Why I Left My Full-Time Job for the Outdoors

Photo ©  Nate Luebbe

Photo © Nate Luebbe

Working is a huge part of our lives whether we like it or not. But why wouldn’t we want to do something that we like? 

I’ve known since elementary school that I was different and that I didn’t fit the mold that society wanted to force upon me. I grew up in rural Indiana where you went to school, got married, had kids, and worked an average job to pay the bills. This never interested me, not once, even as an 8 year old. I spent my days outside drawing, playing in my grandma’s tree, riding my bike or swimming at the local pool. I hated having to go inside, and I spent a great deal of my time dreaming about what my future would look like.

Several years later I had decided that I would attend art school. I ended up at Herron School of Art & Design in Indianapolis with a BFA in photography. My dream at the time was to become a severe weather photographer, but I was somewhat unsure where to start. I came across a Craigslist ad for a job shooting products for Amazon in Louisville, Kentucky, which was about 2 hours away. I kind of dismissed it thinking that it would never happen because I would have to relocate my entire life, but a friend urged me to at least drive down to find out more about the opportunity. I did, and I walked away with a job. A week later I moved in with some friends who luckily lived in Louisville and that was that.

Shooting products in Amazon’s largest warehouse (at the time) was definitely not my dream, but I met a ton of incredibly talented people and Amazon looked good on the résumé. Since Amazon is headquartered in Seattle, I learned more and more about how incredible the city was from my coworkers. I stuck it out in Louisville for about 10 months, but 9 of those were spent dreaming about a life in Seattle. It’s funny, I always told my mom when I was younger that I’d move to San Francisco or Seattle. I knew even then that the West Coast was calling me. My elementary school was named Northwest Elementary – I mean, c’mon. This was my path.

Mount Rainier, Washington © Autumn Schrock

Mount Rainier, Washington © Autumn Schrock

So I drove all of my belongings out to Seattle, a city that I had dreamt of since childhood and won my heart sight unseen. In Seattle creative opportunities abound, so I transitioned to a job as a Photo Editor for Zulily thinking that it was temporary and that eventually I would chase my dream. One promotion led to another and before I knew it, five years had passed and I was a Senior Graphic Designer. I genuinely enjoyed my job, but each day commuting into a freezing cold office, a little bit of me felt more and more depressed.

My camera and I spent as much time in the mountains as we could. I quickly realized how absolutely, ridiculously gorgeous Washington is and fell in love with shooting its landscapes. My dream of becoming a severe weather photographer began to evolve; maybe it wasn’t just tornadoes and supercells that fascinated me, maybe it was nature itself and how I felt more like myself every time I stepped into its home. Every moment I could be away from the office and into the woods lifted my depression. I knew that I needed to be outside, to be free of the office life, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I had to make enough money to cover all of my student loan debt, a car, rent, etc. I often felt overwhelmed and just when I would make progress, a depressive episode would hit and knock my progress back. 

North Cascades, Washington © Autumn Schrock

North Cascades, Washington © Autumn Schrock

I had a medical scare that required two surgeries within two months that woke me up. I was diagnosed with fibromuscular dysplasia, a disease of the arteries, that put me at an awfully high risk for a stroke or heart attack. I had to get out of the mold that I said I would never be forced into; I didn’t know if something serious was going to happen to me soon and cut my time short, but I wasn’t going to wait to find out. It was time to start taking this outdoor photography dream seriously, so I invested in better gear (hello, Sony!) and decided to shoot the moon. The location at the top of my bucket list was New Zealand, and that month-long trip completely changed my life. It showed me just how unhappy I was sitting in an office every day, feeling like I was wasting away.

Traveling overseas was something that I’d never done. I was nervous at first, unsure of how I would react in stressful situations or if I would be safe as a small woman traveling alone. New Zealand treated me amazingly well and every day, I could see that I was happier than the day before. Who was this girl and where had she been hiding all of these years? I learned more about myself on that trip than I had learned in the past 20 years.

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand © Autumn Schrock

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand © Autumn Schrock

When I returned home, I began shooting on a regular basis to fill out my portfolio and update my website. I tightened my budget to save as much money as I could. But I still felt fear. What if I’m not good enough? What if I fail and have to spend the rest of my life in an office? I slowly began to recognize that these fears weren’t justified; these were anxieties that were holding me back, not protecting me.

The thought of leaving my job became more real as I researched and planned ahead for how I would freelance. I spent countless hours on the phone trying to figure out what would happen to my health insurance and 401(k) when I left the office. I spent too many nights worrying about whether or not I was doing the right thing. It seemed like everyone around me was rooting for me, and yet I felt worry. I started putting feelers out to freelance design jobs that could tide me over while I built up my outdoor photography career. I landed a few of these which lifted my confidence. I would be able to do this and succeed. I had a way to pay the bills and live somewhat comfortably.

The time finally came to say goodbye to the 9-5 and I actually felt sorrow. I couldn’t wait to start my new life, but I am human and change can be difficult for us. The loss of security, loss of coworkers, and loss of routine can be very scary; we have to remember that without change and pushing ourselves to do greater things, we will never grow to become our best selves.

Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland © Autumn Schrock

Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland © Autumn Schrock

While I am still early on in my new journey and certainly don’t have it all figured out, I’ve figured out what works best for me. I am happiest with the freedom to go where I choose and the ability to spend genuine time outdoors where I belong. All it takes is trust. Trust yourself that you’re capable of doing what you truly want to do. It took me years to work up the courage to leave my office job, but I’ve never felt more like myself. I’m not conforming to anyone else’s standards but my own.

I’ve been balancing photography and design together, which I both love, and spending as much time as I can outside with beautiful Mother Nature. The freelance life has its own set of challenges and stressors, but you have to keep in mind that every aspect of life will have some challenges. It’s up to you to decide which is the lesser evil and trust that you’re doing what is best for you. You will make it happen. You will succeed. Find your path.

So ask yourself: what makes you happy?

 
Photo ©  Nate Luebbe

Photo © Nate Luebbe