Wednesday 18 September 2019

Work smart: How to leave your 9-5 and have a 'free-range career'

Marianne Cantwell ditched the office and made her worklife work for her. Anyone can create the life they love, she tells Rosa Silverman

Free and easy: Marianne Cantwell has written a book about creating a 'free-range' working style
Free and easy: Marianne Cantwell has written a book about creating a 'free-range' working style

You've lately returned from holiday, where you snatched a tantalising glimpse of a better, more fulfilling existence. You try to suppress the suspicion there might be more to life than sitting in an air-conditioned office, for what good does it do when you've mouths to feed and bills to pay? What choice do you really have?

A lot, actually, argues Marianne Cantwell, who has spent the past decade finding out. A fully updated new edition of her 2013 book, Be a Free Range Human, is out today, and she is keener than ever to share the lessons she has learned since walking away from her corporate career in 2008 and taking a very different path. The 37-year-old Australian was in her late 20s when she ditched a City of London consulting job and started coaching others in the art of career change.

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Her book is billed as a guide to help readers "escape their career cage and create a life they love, so they don't have to leave a part of themselves - or their 'weirdness' - at the door in order to fit in at work". Free-ranging, she writes, is "the Third Way between jobs and high-risk entrepreneurship. This is a new game, with new rules. No funding, no big risky investment, no premises or staff, but bags of personality, play and freedom."

Which all sounds very appealing. But how do you convert the dream into a reality?

"One of the key steps is to do free-range projects where you take the kernel of your idea and find a way to bring it to life in two weeks to a month," says Cantwell over the phone from New York (being free-range, she divides her time between the US and London). "The best information isn't going to come from Googling, it's going to come from doing. When you do a project, you learn what works for you."

Even the time-poor can schedule the hours for the groundwork needed to break out and do something different, she suggests. "When it comes to making time for yourself, put it in the diary in the same way you would a doctor's appointment. Especially as women, we keep our appointments and promises to others and break them with ourselves. The people I've seen achieve the most success are not those who have the most time available, it's those who are used to juggling the most commitments."

If it sounds like fridge magnet-style inspirational wisdom, it is nonetheless true that modern technology untethers more and more of us from the physical limits of the office and enables a freer style of working. Some, but by no means all, of those Cantwell has helped have used their new freedom to travel while earning from something they enjoy. Others are spending more time with their families.

In her book, we meet free-range humans like Carla Watkins, who swapped a job in a big finance company for a portfolio career including a web design business, a stationery subscription box, teaching burlesque classes and "be-a-real-mermaid experiences for events and parties", as well as photography for entrepreneurs. There is also Grace Marshall, who rejected the corporate life and became a life coach while parenting two young children.

"The conversation is changing," observes Cantwell. "We're starting to lose our faith in big organisations. I saw that in 2008 initially [she quit her job around the time of the financial crisis], and we're seeing the same thing now. A job feels secure until the moment it isn't. A free-range life might not feel secure, but you have flexibility and agency."

Fewer people, she believes, are willing to make the "employment compromise" - to do a job that leaves them feeling dead on the inside in return for false promises of comfortable living standards and weekends free to do as they please. "People are feeling massively unfulfilled," she says. "We never used to take our work home on our phones. That's happening now. This isn't what our grandparents' generation knew as work. Our hours are different, our stresses are different."

She is the first to acknowledge that giving up the rat race and following your heart can end badly. That is why you need to play to your strengths, rather than follow a tailor-made plan (such as those offered by other self-help books, perhaps). In other words, think about what you're actually good at, rather than trying to squeeze yourself into a pre-existing mould.

Thinking of quitting your job and going free-range? We meet two people who did just that.

Additional reporting by Arlene Harris

Be A Free Range Human by Marianne Cantwell is in bookshops now

'A lot of people thought I was a little crazy'

Annie Lavin

Dubliner Annie Lavin worked as a teacher for years before she decided to study psychology and eventually set up her own business as a relationship coach.

“I was in a permanent pensionable job as a teacher when seven years ago I decided to give it all up and pursue a master’s degree in psychology,” she says. “A lot of people thought I was a little crazy as this was during the height of the recession so it seemed like madness to throw away a secure job. Had I listened to them I wouldn’t be here today but I decided to trust myself and follow my heart as I knew it was something I really wanted to do.”

After completing her master’s, Annie got a job as an assistant psychologist and then as a psychology lecturer before deciding that she was sufficiently ‘upskilled’ to branch out on her own and set up as The Relationship Coach  (

“I have always been interested in relationships both from a personal and professional viewpoint and knew I could make a difference to people’s lives,” she says. “So I followed my instinct to become a relationship coach and learned as much as I could about it. There were no role models for me in Ireland so I got coaching from experts in the UK and the US and did a diploma in marriage and relationship counselling.

“And this is what branching out on your own is all about — upskilling, researching and following your goal. My new venture is very successful and I am where I am today because of a combination of common sense and drive. I think success in this area is a little like love — a mixture of head and heart.”

'I'd prefer to do something and fail rather than not try at all'

Sarah Bridgeman

Sarah Bridgeman and her business partner Naomh Geday from Dublin set up, a venture aimed at bringing women of all backgrounds together to share ideas, network and make friends.

“We have been great friends since we were four years old and although Naomh worked as a makeup artist and I as a teacher (psychology and mental health awareness), we regularly talked about doing something different with our lives,” says the mother-of-three. “When we had our children first (Sarah has three under 8 while Naomh has two under 6) we began to realise that there wasn’t a lot of stuff out there for women who weren’t working. We tend to put ourselves at the bottom of the priority list and when we do have a couple of hours to ourselves, we usually just wander around the shops and spend money we can’t afford rather than going home to clean the house.

 “So we came up with the idea of a breakfast club where women could come together to meet others, have something to eat and listen to some motivational speakers.”

Last June the pair launched their first breakfast event and in September 2018 it became a regular occurrence. They have now branched outside the capital with an upcoming event in Galway at the end of this month.

“The breakfasts proved to be really popular with women of every age group and demographic,” she says. “And although we do have a play area and a ‘baby whisperer’ on hand, it’s not just mothers who come to the events as we have retired women and those who are in busy jobs also. 

“It is going really well and hopefully will continue to do so. I am the sort of person who would prefer to do something and fail rather than not try it at all and regret it 20 years down the line. So my advice to people who have a dream would be to ‘just do it’ — but set up slowly and have a back-up plan in case it doesn’t work out — you’ll either win or you’ll learn.”

Irish Independent

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