a paradise that no high income corporate position can lure us away from.
By “dropping out” of the corporate rat race, we have made a conscious decision to give up certain luxuries. We forgo expensive restaurant food, opting instead for home-cooked meals with ingredients we grow ourselves. We no longer take vacations, but we also don’t have to deal with long airport lines, high gas prices and over-priced tourist food and lodging. Over the course of this journey we lost our four bedroom, three bathroom house (with in-ground swimming pool) to foreclosure. The upside is we don’t have a huge mortgage or sky-high taxes and I don’t have to clean three bathrooms anymore! My husband doesn’t miss the aggravation of maintaining the pool and surrounding ten acres, either. Instead, we enjoy living in a smaller, maintenance-free cottage and taking the drive to the many local beaches that are so close to us. I no longer drive a Land Rover, but I also don’t have the gas cost and expensive upkeep of it, either. I now drive a Volkswagen, which is much better on gas. We no longer buy expensive, fancy gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Instead we give smaller, more thoughtful, gifts (often home-made) and find they mean more to the recipient.
So by now you must be thinking, “I have bills to pay; I can’t just leave my job and go live in the woods.” No, you can’t. This article isn’t about leaving your job; it’s about leaving Corporate America. If you are the type of person that thrives in a high-paced, high-stress corporate position that requires long hours and a ruthless competitive spirit, then it’s doubtful you would even be attracted to this article. In fact, reading this would be a precious waste of your all-too limited time. It’s more likely that you are stuck in a corporate position with golden handcuffs that prevent you from leaving because you need the high income to pay for the lifestyle you’ve created. It’s also likely that your identity is so entangled with your high-profile, high-paying position that if you lost that job today, you would be left with a sizeable identity crisis. If either of these statements describes your situation, then you may want to re-think your idea of success and its relationship to your corporate job.
Everybody needs an income—that’s just a fact of life. I’m not suggesting you run out and quit your job tomorrow. But if you truly want to leave the corporate rat race and do something more meaningful with your life, there are ways to do it. You’ve got to be prepared for sacrifice and a lot of self-examination. You’ll need to adopt self-sufficiency and creativity. You’ll need to utilize resourcefulness. Above all, you’ll need to loosen up and laugh a little. A sense of humor goes a long way when you’re re-inventing your life. Expect mishaps and misdirection along the way. Your life won’t be perfect, but you will be happier and you will feel freer.
There’s a few ways to go about dropping out of Corporate America, depending on your situation, your personality, your family status and your appetite for risk:
1. Make a plan.
Make a five-year (three-year, one-year) plan and take the time to daydream! Determine exactly what your ideas of success and freedom are and write them down. Visualize yourself living your new life—what does your typical day look like? Jot down the details. Now start to make a plan around that daydream. Your plan should include reducing or eliminating as much debt as possible. If necessary, plan to downsize and/or change the location where you live and shed your excess belongings. M y husband and I sold much of our “stuff” on eBay. It’s necessary when you move to a house that’s half the size of your previous one.
Learn the skills you will need. Take classes and workshops related to the lifestyle you want (e.g. cooking, sewing, beekeeping, gardening, et cetera). Make arrangements to try out the lifestyle you want before committing full time. For example, if you decide you want to open a Bed and Breakfast, contact some B&B owners to see if you can shadow them for a weekend or be a “Guest Inn Keeper” while they go on vacation. You can also contact “Vocation Vacations”, an organization that arranges for individuals to take vacations to immerse in and learn hands-on the vocation of their choice. Getting this involved in the planning stage has the added benefit of making you happier, sooner. Happiness is directly linked to the amount of control people believe they have over their lives. Planning gives you a sense of control while you are still working in the corporate world, making the wait more bearable.
Next, define your exit strategy. How long will it take before you can leave the corporate scene and make a living in a different way? How much money will you need each month? You’ll be surprised how little you can really live on once the unnecessary expenses are removed. We saved a great deal of money by shopping around for a bundled insurance plan (home, auto, life, et cetera). We also use coupons, bundle our communications and grow much of our own food. Look at every single line item in your household budget and ask yourself, “What can I eliminate or reduce?” Some savings will be a natural result of leaving the corporate world, especially if you’re moving to a lifestyle business that you run from home. If that’s the case, you will likely see savings in the following areas right away:
- Gas and commute-related costs
- Parking fees
- The cost of expensive lunches
- The cost of your morning espresso and muffin
- Wardrobe upkeep
- Clubs and professional membership fees
- In some situations, the cost of daycare (a huge savings)
Ladies, you can also give up the monthly spa days and weekly nail salon visits. Once eliminated, most luxuries aren’t missed that much. You can always compromise and squeeze in a luxury here and there, like going to the spa once a year to splurge. You’ll appreciate it more and it will cost less than your current habit. One word of caution about using this planning option: don’t get stuck in this stage. If you tend to be a perfectionist you can easily fall into the “analysis paralysis” loop, so beware. You’ll never have something planned perfectly—that’s what is so great about life—it’s full of surprises! Learn to embrace them and move forward. Set a goal to make the move for a specific date—and then make the move!
2. Jump right in.
The second option is for those of you who are out of work already. You have two choices with this option: you can try to get another corporate job then move forward with option number one, or forego the corporate search and move right into a lifestyle change. Think about what you want, do your research, then start making changes and immediately move forward following the suggestions in option one.
3. Get your toes wet.
Option number three is a compromise between options one and two. You will start by identifying your ideal lifestyle and calculating how much income you will need. You will then immediately offload as much of your debt as possible and begin living below your means while remaining in your corporate job. Brown bag your lunch, carpool, bring coffee from home instead of buying it, et cetera. Give up the luxuries and scale back where possible. You will use your current job to fund your new lifestyle. If your new lifestyle includes starting a small business, then start purchasing what you will need for that business, like ordering business cards and creating a website. You should also purchase any special materials or equipment you will need. By investing in your new lifestyle now while you still have a sizeable income, you will increase the odds of successfully leaving the corporate grind later. If you have the time and energy, it will also allow you to start a business part-time (depending on the business) before you even leave your current corporate job. Some people are more comfortable with this option as it allows them to ease into the transition and have the business somewhat established in advance.
With any of these options, remember to network! Let people know what you’re up to—you’d be surprised who is willing and able to help. Also learn to barter goods and services—it’s the new (old) currency model. My husband and I bartered labor with a friend to rebuild a fire-damaged cottage on five acres that would become our new home. It saved a lot of time and money and both men were happy to have each other’s help with their projects.
Regardless of the option you choose, you will need to produce an income. Does your new lifestyle include starting a business as I suggested in option three? Or do you just have a lifestyle in mind and now you need to fund it? If you have a lifestyle in mind and you want to fund it, consider some ways to make an income while you downsize and explore your new idea of success. Brainstorm around the skills you possess in the position you are in right now. How can you market those skills and turn them into something you can sell? Many times you can do what you’re doing now, just on a smaller scale with better clients, by becoming a consultant in your chosen field.
Are you considered an expert in your field? Do you have writing skills? How about becoming a freelance writer for a trade publication, or starting a blog and monetize it, or writing articles, or e-books?
Do you want to get away from your chosen field altogether and start a small business? The following are some flexible self-employment opportunities:
- Speaking engagements
- Cleaning houses
- Landscape design
- Massage therapy
- Event planning
- Dog training
- Professional organizer
- Homemaker/companion to the elderly
If that list doesn’t interest you, look to your hobbies. What do you like to do in your off work hours? If you don’t have any hobbies because you’re always working, it’s definitely time to re-assess your priorities and your idea of success. Some great ways to produce income from hobbies include:
- Cake decorating
- Teaching workshops about your hobby (knitting, sewing, et cetera)
- Teaching yoga
- Personal training
- Dog grooming
- Dog kenneling
- Selling knitted items
- Opening an Etsy shop for handmade crafts
- Selling artwork
- Car detailing
- Creating websites
- Dog walking
So we’ve explored some ways to drop out of Corporate America, but how do you stay out? The key is having the following:
- 100% commitment to your new lifestyle
- An unshakable belief in yourself
- A craving to be free
- A redefined sense of success
- Multiple sources of income
Without this list of five key ingredients, you’ll likely get discouraged and go running back to what seems “safe” to you, even though a corporate job isn’t really safe at all. Whenever someone else determines your income and your degree of worth, it’s not safe—you’ve essentially given up control of your livelihood.
We’ve more or less touched on most of the five key ingredients so far, except for one: multiple sources of income. Since you will most likely take a huge cut in income making your lifestyle change, you don’t want to pick just one source of income. If you do and that one source dries up, you’re out of luck.
Let’s look at an example: suppose you’ve got a corporate job in the big city that you’d like to leave. The commute is a nightmare and you are getting to the point in your life where you’d like to do something different. In fact, you’d like a whole new lifestyle altogether. Let’s also suppose you own a huge house in the country. It’s near a tourist attraction and it’s got several bedrooms and bathrooms. You could sell the home, but since the real estate market’s decline a few years ago, the sales value of your home isn’t enough to pay off your mortgage. The kids are grown and out of the house so it’s just you and your spouse at home. You decide to keep the house and turn it into a Bed and Breakfast. You and your spouse love to cook, garden, and socialize. Many of your current home expenses would have the potential to become tax write offs (seek the advice of your tax professional). A B&B may produce enough income to cover the mortgage with enough guests staying there in the tourist months. It’s a great idea; but if you rely solely on guest income and you have an “off” tourist season, you can’t pay your mortgage. If, however, you add related sources of income, you would have a financial cushion to get you through those dry seasons. Building a brand and capitalizing on it and providing related goods and services will round out your income sources.
So what do I mean by “related sources of income”? I mean more ways to make money with the same asset. In our example of the B&B business, some related sources of income would be:
- Renting out the gardens for wedding and graduation pictures
- Providing local small scale catering
- Rent the venue and provide the catering for small bridal and baby showers
- Selling your B&B’s famous raspberry jam
- Holding seminars on cooking, jam-making, garden design, et cetera on site
- Indulging your hobby of woodworking and selling your woodcraft
- Blogging about B&B ownership and monetizing the blog with related ads
- If your site has enough land, you can grow a specialty, tourist-drawing crop (such as pumpkins or apples) as well.
My husband and I live not too far from a local inn that also has a small vineyard and winery on site. They serve dinner, host small weddings and special events, and provide wine tastings and tours of the winery in addition to their inn-keeping business.
Of course, not every home is equipped to become a B&B or a micro-farm or any other destination or lifestyle business, but hopefully you’ve gained some ideas and have become inspired to outline your new idea of success. If you brainstorm, incorporate the five keys into your plan and really want it, then you can make the lifestyle of your dreams become a reality so that you can drop out of Corporate America and stay out, for good!