How To Make A Living Without A Job

May 01, 2024

I once took a class called “How to Make a Living Without a Job.” It must have been in the early 90s because I took this class with my dad. It was at the now defunct Open U, a community education center in the Twin Cities offering classes on everything from weaving to writing. This was a pivotal moment in my life. Around the same time, I was also taking classes on how to backpack around the world. I learned what to pack, what not to pack, how to find a place to stay and how to use the European rail system.

I was on the brink of a travel jag that lasted about seven years contemplating how to earn money without having to show up for work. It worked.

Honestly, I think it hit home for me when my friends were making plans to go see The Grateful Dead at Alpine Valley and I wasn’t able to get out of work. I thought, never again.

For the past 30 years, I’ve generated autonomous sources of income, sprinkled in with restaurant jobs where the shifts were still flexible.

The world has changed radically since I took that class. Remember the early 90s? I didn’t even have an email address back then and an international call was expensive and poor quality. The phrase ‘laptop lifestyle’ would have conjured a very different kind of image in those days.

But the principles I learned in that class still hold merit.

The one I remember the most was the concept of spinning multiple plates. The visual seared into my memory as the teacher waved her arms in the air the way one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Togas, did when she was enthusiastically describing the Prime Meridian in geography class.

Focus on one stream of income, and get some momentum going on that. Then, get another plate spinning. Give it your attention and then as the first one starts to wobble, get back to it before it crashes on the ground. When you’ve got your balance, start a third, and so on.

What this might look like in these modern times is to earn money from subscriptions on Substack, get paid to speak and offer workshops. You’re staying in your area of expertise and the current of income ebbs and flows based on where you’re focusing your attention.

You may decide to genre jump and, to give an example from a period in my life, teach yoga to children, work a shift at a restaurant one night a week and earn commission selling natural health solutions. Oh, and sell T-shirts in the parking lot when you do get to a Grateful Dead concert.

My first foray into making a living without a job was on a three-week trip to Europe with my cousin. One of the spinning plates the teacher suggested was a newsletter – printed and mailed in those days. At the time, I liked beer. And I love to write so I started a newsletter called Beers Around the World. Turns out European beers are much stronger than American beers and after overserving myself in the name of research one too many times, and never getting a newsletter published, I canned the idea. This is something to note as well. Not all ideas for an income stream will pan out.

As I traveled, I discovered exquisite, handcrafted fabrics and started shipping them home to sell at markets and festivals over the summer. This one panned out much better. My import company, Serendipity Imports, was a plate that spun for many years. I imported fabrics from Zimbabwe, Bali, India and Indonesia. It fulfilled my need for purpose as well because I was able to work directly with the women artisans and support their work with no middleman.

This was a case of work supporting life, not life supporting work as it seems to be in traditional jobs.

The main takeaway from this class for me was to be creative and be brave.

It reminded me of Ben Franklin’s quote about trading freedom for security. "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Safety is subjective and yet it’s the primary reason people stay employed. More exposure feels scary.  The trick I’ve learned over the years is to find the balance between autonomy and comfort/safety. When self-employed, I get to call the shots. I’ve got my foot on the gas…and the breaks. I step out of my comfort zone and do it with self-awareness and self-regulation. This looks different for each of us. We get to be different and do life and business our way. 

Being employed isn’t nearly as safe as it used to be. The world is changing rapidly. Companies are trying to keep up. Being employed can feel like you're a deckhand on a ship roiling in the ocean about to be taken by a mutiny. Time to grab the dingy and start spinning plates!

We all have something to offer, and although thousands or even millions of others are doing this same work, no one will do it like you. You can spin just one plate if you prefer, fast or slow. It can be large or small. Some plates spin for a long time without constant effort. You may have a theatrical flair for plate spinning like my geography teacher and the teacher of this class, or you may prefer quiet simplicity. This is the beauty of your own income stream, and how to make a living without a job.


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