One of the wonderful things about traveling is that it helps you see yourself differently. Being in San Francisco, for example, made it excruciatingly clear that Chicago is as flat as a pancake and hellish in summer. Being in Seattle made me realize that Chicago is dense, gritty, and exciting. Hiking on lush, green Mount Rainier made me better understand the dry, alpine landscapes I once hiked in Aspen.

What I also noticed while I was traveling was other people’s careers. And other people’s money. Which made me think about my career, and my money.

In expensive San Francisco, I overheard a guy discussing his new job with a friend. They were discussing salary negotiations; he had asked for $80,000 a year, which to his friend sounded reasonable. They both looked younger than me.

Also in San Francisco, we stayed with very dear friends, who both work for really cool nonprofits. I noticed the structure and intensity of their work lives. They have a professional dress code and heavy workloads. They’re the new kids at the office, adjusting to office politics and proving themselves — and while it’s exhausting, it’s also challenging and exciting. There’s a clear space for them, a job description, a defined role in an organization that’s doing great work.

Then we visited another pair of dear friends at the new house they bought in Sacramento. They are the most amazing friends and and I can’t wait to go back and stay with them at this beautiful place, year after year.

Are you hearing this, Chicago friends? Bought? House? This just isn’t something that’s happening a whole lot in my peer group of freelance musicians here. But it’s also not that uncommon, to get your first mortgage in your late twenties. It took a moment for me to wrap my head around it, to realize that I’ve taken a path that will put me “behind” my friends financially for years.

What I found myself thinking was, am I crazy for doing what I’m doing? Surely somewhere, if I got lucky, there’s a job I could get which is actually secure. One that has a salary and health insurance and a job description and paid time off with my name on it. Yet instead of looking for that job, I am doing a job which somehow combines scales and arpeggios, stretching & strengthening, Excel spreadsheets, graphic design, social media, project management, small-group democracy, and event planning — for the kind of money that is nowhere near “commensurate with experience.”

When I look at what I really want in the long term, I can see clearly that I’m doing what I need to do. Neoconservative career advice lady, Penelope Trunk, is right when she says that the path to your dream job is full of twists and turns.

But I also need to recognize my choices for what they are. For every path we take, there’s another path we leave behind. I’ve made a choice to live with much less — in exchange for building something of my own. And maybe the living with less part is the part I need to get better at.

So when we got home from our trip, we went grocery shopping and promised not to eat out for a couple of weeks.  We decided we’re not moving to a different apartment, because moving costs too much money. We went through our closets and got rid of everything we don’t really need. And it made our living space feel bigger and brighter. I’m reacquainting myself with my violin, and there’s a small pile of music on my stand for our show next weekend.

Instead of buying new furniture, we rearranged the old stuff. And you know what? It looks pretty good.

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