After moving to Austin in 2015, I took a full-time job at a wonderful biomedical firm. I wore the hose and heels and showed up at 9 am and worked dutifully until 5 pm. I liked the office. I liked the people. I liked the work. I really, really liked the steady paycheck and the amount of it. The benefits were nice, too.

But a little piece of my soul died every day. Having someone tell me when and where I needed to be every minute of the day went against everything I had been working toward my entire career up to that point. I had bucked this exact type of traditional career so I could work from home and raise my littles for over a decade. I could have lunch at the beach every day if I wanted. I could co-work with smart people. I could sleep until 10 am if I wanted. My hair could be whatever color I wanted. I traveled all over the world with my MacBook. What now prompted my return to the cube life?

Fear. A big fat freakout. 

Before my temporary return to the ‘practice coffin’, I looked at my retirement account and it was virtually non-existent. I had a good amount of emergency savings, but suddenly the thought of retirement was daunting, plus I saw all my friends taking awesome vacations once a year and talking about their plans when their careers were over. My kids were finished or finishing college and didn’t need me home anymore. It was time to buckle down and get my adult-life together. For a hot minute, I thought about all the things I wasn’t prepared for in my early 40’s. So I panicked and took a very buttoned-down position that required meetings and paperwork and politics. So. Much. Politics. It was exhausting keeping up with the factions and the alliances. There were memos. Regulations. Checklists. We were treated like small children at times, spoonfed information and kept from making impactful decisions to benefit the company. It was a world I experienced early in my career, and one I quickly remembered I wasn’t adapted to.

My addiction to steady cash was overpowering, though. For a year I slowly withered until I knew it was time to escape again. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one. And, fortuitously, it was made for me. Downsizing was a gift, and I found myself back in the land of freelance.

And here’s what I realized. I had reverted to measuring my success against my friends, rather than my own metric. They took annual vacations and had grown-up savings for retirement, with statements from their bank and all. When you hit your 40’s this becomes a thing you think about, Y’all. Adulting becomes mandatory.

Their metric meant they had to escape their jobs once a year to regain their sanity. Mine meant I didn’t. I had a life I didn’t need to escape from. I worked with great clients. I was in charge of my own destiny and fortune. When I finally talked to the friend I felt had it all together the most, she said she envied me. She wanted the freedom and flexibility I had. She was working 60+ hours a week toward the promise of retirement at some point in the future. What she saw in me was that I was passionately living NOW. I was an experience hoarder with my kids – taking them on working trips and extending those trips to include more vacation days than she was “allowed” in a year. I was vacationing 2-3 days at a time, several times a year, without impacting my business. She had to cram her vacation into a week at a time with her kids. I didn’t see it as a vacation. I saw it as my life, but more importantly, it was an extension of the life I’d designed for myself.

She said that after watching me over the nearly two decades I’d run my freelance business, that my business was an ATM – I could always hustle and pull money out of it. And that’s true. I’m in charge of my own destiny. I don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass for a promotion. I don’t have to navigate politics. I just do great work for my clients and the only competition I have for the employee of the month is my espresso machine.

The fact that I can pivot, hustle, and learn a new skill to help others is exactly what I love about my career. I’m always evolving. I’m always learning. I’m always finding people that need my help and that feels amazing. I may not have the structured benefits of a corporation or even the steady paycheck, but I have what those can’t buy – the freedom to grow my business as I choose. The flexibility to travel. Time with my family. And the satisfaction that I have a life that I’ve designed, and not one thrust on me by default.

Are you living a life by design? Or by default? Tell me what’s keeping you tethered to your jobby-job. Maybe I can help. Tell me in the comments what’s holding you back.