How I Got Richer By Giving Myself an 80% Pay Cut

Reflections from a recovering achievement addict

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By my mid-30s, I had achieved a lot. I had a Harvard degree and an MBA from a top business school. I was a Director at a big deal consulting firm. I owned a beautiful condo in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco. In other words I was “successful” by most traditional definitions. I had spent a decade and a half cultivating the perfect, fake-plant life — shiny and lush from afar, but lacking texture and vibrance up close.

In my honest, quiet moments, I admitted to myself that it felt empty. What I had managed to do was construct a lifestyle. But I had failed to connect with life.

Taking a hard look at my camera-ready reality, I could see that I was spending crazy amounts of time and energy on keeping up. It was not about keeping up with the Joneses. I was struggling (and suffering) to keep up with the lifestyle of my own creation. I had created a Frankenstein monster. My lifestyle was a high-maintenance beast. And I was exhausted from always running always hustling to feed it.

I realized that my priorities were all out of whack and I began to experience a nagging desire to put meaning before money. Only, I had no idea how to do that. There was so much fear and conditioning to overcome. I had spent my whole life being trained to focus on achievement as a ticket to emotional safety and financial security.

After trying many things, I found three practices that helped me build up the courage to give myself an 80% pay cut… in exchange for greater freedom and fulfillment.

Practice 1: Leaving behind the familiar. Shaking up my routines — by traveling, and by taking on new challenges closer to home — helped me build self awareness. Seeing myself out of my usual element more often has made me more adept at observing my own patterns. Often times the structures and systems that we find ourselves in tend to reinforce a certain self-concept. Putting myself into unfamiliar situations has helped me see some of the things that kept me stuck.

Practice 2: Questioning what seems true. Meeting new people and trying on new ideas has helped shine a bright light on my default belief system. Embracing interactions with people who have had difference experiences and hold different perspectives is challenging and disruptive. When we entertain so-called ‘crazy’ new possibilities, we invite courage and embrace curiosity. This has allowed me to see habitual choices that I never challenged as choices before.

Practice 3: Giving permission to play. As adults, we often get burdened with all the work we have to do to maintain our reputation and meet our responsibilities. Creating space to explore new passions, new projects, and new ways of behaving, without judging them, can be hugely supportive to change.  Giving myself permission to play and have fun has relaxed my drive to achieve. I now see the episodes of my life as experiences and experiments – not as a series of achievements, successes and failures. As my inner critic gets quieter, my creativity grows bolder.

Simple perhaps, but not easy. After months of integrating these mindset shifts, the pull of discontent eventually began to outweigh the gravity of comfort. I decided to leave my corporate job. I moved out of my meticulously furnished flat, waved farewell to family and friends, and took my life on the road.

No boss. No schedule. No place to call home.

I dove into life, heart first. I have soaked up stimulating experiences, fascinating people, and awe-inspiring nature. Ten days of silent meditation. A five-day trek into the jungle. Intense heartfelt connections. Moments of unbearable confusion and loneliness. Laughing crying. Crying laughing.

This life is not always rosy. But it is real; it is raw; and it is rich.

I feel rich because I own my time. As an independent coach and consultant, I can work from anywhere that has Wi-Fi. I choose the people I want to work with and the projects I want to work on. I have the freedom and discretion to say no to business opportunities if they do not match my values or do not fit my schedule.

Now the majority of my working hours are spent dreaming up and making things that matter to me. I created a unique retreat experience designed to spark change for on-purpose women who are making moves to embrace meaningful work.

I used to think money would afford me many things… security, freedom, pleasure, love… I was surprised to notice these things pouring in effortlessly as I relaxed my grip on the pursuit of wealth. I am no longer focused on money as the means to these ends. And I enjoy much more richness in my life as a result.

  • I travel lighter. My monthly expenses are now on the order of hundreds of dollars, not thousands. I only buy and carry the minimum essential things that I love and need, and leave behind the things I merely like and want.
  • I live in choice. I wake up and shape every day from scratch. I choose whether to stay where I am or go somewhere new. I choose what to do with my time, what to think about and work on, and who to spend my time with. 
  • I learn all the time. I am always interested in opportunities to stretch myself and I consciously invest in my learning and growth — whether through formal training and workshops or exposure to new people and experiences.
  • I am deeply connected. My most treasured friendships have endured these ground-shaking changes in my life, while more superficial connections have gradually fallen away. I have developed new bonds with people around the world that feel much deeper than many of my longstanding friendships.
  • I feel supported. I value my inter-dependence over my independence. I feel more comfortable reaching out to ask for help. I am consistently surprised at how excited people are to support me. I trust and allow myself to receive this. 

I have less money coming into my bank account and I have fewer things that I own these days. Yet I feel infinitely richer in terms of my experience of life. There is more freedom, more choice, more growth and more connection. I have time and space to create what I care most about. I am living and working on purpose.

Wendy May is a leadership consultant, executive coach, and creator of Life Reboot — a unique transformational retreat experience for women. Learn more  at and follow @kaistara on Facebook and Instagram.

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