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Kevin Maguire is the envy of the anti-work movement
He lives in Spain and works three days a week, need I say more?
I’ve been something of a mess lately.
The job I have loved for so long has steadily become more stressful and demanding, my time steadily dwindling—this has been a slow seeping thing. After the beautiful slumber of 2020, a steady current of urgency rifled through 2021 until, by the end of it, I found myself completely and thoroughly depleted.
Standing in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle in January I found myself struck by anxiety, plagued by overwork, contorting my mind into infuriating states of agony about my health, the number of emails in my inbox, the fires still to put out, and the creative projects left on the table because of it.
I am not the sort of person to handle stress well—it sinks into my joints and makes them ache. It pours into my mind and turns to anxiety. It wants to while into depression if I let it get that far—but I don’t. Most of the time I am expert at maintaining my monkish peace.
Still, I have failed as of late. I had actually resolved to slow this newsletter down and focus on my day job and returning it to its former peaceful rhythm when I was accepted into the Substack fellowship program and resolved to not let this opportunity pass me by. It was wonderful, truly—if a rather hurried affair.
And within it, a beacon. One of my fellow fellowshippers is Kevin Maguire who writes The New Fatherhood. I’m not even a father and I read his newsletter for its simultaneous emotional strength and precarity. One one of our fellowship calls he mentioned not really having goals for the future of his newsletter, apart from helping other dads. He had a peaceful life, he said, living in Spain with his family, working 20 hours a week, and indulging in his newsletter as a creative pursuit on the side.
I was hooked, I wanted to reverse-engineer his life and make it mine, and thankfully he agreed to let me interview him about his shift from Google employee/Bay Area folk to remote creative in Spain—with all the balance and creativity and a bit less of the work. In short, goals. Here is our interview in full. (Made free for all subscribers!)
I would love to know all about the shift. What was the moment that everything changed for you and you realized you weren’t going to continue following the traditional path before you?
Hindsight is a strange beast, and we (or, more accurately, I) tend to look back from within the narrative we’ve created rather than understanding the period we once inhabited. But I’m quite confident it wasn’t just a single moment where everything changed, but more the coming together of many. A steady stream of small events that, once I was attuned to them, guided me to a world where my relationship with work would change forever and I’d finally begin what see through the illusion of what Seth Godin once called “the choice to embrace a story about compliance and convenience, and the search for status in a world constrained by scarcity.”
If I mark the bookends of that period of change, it started in a kitchen when I met a newly qualified career coach in the kitchen of a leafy Silicon Valley suburb (not my house, I must add), and ended with a terrible meeting with a manager at Google who accused me of trying to steal his job and nixed an upcoming promotion. That was a two-year shift, from a career path I was happily plodding my way through—a steady job, guaranteed income, the predictable-ish path forward to more money and more status—to a less defined one that many of us find ourselves on now, what Paul Millerd calls “The Pathless Path.”
I’d given everything to my job. And was confronted with the empty realization that it had left me with money in the bank, but nothing in the tank. I was spent. It was only by stepping away, and taking the time to read the right books, to talk to the right people, and to rethink my priorities, that I found the way forward:
“After landing my dream gig at Google in 2011, it felt like the final box had been checked off my career to-do list. I was on the inside of the company that constantly topped the best places to work, getting compensated well for it, with a clear path to work my way up. But—unbeknownst to me at the time—I’d reached the peak of my first mountain. I quickly started to see the paint flaking off the perfectly painted mural of my professional life. Just one example, from a list that could fill a book: a company-wide obsession with promotion. It was all everyone talked about, and the only meaningful measure of progress. But was it progress? Or was it an incremental number to your artificial "job level", to stroke your ego, add some digits to your bank account, and have to deal with more internal bullshit? Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Once I started seeing these things, I couldn't stop. The man behind the curtain, uncovered forever.”
What is your life like now? How do you organize your time among work, creative pursuits like this newsletter, and time with the family?
It’s impossible to say this without a huge grin appearing across my face, but life is—as Larry David might say—pretty, prettttay good. April 27th will mark four full years since I last worked full time for someone else, the last time I worked what you’d call a normal 9-5, and began a transition into a world where things are less defined, initially terrifying, but with never-ending opportunities to find joy and meaning on a regular basis.
No week is perfect, but I try to maintain some sort of balance—two to three days of client work, one day newslettering, and one day for life admin or general “go out and do something interesting.” That might be heading to a gallery, meditating on the beach, or hanging out with friends who are also finding their way on the pathless path.
By freeing up a day or two in the week I’m able to follow my interests and passions a little more. None of these were ever intended as a “side hustle,” a painful Silicon Valley loan phrase which pressures all our outputs to be business-oriented and not passion-based. I started The New Fatherhood because I couldn’t see the fatherhood experience I had encountered in my own life reflected anywhere—one that was a more introspective, conscious approach to being a dad and wrestling with what that means in today’s world—so I started it myself. I committed to writing one newsletter a week for a year. Now we’re in year two and it’s really resonating with people.
But I’m always keeping an eye on it, and making sure that things don’t get too dramatically unbalanced. I was offered the chance to join a start-up in the sustainability space, and went for it, before quickly realizing it shifted the balance of my my life more than I’d expected:
“I stepped away from the startup because I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice what matters to me, and how I spend my days—my family, my passions, this project. And a few hours after I walked away, an email arrived in my inbox: I'd been invited to become a Substack Fellow, to spend the next two months focused on The New Fatherhood.”
How has the transition been, from one country to another, from one state of work to another?
Here’s how living in a country where you don’t speak the language feels: you quickly gain a new perspective, and deep level of admiration, for hundreds of people you’ve previously encountered in your life. On the street. At our offices. In the restaurants we eat in. The coffee shops where we work. Everyday you meet people who have had to work hard to learn your language. And it’s only by living in a foreign country that someone like me—a straight, white, cis man—can better understand what it’s like to be in the minority. To not understand what is being said around you. To feel an intense level of anxiety every time anyone opens their mouth to you in the street.
We all hear stories (sadly more than ever due to current world events) like “my dad was a doctor in [insert country of birth here] and now he’s a window cleaner in [country of residence].” They’re hard to get your head around—a doctor who now does that? And then you move to a country where you’re not fluent in the language and you get it. In English? I’m very good at what I do, and I’m thankful for the steady stream of work it provides. But if I had to get a job here, in Spanish, today? Washing windows is probably outside of my language ability.
So as Tyler, the Creator (one of, imo, the best writers in any media right now) said, as he’s been making those transitions of his own: “It’s different, it’s really different.” When you smash the golden handcuffs and say goodbye to the certainty of a monthly paycheck… well, if you’re not a little terrified, you’re probably not doing it right. Saying goodbye to a simple, steady income—you can see why many don’t do it. You’re floating in space without a tether. You’re a boat with no moor. You’ve got to go and figure it all out, all over again, and there’s no-one who can tell you how to do it. Sure, you can read things like this, and try and understand how you can make it happen, but it’s more about looking at those people who you see somehow making it work, and trying your best to reverse engineer it.
These things aren’t always simple to figure out. Or even if they seem simple, they sometimes require a leap into the unknown, with a hope for the best. When we moved to Spain we had no idea if it would work—neither of us had jobs lined up (and with Brexit looming we needed to act fast if we had hoped to settle with our UK passports), we had no idea if our idea for a new business (a marketing consultancy) would be something that would resonate with clients, whether our children would enjoy life in a country where they’d need to learn the language to go to school, what school we’d actually be sending them to, what we’d be doing about childcare in the meantime… I mean, the list of unknowns was long! I tried to post-rationalise a lot of this thinking into an essay I wrote called “How to choose where to live”.
“The changing nature of remote work has opened up opportunities previously unimaginable—can you work in one country and live in another? Can you move somewhere with a low cost of living, and only work a few days a week? Sites like Nomad List have been helping "digital nomads" ask these questions for a while. But what was once an option for a lucky few is becoming a tangible possibility for many. Rather than asking whether remote work is here to stay, the question behind the question becomes one to investigate: if I can work from anywhere, where should me and my family live? If I only need to be in the office 2 days a week, should I keep paying a premium to live in the city? Where in the world might our children have the best opportunity? Where would we all be happiest? Where might we find that magical, ineffable thing—a better quality of life—that we're all seeking?”
The other piece of advice I often give people is another Venn diagram thing. Circle 1 is “What type of work can be done from anywhere,” Circle 2 is “What will clients pay for” and Circle 3 is “What, based on my experience, am I very good at (or could potentially become great at.)”
If you can find something that fits in that sweet spot then you’re golden. If you can do something in that space, and have a strategy for finding the types of clients that could pay for that, then it could all click. I told one of our fellow Fellows, who writes about the US alcohol industry, that there would be people in ad agencies and management consultancies that would
potentially absolutely be willing to pay him for his unparalleled level of insight and expertise in that industry. Sometimes you might not be sure of what your bit of that Venn might be, so it’s useful to talk to friends, peers and any kind of mentor about it.
Part of making our new life work came from moving to a city (and country) where we could live “a good quality of life” (whatever that means, as hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on that those simple five words) while earning less—therefore designing a life where different opportunities are presented, and the parts of your life are a more Trivial Pursuit Pie and less Pac-Man: a circle almost complete, threatening to eat what little time, energy and motivation you have left outside of work.
And remember, that “well paid work” is relative to the country you live in. So if you can live in one city, and work in another, there are advantages. According to Nomad List you can live a nice life in Buenos Aires on $495 a month, a 10th of the cost of living in SF—with better food, weather and nightlife, to start. And whilst I’m not sure of what you’d need to do to get settled there longer term, it’s not going to be impossible.
Elle—I’ve been so inspired by your openness and transparency about your finances. It’s something I want to do more, but I’m not quite there yet. But bigger than anything on the logistics of actually making it work, for many people a fundamental shift that is much more spiritual than logistical needs to be made.
Once I had made that shift it was easier to figure out how to live the life we wanted, and working back from there, rather than looking for the highest paid—and inevitably most stressful—job I could find, and working the hours that someone else set for me. It’s like the Swedish concept of Lagom, which I wrote in a letter to a career coach years ago:
“As one domino knocks another, I was discussing some of these things with a Swedish friend, who told me about their concept of “Lagom”. It means “just enough”, and its etymology is from when Swedish Vikings used to drink together, and the tankard was passed “laget om”, or around the team, as each person drank enough for themselves, and no more. This word is the most accurate way of describing the Swedish mentality succinctly. People are happier, and more satisfied, as they work towards “enough” — a nice home, food on their family’s table, but not pushing for the biggest, the best, the most, “the Silicon Valley way.”
How have you grown The New Fatherhood—will you share how far you’ve come, and how you’re thinking about your newsletter going forward?
For sure! Earlier this year I explored 10 things I’d learned during my first year, but to boil it down: I knew I wanted to put this out there because I needed to have more of these conversations with other dads, and I knew I wasn’t the only one.
One of the first things I wrote about was why men find it so hard to ask for help. That essay was a prelude to the story of when I needed help myself. And earlier this year I wrote again about how this struggle continues. It’s one of the key themes that drives the newsletter—to provide a place to have these conversations, where men can feel safe talking about their feelings. I want to continue to provide these spaces in 2022 and more opportunities to go deeper, supported by more opportunities to connect—online, and in real life.
What lessons have you learned or want to keep? What do you still hope to fine-tune or figure out?
One thing I am discovering, which I’m sure you’ve thought about, is how you deal with the news, or more accurately the weight, of people making major life decisions based on your advice. I got my first piece last week. I’m trying to do a weekly open hours every week—a regular cadence, like we were taught on the Fellowship—around different topics: a monthly rotating book / movie club, a mental health check-in, a time to talk about careers, and a roaming one for wherever the wind guides us.
We were talking about stress levels and one of the dads told me “well, I’m quite stressed at the moment. We’re moving house. My wife and I sat down with your How to Choose Where to Live worksheet and a bottle of wine and we decided we were going to move to Manchester.” A feeling of panic arose in my stomach—he’d decided to sell his house and move his entire family across the UK because of something I wrote? I am now INCREDIBLY INVESTED in the success of his move, and eager to see how it goes—both for this dad and his family, but now with an extra level of stress because if it doesn’t then I’m partly to blame?
Another thing I’m figuring out how to get comfortably uncomfortable with are deadlines. In the consulting work I do with clients my deadlines are fixed. Miss a date, don’t expect to be asked to work together again. But outside of that, there are shades of grey—take this essay for example. I’d foolishly agreed to getting it to you by February 28th, but am getting it to you almost three weeks later. The old me would have missed school pickups or stayed up until 1am to make sure you had this by the date we agreed. But the new me? I’ll ask how tight the timings are and try my best (but maybe still fail) to make it work. It’s all about balance, and knowing what things are immovable, and what isn’t. (Thanks again for your patience Elle!)