Opinion

Life after Fairfax: How I discovered the art of leaving

After her two decades at Fairfax ended, along with many others, in 2016, columnist Fiona Smith realised life outside of the newsroom was a lot sunnier than she'd expected.

It is coming up to two years since I separated – from a job that I loved. After 21 years with the one organisation, it lasted almost twice as long as the average marriage.

So, what is life like now? Pretty damn good, thanks for asking.

Like many happy divorcees, leaving my “job marriage” meant revisiting who I was before I bound myself to my employer, rediscovering the joy of doing things just because they give me pleasure.

Now I work from home and avoid the two-hour time-suck of commuting. I accept the work I want to do and, if people are difficult or the work is too boring, I don’t do it again.

It is not something I would recommend to everyone. At my stage of life and in my circumstances, I can withstand fluctuations in income and my long work history and network of contacts mean I do not have to start from scratch to establish a reputation.

But for me, in so many ways, the step I reluctantly took to leave became a leap of freedom. Here is what I have learned.

People are good

When life delivers lemons, your neighbours make you lemonade. I was retrenched from an industry in decline but, in truth, I had one foot out the door already and so I already had a well-thought-out plan for life after Fairfax Media – in fact, I had already redecorated the study.

What I have learned is that people reach out to you and are keen to help. The support I have received to start a career as a freelance writer has been from former colleagues, industry contacts, interviewees, other parents at my children’s schools and friends.

My name was mentioned in media reports about the mass retrenchments which meant that people contacted me through LinkedIn to offer work, support and contacts. Thank you all!

Never stop doing what you love

Years before I started at the Australian Financial Review, I had dreams of being an artist. I took it seriously and spent as much time as I could at art school, while working shifts at the Daily Telegraph and Manly Daily.

Then, I took a year off to travel the world and, when I returned, with a $10,000 debt, I made what I thought was a rational decision to concentrate on the career that was going to make me a living wage.

So, I threw myself into journalism and put away the paintbrushes for more than 20 years, I met my husband and had two beautiful children.

Then, four years ago, with the children growing increasingly independent, I dipped my toe back into art. I started back at art classes, coincidently, around the time my mother was diagnosed with the cancer that would take a year to take her life. Painting became my saviour.

I found that, rather than having lost my touch over the many years of “art drought”, the skills I had been developing as an enthusiastic amateur photographer and tinkering with crafty things had kept my eye in and, rather than starting from where I had left off (or even behind), I was better than I was in my 20s.

Amelia and the Chouch

A post shared by Fiona (@fiosmi) on

I processed my grief through painting, starting a session washed out, feeling I had nothing to give and finishing sometimes exhilarated, sometimes merely at peace.

The greatest lesson for me is that, no matter what life throws at you, when you find something that gives your life meaning and joy, don’t stop. You may have to do something else to earn a living, but find some little corner of your busy life to keep the flame burning, be selfish about it.

With two friends (who have also returned to a “past love”), I am showing my work at an exhibition at the Ewart Gallery at Willoughby in Sydney, March 20 to April 7. I would love to see you there.

Accept that the work may be less exciting

The biggest thing I miss about working for a large media company is the ability to write what I want, the way I want.

In my previous job, I had (or took) a lot of freedom when it came to writing about the things that interested me, personally. Luckily for me, the things that interested me also interested the readers.

Now, I write to order, which means I have to be clear in my own head that my new job is quite different to my old one. However, there are no office politics, I don’t have a boss, and all the money I earn goes straight to me, my family, superannuation and the tax department.

Oh, and the other thing I miss is having a “cheer squad” of colleagues who offer supportive praise when I want to share something I have written that I think is particularly good!

Utopian visions are not reality

My husband and I both work from home. Do you think we see more of each other? Nope. He works from the study (he came home first) and I work from the couch. We don’t even have lunch together – this could do with some improvement.

I don’t go for a walk every day either. I do far less exercise than I used to, when the poor public transport options to Pyrmont meant I easily did 10,000 steps a day when I walked from the CBD to Fairfax’s “black box”.

Faithfulness is overrated

Staying a long time with one employer can be very rewarding when the relationship is mutually valued, but too often, familiarity breeds contempt – or, at least, a lack of interest.

Like divorcees, people who are freshly separated from their employer can discover they’ve “still got it” in the job market. Those skills that their former employer may have taken for granted are often newly appreciated by others.

I have lost count of the number of “cast off” journalists who tell me they didn’t realise how good they were at their job until they took their skills elsewhere and former colleagues are now non-executive company directors, book authors, public speakers, consultants, web masters, full time artists, fine art photographers and, of course, public relations operatives.

None of this means I have lost my concern about the side effects of the “gig economy”, where people have lost security for the sake of employer convenience. And I am well aware that so many people are left on the scrap heap with skills that have gone out of fashion or faces that are too old to “fit”.

But this is my good news story, thanks to good luck, good timing and the essential goodness of others.

This post first appeared on Fiona’s Linkedin. You can find her art on FacebookInstagram and Bluethumb.

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