Freedom Through Contracting

"What do you do for a living?  How do you get the time off?"  People I encounter on long distance hikes are often curious about how exactly one manages to get away for 4-6 months at a time.  Those who have their heart set on a thru hike find ways to make it happen.   Some hikers quit their job and worry about finding another after the hike, often working seasonally at ski resorts or bars.  Some are taking time off between jobs or after finishing a degree.  Some wait until retirement or negotiate a sabbatical.  I was in the second camp for my first hike, squeezing in the PCT hike between two jobs.  However, natural transition periods are limited, and a pattern of job hopping every 6 months isn't looked upon kindly by many prospective employers.  For me, the solution was ultimately to not have an employer.  Contract work has granted me the freedom to live out my dreams now, while maintaining a career and saving aggressively for the future.

My official title is relief veterinarian.  Instead of being employed at a single clinic, I fill in when a clinic is short staffed.  Usually this is due to vacation or medical/maternity leave, or cases where a clinic is growing and needs extra help but isn't quite ready to hire another full time associate.  My city has enough demand to provide full time opportunity and I book a few months out.  As in my associate days, I work an irregular schedule with many long shifts and weekends, but somehow a terrible schedule that I chose is easier to accept than the same terrible schedule assigned by an employer.  My job is fundamentally the same as when I was an associate, but I'm far more satisfied and fulfilled by it.  Control over how I spend my time is the crucial difference.  Rather than being restricted to whatever amount of PTO my employer allots me, I determine how much time off I want.  When I hiked the Continental Divide Trail this summer, I didn't have to quit my job or negotiate an unpaid leave of absence.  I simply informed the clinics that I contract with that I'd be unavailable for 4 months and would be booking work again in the fall.  The freedom is addicting, and having experienced it, I don't see myself ever returning to traditional employment.  The corollary of unlimited time off is that it's also easy to work more when I want to earn more.  Working 60+ hour weeks for years on end would burn me out, but it's easy to sustain motivation when I know that sacrificing some days off for a limited term will buy time to pursue my next big adventure.  

This path does have some added responsibility.  I cover all of my own benefits and when I don't work, I don't get paid.   Living well below my means is essential both to allow for time off and to keep a slow month or two from sinking me financially.  I devote significant amounts of time to lining up work and educating myself on business management and tax planning, though as a personal finance nerd, the latter isn't much of a drawback.  For me, the sacrifice seems trivial relative to the control over my life that I've gained.  I'd encourage anyone interested in this route to have a significant emergency fund and consider doing it on the side first to gauge the local demand for their skills.  Additionally, I worked as a vet for nearly 5 years before making the transition to relief work.  The skills and financial cushion I built during that time were essential for me to feel comfortable striking out on my own.     

My path may not be possible in every profession, but it's an established option in many.  You might be labeled as a freelancer, a contractor, or a travel practitioner.  Making the switch could require years of building a clientele from scratch or could be as easy as signing a contract with an agency.  If an entire decade of slaving away at your corporate grind seems unfathomable, take a look at your options.  Freedom may be closer than you think.  


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