Shortly after my 25th birthday, I was sitting in the People’s Café on San Francisco’s Haight Street, drawing a rudimentary pie chart to show my friend Monica the things I needed in my life for balance. My chart had three wedges:
People, for proximity to my friends and family.
Place, for my physical home and how close that home was to the backcountry.
Profession, for job fulfillment and income.
It was the year 2001, the environmental news site I had been editing for had folded, and I was about six months into a job as an editor at the investigative reporting magazine Mother Jones. I was earning less than $28,000 per year, a low figure even in those times.
Monica and I were planning our futures, and my pie chart was intended to put in perspective why I could afford to take such a low-paying gig.
Profession: I believed the kind of journalism we were doing at Mother Jones was meaningful work.
People: I had plenty of friends, and my family was just a five-hour drive up I-5.
Place: My daily trail run in the Berkeley Hills, where I lived at the time, was just two miles away.
Still, I was thinking about how I could change my situation to spend more time outside. Maybe I could do a job share at Mother Jones and start up a dog-walking/freelance-writing business on the side?
For reasons I can’t quite understand now, I decided I wouldn’t be able to match my meager salary working for myself, and I filed away my plan to go freelance.
Fast-forward 15 years. With me nearing 40, my twins nearing 5, and my husband, Adam, nearing 50, my family and I have decided to radically change our lives. For the past 10 years, Adam has been developing a vineyard and making his own wine from a rural property two hours west of Melbourne in his native Australia, and we planned to move our family there. He would leave his corporate winemaking job to become a winemaker/farmer/dad, and I would leave my communications job at an international nonprofit organization to become a writer/editor/mom.
People: Great friends in our new town of Great Western, which is just a five-hour flight from Adam’s family in Perth.
Place: Half hour from some of Australia’s best rock climbing in the Grampians National Park. Home off a red dirt track surrounded by vines, roos, and cockatoos.
Profession: We both get to work for ourselves, even if we do have to live the life of a poor farmer and a hungry writer.
The ‘Eva Model’
While we had always planned to move to Australia, the decision for me to go freelance while still living in the United States happened gradually. About a year ago, I was going through the onerous task of writing my annual goals. I loved my job, but I dreaded the chore of conjuring up a target number of media hits we should earn, or the ideal number of climate-focused blogs we should publish. I started to wonder: What if I set goals that were meaningful to me? Like, run as many miles as I work hours per week, giving new meaning to the term “miles per hour.” Or walk my kids to their new school every day.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop: Play a Scott Joplin piece, straight through, on the piano. Spend more nights sleeping in a tent. Teach the kids to ski on my home hill, Mt. Ashland. Better yet, let my dad teach them to ski, while Adam and I take some telemark turns down the Ariel chairline. Write my own blog (check).
That weekend, Adam and I got the kids a sitter and hashed out our plans over dinner: We couldn’t afford for me to leave my job until the kids started public school, which they would do in September of 2015. Then I could ramp up my freelance business and still have more time to spend with the kids. We would move to Australia in September of 2016.
Two months before I left my job, I worked closely with my boss and my team to ensure a smooth transition. We discussed responsibilities I could continue as a freelancer, which gave the team more time to think about how and whether to fill my position, and gave me a solid pipeline of work to start my business.
After I left my job, a couple of my other colleagues took a similar route, leaving their full-time positions and consulting back to the organization to do some of the work they had previous led. One friend told me people have started to refer to this as “the Eva Model.”
The New Gig Economy
I might have launched a trend at my old workplace, but the Eva Model is pretty common these days. According to an article Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz published in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review, more than 53 million Americans—one in three workers—are now earning income from work that’s not a traditional 9-to-5 job. It’s not just the advent of the gig economy that has made it easier to follow the Eva Model. With social networks, it’s easy to find organizations that need skills and experience you can offer, even if you’re an ocean away from their headquarters.
When I started developing my freelance business, I discovered a whole world of these people, several of whom have jobs that primarily service the freelance community. I hired a freelance designer to help me set up my website and a Mac expert who sorted out my IT systems. I sought advice from a friend who helps people become influencers on social media, and another friend who writes/edits/dads (a profession my writer/editor/yoga-teacher friend refers to as being a “slasher”).
For a story assignment, I interviewed another woman who blogs/writes/hosts-videos on money and is now writing an ebook on personal finance. At my kids’ new preschool, I met a pregnant mom of two whose Swiss Cheese Childcare business helps busy parents find pre-approved sitters on short notice. I met another mom who shares a job teaching the second grade in a local public school and spends the rest of her time raising her twin boys and volunteering at the school.
Meeting this community got me thinking about the common theme among all of these individuals: They are each crafting the life they want. And even though it’s now easier than ever to dip into the gig economy and create the life you want, there’s no playbook on how to do it.
I decided to write one.
Creating the Life You Want: My New Blog Series
Two years before I was born, the oral historian Studs Terkel published the book Working, a series of interviews with people talking about what they do all day, and how they feel about it. He spoke with more than 100 people—a waitress, a cab driver, a farm worker, a sports executive, a press agent, and many more—and the resulting work has become a favorite of many people, mainly because Terkel profiled real people, using their own words.
I bring him up here to, in modern-day parlance, give Terkel a hat tip, for I wish to follow in his footsteps with my blog new series, profiling real people, and their efforts to create the lives they want. Forty years after Terkel’s book was published, people still spend the bulk of their time at work, so my focus in this blog series is how people are creating the lives they want through their work.
Given the changing nature of the workforce, this is a relevant time to explore the subject. In addition to the increasing number of people who are earning incomes from nontraditional work, the workforce itself is transforming. According to a Gallup survey published in August, 37 percent of Americans now telecommute for work, up from 9 percent in 1995. Interestingly, a 2013 Gallup article reported that although most remote workers log more hours, they are more engaged at work.
Employee engagement is an important dimension in the workplace because it influences productivity, which affects an organization’s performance. But Gallup reports that only 13 percent of workers worldwide are engaged in their jobs. In the United States, the figures are slightly better: 30 percent of workers are engaged, but a surprising 18 percent—nearly one in five people—are actively disengaged, which Gallup defines as emotionally disconnected from work, unproductive, and potentially hostile.
The good news is that more companies are beginning to recognize that employee satisfaction is important, and those places are focused on developing workers’ strengths and enhancing their well-being—two of the three main factors Gallup says are most influential in employee engagement. And, of course, employees who are unhappy in traditional roles now have more opportunities to create their own niche working for themselves.
I believe the nature of the workforce is changing, and that 10 years from now, more people will be self-employed, while others will work for traditional employers who are offering flexible work opportunities that allow people to be both more engaged in their work and more engaged in their homes and communities. I envision a future where people are leading the lives they want, creatively building their professional career around what they really want to achieve in life, in work, or in the world.
But because this is a wide-open field, and there’s no single playbook, some people may struggle with how to craft this life. My new blog series is for them—to celebrate those who are living the life they want, and to inspire others to do the same.
Already, I have interviewed a number of interesting people: the father of Australia’s most famous country singer, who took his young family out for a three-week camping trip in the Outback—and ended up staying there for 10 years; a Harvard Business School-trained venture capitalist who spent the past 10 years fundraising and connecting with people around the globe to build a hospital in rural India; and a former Medill classmate of mine who has been freelancing for his entire professional career—the trigger for his decision was when a source pulled a gun on him.
In this blog series, I will profile people from all walks of life to chronicle how they have created the life they want, what has gone well, and what hasn’t.
When Things Don’t Go to Plan
Two weeks after I started my freelance business, on September 11, Adam was “restructured” out of his job a year earlier than expected. In our scenario-planning, we had been thinking about a plan B for our Australia life: What if we don’t sell enough wine, what if the Aussies don’t want to hire an American editor, what if climate change, drought, late payments on wine sales, late checks on writing assignments. We didn’t plan the “what if” for our last year in America.
But here’s the thing: Even when you are leading the life you want—even when you are spending more time running or practicing Scott Joplin or reading the kids E.B. White—things don’t always go to plan.
Since the news about Adam’s job last month, we have adjusted our plans. We will leave for Australia a few months early. I will take on more freelance work. He will be the one walking the kids to and from school. I will have a house-husband. He will have a breadwinner. The kids will have two parents who are more fulfilled in life and around a lot more often. With luck, we’ll all have the life we want.
Now I have to run—literally. I have at least 35 miles to log this week if I want to meet my goals.