In April this year, I published the following post in The International Freelancer Facebook group:
In 2002, my first full-time job in India paid Rs 6,000 (approx. £60) per month.
In 2002, my first freelance assignment paid $5.
In 2013, my husband and I sat outside our house in India and realized that we didn’t have money to pay the next month’s rent.
In 2013, I gave up on all my dreams and went into a deep depression.
In 2014, we moved to London £15,000 in debt.
In 2017, this evening, I retired my husband.
We all start somewhere. We don’t have to stay there.
As the comments and the congratulations started coming in, I had a reaction that I hadn’t anticipated: I went into a wild panic. Worse, I fell slowly and surely into a pattern that most women will recognize: One of self sabotage. Thankfully, I have been here enough times to understand what I was doing and put an end to it quickly but I knew that I had to write about it.
I had to talk about what it means to retire your partner, especially as a woman, because so few women are taught to aspire to this and so few women are acknowledged or celebrated when we do. There are also unique benefits and unique challenges to being in this situation and I found myself trying to navigate through it all alone. I hope that by writing this post, I can help the many ambitious women who follow my work and hope someday to be in a similar position.
Let’s get the terminology out of the way first. What does it mean to have retired my husband?
To be honest, I’m not sure. Not many people are comfortable talking about this kind of thing and so I’ve come up with my own definition. For us, it meant that I was out-earning my husband considerably and that even without any more growth, if I were to continue making what I am, he’d never have to work again. I don’t intend to continue making what I am. I intend to keep growing and achieving. But more on that in a bit.
For us, all this means is that my husband now doesn’t have to work for money. When Sam decides he’s had enough of a break or wants to do something else, that will be a choice he can now make from a place of love, passion, and enjoyment. It’s not that he will never work again. It’s just that he’s no longer in the position where he has to work just to make an income.
I feel incredibly fortunate to now be at this level in my business and I’m certain I don’t have to outline the very many benefits and advantages that come from this kind of success. That said, the challenges are unique too and I don’t want to sugarcoat first, what it takes to get here, and second, what it takes to continue the growth that I want to pursue and the strains that this puts on family, mental health, and in particular, marriage.
Here then is what I’ve learned.
Lesson #1: It is a step, not a destination
When most people think of retirement, they think of seventy-year-old grandparents smoking pipes and drinking whiskey. With the exception of the whiskey, that obviously does not apply to our situation.
For the last decade that Sam and I have been together, we’ve had the goal of financial freedom and building careers doing the work that we love. Every business we’ve started (and shut down), every job he’s worked, every assignment I’ve taken, has been in service of those goals. For the last three years, Sam has worked at a job that he hated so that I could have the freedom to take risks and build up my business and my book career. Him quitting his job was never the end goal, but the first step in creating the life that we want.
When you retire at age 40, it is not because you never want to work again but because you want to work on your own terms.
Lesson #2: What you are doing is not “normal”
Most people have very limited and old-fashioned ideas of what success looks like or how it has to come about. I hear so many times from writers who tell me they don’t want to aim for six-figure incomes because they don’t want to work all the time when in fact, the opposite is true. The more I make, the less I work because I can afford to hire people to do the things I don’t want to do.
There’s a running joke in my household. A woman tells three men she’s going to make a million dollars. The Brit says, “Why? What will you do with all that money?” The American says, “Terrific! How will you do it?” The Indian says, “By when?”
Most of us are surrounded by people who ask “Why?” and are never satisfied with the answers. Ambition is a real turn-off for people who don’t understand it, I’ve discovered.
You, the creative and ambitious entrepreneur, need mentors and coaches who ask, “By when?”
You need to follow, learn from, and pay for access to people who have done what you’re trying to do and succeeded.
You need mentors in your life who understand the reality of ambition, how it affects your life both internally and externally, and can guide you through all the advantages and the stresses that come with it.
Lesson #3: You will self-sabotage in ways that are new even to you
You’ll have a low-income month as soon as you’ve decided to take the plunge. You’ll get sick. You’ll pick fights with your partner, stop calling your best friend, and miss networking events. You’ll panic and go into fear and uncertainty.
This is an amazing and joyful time, let’s not take away from that. But the pressure suddenly increases and you may find yourself completely freaking out. You’ll have a bad month for the first time in years. This is not a coincidence.
You panic, it’s that simple.
This is all fairly common and pretty normal. Yet, when you’re in the midst of it, it feels like you’re the only one who screws things up so massively and routinely and in the crucial moments of your life. It is not uncommon for people to have the worst months of their businesses just after they’ve quit jobs, gone all in, and committed fully. But you don’t hear that narrative often and so you find yourself attaching too much meaning to both the highs and the lows instead of understanding that it is the averages that matter.
Get used to it. You chose the wild rides of a creative and entrepreneurial life over a boring and steady paycheck. So learn coping mechanisms for when it gets truly wild, both on the up and the down scales.
Lesson #4: You will jump before you’re ready
I am a big advocate of having savings before you go all in. I teach it, I preach it, but I’d be lying if I said I practice it. I have taken risks, both creative and entrepreneurial, on a pretty regular basis for the last fifteen years of my career and it has almost always been without any kind of safety net.
This time was a bit of an exception in that my husband and I decided on a number that we needed to have in our bank account before he handed in his resignation.
He quit a few thousand pounds shy of that number.
Again, this is so common that it amazes me that we’re not having conversations about it.
I read all the advice (and give some of it) about saving six months of expenses before you quit your job, write a novel, etc., and yet very few ambitious people I know have ever stuck to this standard. We have a month or two of savings in the bank and off we go into our next risky venture. Because, let’s be honest, that’s the kind of person you need to be if you’re going to be a creative entrepreneur and go for the kind of numbers that will allow you to retire a spouse or find financial freedom.
If you’re not comfortable with risk, most of what I’m talking about in this post won’t apply to you until you are. And once you become comfortable with taking risk, you’re not going to sit around waiting for certainty to embark on the next step.
Lesson #5: You’re an adrenaline junkie and it’s time to change that
Let me talk directly to the driven women among you: If you’re in struggle and debt, it’s because you’ve chosen to be. It’s not a conscious choice but a result of knowing that you can handle whatever the world throws at you.
You’re right. You can handle anything and always have. People will often describe you as the strongest person they know. It is, unfortunately, precisely the reason you’re limited in your success.
Ambitious women are often addicted to the adrenalin. Which is why you’ll often find yourself easily able to make a month’s worth of money in a week when your back is against the wall and you need to pay your child’s school fees or meet a tax deadline, but not when you want to save for travel or improve your own lifestyle. Many of us are conditioned to feel motivated only when the money is for someone else or for a higher purpose.
If you’re an overachiever, you know you can make the money when the situation is bad. You’ll make magic happen, surprising not only the people around you but sometimes even yourself. But you won’t be able to repeat that effort when things are good.
On my husband’s last day at his job, I made the equivalent of three months of living expenses. But a week before that, I’d literally been on the floor with my head in my hands because I’d had a really bad month financially, possibly one of the worst in recent memory.
If you find yourself in this pattern, it’s essential to understand that it is your addiction to the pain that is causing it. You enjoy chasing the high that comes after, but it is equally important to acknowledge that you may also be getting something out of repeatedly putting yourself in financial pain.
This is a pattern that is essential to recognize and break if you want continued growth and success.
Lesson #6: Your marriage will never be more important, more critical to your well-being, or more in danger
Not what you were expecting to hear?
The truth is that every single one of my female mentors who has achieved what I’m hoping to achieve has become single at some point after her success. This is not a problem that men typically have to battle. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The more successful a man becomes, the more secure he feels in his marriage. That is not the case for most women.
It’s easy to reach for the obvious— that a man can’t handle his wife’s success— but that is not even among the top five reasons why most of these marriages fail. What happens is, in fact, deeper and more nuanced. You are growing as a person and sometimes— often— spouses don’t feel like they’re a part of that growth. Then there are the assigned gender roles. As comfortable as you may be in your partnership and how you each show up in your marriage, friends and family will make frivolous comments about manhood and the selfishness of ambitious women and make you both feel like shit, inadequate in each of the traditional roles you’re supposed to be playing.
Of course, let’s not forget that ambitious and driven people in general have a tendency towards overwork, self absorption, and depression/mania. I certainly exhibit all of those traits.
I am heartened by the fact that what I’m doing was never just my dream alone but also Sam’s. He is my best friend and we have made every decision together, including when he’d work a full-time job, whether I’d focus my energy on the novel or the business, what kind of income we needed to make before we’d feel secure, etc. We have and hope to keep growing together towards a shared goal and a shared dream. This is key, in my opinion.
We also have extremely different personalities (I am highly strung to his chilled out, outrageously positive and optimistic to his realistic, and so on), which means that we bring different strengths and perspectives to both the business and our life and this keeps us each comfortable in who we are as individuals and what we contribute to one another’s lives and work.
Lesson #7: Money makes you more of who you are
We have such a screwed up idea of wealth in our culture. People equate success with big homes, flashy cars, designer handbags, and so on while completely missing the point that the true purpose of wealth is to give you choices and peace of mind. We erroneously believe that the things we own are reflective of our identity when in fact, who you are should dictate what you own (or whether you own anything at all).
Knowing how you define success and why you want it can be extremely important in staying motivated towards achieving it. More crucially, it makes your decision making easier. If your goal is comfort, you will spend money on making your home nicer, if your goal is to be location-free, you’ll spend it on travel, and if your goal is financial freedom, you’ll skip buying a new sofa and research new investments.
Money gives you the opportunity to become more of who you are and create more of what you want.
If you’re greedy, manipulative, materialistic, and unkind, money will give you more of the opportunities to do so and be so. But equally, if you’re generous, kind, creative, and willing to share your light, money will give you more of the freedom and the resources to do so and be so as well.
Money doesn’t change who you are. It just brings out the person you already are at your core.
Lesson #8: You’ll never have it all figured out
I always imagined that if I ever got to the income level that I’m now at, it would be because I had figured out business, creativity, and well, life.
I actually laughed out loud while typing that sentence. I’m pleased and quite relieved to stay that this is not the case, not by a long shot. I understand now that it’s not essential to know the road down which you’ll travel. It’s only important that you keep your eye on the next goal and the next target and keep making consistent progress towards it.
Don’t worry about how you’ll get to your biggest dream. Focus on the next step you need to take that will move you in the right direction towards it.
E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The same, I’d say, is true for a creative career and an entrepreneurial life.