Opting out of a career-driven life

Cait Flanders’ new book Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life is a book you can read over and over. I really enjoyed her first book, The Year of Less, and was excited to see what she had in store next. Adventures in Opting Out is about choosing a life that is different than how you have been told you should live. It is about doing things differently than your family and friends, or what is culturally acceptable.

The book is written as a metaphor to a hike—starting out at the base, reaching the first viewpoint, going through the valley, moving up the slope, and finally reaching the summit.

What I love about this book is the honest style. So many books on self improvement are written in this motivational tone of “you can do it, just change your mindset…” As Cait says, we are not doing people any favors through empty sayings about how everything will work out. Rather, this book prepares you for the challenges that you will face. She doesn’t sugarcoat that opting out is really hard.

It’s hard to sum up this book. Everyone who reads it will take different things in relation to what they are opting out from and where they are in life. With this read, I focused on what I could take from the perspective of opting out of a career-driven life, from a focus on ambition and productivity. As I see it, I am at the start of an opt out of what my family and society have told me—that your career and your achievements are the most important things in life.

These were my biggest takeaways from the book:  

The Base

  • Before you start, prepare for the downsides of opting out. What will you miss out on or friends might you lose? By not putting my career first, for example, I’ll miss out on some of the pride and satisfaction that comes from excelling at a tough task. I will have to be okay with turning down opportunities or promotions if they are detrimental to my mental health. In terms of relationships, I may find it hard to connect with friends who continue to be career focused. Complaining about how much we are working can be a huge topic of conversation and bonding.  
  • Another important idea for the beginning of an opt-out it doing “just enough” research. This hit home for me as an over-planner. I thought about starting a blog for almost half a year before I finally went for it. While doing some research is important, don’t get too obsessive planning out every detail. This is my approach with the blog. Each month, I select an area of my life to focus on in my experiment to “unlearn ambition.” I have a long list of ideas, but I haven’t assigned each one to a month yet, and they are not set in stone. I am open to what feels right each month and to adding new ideas along the way. 

The Viewpoint

  • Be open to making new friends. This came up at several points through the book. While being on a journey like this can feel personal, you can always find people who are doing similar things. This can be one of the best parts of opting out. At this early stage, she says, “if you meet people who seem to understand what you are doing or who you are becoming, make time for them.” I have been having a tough time making friends since moving to a new city. I really only meet people through work. They are very nice but are usually following pretty conventional paths. I feel like I don’t have a lot in common with them. This book was a motivation to start making connections with people who share my values. Due to the pandemic, it will probably have to be online, which I have never done before.  I’m thinking this will need to be one my upcoming challenges.

The Valley

  • When we are afraid of change, we tend to self-sabotage. I can see myself doing this towards the middle of my journey. Cait explains that you may be pulled towards your former identity, because it is so familiar and deeply ingrained. I can see myself really struggling to stick with my choice to be less ambitious, because it has been part of my identify for as long as I can remember. It will be important to check in with myself and work through these feelings.
  • People will push back. As Cait writes, when people shame you for opting out, it is often because they want you to live by their rules. They may even want to do the same thing as you but have their own issues holding them back. While it can be hurtful, you should expect it “if you’re living life on your own terms.”  This is something I see already at my workplace and has kept me from pursuing this opt-out. My coworkers complain about people who choose to work part-time, or who successfully enforce boundaries and have a healthy work-life balance. I have already run into a few cases where people have been frustrated when I’m not immediately available to do something. While it wasn’t nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be, it still stung. This is going to be an important part for me to work through. I want to be less of a people-pleaser, to put myself first and not care what co-workers think.

The Slope

  • Once you have gotten through the valley, you find your stride. You commit to go on and you have the confidence to “hike your own hike.” You have a set pace and routine. You know what works for you, what doesn’t, and how to communicate it. Once you are at this point, take time to pause and reflect. This may even mean taking a break. As Cait explains, opting out doesn’t always have to be a struggle. Slow down and proceed intentionally.
  • This is also the time that you may realize you need to let go of relationships that are not working or are holding you back in some way. I loved this part of the book for how honest and raw it was. This is one of the hardest and least talked about parts of opting out. The truth, she says, is that you often will lose friends, or your relationships will change. It may simply be that you don’t have anything in common anymore. It could be that you have different values, or even feel that you can’t be yourself around them anymore. Letting go is going to look different for every relationship. I’m not sure what this will look like for me, but it is helpful to know that it is a real possibility.

The Summit

  • The summit of an opt out is less obvious than the summit of a mountain. It is when the adventure is now a part of your life. You don’t need to think about it because it is how you live. My favorite part of this section was the chapter on “your other lives.” It is about wondering how your life would turn out if you had taken a different path, maybe even the more conventional path. And as Cait writes, you should consider the other paths you could take. Think about the trade-offs. Ultimately, however, you need to let these other lives go. She quotes this beautiful advice from Cheryl Strayed: “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

I would recommend this book to anyone who is struggling to make a change because you are afraid of what other people will think. I’ve never read a book that approaches this topic in such an honest and approachable helpful way.

I found it super helpful for thinking about opting out of a career-focused life and even picked up a few ideas for my list of areas to focus on. I’m still pondering what to do for February but look out for a post soon!

-M

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