People warned me this would happen, but I didn’t believe them.  They told me leaving one full time job to do three part-time jobs was nothing short of nuts.  I’d be working all the time, they said.  Besides, who in the world quits a cushy government job in the middle of a recession and gives up literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement for…flexibility?

And in most respects, they were right.  But it wasn’t the words they were speaking we disagreed on.  Buried in that advice was the undertone of do this and you’re going to be one miserable woman.

To the contrary, I’ve never happier with my work-life balance.  But before you brand me a hypocrite, know this: I feel like I’m 25 again.  I’m brimming with energy and enthusiasm and a sense of the possible.  And yes, I’m also working a lot.   It’s not the life I imagined for myself when I quit my job, but I’ve come to understand that a life of leisure, as they say, just isn’t for me.

I’ve eliminated my commute and replaced it with…work.  I’ve reduced the number of meetings I attend and replaced it with…work.  Since I don’t have co-workers across the hall to chat with, I rarely take breaks and I usually read while eating my lunch.  As soon as my daughter goes to bed, I’m right back at it.  The biggest time sink happens when my cats purposely knock my pens off my desk (or out of my hands if they’re really pissed at their neglect).

If I’d described this scene to myself a few short months ago, I would have predicted despair too.  The difference?  I’m doing exactly what I want to do, when I want to do it.

To understand how that’s possible, let me back-fill you on my situation.  In my previous life, I worked as the Assistant Chief Scientist for a large research lab in the Air Force.  I had a phenomenal boss who gave me challenging assignments and yet also understood that picking my daughter up at daycare was one of the best parts of my day.  My co-workers were smart and congenial.  And I got to work with some astounding scientists–neuroscientists, psychologists, biochemists–all dedicated to improving how humans work.  It was heady stuff (and yes, that’s a pun).

There were a few reasons why that scenario wasn’t working for me anymore:

  1. My husband got reassigned and I felt living with him was part of the whole “marriage deal.”
  2. I finally acknowledged I was an introvert, and attending approximately 20 meetings a week was putting a choke hold on my energy levels.
  3. I craved flexibility. The military has a lot to recommend it (truly), but they really do expect your camouflaged butt to be in the office every day.

And so, after 16 years (20 if you count my time at the Air Force Academy), I left.  Just like that.  No fewer than 15 rather senior people tried to talk me out of it, and that’s a conservative guess.  At some point, I stopped keeping track.  But that’s only because they couldn’t imagine the awesomeness of my triple life:

  • The Scientist: I evaluate scientific grants for funding (part time).  This is great because even in science, people go where the money is.  You have the opportunity to shape what’s happening in the field at the national level, and get inspired by/brainstorm with some of the best scientists in the world.
  • The Consultant: I work part-time as a consultant for the research lab I just left.  I loved the people, I believed in their mission, I just wanted to work from home.  Seemed like a win-win.  I do everything from mentoring to organizational design to communication strategy.  I love the diversity consulting offers.  And the pay.
  • The Writer: This is my true passion.  Ideas for articles and poems keep me up at night.  If I were independently wealthy, I’d be tempted to do this full time.  But then I’d have nothing to write about except schmaltzy love poems for my husband. I write whenever I can, which these days is a lot more often than it used to be.

Although it’s not technically a “job,” I also take very seriously my role as a wife and mother. I walk my daughter to daycare nearly everyday.  When the weekend arrives, I devote it entirely to spending time with my family, since I no longer have to scamper off to the grocery store and Target to run errands I couldn’t do during the week.  Sometimes, I even play with the cats.

What I love about this mixed bag of jobs is that I get to balance the things in a way I never could just working one job, even with a very understanding boss.  My writing time allows me the solitude and creative space I crave, while my consulting job lets me interact with people and solve real problems.  I can move from one kind of task to another when it suits me.  When my brain gets tired of reading proposals as a scientist, I move to less taxing activities in my job as a consultant.  Ideas generated in one profession commonly spill over into the other three.

But here’s the best part, and the secret to my success: none of it feels like work.  My husband said to me, “I can’t believe how happy you are, and how hard you’re working.”  You can say that again, honey.

Most people quit jobs that aren’t working out.  What people couldn’t understand was why I would leave a job when I was so successful at it.  But that’s just the point.  Now I can play around with three jobs, all of which are meaningful to me.  And I have the ability to define what success looks like in each one–not focusing on what’s necessary for promotion, but what I find essential for my personal growth.  In the Air Force, we say flexibility is the key to air power.  It’s also the key to an exciting life, but so few of us have prioritized flexibility as part of our career.

Next week I’ll talk about how you can design your own career for flexibility, and why it’s not really so scary.  If you have specific questions you’d like me to answer in this series, leave them in the comment section, and I’ll incorporate them into future posts.  Stay tuned and please share this post with anyone whose career doesn’t resemble the fountain of youth!

Photo note: That’s me with Chris Muratore (who works for acclaimed tribologist AndreyVoevodin at the Air Force Research Lab) learning how you  make very specialized lubricants for things like satellites.  You can only see about 20% of the entire behemoth instrument I’m looking into, but it was built from scratch.  I love my life.