My 8-Year Wait To Leave My Job

…when I really wanted to be an artist

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Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

What I really wanted to be was an artist.

Things like that don’t happen over night, so after university I got a small job, nothing too taxing, certainly not well-paid.

My tasks were menial ones, but I didn’t mind. My colleagues paid me the generous complaint that I was too qualified for the type of work, but it really didn’t matter to me. My mind was entirely on painting, and I used to think of the three-day job as simply a matter of holding my breath until I could return to my canvases and breathe again. To put it another way, the work I did in the office had no relevance to who I was.

I had the intention of staying in that job for just a few months, long enough to pay off a few nagging debts and bring my savings up a little. In the meantime, I would invest my spare time into my true vocation. I felt 6 months would be long enough to see me through.

The trouble was, I settled in. I got tangled up in a dependable income, and in the end it took me over 8 years to leave.

Before I got my job, I was living at home with my parents. It was many years ago now.

I enjoyed my parents’ company, because they are wonderful people, but even so, I liked to spend as much time as possible in the garage. In this space, I began painting on bigger canvases, and experimenting with new ways of applying the paint.

I also learnt to construct the canvases myself. I built the wooden frames, and ordered a big roll of what is called duck canvas — a name that has nothing to do with water-foul but comes from the Dutch word doek, meaning linen cloth. I learnt to fasten the cloth along the edges of the frames I had built, folding in the corners as neatly as I could, using a staple gun to pin the canvas.

The next stage was the most rewarding: when the cloth is coated in a mixture of water and glue, it contracts like denim and tightens itself over the frame as it dries. I found this miraculous every time. Drumming my fingers on the taut material, I loved to hear the deep vibrations singing back at me, the consenting murmur of a blank canvas. Then I got out my paintbrushes.

I managed to last three months as a full-time painter. I say full-time, but that is to put a spin on it. I sold a few paintings, but the money I made from those sales was easily spent. I was not what I would call a professional.

By the time summer came, I needed to find work, so I reluctantly took the job at the local government offices for three days a week; the rest of my week would still be dedicated to painting.

My intention was to stay in that job for 6 months, but like I say, I got used to the money coming in and I found I stayed a lot longer.

Every year, usually around springtime, I would get especially restless. That is, more restless than usual. I think it was something to do with the dawn of a new year’s growth: the new sunlight in the sky, the new green shoots in the ground.

I was living with my older brother now, renting a room in the house he had bought. My brother had a proper job.

Countless times I audited my money situation. Time and again I calculated how long I could last if I quit. Worst case scenario, best case scenario. What if I lived here, or lived there, gave up this, gave up that? I reworked the numbers by cutting out the luxury items like new clothes and a social life. I listed the pros and the cons of leaving, secretly wishing I could strike through the cons as irrelevant. Every spring I braced myself for the big-push, only to find my sense of caution returning to override my ferment.

But what I realise now is that this restlessness was a necessary condition of my sticking with the plan. Restlessness is an aspect of the resolve it takes to make unusual things happen.

I look back now and think how important it was for me to not rush into leaving. If you are going to make the leap successfully, you have to be as certain as you can be. Your confidence about your first move will be decisive in how successfully the next one turns out.

So I waited and I listened to my doubts. They made me work harder and plan better. Each springtime came around, and I would assess my position. “Not this year,” I seemed to conclude endlessly.

If you spend as many years as I did mulling over this quandary, you will know that doubt is somehow intrinsic to the issue and will always have a habit of seeping back in even when you feel you have quashed it. Don’t be hard on yourself for being risk-averse: you grow accustomed to the doubt and by growing accustomed to it, you learn how to listen to it and eventually silence it. Like thorns on a rose, doubts are ultimately there to protect you and allow you to prosper more successfully.

Years passed by easily. I was living through my twenties, in no particular rush to be a great artist. I always had in mind that my twenties were the preparatory years, the years of learning before my thirties, which would be the years of action. I was only half-right about that theory.

Still, I was mightily tired of being in this job. Ultimately, the right circumstances came when the department I was working in moved offices and fell under new management, which for me seemed like the end of the road.

At the same time, I had just secured several paid opportunities that meant I had enough money in the pipeline to replace my wages for the next three months. I emphasize the word “paid” because I feel it’s worth underlining the importance of assessing your opportunities honestly. Unpaid work can be immensely valuable for lots of reasons, but to leave my paid job I felt I had to have a replacement income in place — even though I had some savings by then. Without this sufficient income, I would have worried too much and probably have let caution override my long term intentions.

The circumstances felt right for me. I acted quickly from that point. The central column of this idea is that I could foresee with a high level of clarity how things were going to turn out over the near-future. My bills and other outgoings were not likely to change. I had no surprise costs around the corner, and I had money coming in. I was in a position to be decisive.

As an aside from painting, I’d been doing some design work, and just at the right time I was commissioned to do a large piece of work. It wasn’t a life-changing sum of money, but it indicated I had prospect of winning further work down the line, and that gave me a sense of momentum. I had found the right blend of work: between painting and design I could foresee genuine prospects.

Once I had made my decision to leave my day job, I was confident enough in my circumstances to follow it through. In reality, this meant working a further four weeks notice-period and handing over my work to other colleagues.

My boss was surprised and a little downcast that I was leaving, since after 8 years I’d come to play an integral role in the department. She told me I would be missed, and for about 3 seconds I wondered if I was making the right decision. But I knew I was, so any attempt she made to keep me there ultimately fell on stony ground.

That said, however confident I felt, I soon learnt that the future is never settled. After about 6 months of working for myself, I had to quickly address how I wanted the next few years to evolve for me. So I began to research.

The internet is stacked to the rafters with advice articles like this one. I’ve read my fair share of them and gleaned plenty of useful advice. How to be this, that or the other.

But I arrived at an important epiphany: nobody else can describe the way things are for you. Nobody else has quite the same circumstances as you, nor the same prospects, resources or opportunities. You’ve got to learn for yourself.

Here’s a metaphor: if you’ve ever tried to learn a musical instrument, you’ll know you have to begin at the very beginning. You have to learn about musical notation, and about the way your instrument works, about where you put your fingers and how to make the instrument ring true.

But then, at some point, you learn to stop thinking about what you’re doing and develop your own intuition about how to play the instrument. You learn to let go of technique and just play. This is the mindset I had to learn.

My time these days is rewardingly divided between painting, design work (which tends to be better paid), writing and traveling.

Sounds perfect? Not quite. I’ve learnt that self-employment can sometimes feel like an uprooted existence, a cycle of weeks without the anchors of definite working hours and office colleagues. In such circumstances, peculiar feelings of waywardness can arise, especially if your workload and income are as erratic as mine have been.

In many ways it’s a paradoxical impulse: as if to measure your freedoms you look for routines that bear the mark of servitude. I get up at the same time every day, try to maintain habits of working that promote my productivity, and above all, savor the moments when the choppy seas of self-employment turn calm.

I’ve since discovered that finding the right balance between a sense of freedom and a sense of security is still not easy — perhaps it never will be. For me, the pendulum continues to swing back and forth.

Every springtime, for instance, I still get that sensation of restlessness, and I begin to think about all the things in my life I’d like to change. I wonder about the commitments I’ve made, and I worry about the success (or lack of it) I’ve made of my life so far.

Leaving my day job took me 8 years, but I’m proud and very satisfied that I did it. I do believe that in the end, the object of one’s hopes can’t be simply “to quit the rat-race”. There is always another chapter to write; or to put it less poetically, there are always new bills to pay.

Yet, to leave your job is not as dangerous as you might think, but it certainly helps to be patient and sure-footed. Only you’ll know what the right circumstances are for you. I like the old tailors’ saying: measure twice, cut once.

Thanks for reading. You can see some of my paintings on my website.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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