The Fear (or what’s the worst that could happen?)

EruptionI have a confession to make.

I was lucky enough to be able to spend a day with Mr and Mrs Ermine from over at Simple Living in Suffolk this week. They were in Devon and were kind enough to invite me out for the day (a week day, probably while you were at work, if you were wondering ;-))

We walked up a pretty big hill, saw some pretty big rocks (Haytor) and talked a lot about work, money and FI (amongst other interesting philosophical subjects).

Anyway, when we inevitably got on to the subject of my transition to the ‘not having a job’ way of life, I just blurted out my confession:

Yeah – after I quit my job I was absolutely shitting myself!

I think that Mr and Mrs E were somewhat surprised by my admission, given that I spend a lot of my life enthusiastically offering other people assurances (sometimes for money) about just how sensible it is to quit your job and fend for yourself.

I obviously stand by my philosophy, but it struck me that fear is probably the most powerful limiting belief which prevents people from attempting to pursue a job-free life and so sharing my experience of ‘The Fear’ (TM) might help a few of you to get your heads round it.

So here it is.

I, Andy, sometimes-over-confident Yorkshireman, job-freedom coach and cheerleader for all things tiny business, was SCARED after I quit my job!

Allow me to elaborate.

The numbers are going down!

As you might remember, the technique I used (and recommend to others) to get out of the rat race in a non-ridiculous amount of time was a two-pronged attack:

I had 100% intentionally built a massive amount of liquidity because I knew that the days of getting money every month were soon going to be over.

I also waited until I had a good track record of producing income independently from an employer before taking the plunge.

We were absolutely financially ready to roll with the punches and see how my freelance career (and other entrepreneurial dabblings) shaped up. In fact, I didn’t even put a lot of effort into finding any freelance work straight away because I didn’t need to and there were other projects I wanted to play with.

I knew that, so long as I worked around 40% of the time on average, everything would work out as planned and our cash reserves would keep everything sweet.

Thinking rationally, all of this was true.

However, the one thing I hadn’t accounted for is how I would feel when the numbers (specifically our net worth) started going down instead of up for a few months in a row.

It was being faced with this numerical reality for a little while that made the path I had chosen seem all of a sudden very different to the norm (and scary to boot).

Let’s put things in context

Between autumn 2013 and May 2015, our net worth went up by something like £45,000, most of which was accumulated in cash.

On average then, during that accumulation period, our net worth graph was going up at a rate of something like £2000 per month.

When I turned the tap of a well-paid professional job off however, we were basically living on a combination of my wife’s income from her part-time job (which accounted for almost 60% of our average monthly expenditure) and drawing from reserves until I got the income started again.

By that point, I’d decided not to focus on my computer support business as I was far more interested in doing engineering projects and pursuing other entrepreneurial endeavours in the long run. Therefore my old side-business only really provided the odd bit of income here and there.

So we went from putting about £2000 per month in to our nest egg to pulling over £1000 per month out of it.

Even though that was all part of the plan, it just felt so wrong

I can’t explain how I felt more clearly than that. I was doing something which made me feel irresponsible in some way and I was scared. We had a young child to feed. Had I gone crazy?

I have to be honest. Before I quit, I didn’t really expect to feel quite like that. I had thought over the plan a thousand times and I knew it would work.

But sometimes, there’s no accounting for gut feeling.

Pathologically rational

Whilst we were out on our pleasant stroll towards the summit of Haytor, I described myself to The Ermines as pathologically rational.

By that, I mean that compared to most people I meet on a day-to-day basis, I tend to be far too rational.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t celebrate their birthday because, well, why would you, logically? Why not count the number of laps the Moon has done round the Earth rather than how many times the Earth has gone round the Sun?

I habitually eschew gut feel in favour of reasoning from logical principles pretty much all the time.

So, if somebody like me felt The Fear, I’d say there’s a good chance that most other people who have been conditioned to only work as employees all their lives might feel very scared when faced with a seemingly uncertain* income future.

In fact, I can’t imagine that anybody could make the transition to a job-free life without experiencing fear.

*If you keep your job because you think it gives you a ‘guaranteed income’ you have been misled. That income can very easily get switched off all at once. I’m just saying…

Fear is normal

Our experience of life is vastly different from that of our (even not-so-distant) ancestors. Think about what your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s life might have been like compared to yours. Being ‘skint’ might actually have meant getting by on 500 calories per day rather than not being able to go to the pub on a Friday.

Going back further to the really olden-days, people were far more likely to face actual life-threatening danger very frequently. For example, ostracism from one’s tribe could mean starvation for our hunter-gatherer forebears. In that situation, being afraid of acting differently to everybody else could actually save your bacon.

That we evolved with fear as a defence mechanism seems to have been almost inevitable when you think about the circumstances that shaped our species.

The problem is, the modern world is (for most of us) nothing like the savanna. In fact, it is very warm and fuzzy. It’s not completely risk free, but, compared to the ‘red in tooth and claw’ environment in which modern human beings emerged, it’s a pretty good approximation.

So, whereas being scared of doing things like

  • speaking out loudly in front of the tribe (fear of public speaking anybody?) or;
  • being a contrarian and pushing against everybody else’s opinions using your own logical reasoning

makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective, it’s really not very useful for us modern folks.

It’s actually worse than ‘not useful’, it is actively harmful. It makes our lives more difficult. It encourages us to shrink from the opportunities that the world has afforded us. It makes us less than what we could be.

And the worst thing is, fear is really difficult to shake off.

Here to stay

Here’s some truth for you.

Before I tell you the truth, I’ll just wait a minute and give you the opportunity to navigate away from this page so you can go and find another website run by a ‘guru’ who will sell you an ebook telling you that making job-free income is easy if you just use their simple method. No hard work required. No fear.

Finding one should be easy (just type ‘lifestyle design’ into Google and find the site with the most pop-ups)…

Still here? Great, let’s stick to reality.

If you decide to act differently to

  • Everybody you know (in fact, most people in the developed world) and;
  • The way you’ve been conditioned to act by your parents, school, university, the government, the media, advertisers and so on…

then you will be scared. Really scared. You are, to some extent, a herd animal. It’s not that you’re weak, it’s hard-wired into your brain.

But if you actually want to pull it off, rather than thinking

I really don’t want a job any more. I just wish I wasn’t so scared.

you need to actually take some action to solve the problem. That might look like:

I know that getting from where I am now to where I want to be is going to involve experiencing A LOT of fear.

I can’t avoid the fear.

I need to work out a strategy to stop the fear from paralysing me or driving me towards making decisions that my rational self does not want to make (like continuing to have a job because I’m scared).

That’s exactly what I did.

Building a strategy

I’ve been a personal development junkie for years. I also enjoy a bit of casual armchair psychology.

So, when I got scared, I could see what was happening. I could even explain it completely rationally to other people. I remember saying something along these lines to my dad:

We’ve got oodles of cash. I know that I could start working on Monday morning if I went to an agency and got some contract work but I just can’t concentrate on my other projects because of the feeling in my stomach.

I know that this is entirely irrational.

As time went on I felt myself getting an itchy trigger finger every time a recruiter email landed in my inbox. I knew that I needed a strategy to allow me to act according to my rational plan, rather than giving in to my fear.

So, as a regular exercise, I started trying to run through the worst-case scenarios in my head in as much detail as possible to build a ‘what if?’ strategy.

The ‘and then…’ game

What if I spent a solid 3 months trying to get some freelance work now, but failed to make any progress? What would happen next?

Well, we had enough cash to last for more than a year with no family income whatsoever, we had plenty of other liquid assets beyond that, and we had another income (which had persisted for several years) that accounted for 60% of our requirements .

We certainly weren’t going to starve quickly.

I would be pissed off. I might be embarrassed. But the consequences would be trivial.

So, if I was 3 months down the line and had generated no work whatsoever, I would go to a contractor agency. They would probably be able to land me a contract, commutable from our home, which would earn me a year’s living expenses in 6 months.

But what if there was no work in my field in the local area?

Well, then I might have to choose from one of four less attractive options:

  • Agree to do a contract which required me to stay away from home during the week for a few months
  • Look for another permanent job in our area (my old employer had not yet replaced me and we were still on excellent terms – not great, but a solid possibility)
  • Carry on beating the independent freelancer drum and burning cash for a while

But what if none of those yielded any income? What if I’d been at it for 6 months and still couldn’t earn a bean? What if my wife lost her job? What if there was a recession?

In this situation, one or both of us could just go out and look for any work at all, completely unrelated to our professions, perhaps for very low wages. I could use my entrepreneurial skills to look for low-paying independent work like gardening, washing cars or cleaning.

But what if there were no jobs and nobody in the world wanted to give me money for anything?

Well, then we would hunker down, drop our expenditure as low as possible (only run one car, go 75% vegetarian, only spend on essentials etc). That would stretch our existing reserves out to the point where we could live for more than 2 years without any income.

But what if we were without income for so long that the money ran out?

I’ve spent my adult life collecting credit cards with very big credit limits to provide emergency liquidity in just such a situation. But what if all of the card providers revoked our limits at the same time?

What would we do then?

Well, we have families who love us and wouldn’t want to see us starve. Perhaps we could come to some arrangement to stay with our parents for a while.

But what if everybody who cares about us in the world was dead, we inherited nothing, we both became physically unable to work and the local warlord stole everything of value we had left?

OK. Now you’re being silly.

You may have noticed that, in order for me to ever need an answer to this question, the world would have to have experienced some sort of catastrophic economic crisis, war or climate event.

If any of these things did happen, there’s not really much I could do to change them anyway, so it was sensible to omit any contingency planning for such outcomes from my strategy.

What is the worst than can happen?

Admittedly, I was taking the piss to some extent with the last bit of my little ‘and then…’ game above. However, it’s a really useful exercise to go through to turn your general undirected sense of unease into a list of real, specific bad outcomes that you want to avoid.

What I found was that my fear was always and without exception that ‘undirected sense of unease’ rather than a fear of a specific consequence which was even remotely likely.

Playing the ‘and then…’ game frequently can help to stop you from doing something stupid like

  • Sticking with what you’ve got because you’re scared of uncertainty or;
  • Quickly jumping back into the ‘normal’ (9-5) way of doing things because you’re scared you’ll never be able to make enough income

If you start from the position of having a nice middle-class job in a first world country and approach the problem of getting rid of your job in a similar way to me, the ‘bad outcome’ is unlikely to be bad by anybody else’s standards. It’s might be something like

I started with a huge pile of cash and a tiny business but the business went south and I spent half of the cash. Then I saw the writing on the wall and went to get another job (for a while).

Experiencing this would piss most people off, but really, it’s no big deal. In fact, it would be sensible to just consider it an expensive learning experience.

I make no guarantees that you will succeed on the first attempt to get out of the rat race. I have failed miserably (more than once) and ended up in a far worse position than I would have done if I’d have just got some resources behind me and made sure that the business was performing well before I turned off the job tap.

But, I survived. I paid off the debts. I learned from the mistakes. I know (and, if you like, I can help you to learn) what I’d have done differently to improve the outcome.

The trick is to find some way to stop yourself from acting on the inevitable fear that you will feel when you try something different. Stepping outside yourself and playing my ‘and then…’ game is a really good way to do that.

Fear fades

The last thing I want to say about The Fear is that it doesn’t stick around forever.

Although ‘face your fears’ is a bit of a cliche in self-improvement circles, it’s a concept which is rooted in the way our psychology actually works. It’s actually the basis of techniques like exposure therapy for overcoming anxiety and fear. [As an aside, I had some exposure therapy for my dental phobia several years ago.]

But in the context of living without a job, I’ve noticed that, the longer I’ve spent without having an employer, the less scared I feel. Pushing myself through the intial really scary stages was worth it in the end as now the anxiety I experience is barely even noticeable.

I still get the occasional twinge of

Ooh – this is all getting a bit uncertain

but those voices get quieter with every day of living without a job.

Anyway, I’m afraid that’s your lot for this week.

In summary, if you do something out of the ordinary, you’re going to be very scared. The trick is to learn how to not let that fact make you do something you’re going to regret in the long run like wasting the best years of your adult life in some Dilbertesque hell.

I feel like finishing with a Thoreau quote:

Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.

Henry David Thoreau

Other resources

Here are a few links you might find useful when you’re thinking about strategies to manage your fear so you can get on with the task of building a job-free life.

Rolling a boulder over a hill – learning to overcome fear is an excellent example of one of the early challenges you’re likely to experience as you start building a job-free life

The Tank and the Tapsput yourself in a position where there’s really nothing to be scared of

The 5 enemies of an independent life – always think critically, don’t let fear, consensus or assumptions run the show

If you would benefit from some one-to-one help to stop fear getting in the way of your rat race quitting plan, just get in touch.

Your turn

I’d be really interested to hear what you think about overcoming fear in general.

Are you sticking with your job because you’re scared to do something different?

Have you got any stories about being scared but acting in spite of the fear?

Just jump into the comments share your thoughts and experiences.


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

13 thoughts on “The Fear (or what’s the worst that could happen?)

  1. I walked away from a full-time, professional job with a pension, sick pay and all the rest with nothing to go to. It wasn’t a particularly rational decision, it was very much based on my gut. I didn’t like my employer, the hours were so long and I missed my children so much. But wow, the FEAR! Goodness, it took a really long time to accept my decision and really believe in my heart of hearts that I’d be okay. I’m so glad I did it though as it turned out to be one of the very best decisions of my life. I love being self-employed, I love the freedom to design my own life and I love knowing all my hard work benefits me and my kids and not a boss.

    1. Hi Ellie.

      Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t think that anybody who has (successfully) become self-employed ever regrets it. It’s like being unplugged from The Matrix in a way: there’s a reality that most people don’t even acknowledge the existence of and, once you’ve experienced it, there’s no going back.

      I’ve noticed that starting a family seems to be a common catalyst for starting to take a ‘lifestyle design’ approach. I can’t imagine what life would be like with 2 kids under 3 and 2 parents working full-time jobs and abiding by other people’s timetables.

      1. Well that certainly wasn’t my experience of self employment between 2003 and 2013.

        It was a nightmare of cash flow problems, scratching around trying to find contracts, underemployment broken by periods of intense work, ‘selling yourself’ and loneliness.

        I finally managed to get a good job for a FTSE 100 employer in 2013 and have since seen my income almost double, with paid holidays, 37.5 hour working weeks and (finally) the chance to build up some savings and a pension. I work with some clever witty good natured people who I enjoy seeing and occasionally socialising with.

        To those of you who’ve successfully made the transition from full-time work to part-time or self employment, well done. But don’t for one second assume that because you’ve done it, everyone can.

        1. Hi Roger.

          Thanks for taking the time to comment.

          I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience. I was in 2 minds as to whether to publish your comment or not because, as you probably know, people latch on to ‘the worst case scenario’ far more easily than rational optimism and, the entire purpose of this site is to encourage them (whilst keeping their expectations grounded in reality).

          However, hiding this from my audience would be a bit dishonest, so I’m just going to have to reassure them a bit…

          As far as cash flow problems are concerned, I’ve covered that in detail here and here if anybody reading this is worried about that aspect of being self-employed.

          Loneliness? I work at a co-working space with about 50 other independent business owners and creatives. Perhaps that could have been a solution that would have worked for you? A lot of people make the ‘I work for myself, so I must work in the spare bedroom’ mistake.

          Congratulations on landing your new(ish) job. If it makes you happy, then you’re sorted. As you can probably tell from the rest of my writing, it sounds like hell to me, but, unto each his own. I think a lot of the challenges in the whole work/career area are around finding something that fits. I hope you’ve managed that.

          As far as the question of ‘who can make this work?’ goes, well, it’s more down to arithmetic than having any superpowers. If, whilst you still have a job, you can save one year’s living expenses in cash and build a side-business which sustainably produces about half the amount of your current salary, you’d find it hard to be in a position of ‘scratching around’ after you quit your job.

          In that scenario, what I wrote in the article is about right. You might not be able to stay self-employed for ever, but you’d have a long time to find another job if necessary. The secret to success is in the 2 years of preparation you do before quitting your job in the first place.

          Thanks again for stopping by.

  2. “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.

    Henry David Thoreau”

    So that’s where FDR nicked his most famous line from! Thank you for that.

    1. Funnily enough, I was thinking of the old FDR ‘…fear itself’ variant when I wrote this and intentionally stayed away from it. I liked the words but perhaps I didn’t want to associate this with FDR (given the implicit Hooveresque ‘rugged individualist’ undertones of teaching people to fend for themselves’). It was far more a poetic statement than a political one though.

      But when I stumbled (I think on BrainyQuote) across the Thoreau quote, I couldn’t resist.

  3. Thanks for a lovely time, I also felt that fear when the steady income ceased when I stopped working. I was daft enough to try and maintain my networth in the early days – that was easy as it was the appreciation of my stock market investments as the world slowly ground its way out of the financial crisis. But it was a barmy way to live life, I should have spent more in those early days.

    Interesting that you were able to think you way through this. I found slowly that the passage of Time and a greater experience of living with the volatility of networth softened the fear, until eventually the irrationality of the position became something I felt as well as knew.

    1. Hi Ermine.

      It was my pleasure. You two are always welcome whenever you pass through our neck of the woods.

      Take it from me, I was hanging on with both hands trying to stop myself from doing something silly like going contracting for a few months. The fact I’m no longer scared is mostly attributable to exposure.

      The trick is accepting that you’re going to be feeling a bit irrational for a while and working out how to stop yourself from acting on it. Hopefully, that way you can make it out of the other side of the fear fog once you’ve acclimatised.

      The thing about having a job is that it provides a really tight abstraction. Work goes in Monday-Friday, money comes out on the same day every month. It’s a black box which, to a great degree hides how the ‘work in’ and ‘money out’ portions are connected in reality.

      Settling into either FI or being self-employed requires weaning oneself off dependency on that abstraction. This is too much for many people to take.

      It was great to catch up. Hopefully have a chat soon!

  4. I felt this fear, perhaps in watered down form, when I came close to quiting my job 1.5 years ago. I was literally like oh shit what the fuck am I gonna do now?!

    Then we came to the part time agreement and everything worked out. I’m very glad it went down that way as I’m enjoying the arrangement and also now have more net worth and a new income stream. So next time I feel like quitting I’m hoping the fear will be a lot less potent than it had the chance of being last time round.

    Thanks for telling it like it is and not painting a life of unicorns and rainbows like the lifestyle design gurus would have us believe!

    1. It’s a shame that concepts like ‘acknowledging reality’ and ‘saying it like it is’ don’t sell many books. Maybe I need to just be more ‘awesome’ or something.

      Having experienced The Fear several times in the last 10 years, I can confirm that having some bank balances featuring several trailing zeros (and no minus signs ;-)) makes it a lot easier to not do anything irrational whilst you’re feeling scared.

      Try being scared and skint at the same time – not fun!

      Anyway, if you do get fed up of the current status quo and decide to make ‘the jump’, you’ll be fine! If you feel like giving in to The Fear, just email me and I’ll send you a virtual slap round the face.

  5. It was great to see you, I really enjoyed meeting up, and your reply to the question “how did it feel” is delightfully honest. Oh, the fear! I left a “proper job” at 32 to change country, career and language (I’ve changed everything except the career back since then, with no regrets). I had savings, but I remember the feeling of an incomprehensible void when the monthly paycheck didn’t arrive. And I dreamed of my old house being bulldozed a couple of days after leaving it (I’d sold it, it is still there).

    I feel like I have more control over my income now – I see the cashflow forecast of my (not for profit, social enterprise) company, and while it isn’t great at the moment, I have plans to sort it out – it is in my hands to take action! I earn far less than I used to (that’s just me, I chose a particular path that, for now, I can’t see a way of making more from). The money isn’t the most important thing, but my quality of life is good (most of the time, not when it is rainy, blowy and cold on the farm – we don’t have proper shelter – a long story).

    We hope to be in your part of the world again soon!

    1. Hey Mrs E.

      I had a great day too. Not too much to complain about when you’re stood on top of a big hill with a view for 25 miles in all directions (whilst most of the ‘normal’ people are holed up in their offices :-)). Of course, the company helped too!

      There’s no escaping The Fear. I think it might have been in a Steve Pavlina article where he described the grave as ‘eternal security’ or something. Looking for security gives you the worst of all worlds, including less security in the long run.

      I think that, from what you said on the walk, the farm falls squarely into the category of ‘your life’s work’. Now that’s a kind of work I can get on board with. However, as we discussed, there’s a lot of scope for entrepreneurship if turning the income up a bit became an aim.

      I’d be delighted to get out for another day or two with you both next time you’re down here! You’ve got my number…

      Take care.

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