A break from the daily grind

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012

Welcome to guest blogger, Stephen Harnwell Jones, who has just taken up the freelance lifestyle after 20 years’ working as an employee. Here’s his story.

Tired of the daily grind, office politics or annoying clients? Maybe you should think about taking a break – a long one.

I’m currently taking a break from almost 20 years in the design industry. In fact, the last time I worked officially was almost 5 months ago. Since then, I’ve been on an adventure of a lifetime, trading my role of Creative Director for a journey of discovery.

I’m on a sabbatical, recharging my batteries and re-examining my inner creative talents, maybe never to return to a full time job again.

Taking the leap from a perfectly sound job (and the lifestyle that comes with a regular income) wasn’t something I did lightly, and after months of planning for every scenario, I moved the family from Australia back to Europe, shipped what little we’d kept, bought a car, and drove us all to Italy. The plan was 6 – 12 months living rent free on an olive farm in Umbria, but sadly, the chain of events we experienced meant our highly planned trip was in tatters after just 5 days.

Some of the worst weather to hit Europe in decades dumped several feet of snow down on top of our remote retreat, but that wasn’t our only issue – we simply weren’t prepared for the non-existent heating system, lack of cooking facilities, the broken washing machine, or the constant power cuts, none of which were ideal with a toddler in tow. But the lack of the keenly promised internet connection really finished me off. With no contact with the outside world, I stood no chance at all of breaking into the world of illustration, one of the key reasons for taking this break.

So, without a clue how to fix the problem, we hit the road and waited for divine intervention. Careful planning ensured we certainly had enough cash, and finally from the luxurious confines of our warm hotel room in Perugia, we secured a cottage near the Mull Of Kintyre in Scotland.

As with the Italian farm, this place would offer us rent free living in exchange for some basic labour – namely a single day a week to keep the place running. Here, we’d have a row of five 17th century cottages to manage, leaving six days to do as we pleased.

Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is, and indeed, the living conditions here aren’t really what I’ve become accustomed to. Our enormous modern apartment in the centre of Sydney has been switched for a tiny converted cow shed that smells of damp and has mould growing on every wall. We have mice, and even a family of starlings living in our loft who flutter in and out all day with worms and maggots.

My office is a table stolen from one of the other cottages, and installed in our bedroom, which has the walls covered in doodles and notes from my frantic work. It really is like I’ve become a student again, and I even wear a scarf more often than not simply to keep warm. Pencils and paper levels must be monitored constantly, not because of its expense (although that is also a consideration) but because the local town doesn’t stock any such items. In fact, our nearest useful town is Glasgow, some 4 – 5 hours’ drive north.

You see the importance of the internet!

I’ve never lived so remotely, but I do think it’s a lesson in life. I’m learning a huge amount about just how much contact I do like with people, and how important my surroundings are to my output – there is only so much stimulation I can draw on from fields, tractors and cheeping starling chicks.

To achieve anything at all, I’ve had to really plan my time. I’ve been successful to some extent, but it’s really hard work being motivated without others cracking the whip. The biggest driver for me is the threat of this whole exercise being a total waste of time, so to help me along my way, I’ve had a list of key objectives that must be ticked off:

1. Be more creative

I wanted to walk away with something new, and I think I have – I’ve been ploughing lots of time and injecting the energy I used to expel in the office into my illustration work. Without interruptions from the corporate grind, I feel like I’m making great progress, although I’m still yet to land my first illustration commission. I draw almost every day, and am constantly trying out new techniques.

2. Enjoy the family

Working in a full time job used to mean I rarely saw my wife or son and here, I wanted to switch the emphasis around to put them first. I now take Rhett to playgroup, and read him a bedtime story each and every night. In fact, I spend 2 days of my working week as a stay at home Dad, allowing my wife to undertake her own creative projects. As a family, we eat 3 square meals together – every day – and have the opportunity to go to the beach whenever we choose.

3. Don’t go broke

I didn’t want this to end up being a frivolous extended holiday – I wanted it to be something viable that I might be able to take up full time, and with careful ongoing monitoring of our finances, it’s been easy to stay in control. Money is always the sticking point with anything like this, and whilst I didn’t want to officially work during this period, there have been a couple of small freelance jobs that have kept the bank manager happy.

4. Stick to the plan

Well, we’ve hardly stuck to the plan have we, but I think I have stuck to the objectives. I’ve been quite blunt with regard how successful the experience has been, and now face the ultimate question of ‘what next?’

So, what is next?

I miss the buzz of a studio, but at the same time, I do like just getting on without interruption. It’s amazing just how much work you can churn through without the phone constantly ringing, your inbox constantly pinging, or people standing around you waiting for yet another meeting about yet another meeting.

At some point, money will need to be made – both me and my wife need a good haircut, and poor old Rhett needs some new shoes. But there is so much about this current period I’m loving. I love being the boss, in total charge of my own destiny, and able to just wake up and do exactly what I like.

My ideal would be to continue on this pathway – to make enough money to live, leaving lots of time for what’s really important. Age has taught me that no matter how much money you have in the bank, you never have enough, and that the vicious circle to keep up with the Jones’ (no pun intended) will ultimately drive me to an earlier grave.

I think freelancing is absolutely my next move. Seeing my son as often as I choose is hugely appealing after 5 months of being with him daily, and spending more time together as a family makes it almost a no brainer. Jumping in the car and heading for the beach just because the sun is out is something you simply can’t do in a full time job – not unless you own the company anyway.

Sure, full time brings stability, and a desk that you can clutter up with plastic toys and photos of the kids, and in many ways is far easier than stressing about where your next meal will come from. But, does it bring the happiness you truly crave?

Follow my full story at bunkyonsabbatical.blogspot.com for a warts and all insight into taking a rent free lifestyle. It might give you the push you are looking for to dive into your own creative heaven! www.monkeychops.com is my illustration website.


2 Responses to “A break from the daily grind”

  1. Lauren
    June 6th, 2012

    Hi Stephen,
    Well Done to you and your family for taking such a big jump. You should be giving yourself huge pat on the back. To deal with everything you’ve been through in such a short space of time and to still have such an upbeat outlook is fantastic. I think you are going to be very successful.

    I’m just starting out on my own, which although scary, I’m doing with my eyes wide open having worked for a couple of start-ups in the past. I’ve seen the highs and lows but it hasn’t put me off.

    I wish you loads of luck and enjoy every moment with your son – kids grow up far too fast (and for me it’s the trips to the toyshops that I miss)

    PS love the stories on your Bunky blog – looking forward to reading all your adventures / mishaps / successes.

    All the best

  2. Carrie
    June 27th, 2012


    Take a Scottish cottage instead of an office front desk anytime!

    One piece of advice I’ve learned(Stemming from a ‘branded’ Receptionist who is really a Copywriter as my not-so-secret identity), via Peter Parker syndrome is this:

    “Failure”, “waste of time,” or what pop-culture comically pre-fixes, “Epic fails!” is impossible to achieve when you are truly doing what makes you free, and have the guts to do it.

    Most office worker’s hate their jobs, and live for the weekends, and grow overweight from poor diet, stress, and copiously sitting too much without exercise. I only want to retire from Receptionist work as the rest does not apply to me,(Thank God!).

    The four goals you listed are great- keep an open window to allow new things to fly in your air space! How can it not happen? You have set the foundation for it!

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