• tarahthornburg

The Trade-Offs of the Writing Life — What Would You Sacrifice for Your Dream?

For the last 10 years or so, I have been plugged in to the world of sustainability. I’ve flirted with vegetarianism. I’ve tried my hand at vermicompost. I avoid single-use plastic whenever I can, and I try to be mindful of my consumption. I’ve backslid on my own sustainability journey in the last three or four years, but I do the best that I can.

This weekend, I renewed my fascination with Rob Greenfield — a man who is doing incredible work in caring for the Earth. For those of you who haven’t heard of Rob Greenfield, he is a self-described adventurer, humanitarian, and “dude making a difference.” I would describe him as a minimalist, an advocate for the zero-waste movement, and a social experimenter.

Rob Greenfield is best known for his “Trash Me” project, where he wore the trash the average American produces in a month around New York City. He’s also biked across the United States doing good deeds, and, most recently, he’s committed to growing and foraging his own food for a year. He’s a dumpster diver; he has a compost toilet; he bathes in rivers and lakes.

If any of this sounds extreme, that’s because it is — which is why this guy fascinates me. Rob has essentially traded money, possessions, and financial security for freedom, a small carbon footprint, and a big social impact.

The main reason I wanted to write about Rob Greenfield today is because of what he’s taught me: Anything in life is possible, but everything is a trade-off.

When we drive through our favorite coffee chain and get a latté in a single-use cup, we are trading money, natural resources, and space on this Earth (in a landfill) for convenience, coffee, and a piece of trash. Similarly, when we report to our 9-to-5, we are trading our time and our skills for a wage, healthcare (if we are fortunate), and the perception of financial security.

From the moment I began publishing, I saved every penny I made from book sales and reinvested some of it in the business. (I did eventually put some of that money toward buying a used car, but only when I had a significant amount of money in savings.) The goal was to quit my job to write full time, and I knew I would need a good nest egg to do it.

One night I sat down and went over my expenses with a fine-tooth comb. I decided that I could live without cable, so I cut the cord. I got cheaper Internet and reduced my spending. I estimated how much I would need to pay for my own health insurance, and I began looking into buying a small home instead of renting month to month. All in all, I decided that I could live where I lived for about $1,800 a month.

When I quit my job to write books for a living, the goal was to have more time to write. I thought that if I had more time, I could write more quickly and make exponentially more money. While I did gain more time to write, relax, think, work out, and cook healthy meals, I did not achieve this exponential income growth that I had predicted. What worked on paper didn’t work in real life, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice for me.

In retrospect, I had no clue what quitting my job would mean — both in terms of the personal sacrifices I would make and the enormous benefits I would gain. What is the Rob Greenfield rule? Anything in life is possible, but everything is a trade-off.

When I got back my time, I lost the ability to say for certain that I will receive X dollars per month. Some months I make significantly more than I did at my day job; some months I make less. But no matter how much I make in one month, I can never say for certain how much I will make three months or six months down the road.

For someone who loves routine and predictability, this uncertainty has been the most difficult adjustment to make. (Even worse is when I am hit with an unexpected expense, like underpayment to the IRS.) But even though I don’t have a steady salary, I do have a small stream of “passive” income that comes from my backlist. Any time I add an intellectual property asset, I am adding to that income. Some months, my salary is just enough to cover all of my expenses. But I can estimate what my income will be two months ahead of time, which allows me to plan for the lean months.

Of course, there have been moments when I have thought it would just be easier to go back to working for someone else. I would not have to do the books. I would not have to do marketing. I would not have to worry about staying in the black.

But when we were in the throes of the government shutdown, I had a thought: What’s more “secure” than a government job? Absolutely nothing. And yet, during that 35-day shutdown, 800,000 federal workers were placed on furlough. Many more had their pay withheld until the shutdown ended.

When that happened, I felt fortunate to be self-employed — not at the total mercy of the federal government or one single corporation. Sure, I am highly dependent on Amazon royalties for my income, but I’ve made strides in the past couple years to diversify through audiobooks, Patreon, and one-on-one coaching. If Amazon suddenly cut my royalties in half, I would suffer enormously for a while, but I would figure out a new way to replace that income. (What I have lost in job security, I have gained in self-confidence.)

As a self-employed writer, I do not have a pension or a 401k that my employer will match; instead I must contribute to my own Roth IRA every year and manage my investments. (So far the investments I’ve made myself have yielded much greater returns than my employer-managed 401k ever did.)

I also have the assurance of knowing that every asset I create can continue to generate income for the rest of my life plus 70 years. (This is how copyright works in the United States. My children — and perhaps my grandchildren — will be able to earn money from assets I create today.)

I do not have healthcare benefits provided by an employer. Instead, I must shop on the healthcare marketplace for my husband and myself. This year, the plan for the two of us costs a little over $700 per month. I do not have dental or vision plans, so I must come out of pocket for cleanings, check-ups, and new contacts.

I do not have any co-workers, which means my social circle has shrunk. I am however location independent, which means I can literally live and work anywhere I like. After we’d been dating for a year and a half, my now-husband and I moved to Colorado. When we moved, neither of us had regular jobs, which made it difficult to make new friends. I still do not have as many good friends here as I would like, but I have had so many amazing experiences since I moved to Colorado.

Working for myself means I must manage my own time. I occasionally work on weekends and often do not take federal holidays. There is no “paid vacation,” but I am free to take vacation days whenever I want (production schedule permitting). I can take a day off “just because” without giving any notice. I rarely work eight-hour days, and I can knock off early or take an appointment without being accountable to anyone except myself.

Being self-employed means that my husband and I both must be highly self-motivated. We do not have co-workers or bosses to make sure we work hard. We must push ourselves every day so that we can make enough money to pay our bills and eat out now and then. Because our pay is so irregular and varies dramatically from year to year, this can make getting bank loans difficult (something we experienced for the first time a year ago). For that reason, we have had to get creative in the way we leverage our assets and use my husband’s “sweat equity” to get into a bigger house.

For us, living without any guaranteed income can be scary at times, but it also means that we can do whatever works best for our family. Right now, I am contributing more to our shared expenses and taking care of things at home so that my husband can build our house. Whenever we decide to have a child, I’m sure I will rely on him to contribute more income so that I can recover from giving birth and adjust to having a new baby. The best part is that we will both have the flexibility to dedicate more hours to family as needed, and it’s unlikely that our child will need to spend much time in daycare.

One intangible that I’ve gained from becoming a full-time writer is this profound sense of freedom. Sometimes that freedom manifests as happiness; sometimes I am just grateful that I own my time. While money can be a stressor, overall I have significantly less stress. I seldom have to rush from point A to point B. I have more time to care for myself through healthy eating, exercise, and meditation. I only have to answer to my husband and myself. Is all of that worth financial stability? Yes — an emphatic yes. Quitting my day job has changed my life — just not in the ways I expected.

The reason that I’m sharing all of this is to demonstrate that we all have choices in life. Not everyone can quit his or her job to write and not everyone should, but it’s crucial to point out that anything is possible. It just might not turn out exactly as you expect.

I know so many people who want to quit their jobs to pursue a dream, but they want to be able to keep their life exactly how it is. They want to replace their income one to one, keep their same house and stay where they live, but this is not always realistic.

When I quit my job as an editor to write, I was making $35,000 a year before taxes. I was living in Columbia, Missouri, which has a moderate cost of living. I had no mortgage, no spouse, no children, and no debt. I had the privilege of an education and growing up in an upper middle–class household where my dad was also self-employed. Being a business owner had been modeled for me growing up, and making that transition seemed highly doable.

If I’d been making twice that amount or if I’d had a family or student loans, I don’t think I could have done what I did when I did. But everything in life is a trade-off, and everything takes sacrifice. At one point I grew impatient and began to research other countries where I could live comfortably for less than $2,000 per month. (If I’d not been in a relationship at the time, I might be writing to you from Thailand.)

To take things to the extreme, Rob Greenfield gets by on less than $5,000 a year (with no government assistance or benefits), but his very survival is a full-time job. He grows and forages for his food. He buys used clothing or goes without. He lives in a tiny house without modern plumbing. And he trades a lot of physical labor for the things he needs. He’s even had a vasectomy so that he will never father a child. This is an extreme example, of course, but it just goes to show what is actually possible when we begin to question our assumptions.

What would you sacrifice to follow your dream? Would you be willing to reduce your spending? Would you be willing to move? If the answer is no, that’s okay — just know that you have choices.

Want to write a novel but don’t know where to start? I also do one-on-one coaching! Send me a message to get more information or set up a consultation. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @writewithtarah to make sure you never miss a post.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

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