In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the young revolutionary Laigle abandons his legal career and declares, “I renounce the triumphs of the bar.” A few months ago, so did I. After seven years of practicing law, I resigned from my boutique firm, spurred by the usual sorts of misgivings about the white-collar world: the emotional emptiness of the work, the dubious clamour for money, and the never-ending stress.
And for what pursuit did I cast aside my stable, well-paid legal career? Being a children’s book author and illustrator.
Supportive friends and family have rallied behind me. They’ve expressed admiration for my courage in “taking the plunge” and “leaping into the void”. To them, the change must have seemed sudden. In truth, it was anything but.
Theories of personal growth are often predicated on the notion of radical change: a life-altering epiphany; a sudden and total makeover; and, yes, the hasty “take this job and shove it” meeting with the boss. But that’s usually the stuff of daydreams.
The sobering reality is that it often takes years to lay the groundwork to even justify a career change, let alone ensure success. My course correction owes less to nerve and pluck than to foresight and resolve.
So, if you’ve ever dreamed of downshifting from your steady but unfulfilling career to something riskier but more meaningful, here’s my advice: Ride Mule Chase Horse. Let me explain:
1. Ride Mule Chase Horse
This is a literal translation of a Chinese proverb which means, “Don’t give up what you have while looking for something better.” In other words, while pursuing your ideal career (the Horse), don’t give up your day job (the Mule).
For me, this meant moonlighting as a children’s author and illustrator for three years while managing a busy legal practice (and two kids under three!). I mostly worked on my books late at night, after the kids were asleep.
The Ride Mule Chase Horse principle means you’ll be working twice as hard, which might not be a bad thing. If you’ve spent years as a careerist, you’re probably better off with more on your plate than less. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre, “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”
According to studies, unprepared downshifters acutely feel the loss of status and salary. They also suffer from the sheer boredom of too much time on their hands.
So don’t be quick to throw away all you’ve invested in your present career. Don’t underestimate the esteem that comes from secure, productive employment. And don’t forget to take care of your family’s day-to-day needs first. Ride that Mule, just as long as you can.
Of course, there will be opportunity costs to doubling down on work. You’ll have to sacrifice a host of ordinary pleasures like TV, sleeping in, nights out, and even vacations. While you still have that Mule to ride, you’ll need to cut consumption, too, and save for a rainy day. I warned you this was downshifting the hard way, right?
2. The (Real) Secret
There’s a secret to the Ride Mule Chase Horse principle, and it’s is not about positive thinking. It’s about keeping your lips sealed. Tell people about your efforts to pursue your ideal career only on a need-to-know basis. We’ve all met that person at a cocktail party who goes on and on about how they’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling or Quentin Tarantino. Don’t be that person.
On a pragmatic level, you want to give yourself a safe, low-risk space to pursue your passions. Why blab, only to have egg on your face if your alternative career plans don’t take off? Besides, you don’t want to tip off your co-workers that you’re a flight risk.
On a more philosophical level, you should be content to pursue your ideal career without fanfare until you realize a certain degree of real world achievement. Announce your successes, not your schemes.
Keeping your real passions under wraps will be difficult. You’ll be eager to throw off the shackles of “lawyer”, “accountant”, “vice-president” or some other ill-fitting professional identity. You’ll be eager to announce your “true self” as a more creative, compassionate or high-minded person. But remember: you’re preparing for the career you want tomorrow, not gratifying your ego today.
3. Lonely Energy
If it sounds like I’m advising you to squirrel yourself away to chase your dream career, it’s because I am. As Picasso once said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”
Writer (and ex-lawyer) Susan Cain argues that solitude is a catalyst for innovation, creativity and transcendence. She points to research which strongly suggests that people are more creative and generative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.
To solitude, stir in lots of sacrifice and a little secrecy and you’ll create a self-effacing, meditative but potent drive to succeed that I call “lonely energy”. It is a positive feedback loop of self-inspiration that comes from the growing awareness of your own dogged commitment to a truer calling at the expense of immediate gratification.
It is lonely energy—not braggadocio—that will sustain you through the immense challenge of refashioning your career. Powering your work with lonely energy is sometimes grim, thankless drudgery. But as Herman Melville observed in Moby-Dick, all noble things are touched with melancholy.
When I resigned from my law firm, I had in fact planned to stay longer. My second career wasn’t yet on sure footing. But when circumstances arose that made it untenable for me to stay, the pieces were in place for a downshift: newly minted books starting to hit store shelves, a commitment from my publisher to more books, and a little nest egg in the bank.
What appeared to the outside world as an audacious career move was, in fact, an almost seamless transition arising from the years of careful groundwork already laid.
I realize that Ride Mule Chase Horse won’t work for some people: those who need to go back to school full time, can’t squeeze more hours out of a day, or haven’t quite put their finger on a passion yet.
But for everyone else, my advice for a smooth career downshift is this: forget radical change; embrace measured change. Enter a temporary life of no-frills hermitage, and just do your thing. Think of it as a cocoon—hard in every sense of the word, but essential to a different you emerging on the other side.
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17 thoughts on ““Ride Mule Chase Horse”: Downshifting Your Career the Hard Way”
Great article. There are definitely some peaks and valleys with this approach, but it’s the most reasonable for myself and, I think, most people. Part of what holds people back is feeling overwhelmed with making big life-altering choices, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to do what you love on the side, while getting paid to do a job that you don’t love to pay the bills.
Thanks, Carmen. Yes, I agree there are definitely peaks and valleys with this approach, but being safe and risky at the same time was the only way I could possibly transition from being a lawyer to a children’s author / illustrator. That is, being safe with the 9-to-5 job for three years, while risking much of my non-work time to a project with an uncertain payoff. Thankfully, the alternative career is taking off, but if it hadn’t, the only thing that would have been ventured (and lost) was personal leisure time, and not the security and comfort of my family.
Congratulations on your new endeavors! Yes, I think most folks look enviously upon those who take those “sudden” leaps and think enviously about how it would be nice if they could do something similar. The hard truth is that laying the groundwork can be lonely and hard work, that overnight successes just aren’t.
I appreciate the congratulations. You’re right: 99% of the time, overnight successes just aren’t. The groundwork needed to make what appears to be a “sudden leap” always taxes us doubly in the short term. If you want change to happen, more often than not you have to be willing to pay this price.
Congratulations on making the change. I agree with your advice, particularly not telling anyone until you have successes on the board. It is hard enough pursuing a new endeavor when without well meaning people questioning you. I think your approach gives you the chance to experiment more with less risk.
Thanks, Barbara. Yes, it’s so hard to resist telling others all about our alternative career plans. Our alternative career goals are generally borne out of our true passions, so obviously we want to share those passions with others. However, letting the cat out of the bag too early can sometimes set the expectations of other too high, and create unnecessary pressure on ourselves to succeed in a new career. That just winds up being counterproductive. My brother and I didn’t even tell our parents about our children’s book project until the books were near publication. For us, we didn’t need the weight of parental expectation on our shoulders!
Holman, this is pure gold…and a keeper.
Thanks so much for the gift of your post here; it will serve me (and all those I share it with) well.
Thanks for the kind thoughts, Patrick. I wrote the piece hoping it would be a touchstone for others thinking of a career change, and I certainly hope it serves you well.
Good on you for making a successful, and dramatic, career change. I would think that now you need to keep your past career quiet from your new one. Lawyer and kid’s books don’t seem a natural fit! Of course, I may be wrong.
Anyway, I appreciate the advice you give to keep it to yourself as you work your way out of a paying gig. No doubt a bunch of haters would crawl out of the woodwork to make an exit more swift than intended.
I know they would at my office. Mums the word.
Thanks again for the great read.
Hi Darrell. Funnily enough, they don’t much care in the children’s book world what you did, if anything, before coming to children’s lit. Saying you’re an ex-lawyer almost has a certain cachet (as if you’re more devoted to kidlit if you abandon another profession, which of course is not necessarily true). However, not surprisingly, the white-collar professional world wants nothing to do with one’s artsy pursuits. If you have artistic outlets, it means you’re “not committed”, or “not partnership material”. So the hiding was done when I was a lawyer, but thankfully, there’s not much hiding from my past career now. Thanks for your thoughts.
Really enjoyed your story. There’s a lot of sense in managing the transition of career change and putting the building blocks in place first – lower your costs, get the new career started, build the financial buffer. The change can then happen when things are in place. And to summarise what you say, actions speak llouder than words.
Thanks for the reply, Peter. Yes, at the end of the day, actions do speak louder than words. Get yourself set for change, and then do, do, do. Talk is definitely cheap in the realm of career change.
This is excellent information. I wish I had read it before I shut down my business. I hated running a mortgage business. Hated. Not an exaggeration.
When I realized I needed to leave it, I moved full steam ahead. I shut it down, without even knowing what I wanted to do next. It took me two years to just figure out my next business. Fortunately, I didn’t have a family to support, and I had a nest egg.
But I wonder now what it would have been like to take the time while I was still earning an income.
Everyone who wants to leave their work to start a new passion should read this article.
Hi Sharon. I understand career “hate”! I believe you when you say it’s not an exaggeration. Thanks for sharing your experiences with career change.
Very practical and sensible advice. Taking up some artistic or creative profession, in particular, does require lot of preparation and outcome is not sure. Transition from a lawyer to a writer will catch people with surprise and will be usually scoffed at- if announced pre-maturely. It is better to be like a seed which remains buried under the earth and sprouts one fine morning to declare itself. No advance warning, no whispering asides in emotional undertones. I like your description of a hermit like living in solitude before one gets enlightenment -Buddha like. Raising expectations and then falling unceremoniously, like a leaf from the tree , is not very sensible thing to do.
Thanks for your kind comments, Mahavir. I enjoyed your thoughts!
This article is everything I currently need. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.