The decision to act is the hardest part — the rest is merely tenacity.
— Amelia Earhart
A year ago today, I quit my job at UNC to pursue being a full-time freelance photographer, videographer, and professional adventurer.
Over the past 365 days, many people have engaged me in conversations about my decision to leave a good job, and start my own business. Below are some of the most common questions I receive, and reflections on some of the things I learned this year.
Why did you quit your job?
Short answer: Antarctica.
Long answer: For years, friends and acquaintances have said to me, “you do such cool stuff with your photos and videos and travel — you should start your own company.” I always shrugged my shoulders and said, “maybe one day.”
When I really thought about it, starting my own business seemed overwhelmingly daunting. Figuring out everything on my own — from legal contracts to equipment purchases to health insurance — felt like a series of walls I didn’t want to climb.
But after receiving an invitation to join a research expedition in Antarctica, followed by back to back oceanographic expeditions in the Pacific, the decision made itself — it was time to leave the comfort and security of being a state employee, and forge my own path.
Do you make enough money?
Short answer: yes and no.
Long answer: During this first year, I made enough money to comfortably cover rent, utilities, insurance, business expenses, and an epic road trip. I should note my cost of living is very low: I don’t have a car payment or student debt or a mortgage. I don’t have children. I rent a small two-bedroom house and I have a roommate. I also have an emergency fund (and I feel very fortunate that I didn’t experience any emergencies this year.)
The absence of a regular, bi-weekly paycheck has forced me to closely examine how I spend money. I have never been one to buy a bunch of superfluous stuff, but I’ve also never created a legitimate budget before this year.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Short answer: coming home.
Long answer: When I first made the decision to quit my job and start my own business, I envisioned creating a beautiful home office space with a large desk and custom shelves to keep all my equipment and files neat and organized.
Ha, yeah right.
I’m not home enough to have a nice home office. My camera equipment (and several articles of clothing and gear) live in bags that rarely get completely unpacked.
Traveling two thirds of the year means I routinely return to stacks of mail and shriveled house plants. I come home to all the chores, responsibilities, and tasks I couldn’t complete while I was away: installing software, submitting paperwork, maintaining requirements for various certifications, updating my website and blog, scheduling meetings, researching science communications grants and fellowships, and figuring out my damn taxes.
Challenges abound in the world of self-employment, but one of the biggest I’ve encountered during this first year has been finding ways to create balance within a very transient lifestyle.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
Short answer: meeting cool people.
Long answer: Traveling around the world is sexy. Translating scientific research is fascinating. The most fulfilling aspects of my job, however, come from the remarkable people I meet—scientists, students, technicians, engineers, philosophers, and other world travelers. Again and again, I have the opportunity to document these industrious, innovative humans hard at work in their element. I listen to their stories, and capture a bit of what gives their lives meaning. I love it.
But the most fulfilling part of my job is also often the most ephemeral.
Forging tight bonds with people is a natural component of expedition work. We endure many long days, late nights, and early mornings together. We share meals and exercise routines. We laugh, argue, get on each other’s nerves, and keep each other sane. We tell stories about our friends and family back home. We discuss our experiences of heartbreak, loss, regrets, triumphs, and goals for the future.
The people I meet on expeditions are some of the most intelligent, competent, and charismatic folks I’ve ever known. They challenge my perceptions, and open my eyes to different world views. They possess an unyielding work ethic that never fails to inspire me.
Yet for all the time we spend together, and all that we learn from each other, the tight bonds we form rarely persist after the adventure ends. It’s been a tough truth for me to accept, but it’s a simple fact of transient life.
Do you ever regret quitting your job?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: The team at the Office of Research Communications gave me regular feedback on my work, constructive criticism, support, and guidance. They also gave me daily company, which is something I took for granted. As a one-woman team now, I spend a lot of long hours alone with my computer. Grabbing a cup of coffee with Layla, or going for a walk with Alyssa, or smiling at the sun during an outdoor staff meeting on a beautiful spring day—I miss all of those things.
But working for myself has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life thus far. Even on the really difficult days, when I feel saturated with self-doubt or lonely or frustrated, I have never thought, “I wish I had stayed at UNC.”
If you could go back in time—to exactly one year ago—what would you tell yourself?
Short answer: Be more stoked and less terrified.
Long answer: In the weeks and months leading up to February 9, 2018, I spent many sleepless nights tossing and turning, feeling weighted down by anxiety like I have never experienced before.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself this: yeah, it seems scary, but it’s going to be so awesome. You’re going to meet really incredible people from all over the world, sometimes under random, bizarre circumstances. You will travel to places you’ve never been with complete strangers and feel right at home. It’s okay that you don’t feel completely “ready” to make this jump — you will figure it out as you go.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, enjoy the present moment, and get some sleep.
Are you happy?