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 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 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 newsroom had become a kinder gentler place where an editor 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.