“Ride Mule Chase Horse”: Downshifting Your Career the Hard Way

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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.