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  • Monica Harris

Why I Dropped Out And Ditched The American Dream

Updated: Apr 22

March 14, 2019


I used to be an executive at a Fortune 500 company. Now I raise chickens and goats in Montana. No, I'm not crazy.





People often ask me why I left my six-figure job at a Fortune 500 company and disappeared into the woods.


It’s a reasonable question.


After all, I’m a Harvard-educated lawyer. I graduated with a former U.S. president, a Supreme Court justice, and titans of Wall Street. For most of my life, I’ve lived the American Dream and enjoyed the perks of my hard work and elite training. But seven years ago, I walked away from the life I’d worked so hard to build because it had stopped making any damn sense. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.


At the time, I was at the top of my game professionally. I was a senior vice president of business and legal affairs at one of the world’s largest media companies and earning an income that technically made me a Three Percenter.


My family lived in a lovely Mediterranean home in southern California with an ocean view. We dined at hip restaurants, occasionally succumbed to retail therapy, and stayed on the cutting edge of technology (upgrading to the latest iPhone whenever our old one seemed the least bit slow or bulky). We sent our toddler to private school (to the tune of $1,200 a month) so he could hone his ABCs and learn how to play nicely with other kids in a sandbox.


But we paid dearly for these perks — literally and figuratively.


We had just enough money coming in to stay comfortably afloat, i.e. our bank account was never empty, but there was never any money left over each month. Even worse, the process of simply breaking even was wearing me out.


I found myself spending less time with my family and more hours behind my desk or steering wheel. My job had become an unfulfilling grind of pointless meetings and assignments that multiplied faster than “Star Trek” Tribbles. To make matters worse, the grind had become incredibly tenuous; I was chronically at risk of being snared in a round of rolling layoffs (a/k/a corporate “restructurings”).

And beneath it all was the undeniable sense that the American Dream I had been chasing all my life was slowly, and without any fanfare, fading to black. It was unsustainable, and we could feel ourselves losing control.


So my partner and I opted to do the only sensible thing: we decided to “drop out.”


The seeds had been planted when we’d made our first trip to Montana two years earlier to attend a reunion with Lisa’s extended family. We had spent a week fishing, hiking, relaxing and savoring brisk mountain air that was pleasantly free of wi-fi signals, and I had found myself embracing a stillness I had lost in my routine of perpetual motion.


So when we began plotting our escape from a life and a world that no longer made sense, it wasn’t surprising that Big Sky had slowly crept to the top of our list. The idea of retreating to a quiet corner of the world — where we could live sustainably and for less money in vast natural beauty, “re-invent” ourselves and our careers, take time out and re-calibrate, and create a “whole” life together — was suddenly alluring. On the surface, those were the reasons we answered the call from Big Sky.


But whether or not we realized it at the time, the attraction ran deeper. Much deeper.




And beneath it all was the undeniable sense that the American Dream I had been chasing all my life was slowly, and without any fanfare, fading to black. It was unsustainable, and we could feel ourselves losing control.




The American Dream died a long time ago in Montana.


Most of the people here no longer try to talk themselves into believing they still have a shot at getting ahead; they know that ship has already pulled anchor and sailed. At this point, they’re just trying to cling to nearby flotsam and jetsam, hoping they can hold their breath long enough if they dip beneath the waves.


Their lives, and their world, haven’t made sense to them in years.

The people born here (and most newcomers) have known for years, long before the zeitgeist went mainstream, that there was something seriously messed up with the world on many levels. They were ahead of the curve, so to speak. A decade ago they might have seemed crazy, but they’ve always known they weren’t alone. Because they’re surrounded by almost a million others who have been seeing the same things, people who have been drawn here by a force they can’t identify, people who sense things are going sideways fast and believe it’s pointless to even pretend they aren't.


The thing that surprises me most about the people here is that they come from all walks of life. You simply can’t tell a Montanan by looking at them. They could be a recreational sports enthusiast; a New Age spiritualist; a die-hard hunter; a Bible thumper; a cattle rancher; a permaculture aficionado; a survivalist/prepper; a yoga enthusiast. Or any mix of the above.


They come from all over the country, from almost every income level, and if you ask them why they’re here they’ll probably tell you they feel liberated by the wide open spaces, a land measured by acres of wild grass instead of miles of asphalt. Or they may tell you they have finally decided to let go of a world that is spinning too fast for them to hold on.


They may not look like each other or have the same sexual habits, they may not pray to the same God or believe in any God, they may pass their free time in the mountains, rivers or lakes, or they may prefer to read, bake bread, and hunker by the fire. But most of them have one thing in common: a general sense that the world outside their bubble is something they would rather leave behind.

When you move from one of the biggest urban centers in the country to a town with no mall, one grocery store, and only a handful of restaurants, changing the way you move through the world isn't an option; it’s a necessity. There’s just a lot less crap to buy, fewer things to entertain yourself with, and a lot less stuff to get worked up about.


When you’re loosely tethered to the outside world, you also tend to uptake information differently. You stop exchanging breaking news soundbites with people so they can reinforce your world view, or so you can argue with them if they don't.


You "unplug."

Information comes into your life in a trickle, not a torrent, arriving more or less in a vacuum and colored by fewer filters, and the need to instantly consume any of it declines dramatically. Taking myself out of the relentless news/pundit/social media squabble is what first allowed me to step back and start looking at the world in a completely different way. And I would learn that it’s the way most Montanans have been seeing the world for years.


One morning in 2012, about a year after we moved to Montana, I turned on CNN and learned the U.S. had lost its AAA credit rating. The financial pundits were buzzing about what it would mean for the economy, the market had jitters, and everyone was pretty worked up about it. I had no clue how it would all play out, but it sure didn’t look good.


After listening to the TV babble for half an hour, I pulled on my Muck boots and work gloves and headed outside to start my morning chores. I found Ry, our ruddy-faced carpenter (transplanted from Oregon), sifting through a pile of two-by-fours by our barn. We had hired Ry to build another chicken coop after a grizzly had mutilated our first one, slaughtering all but one of the chickens we had raised in SoCal and transported in an air conditioned-van to our new home.


“Hey Ry,” I greeted him. “How’s it going?”


"Oh, we’re gittin’ ‘er done,” he drawled, which is Montana slang for "It may not happen as fast as you'd like but we'll eventually make it happen."


“I was just watching the news,” I said, perching onto a tree stump. “Have you heard the latest?”


Ry tipped the bill of his cap above his eyes so he could see me better in the early morning sun. “I try not to,” he said.


I watched him for a moment, not sure if he was joking, then realizing that he wasn’t.


“I don’t watch the news,” he continued, by way of explanation.

“So…you don’t know what’s going on now?" I asked.

He shook his head. “Nope.”


Now my curiosity was piqued. “But if it might affect you, don’t you want to know about it?”


“What for? I got no control over any of it. Do you?”


Ry hoisted a plank of wood onto a sawhorse and started measuring.

I gave it some thought. All the hand-wringing and jawboning about a falling credit rating made for exciting TV chatter, but at the end of the day it probably wouldn’t change the fact that Ry would still have to get up and repair coops or fix barn doors the next day, and the day after that, so he could make money that didn’t go as far as it used to. However it turned out, his life would likely still be heading in the same general direction.


I nodded. “Yeah, I hear you,” I said. “I guess we moved here because we wanted to leave the real world behind, too.”


Ry stopped, looked up from the sawhorse and stared at me.


“Are you serious?” He jerked his thumb toward whatever lay beyond our fence.


“You call what’s going on out there the real world?” He shook his head and gave a half-snort, half-laugh. “Let me tell you something. There ain’t nothing real about any of it anymore.”


Ry didn’t have a college degree, and he had never studied economics or political science, but he had summed up in one sentence what had ultimately driven me to drop out.


The world had stopped making sense to me because it no longer felt real.


Over the course of the next six years, I would spend more time pondering my brief exchange with the humble carpenter, and I would slowly come to realize what I believe so many others are now starting to grok: we are surrounded by layers of illusions that persuade us to believe that we live in a world we don’t really live in.


The American Dream was just one of the illusions I had accepted and made part of my reality my entire life, but I had also started glimpsing the edges of other illusions long before we moved to Montana; I just hadn’t realized it. But now, free from the distractions and busy-ness of the outside world, and sequestered in the woods, I began to see all of these illusions with crystal-freaking-clarity. I was able to do what has become increasingly difficult for most people in a world that bombards us with stimuli, emotion, unspoken agenda, and filters.


I was able to "unplug."




So here I am, hanging out at the 45th parallel, surrounded by a whole lot of people who look nothing like me, worship a God I don’t believe in, and live a heterosexual lifestyle I have no interest in. The people here are friendly, and they don’t hassle me, but you might still be asking yourself: is that reason enough for someone like me to lay roots in a place like Montana?


The answer is yes, absolutely. Because here I find myself among so many people who have also chosen to unplug, people who look at me without focusing on our differences, but who instead pay more attention to the things we have in common. And it's what we have in common now that matters most.

But when we’re plugged in, this message gets lost. We spend our precious free time demonizing “the other side” because they don’t share our personalized struggles. We waste our energy fighting each other even though there’s much bigger stuff unfolding all around us. I say this because as challenging as the journey is quickly becoming, I think we’ve only gotten a taste of what lies ahead.

I believe that our best hope to effectively deal with the bigger problems we all face now, and the ones we all will be facing soon, is to identify what’s really causing them. And I believe the source of what truly ails us lies not in the differences in our skin color, or that too many people don’t share our values, or that they don’t vote the way we do. I believe the real source of our common problems lies hidden by other illusions.

It’s up to all of us to identify them – and remove them – before it’s too late.


It's time to "unplug." Because the future is counting on us.