You can’t ever just have it. You know? Whichever form it comes in, Balance is not a constant—that’s kind of the point, right? With a mix of effort and luck, you might achieve it here and there; with practice, you can even get good and staying balanced for longer and longer stretches. Balance might be equal parts needy and independent. Like a cat, it needs your attention until it doesn’t.
Being aware of it enough to crave it, brave enough to try for it, patient enough to expertly adapt and make endless course corrections . . . striving for Balance is what allows us to become excellent. As Aristotle said (emphasis added):
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly. These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Balance. Sometimes it’s more literal, taking the form of Yoga or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It might be more intellectual, offsetting (and even confirming) your biases with objective research. For me, it might be found within the confidence and caution of rolling on the throttle and leaning a motorcycle into a curve. It can take other forms, affecting our habits, hobbies, spirituality, finances, romances . . .
I want to share my story for those of you who have ever wondered about taking the massive leap of faith of quitting your full time job for the freedom to work for yourself. It seems like Balance might win for best supporting actor.
* * * * *
There was a time for me, a few years back, when I recognized a pattern emerging in my career(s). For me, I became especially aware of it during some soul-searching in Morocco, on the back of a rented motorbike. [Read all about that experience on our personal travel blog, WanderTheWild.com.] It’s where I had my moment. Or series of them. But let’s back up.
I first got started academically/professionally in the field of multimedia around the end of 1999. I was thrilled that I could learn and develop a skill like Graphic Art and Animation, for instance. I could see the potential for making money to support myself and (at the time) a future wife and family some day. But it was more than that. I love it.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been drawing, painting, and creating. For years, I ruined every yellow pad of sticky notes I came in contact with . . . but ruined is the wrong word. I made flip books. Endless libraries of flipbook animations. Mostly stick-figures being violently flattened by rolling boulders, or shooting each other to bits with oversized machine guns. I was in middle school. Those sticky pads are long gone. I wish I still had some.
One year, around age 13, I think, I actually asked for a light-board for Christmas (I still have it). I used it to animate full frames on that cheap, perforated paper for our old dot-matrix printer. At the time, I didn’t have the means to do anything with those frames; one time, I tried to animate them with the use of my dad’s camcorder and a tri-pod. Pressing the “record” button on and off, quickly, I attempted to take a “still” of each paper frame.
The results were never much to look at.
In fact . . . as I’m writing this I’m realizing that I still have some of those archived in boxes somewhere. Which means it’s time for me to finally scan them and put them to video right this bloody second.
[At this point, I paused writing and got to work editing the following video. What started as a whim has turned into an inspiring afternoon.]
So here it is. My very first, full-color animation. I used those terrible felt-tip marker packs—the kind that your grandma might give you for your birthday. Enjoy:
Later, in high school, I realized that one of the programs we had on our home computer could be used to animate. That wasn’t it’s intended purpose. This program was used to create rudimentary line, text, and 16-bit color graphics. I soon realized that, when opening a saved project, the processor (exceptionally slow by today’s standards) loaded the image in the order in which you created it. I exploited this, drawing a figure on a black background, then drawing a large black square over the figure, then redrawing the figure again as if it were the next frame in an animation. I’d do this for hours, drawing each hacked “frame” in order to create what would appear to be a sequence the next time I opened the file and the processor slogged through the large file from start to finish. The result was a “hacked” animation.
I wish I still had that stuff. Treasures, lost to time, I guess.
Eventually, in my 20’s, I learned about Adobe Flash—only back then it was owned by Macromedia. I wanna say I first started learning on Flash 3.0. I immediately saw the potential to use Flash as a platform for my future animations. I went crazy, and started some fairly elaborate, short animations. Soon I was even learning to use sophisticated 3D modeling and animation software. I was excited to create my own website, showing off my skills and pitching my services.
Alas, a computer crash devastated my library of animations that I was creating. It was brutal.
LOTS OF FIRSTS
I rebounded quickly. Learning Flash when I did meant that I had a lucrative, specialized skill set. Soon I was chasing the dollars. My first salary job. Awful, soul-sucking projects for terribly unlikable bosses and clients. My first experience being poached by another outfit offering me more money, followed by first experience being laid off by the same jabroni when they realized they couldn’t justify my position. My first time taking a job from a client I knew I shouldn’t work with, and having him prove me right by pulling out of the contract once it was nearly complete, then taking me to Small Claims Court to try to recoup his deposit.
It was my first summer putting in hardwood floors to pay the bills, followed by my first contact with “head hunter” tech agencies (they get paid big bucks by big companies to place good candidates into IT positions). My first honest-to-goodness job job. Bigger salary in a cool building downtown. Better restaurants nearby. Better workplace culture . . . it was my first employer that had a Foosball and ping pong table. And we were expected to use them.
In the space of only a few years I went from renting a tiny apartment on Affordable Housing (where I couldn’t even afford to keep the power company happy) to renting my own 3 bedroom house in the Avenues district downtown. Talk about firsts.
I had my own stylish space. My car was old, but paid for. I could afford things. I began paying off old bill collectors. My guitar collection grew, and I was able to finally replace my motorcycle (that I never should have sold years before).
I didn’t love my work, exactly, but I generally liked it. I was good at it and it paid well. And I made several friends there, with whom I’m still in contact. It was an e-learning company, so it was mostly pretty mind-numbing work, but I found ways to take pride in what I did and, occasionally, I got to be creative. It started to feel like Balance.
But years went by, and a pattern of mismanaged project accounts and deadline-creep meant unreasonable hours. Soon I was working 12-14 hour days, trying make good on other people’s promises. The strain manifested itself in a “stress injury,” where it turned out that my 7th Cervical Vertebrae was actually pinching my spinal chord. I was in agony. It was debilitating to the point that I was placed on Temporary Disability from my job.
I spent about 3 months on my back, thousands on doctors and almost daily chiropractic work. Eventually, an MRI scan revealed the pinched spinal chord issue. Then came minor surgery: a simple procedure called a “Cervical Spine Injection,” where they took a truly horrifying needle controlled by a mechanical crane and stuck it through the front of my throat, threading it through the veins/arteries/nerves, and finally into a pocket within the rebel-vertebrae itself, where they injected God-knows-what into my spine, sending lightning and warm fuzz spidering along every branch of nerve endings from my neck down to my left index finger and thumb.
After several months, I was cleared for some physical exercise involving stretches and core strengthening. Yoga seemed the obvious choice, and I know a lovely instructor who offered to give me a personal lesson. My first experience with Yoga. It was a humbling, painful, exhausting experience. Trembling and sweating, I truly felt a deep sense of remorse; it was as if I owed my body an apology.
It was 2008.
When the market crashed a few months later, just about everyone I knew in this industry got laid off, or worse (“worse” being they became the sole member of a formerly 4-5 person team, inheriting all of their work and absorbing none of the pay that used to be allocated there).
I got the call on December 26th. Yeah, they waited until after Christmas. My poor boss. I liked the guy. There was no doubt he was losing sleep over all the calls he had to make that day.
But being laid off, I rallied myself for another round of freelancing. I got placed with some contract gigs here and there. Companies still needed work done, but couldn’t justify having full-time, salary employees. So specialized guys like me could still find work if we played nice with the head hunters.
After a year or two, I was working with big names again, doing several gigs at McCann Erickson on marketing accounts including heavy hitters like Magellan, Verizon, Verisign, and others. Soon I was poached, again, by a better offer. Full-time, outstanding benefits, and the highest salary I had ever made. I would be working in the corporate offices of a large financial institution in a specialized role in both IT and Marketing Departments.
Comfort and Stability are intoxicatingly deceptive. These impostors can make you feel quite safe. Quite sure of yourself.
I convinced myself that I liked my job. My genuinely horrible bosses in IT. A team leader who was unrelentingly offensive with a brand of humor so aggressive and crass that it wouldn’t even be appropriate in most locker rooms.
I surrounded myself in my cubical with pinned-up prints of artwork that I love—even some of my own projects—as well as tons of photos of places I wanted to see, including Morocco, Italy, Greece, and others. But there I was in a cube, working hand-in-hand with IT misanthropes and a marketing wannabe with zero skills and an impressive vocabulary; this is the guy who reminds us all in a planning meeting for a fancy new service plan for members that was about to be rolled out that: (paraphrased)
“With this program, the main component of success in terms of revenue stream isn’t based on the paid services, but on the penalties and fees that most members won’t be aware of or pay any attention to.”
I did get along well with the creatives, of course. The small-ish design team, there in Marketing, was a great group of people. Soon, I would miss working with them.
It was 2011. I tried to tell my friends that I could see myself retiring there. But I knew there was more. More of everything. More purpose. More contentment. More freedom. I was starting to figure that out. Somewhere in this process, I finally decided to stop waiting for XYZ to happen and purchased some plane tickets to Spain and Morocco. I put in tons of extra hours (punctuated by healthy breaks, stretches, and working out) so I could finish all of the work in my cue so that no one would be waiting on me while I was away.
Things were brewing. The IT and Marketing Departments are two rival clans, ever at odds. Where I had served as ambassador and mediator before, I was now serving as the rope in a tug of war. What a mess. Only days before I flew out for the Mediterranean, I was getting scolded and insulted in the IT managers’ office by Humpty and Dumpty only an hour before getting a “soft” job-offer for a full-time Marketing gig from the VP of Marketing. Exhausting.
I set up my Out of Office reply, made sure everyone had what they needed, and I left work fully intending to return after the holidays and apply officially for the big promotion everyone was telling me was mine for the taking.
After spending Christmas morning with my family, I got on a mid-morning flight headed for Spain.
I NEVER WENT BACK TO WORK
I’m sure it doesn’t have to be this dramatic for most people. For some—maybe most—the epiphany might come while jogging, or in traffic, or at church. For me, it required that I force myself out of my own life and into a short, 2-week motorbike-walkabout in a foreign land, to search my soul for some answers as I explored the highways, cities, and markets of Morocco.
Once there, I experienced such rich, fulfilling moments as I made friends with locals, fellow travelers, and beggar kids. I felt such a rush of life as I sped along the coast at break-neck speed with a pack of Italian motorcyclists who I encountered on the highway. My heart beat out of my chest at the caution and awareness that came with the newness of it all; the dangers, the crooks, and the somehow-simultaneous panic and playful acceptance of being thoroughly lost. I enjoyed such somber, meaningful silence alone in my dark room in Taroudant on New Year’s Eve of 2012.
There was so much more. I had been feeling it for some time. Years, even. Hints that something about that corporate IT/Marketing life was not for me. I mean bloody hell . . . you know that corporate worm I mentioned? And the soft job offer in Marketing? The worm got fired and I was being offered his job. More money. More clout. More worming.
Somehow, away from all of it, it felt like the night I did yoga for the first time after being on my back for 3 months. It felt like the spiritual version of sweating and trembling, and feeling that I owed myself an apology. That I owed myself more.
I did. And I never went back to work.
“WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO . . .” HOW FREELANCING HAS CHANGED ME
Soon, I was broke again. I spent what I had saved on rent and groceries as I started looking for contract work. I still didn’t even have my own website up.
I had to pick up a part time job. That’s where I met my lovely wife. She, too, has traveled the world and feels that same something more that I keep mentioning.
After Allison and I got married in 2013, we took what we considered a mini-Honeymoon. A few days in a local town not too far away. We wanted to go to the Mediterranean, but that would have to wait. Instead, we both said goodbye to the jobs where we met. We went all in. Full-time freelancing.
When I first started freelancing years ago, I wanted to make big bucks and do enough good work to put in my portfolio that I could score a great salary job. I don’t fault anyone for going that route. But now I’ve given up the big bucks, and I want there to be great work in my portfolio because I love doing it. More than creating websites, or videos, or motion graphics, I love choosing. Choosing my clients, my projects, my hours, my holidays. I can work from anywhere in the world with WI-FI.
The corporate job is not an evil one. It doesn’t make you a worm, or less of an artist, or a sellout. I don’t buy into any of that bullshit. I know some very happy people working very stable jobs for big corporate bosses. They do great work, and they seem quite content. For me, my experiences in that life led me away from what I value.
I think this blog is for people like me.
Freelancing full-time has forced me into that somewhat uneasy, exhilarating state that you might feel when you’re looking for a full-time job. At first, that feeling was pretty uncomfortable. Having stuck with it, I find that it is actually a feeling I would have to associate with freedom. What that feeling tells me is that I get to choose. Choose the jobs I take, the clients I work with, the hours I work. It allows me to choose whether to take a job I’m not thrilled with—which sometimes means more financial anxiety.
Balance is my ally. The more I take on projects and clients that I enjoy, the more rewarding my work. The more I do work that I love, the more I seem to attract similar clients and projects.
Balance is a banker. Freelancing often requires moments of stress while juggling the roles of salesman, designer, logistics, etc. It’s easy for me to get distracted, overwhelmed (see Donkey Brain), and burned out. To avoid/counter this burn-out requires the discipline to give yourself some good long breaks and downtime. To stay in the black with both finances and physical/emotional/spiritual health, Balance requires that you budget your time and energy, being careful to keep a constant reserve in your bank account. If you get into the red, Balance will let you know.
Balance is a cheerleader and a sensei. Balance seems to love it when I explore all of my interests, and when developing one skill set makes me better within another. I start to find harmony in the similarities I find in motorcycling, music, design, and even my interest in defensive firearms and bare-hand fighting tactics. For example, the concept that Speed and Accuracy are mutually antagonistic; that the time allowed to perform a task is directly linked to the amount of precision that can be applied to it. That repetition—the actual doing of a thing—has far more value than the cognitive/academic understanding of it.
Balance is a matchmaker. Yes indeed. It wasn’t until I returned to myself, sought Balance, and started actively doing those things that make me me, that I met the love of my life. I can’t imagine it working out any other way.
Balance is a reminder. My perpetual efforts to find and remain balanced remind me of my roots. The flip books on notepads. Traced drawings, frame-by-frame, using that old light board before I ever had a means to actually compile them into a finished product. I was doing the thing before I had a way to complete it, and certainly before I knew I could do it for money. That’s a powerful voice, and one I should listen to.
Freelancing can seem very non-committal. There’s an argument for that, but I’m going to suggest the opposite.
When I finally launched VagabondOriginal.com in October of 2014, I was finally able to say to myself that I’d done it. Or rather, “I’m doing it!” I had really started my own business. It isn’t just side jobs here and there. And it didn’t have to be my pies de resistance. I’m sure I’ll keep changing it over the years. But when I stopped chasing the dollars and started doing something for myself, and for my wife, I committed. We are really doing this!
It’s scary and uncomfortable, at times. I still find myself chasing the dollars when we need to pay the bills. But now, when I do it, I try to practice awareness, honor my experiences, and find Balance.
As I said, my Morocco experience changed me forever. It was a funeral, of sorts, for some old parts of me. It was a return to myself, and to deeper awareness and purpose. I never stepped foot in that office again. How appropriate that I didn’t even go back to collect my headphones, knickknacks, or all those prints of far-away places pinned to the walls of my cubicle.
I wouldn’t need them. [Okay except the headphones. I replaced the headphones.]
As I’m writing this, Allison and I are less than 2 weeks away from taking the Honeymoon we never took: We are flying to Rome for a few days, then taking the train to Florence, where we’ll rent a motorbike and see as much of Tuscany as we can before we catch our flight out of Rome and get back to work.
But that’s the best part.
From April through June, Vagabond Original’s corporate office will be in Athens, Greece.