My friend Chris had a perfectly good, secure, well-paying job as a chemist up until a few weeks ago, when he quit. When he announced it on Facebook, he received a virtual round of approving applause, hundreds of likes and 100-plus comments. A few hours later, he logged back on to say thanks, and that he never thought that his resignation letter would be his most popular post ever. (he also fixed the typo in the letter before sending it, FYI)
I clicked “Like,” too. I was excited for Chris. I knew he was leaving his office life and taking a chance on riding his bike, writing, and doing freelance social media consulting and seeing what happened. Everyone else, whether or not they had details about his next adventure or not, seemed to like it, too.
A few weeks later, another friend posted this, celebrating another person quitting their job:
I wondered: is this a thing? I mean, we all still love birthdays, engagement announcements, babies, and weddings, but we also have a thing for celebrating someone who walks away from a career and toward something else. It can be as simple as “I’m leaving my job to go live in my car and climb full-time for a while” or “I’m leaving Company X to start my own business, something I’ve always been passionate about.”
There are dozens of iterations of the American Dream, from owning a house to eating a cheeseburger with a hot dog on top of it, but most people would agree that freedom is a theme that runs through every variation—freedom to eat high-cholesterol meat sandwiches, or freedom to paint the walls in our kitchen hot pink. Freedom from a job we don’t like, or have just grown weary of, is pretty near the top of American Dreams, even if we don’t realize it until retirement. Who hasn’t found themselves thinking, in a long staff meeting, for just a second, about never having to go to another one of those staff meetings again? Daydreaming about owning a coffee shop, traveling, climbing five days a week, or finishing that stack of books that keeps piling up on our bedside table because we never seem to have enough time? Those people who escape become a sort of hero.
My friend Nick was an electrical engineer for years, falling increasingly out of love with his commute and the work, and brewed beer at his house as a hobby. Finally, he put together enough money to start his own brewery, quit his job, and said goodbye to the hour-long commute to the office. Three years after it opened its doors on South Broadway, Westword named it the Best Brewery Tap Room in Denver.
Not all new businesses succeed (the majority actually fail within five years), and most people who take off on an endless climbing road trip eventually end it to do something else with their lives. But they had a taste of that freedom, even if it was only for a few months. There aren’t too many people living without participating in the money system, so most of us work. But there is joy in celebrating the “fuck this” moment of leaving a job and starting over, whether it’s ours or someone else’s (and whether or not there’s a solid contingency plan in place). Someone is escaping the drudgery or semi-drudgery of a job, and they become a sort of hero to the rest of us.
In his 2013 book, Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West, author Dan Schultz discusses our obsession with outlaw heroes. Obviously he’s talking about people like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy, but I think in a much smaller scale, what he says is applicable to the people we see ditching the secure career for something uncertain:
“The main reason the ideal of an outlaw hero resonates so broadly in our society, why we have created a peculiarly American variety within our broader national myth of the American West is that the Western outlaw hero is a twisted extension of core American values. The desperate outlaw on the run not only had the freedom of the free-roaming cowboy disengaged with society; he pushed back at subjugating social forces— the relentless press of civilization and regulation. … In cheering for the outlaw hero, we are making a psychological stand for freedom, standing up to authoritarianism and dehumanizing social forces.”
Our world has changed a lot in the century since Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy roamed the West, and we gravitate to far different stories, and sometimes more relatable ones. While no one will make a movie about Joe in the next cubicle turning in his badge one day to bicycle across the country, or our friend Jenny who turned her after-work hobby into a full-time career, those people sure do make for good contemporary outlaw heroes—so much so, we can almost see ourselves doing it someday.