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A beginner's guide to funemployment (robertheaton.com)
121 points by jshakes on June 23, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

Unemployment rocks.

I've done quite a bit of it over the years. Americans (and probably a lot of other people around the world) have internalized this utterly BS "you are your work" ethos that causes them to actually feel guilty when not making money. The widely-believed, though not always stated, societal value judgment is that if you're not useful enough for others to pay you money, you're not valuable. If you're not willing to trade life-hours for money, you're lazy and therefore not valuable. The only escape from this judgment is to do socially accepted "wow that's so cool I wish I could do that" things like travel or taking extended ski trips or spending weeks climbing mountains. The key is, you should be expending considerable money and/or effort doing this things in order for your lack of money-making initiative to be excusable for any extended length of time.

Thoreau spent much of his life not working, but "sauntering" in the woods, studying and enjoying nature. He would be excoriated as a worthless loafer in today's America, and that only shows how far we've fallen, in my opinion, in our vision of what a life should be like. When people ask me, as they frequently do, what I've "been doing" (meaning, what work) I frequently respond "hanging out". Out of embarrassing weakness I sometimes add "and traveling", knowing that I'm being judged and that traveling is a semi-acceptable excuse for a lack of effort to turn the hours of my life into money. Articles like this help to lessen that weakness.

But I bet that an equally significant part of why you are so interested in learning that new framework-generation framework is that you are nebulously worried about what will happen if you don’t.

Building an experimental Elephant As A Service side-project is no doubt going to be somewhat enjoyable in itself, but I don’t trust you to not be doing it for the CV and Hacker News points.

That rings true. I have a couple side projects I'd like to work on. That's not right. I wouldn't like to work on them. I would like to have worked on them. But the actual process of working on them isn't fun to me. That's why I do things like the Pomodoro technique to try and be productive (at home, no less -- I don't need it at work). I say, it's great experience, it's a useful time expenditure, it looks good to future employers. I don't say, wow I really enjoy learning AngularJS and wrestling with CSS to make a basic fucking responsive design that seems like it should take 30 seconds.

> I have a couple side projects I'd like to work on. That's not right. I wouldn't like to work on them. I would like to have worked on them.

A classic book is, of course, something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

"Artists daydream about having created great work" - Art and Fear

> That rings true. I have a couple side projects I'd like to work on. That's not right. I wouldn't like to work on them. I would like to have worked on them. But the actual process of working on them isn't fun to me

Ya, I seem to get into moods where I'll obsessively work on something then turn around and then lose the urge part way through. It is always that second 90% that bores me. ;)

I did funemployment for 3 months, too (11 months, if you consider part time work). This is a great post on it.

OP really hit the nail on the head -- one of the hardest parts of the time off is not having work-related goals and being OK with it. When you're employed it's easy to spend time imagining what you'd do with your time off. When you have this long stretch of time off, it's hard not to think about work. I was ashamed anytime my mind would drift to worrying about "what work will I do next?". In the end I think this is natural and OK, but it's important to fight the urges.

However, I don't agree that you should have 0 goals. You should have personal goals, just not work/career related goals (and OP kind of means this).

All of those non-work things you told yourself you want to do? Now is the time to do them. Travel the world, go backpacking for weeks in the woods, live out of your car, read too many books, appreciate art, volunteer. Take chances and explore.

The single biggest question you come to terms with in your time off will be "Who am I?".

You'll realize that since childhood you've always been working towards career/life goals. Get good grades in K-12, do well on SATs, get into a good college, choose a good major in school and work hard to learn, get internships, get that perfect job, work your way up the ladder in that job, get married, buy a house, have kids, make more money so your kids can repeat this cycle.

When you take the time off without goals in the typical "life flow" you'll have moments of existential crisis because you're not doing what you're "supposed" to be doing. These are important times. Learn to embrace the feeling. Smile and remind yourself that you're not doing what you're "supposed" to be doing because you're doing whatever the hell you want to do.

Just don't squander your unhinged time. Spend it wisely exploring the world and yourself.

When you get back to the "real world" you'll never see it the same again :)

> All of those non-work things you told yourself you want to do? Now is the time to do them.

No. Now it the time to do what you actually want to do, and not what you always thought you should do if you only had the time.

Have the courage to have no goals (says the grasshopper to the ant), at least for a while. Let tomorrow look after itself

I'm in the 'funemplyment' situation since december (with little bits of work here and there). After a good two to three months of terrifying nothingness I started noticing new desires and goals, many of them completely different from the 'bucket list' of should-do's I had accumulated over the previous post-college years of working as a freelancer (and consuming massive amounts of Hacker News).

I think if I had started working on my should-do's right away, I would've remained stuck in this Hacker News fueled desire to write an app, start a company, learn a new programming language, attend meetups, or 'hack my hourly rate'. And if I had traveled, I would've done so not to find solitude or adventure for the sake of it, but rather so I could tinker on some project or connect with 'interesting' people.

Now, I'm not arguing that these are bad goals. It's quite possible I will do these things too. But I'm very happy that I chose to 'do nothing' for a while, as it awakened old goals and desires that I had completely forgotten about since I started working.

Strongly agree with this. Travelling the world, doing an ambitious programming project, learning a new language or starting a hard weight lifting program is a whole lot of work. It's moving your ambitions away from one type of work that society says you should do, and moving it into another type of work that society says you should do.

The moral of this story is: Have the guts to take a step back from your goal systems for a few months. Don't worry. Be happy. Chill out. Relax. Have sex or whatever. Complete Portal 2 in one sitting. Eat more chocolate than you should.

Way too many of us have been overachievers our whole lives, and keep overachieving even when we have the opportunity to refrain from doing so. This article, which I found brilliant, says that you should try to stop doing this for a while, and see how it makes you feel. If you can feel the existential angst come on full bore, you might want to take a step back and think about what that means.

The single biggest question you come to terms with in your time off will be "Who am I?".

Yep. Did about 2 years of funemployment (including freelancing and an attempted startup), and one of the things that still gets me to this day is "Who am I? Why am I living? What is the purpose of this? What is the Big Plan?". Not in a depressive sense, mind you, but in a very questioning way.

Once you've been doing it for a month or two, and you see that the world continues to spin without all of that stuff you were raised as seeing as so important, you really start to question what's actually important in life.

At least for me, it changed my approach to interviews completely--the person interviewing me is just some gal or dude, and there's nothing special about them other than that they have a say in my hiring.

Between startup fluctuations I've - practically speaking - been unemployed but financially stable.

I must say, I lose my mind not having "a project" or work. For the author, his project was pushing stop, not forming goals and playing Starcraft. Good for him!

I'd get depressed without a cognitively challenging project at least on the horizon.

For some people, keeping their minds busy and dreaming is their "junk tv" - often in the form of work.

> For some people, keeping their minds busy and dreaming is their "junk tv" - often in the form of work.

I'm not sure if you're using the 'junk tv' analogy as an explanation or self-criticism (or something else), but it seems to me like 'junk tv' is a good analogy to explain why even for self-challenging individuals it might be good to not do this for a while, in the same way that not watching junk tv, or spending some time in silence might be worthwhile for over-consuming or overly chatty individuals.

"When you get back to the "real world" you'll never see it the same again :)"

I've been thinking about taking 9 months off (specifically traveling China, and learning Mandarin).

I'm worried that with all that taste of freedom I'll have an even harder time coming back and sitting in an office 8hrs/day (some weeks it's already like pulling teeth)

Then don't. It's really pretty easy to get in to contract programming (making assumptions here). Especially if you default to long-term contracts. It's basically like a job but you get to pick how many hours you put in.

You will feel like that and it's a good thing. There's plenty of life outside of an 8hr/day desk job.

Don't be afraid :) Your desk job will always be there.

Won't I condemn myself to be always restless and always working just enough to be able to quit and run away again?

Perhaps. What's wrong with that?

Taking five months off and playing Starcraft is great if that's what you really want to do, but I feel like the topic of "funemployment" would be better served by people really thinking about what they want to do with their free time.

For example, I have some friends who took a summer off and biked from Saskatchewan (Canada), through the Rockies, and down to California. It changed their lives.

Personally, I've always wanted to take a month to backpack and explore in the Rockies — instead of a four day weekend here and there.

It sounds like OP just wanted to play video games. I've been there in my life, so I can relate. However, it's a tragic use of time that could be spent exploring the world.

I did 3 months backpacking in America's best national parks. There were so many amazing experiences I'll never forget. But most of all, the feeling of freedom.

My life will never be the same after doing that. Of course, it's changed for the better.

You absolutely should backpack the rockies! In Colorado alone, you could spend 3 months. Flat tops, ouray, sand dunes, rocky mountain nat'l park, Aspen, San Juans etc. etc. But don't forget that Canada has Rockies, too. Jasper national park is high on my bucket list this summer.

I think the OP was just trying to pick an easily accessible activity so he could focus on getting his point across. As a newbie to backpacking knowing if I have the right gear, what to do, where to go, can I even do this? could cloud the reader and miss the whole point of his article.

That sounds like an incredible experience. I live in Calgary, so the Rockies are never far. =)

Last week I talked to a person who quit his job to do some soul-searching. He spent last 8 month traveling, helping a few startups, living in San-Francisco(for a month), and doing some fun part-time work.

His advice was "have a few goals". You can quit your job and have a few fun months, but after that you'll have to return back to your previous life and problems that you had will be likely unresolved.

I am curious: what kind of change happened to your friends' lives? I'd like to take a few months off work, but I am considering a more directed approach than funemployment. Funemployment is certainly great for some people, but probably not for me.

I think the biggest thing was that they learned they could do it. There's a huge boost in confidence when you can pull off something like that. One is considering quitting his cushy office job and becoming a carpenter. He doesn't feel like he needs the safety net anymore.

That was my take on the original article too — it's important to have personal goals. That might be "getting to gold in SC2" but it could also be "survive a solo backpacking trip". The point is there's more too life than working.

It sounded like part of his point was to get more comfortable with not always being goal-oriented and not always thinking that they have to have plans and goals. For some people, the compulsion to always optimize their time and do big meaningful epic things (including things like taking a month backpacking in the Rockies instead of using that month to lounge around and decompress :) can become so strong as to be oppressive. After many years it can actually suck the joy out of life.

I hate the term "funemployment."

Look, it's great that you are financially secure enough that you can take half a year off. Seriously! I am happy for you. But most people aren't in that position. Most people are barely getting by, and for those folks, unemployment is terrifying, because unlike you they have no guarantees that a new gig will be available for them the moment they decide to start looking for one.

Part of the reason "funemployment" grates so much is because of an assumption buried inside it -- namely, that you will only be unemployed as long as you choose to be. It's fun in the same way a roller coaster is fun -- it's a simulation of risk presented inside an environment you know to be controlled. The sensation you get when a roller coaster crests a hill and starts downward is the same one you would get if an airplane you were on suddenly lurched into a steep dive. What makes the coaster fun is that you know it's going to pull out of the dive before you hit the ground and die. What makes the airliner plunge frightening is that you don't.

Unemployment is only fun if you know it's temporary. Programmers and other tech folks are among the very few in this job market who have that luxury. For everyone else, losing their job is an airliner plunge -- a sudden "oh shit" moment with no guarantees that it will end happily. So glib terms like "funemployment" kind of rub your good fortune in the faces of those who get a pink slip and wonder how they're going to make their next rent payment.

Interesting, I never though the term 'funemployment' would bother others, and in fact I liked the term because I figured it actually helped in distinguishing voluntary unemployment from the less pleasant version. Do you know this is the case, or are you speculating how people might feel?

I'd like to know, because In the former case I'll be more careful with the term, as I have a number of involuntarily unemployed friends and I don't want to make them feel worse than already do (some of them, anyways).

Couldn't have explained it better myself.

I was on funemplyment for 2 years while I drove from Alaska to Argentina - it changed my life and gave me the perspective I needed to understand my place in the world. For me, work is a means to live the life I want to live, it's not my life.

Up here in the Yukon, tons of my friends are funemployed, doing all the things one never seems to find time for - knitting, a big vegetable garden, hunting, fishing, building a log cabin, etc. etc. It's hard to imagine where there is time for work!

How are your funemployed friends financing their lifestyles? Are they single or married?

They have a small amount of savings, they live a very cheap life - no phone, no TV, no new car. They live off the land a little (hunting, fishing, vegetable garden) etc. etc.

EDIT: I should add, some are single, some are married, some have kids.

Over time I've started to frame my current phase of 'funemployment' as I a form of hitchhiking; I do set goals, but I try to make sure they're relatively meaningless. Along the way, better goals often present themselves. With hitchhiking I did this by picking a random city to hitchhike toward.

On the one hand, having these goals during my funemployment keep me from the utterly depressing and maddening nothingness I've experienced when I left things completely open (I have a personal post titled 'Why do I get up in the morning?' from such a period that hurts to read).

On the other hand, it keeps me from pursuing, as others here have pointed out, the should-do goals that are really mostly left-overs from my hard-work-to-succeed days. I feel now that these goals were not as essential to my short- or long-term happiness as I thought initially.

Perhaps others are better at this, though. My brain just seems to implode or create problems for the sake of it when it is not almost obsessively occupied with something, however pointless it may be, and I've been this way since I was a child. It's possible I have ADHD or some form of OCD.

I can admire the philosophy of funemployment, but I wonder if it's a life-stage thing. What I mean is that it seems like you have to first do all the opposite things to achieve the freedom to be funemployed. My son is a teenager and is naturally funemployed. I admire his ability to avoid the responsibility and work-drive that weighs me down. But if I let him continue, will he not end up unemployed rather than have the ability to be funemployed? How do you strike the right balance?

Good question. I'm 28, turning 29 in a month. I start business 3.5 years ago.

I'm now at the point where I expect to make about $50,000 in residual revenue this year + maybe $20,000 active revenue. I might make more, but that's my minimum estimate.

I'm at the point where I could put things in maintenance mode, and keep the residual income around $50,000 without much work.

2.5 years (the first ones) were a grueling struggle. The past year things paid off, and I'm in easy mode.

My biggest regret is that I did not discover how to do this at age 18 (or earlier). To have your whole 20s free is a gift that few get to enjoy. I've just had a couple years of mostly freedom and I love every day of it.

I don't know if the terrible struggle I had at the start was necessary. I'm not even sure if I could have done it while with my parents. Failing meant getting a job, so I focussed on revenue from the start. If I had an out, I might not have been so focussed.

Your son won't end up unemployed. But he'll probably end up employed. Whereas a brief spurt of work can fund fundemployment for life, if you set up the right systems.

But you have to want it. You can't make him want it. All you can do is show him what life is like for most, and describe the alternative and what he can do to get it, if he wants it.

After working in SF for ~6 months, I returned to Oklahoma to graduate from University. That turned into 4 months of fun-employment in Arkansas.

Things I learned:

- You can live about 4 months in Arkansas on 1 month of SF rent.

- When you set goals for yourself and miss them, it is very easy to isolate the cause. You.

- Time seems to pass slower.

I have never heard of this, and I can't even begin to say how timely this is for me.

I left my startup in late 2012. I was completely burned out. Founding a startup was so hard that I had to change my self-concept to an Important Person who Never Wastes Time in order to cope. I lost the ability to do "useless" things. For example, I couldn't motivate myself to play music because I'd never be as good as real musicians. I knew this was stupid, but I still couldn't get rid of it.

I keep telling myself I will really stop worrying about work to recuperate, but I can never bring myself to do it. I had been thinking about how I could bring that older, better part of myself back, and I think you may have introduced it to me. Thanks!

What helped me make the switch was to move to a different city (and country, technically). That might not be an option for you, but if it is you might want to try that. You might even be able to stretch out your 'funemployment' over a longer period if you go to a cheap city, if find that you like it, of course!

Echoes of ludic life as defined by Bob Black in the Abolition of Work. http://www.primitivism.com/abolition.htm

Thanks for posting that. I used to have that article bookmarked long ago, and I had forgotten about it. It was a strong influence that lead to my early efforts to deprogram myself from the cult of work. "Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment." Brilliant.

Is anyone else who has tried this married with kids? We have the savings, but even though my wife is on board in theory, we have 3 youngish kids. It feels like it would be hard not to feel guilty when my wife is caring for them and cleaning and I'm "wasting" time. Any tips?

I'm probably not the one to be giving advice on the matter, but there are some pretty nice ways of wasting time that aren't reading and playing video games. At least for me, taking care of kids and simple chores like doing the dishes are both fantastic ways to not be a bum without actually doing anything that I consider to be work. It might just be a perspective thing regarding what counts as "wasting" time.

Yeah you're right of course. I worry though that to "do it right", to get rid of my pathological need to work that I have to go too far the other direction for a while. Not that I wouldn't do dishes and stuff like I do now, but if I'm worried about what I should be doing every day it kind of defeats the purpose. Maybe I'm more worried about it than I should, but I'm pretty sure I use being busy as a shield against being 50% househusband. (I realize this I stupid. I wish being self aware were enough to change a thing)

Wow, I am a big fan of following your passions but wonder if you will regret that time spent playing "Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball" when you could have been doing something more full filling.

I think the point is that you learn what's actually fulfilling by doing the things you think are fulfilling. If he plays "Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball" for six months straight and then decides he hates video games, well, he's learned something. If someone on the Internet tells him "Couldn't you be doing something more fulfilling?" - how the hell would a random stranger know what's personally fulfilling for him?

I used to be big into Magic: the Gathering and MMORPGs and Starcraft as a teenager. I'm not really, now; I'll play Starcraft with buddies once every couple months but it's not part of my normal routine. But I don't regret the time spent mastering game mechanics in my adolescence. That was who I was then; it's not who I am now, but it played an essential part in shaping who I am now. (Particularly since my first major programming project, like many people, was trying to build a MUD, and I taught myself C, C++, BSD sockets, Java, and OOP all for it...which turned out to be rather important when the dot-com boom hit a couple years later.)

When I was young I didn't know any better, and just spent my time doing stupid, unfulfilling things because I was a teenage idiot and didn't know there even were better ways to spend my time.

As I got older, I was exposed to more and more amazing and inspiring things in the world, which motivated me to spend my time seeking out new and cool things to do and places to explore. My time was way too limited and important to waste doing things that wouldn't expand my horizons in some way.

As I got older than that, I realized that I was killing myself by never allowing myself to just relax. Work shouldn't be 100% optimized and neither should life. It takes a toll. It might take 20-30 years, but it does take a toll. Now I try to always have some amount of time every week (every day even) where I don't have to always be doing something fulfilling or enriching. I just do whatever I feel like doing during these times, which is sometimes constructive and sometimes not. Point being, I don't worry about it. These times allow me to recharge and rejuvenate before diving into whatever epic activity I've convinced myself I have to do because life is too short, etc. etc. etc.

TL;DR: appreciating the finer things in life is important, but learning to appreciate both the finer and coarser things is Nirvana.

As someone who is no longer a beginner: consider listening to this guy. It can be a net win for some of us.

I've lived a sometimes extreme version this for the past 8 years, mostly on the pacific coast of South America. My first few years were rough because I didn't know what I was doing, and it's a powerful experience that may not be for everyone, but I wish everyone had the opportunity to test it out.

In my beginner years, I was waaaay worse at networking than anyone reading this. The jobs I picked up were so bad, and so badly paid, and in such a bad market for software, that I dropped programming for money and spent the first three years of my funemployment doing union carpentry and union meat packing in the United States -- for 3 months a year. It turns out that 9 months surfing and 3 months of hard, enjoyable physical labor is a pretty winning combination, so I was pretty happy, but I eventually got into Ruby contracting for agencies.

During my funemployment in South America, I kept my love affair with code alive in a big way. I learned Ruby and its massive standard library pretty well, and also learned a new framework called Merb (which together with DataMapper made a heck of a lot more sense to me than Rails); I worked my way through 'On Lisp' for the second time; I saw the release of Arc and, giddy with excitement, took it apart from the comfort of a hammock; I experimented with Ruby metaprogramming by writing a program to play workout music and call out station changes for Crossfit workouts; I wrote an app for a friend's document translation business; I wrote a simple call-forwarding SaaS to teach myself Twilio and Paypal integration; I worked through the EMYCIN examples in Norvig's PAIP in Ruby ... all way less than part-time.

Most important to me personally, I finally ended up with a passion project that I actually cared a lot about.

A few years ago I fell utterly in love with CoffeeScript, and while walking along a road that leads to Liguiqui, in Manabì, I realized that I knew enough about the CoffeeScript AST that I could add Lisp-style macros to it, without even forking the language. I quickly sketched it out in a notebook, and for the next month or so I spent at least a few hours each week exploring the idea, which I got down to 100 lines (http://mrluc.github.io/macros.coffee/docs/macros.html) and eventually presented to Ruby.mn when I came back to the States.

I'm not an expert on 'funemployment' -- but I'm not a beginner anymore, and it's been remarkably good to me, and I sing its praises to people who have the means to try it out. I just turned 31 and though my retirement savings are quite meager, I have some land and a house in South America now, and a great network of friends and family in both the US and abroad, and coupled with my ability to work remotely (even on connections as small as 5k/s), well, I feel pretty thankful.

A beginner's guide to become inert and lazy

What's the point of being "productive" if you're just going to die and the universe is going to eventually come to an end anyway?

I think that not being "productive" is scorned simply because most people are forced into involuntary wage-slave "productivity", and those people hate others who escape it.

But it's also scorned by those who employ the wage-slaves. The profits of "productivity" accrues mostly to the employers, and those who eschew this state of things must therefore be condemned.

True. But is being inert and lazy a bad thing? Can we get more out of life by allowing ourselves to relax?

lol...well said

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