The Time Will Never Be Right
Why I left my $35/hr job during a pandemic with no gameplan
A few months ago I left my job marketing dozens of nonprofits after 4 years. Even though I had flexible hours, a remote work arrangement (since before it was normal), a self-defined job description, and a good wage for a mid 20’s smalltown guy, I didn’t want to do it another day.
My time working in nonprofits was spent promoting events of 1,000+ attendees across many industries. Writing and delivering emails to 100,000+ total readers per month. Managing the websites and social media for dozens of trade organizations.
I enjoyed continuously learning about psychology, copywriting, paid social advertising, and everything marketing-related I could get my hands on. There was a clear path to significant growth too. I could see myself building a marketing arm of a rapidly growing company (20%+ year over year). It seemed easily doable that within 5 years I could be earning a multi 6 figure income and heading up a team of 5–10 marketers.
My work-life balance was good — remote work before it was normal and large-scale weekly deadlines meant that I could frontload projects and take days off whenever I wanted.
But I was miserable. With every new external marker of success, my core values were being compromised and character growth stifled. Being the only man (why does the nonprofit event industry skew so heavily female anyhow?) didn’t help.
I could feel my gruff, fast-moving, aggressive, independent temperament throwing a revolt inside.
It would have been ridiculous to expect that my satisfaction would have improved with a greater hourly wage, or more creative input into projects I didn’t care about, or leadership over a team, or rolling out new service offerings. But an even bigger issue was cropping up, my inner division was making my work quality, energy levels, and decisiveness plummet.
The first few years I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose and excitement. I was constantly learning new platforms and marketing techniques, entertained by a fast-paced environment of novel tasks, and able to work without much need for permission (my only contact points were the internal executive directors (like the CEO of a nonprofit).
As I started organizing larger projects, my decisions required approval from management, buy-in from executive directors, and the permission of slow-moving antiquated boards of directors. More bottlenecks, less freedom, once novel tasks becoming routine, and a painfully obvious value conflict between myself and nonprofit board members was starting to make me dread going to work.
I think that we all have an inner caveman which is who we would be without social stigma. This root self is easy to forget about. Easy to write off as too simple and immature to be valuable. It’s also indispensable to get back in touch with. Without it, satisfaction is impossible.
We also have an inner tyrant who exclusively lectures us about the importance of following social norms. This part’s motivation is good (boosting your social standing and objective success) but its strategy is trash.
The issue is, I was in a situation where each forward step in my career was strengthening the inner tyrant and crushing my inner caveman. And this inner conflict was making me indecisive, ineffective, and exhausted.
Luckily, I found another way.
For most of us, the tyrant governs our strategic choices, and the caveman is in charge of operations. This is bass-ackwards and leads to a future where at best you get some toys and trappings of success that you never really wanted.
Re-assign the tyrant to a more appropriate role. Make him the translator. Use the innate human fear of rejection and stepping on people’s toes not to censor your base desires, but instead to translate them into socially acceptable versions of themselves.
And the way to flip the master-servant relationship between the caveman, and the inner tyrant is to take real-world actions aligned with your base desires. All the better if these are scary decisions that demand peak performance so that your inner tyrant’s slings and arrows become laughable in comparison to the fear of failure.
After a few bouts of essential tremors and staring aimlessly at my computer screen for 30 minutes at a stretch, I realized I had to quit. No bones about it. I negotiated with my inner caveman that once I had 6 months of living expenses and an additional 12 more months access to credit, I was out.
I slashed all expenses, ditched my $1,900/month apartment, couchsurfed, and saved as quickly as possible. This was my first taste of the terrific energy my inner caveman possessed.
I halfway forgot this promise to myself as I continued trying to keep up appearances at work. But the instant I opened my bank account and saw my target number staring back at me, it was like someone flipped a switch. The inner conflict and debate stopped. I quit without a single clear plan for the future.
I thought I would feel abject terror, after all, the pandemic was at its peak, I had no other career lined up, and my best entrepreneurial months from various side projects profited $1,500/month at best (not even 30% of my target income).
But all I felt was a deep sense of calm and sadness for not leaving sooner. I felt spacious in my body, light as a feather. You know, I think we might be psychologically built to work better under more intense, acute stress. We are only an evolutionary blink of the eye away from being chased by wild animals. It is much easier to face abject terror for a moment and then get busy fixing it than it is to endure chronic low-level misery.
Not spending 80% of my energy fighting with myself freed up so much latent energy that within a week my motivation levels had skyrocketed. Sticking to my meditation practice and workout plan no longer seemed like a chore.
Vices that had plagued me for my entire adult life fell away within 2 months. No more alcohol, weed, or porn to numb the pain and silence my conscience long enough to fall asleep. No more arguments from projecting my inner conflict and frustration on friends, family, and my woman.
The most important change I noticed was that my intense clarity of mind returned after years of dormancy. Decision-making became easy. I was able to make a series of 2–3 week business tests which led to the creation of my successful cold email marketing agency (more on that in another post).
I can’t overstate the importance of accepting the simple, base self that has been at the center of your identity your whole life. The moment you let that self run the show, you’ll free up so much energy, get so much more clear-headed, and so much more decisive that your past fears will become trivial. What’s more important than all that though, is that you’ll start to trust yourself, to become whole.
I am optimizing my life around one thing, living in a way where I feel clear, light, and whole. Any little twinge of incongruity or being at odds with myself is a loud warning siren to correct course. It took a few years, but I am listening again.
What that means in the short term is to continue running my email marketing agency and any other businesses that pay the bills, excite me and allow me time to focus on passion projects, hobbies, my relationships, and hopefully seeing more of the world as travel restrictions ease up.
Now that I am not constantly self-censoring, you can follow me on Twitter as I document my journey.