This week, Susan and I have been in Utah attending the Sundance Film Festival. Currently, we're in a period of fairly heavy travel, which got me thinking about some little-known travel advice I rarely get to share.
Several years ago, I had a boss who made a weekend trip to the University of Michigan with his son on a college recruiting visitation. The following Monday, he recounted the trip to us. After a glowing review of the campus, he described the town surrounding the University. As he concluded his assessment of the town, my boss looked us dead in the eye and proclaimed, "Lot of gays in Ann Arbor."
Suffice to say, shocked laughter followed the abrupt announcement. Horror washed over my boss's face as he realized that his inadvertent lack of subtlety - he wasn't a native speaker, after all - might have offended someone. "No, no," he corrected, waving his hands in a forestalling motion. "Gays make it... classy!"
While many of us have known this for a long time, I'd like to unpack the thought as a bit of advice learned while traveling through dozens of countries: When deciding where to stay when visiting a new place, stay in the gayest part of town.
When visiting a new metropolis, I have never been disappointed using this as a strategy.
In recent years, Susan and I have taken this one step further: When we can, we search out gay hosts on AirBnB. Susan has begun actively hunting them, going so far as to suggest that AirBnB add a "host sexuality" filter to their search algorithm.
To really hammer the point home, let's examine a synopsis of gay hosts for some recent trips:
- Bergen, Norway: BRAND NEW townhouse in central Bergen. Huge room three blocks from the train station. Luxury kitchen. Immaculate home, including a Shiba Inu. Price: $65 a night. IN NORWAY. Put that in perspective: Dinner for two at Norwegian Applebee's costs $95 and the bus to the restaurant is another $20.
-Wilton Manor (Fort Lauderdale Area): Host was a flamboyant cowhide salesman/painter. He owned a fabulous three bedroom house with a pool, but was in some ill-defined financial trouble that led him to rent out rooms for $40 in a beach neighborhood that asked three times that amount for much less.
-Salt Lake City, UT: During Sundance Film Festival and the height of ski season, we're paying 40 bucks a night for a private bed/bath in a luxury rental building. Includes free breakfast, exercise center and a parking space in their garage. One of the dudes cooks, which filled the house with fragrant smells at all hours.
-La Paz, Bolivia: Entire top floor of 100-year-old house with private deck and catered breakfast. The damage: $27 a night. This one was run by a pack of ambiguously affiliated gay men.
Compare that to our last four straight hosts:
-Oshkosh, WI (for the EAA Airshow): Farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Decent experience and great host, but crappy beds that were, inexplicably, two singles instead of one queen. Susan accidentally locked one of their cats in our room and it tore the carpet to shreds.
-Atlanta, GA: Host stayed up all night playing Call of Duty, loudly screaming curse words to his teammates over his headset. Only time I've locked the door to our bedroom.
-Coral Gables, FL: Angry white trash couple with an overly friendly giant dog and a dirty house. They ordered Little Caesars twice in two days.
-Clearwater, FL: Ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere run by a husband-and-wife team of foreigners who ran a shady "real estate investment" companies. They worked from home and frequently demanded we abandon the kitchen table so they could photograph various lots of comic books they were selling on Ebay.
It's worth mentioning that this theory has only been tested with gay men (our lesbian dataset is too small to share). It's also worth noting that our homosexual hosts all had elaborate coffee machines and high-quality conditioner/shampoo in the bathroom (not to mention no-questions-asked hair dryers for Susan).
And there it is - homosexuals offer a refined experience at an incredible value. Now that the secret's out, I'd like to introduce the catchphrase, "Go gay whenever you stay."
Last post I wrote about de-risking a move towards a more satisfying career by creating financial self-sufficiency.
I don't claim to be a guru when it comes to making money and I certainly don't know how to beat the stock market. I do, however, know something about quickly and efficiently create a situation where your "living" takes care of itself, leaving you free time to chase passion projects.
Since people's eyes glaze over when discussing money, I'll quickly describe the general strategy, then use myself as an example to illustrate how an average dude can follow the process.
The general idea is to invest as much as possible to reach a nest egg that provides enough income to cover your expenses and grow with inflation. There are two basic criteria needed to reach this:
(1) You must save roughly 25 times your annual expenses (i.e., $1,000,000 if you spend $40,000 per year).
(2) You must invest this money in indexed investments that guarantee average market returns (i.e., 70% stocks/30% bonds or something similar).
When you've accumulated 25X your annual expenses, the interest, dividends and capital appreciation of your investments is large enough to support your expenses AND match inflation (without the added help of additional work income or social security). This approach has been measured throughout history and shown to be reliable with very few exceptions. At this point, you can "retire" indefinitely.
There are many people who focus solely on financial independence and early retirement (e.g., Mr. Money Mustache). My goal, obviously, is not to retire, but rather to de-risk the next phase of my working life.
My Progress Towards Financial Independence
As I write this, I'm 35 years old. Not counting postdoctoral training, I've had a "big boy" job for a little over six years and I'm about 80% of the way to full financial independence (the point where I work only by choice). I live a normal life (no washing and reusing toilet paper) and I've never inherited a dime from anyone.
The School Years
I started out making something like 9 bucks an hour as a part-time student lab tech. After I graduated, I joined a lab full-time and received a massive raise to $13.02 a hour (Lest you think my memory is that good, I actually found a pay stub from back then the other day). This is $104 a day. I was rich: My main expenses were the $200 I paid each month for a tiny bedroom in a house for five other guys. For the first time in my life, my bank account started to climb.
This largesse abruptly ended when I began graduate school at the University of Florida. The interdisciplinary medical research program paid graduate students $18,500 a year, subsequently soaring to $21K by the time I'd graduated four years later. The hourly rate for the 60-70 hours a week I was working during that time is too unpleasant to calculate.
Looking back, my financial decisions were a mixed bag.
Things I did right:
- I'd saved a little money while working full-time.
- I graduated from college in three years instead of four. As a graduation gift, my parents gave me some money they'd set aside the fourth year. When I moved for grad school, I used those funds to buy a house and had roommates who paid the mortgage.
- I didn't borrow any additional money.
- I fathered no children and didn't waste a lot of money on dating.
Things I did wrong:
- I wasn't very frugal and spent basically everything I had. My rationale was that, since I was making so little, why bother saving whatever tiny amount I could squirrel away?
- Several bad purchases: I bought a new (albeit cheap) Toyota Corolla and got involved in triathlons, a relatively expensive sport.
I was 26 when I got my doctorate. My net worth was probably about 50K, most of it in the form of home equity. Not bad, but not great for someone who would otherwise be 4 years into a career.
In early 2007, I'd arranged a postdoc job at the University of Chicago through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Although few people realize it, postdocs are possibly the most underpaid people on the planet. My starting salary was a staggering $39,000 and never went above $43,000 the three years I was there. Health benefits were included, as was a 5% salary contribution to my retirement accounts. Not great for a PhD, huh? Also, bear in mind I'd moved from low-cost Gainesville to a part of Chicago where a one-bedroom apartment was $1,000 a month.
During my time at U of C, I economized by taking roommates and, although I fell victim to a bit of lifestyle creep (I started dating and ate out far too much). Still, I'd managed to add another 10K or so to my bank balance by 2009.
The Bad Times
In 2009, my postdoc started to fall apart. Internally, I realized that I had no desire to be a professor and was stagnating in academia. Externally, the US economy was faltering badly; the real estate bubble was bursting and the University of Chicago had been caught with its pants around its ankles in the midst of several expensive construction projects. The University was desperate to shed jobs, and postdocs on yearly contracts were easy pickings. When the guy working next to me learned his contract woudl not be renewed it became clear that it was time for me to move on as well.
A rushed job search in a rapidly-deteriorating labor market netted me several offers, none of which could be considered great. The best of the lot was a position with a startup in the San Fran Bay Area. I packed up and drove across the country.
The new job paid me $60K, not a great deal more than I'd been making (again, I'd relocated to an even more expensive area). It turned out to be a bad move: Exactly six weeks later, I was let go and the company shuttered soon thereafter.
As one of America's newly-minted jobless, I took stock: My net worth was still about 60K, but more than half of that was tied up in the home I owned in Florida. Another 20K was held in retirement accounts, leaving me with only a modest sum to live on until I found a new job.
From there the situation continued to go down the shitter. I filed for unemployment and my employer contested it, meaning I wouldn't see a dime until things were sorted out. Back in Florida, my former roommates moved out as planned and I put the house up fr sale on what would be the worst real-estate market in the past hundred years. In the meantime I was paying the mortgage, taxes and insurance and utilities on an empty house.
The cold real estate market was offset only by the heat generated as I burned through my remaining cash. I frantically looked for a job, feeling the squeeze each month as my accounts dwindled.
As always, things eventually got better. Three months later, I got a job in the pharma industry back in Chicago. I won my unemployment battle and I sold my house (for exactly ($200 more than I'd paid for it). 2010 started on a high note, although I'd trimmed by net worth back to about 50K.
My new job offered a base salary of $75K plus a target bonus of 9% or so, along with health and decent retirement contributions (e.g., 401K match). This was the embodiment of what had I considered a "real job" when I was slogging through school. That said, the stress of abruptly losing a job had a profound effect on me that lingered. I had coasted back into Chicago on fumes, having spent virtually all the cash I could scrape together. The brush with destitution provided powerful motivation. It was in these bad times that my desire to rapidly achieve financial independence was born.
The problem was, I had a goal but no plan. I increased my savings rate to max out my 401K each year but didn't really do much beyond that. I continued living relatively frugally; interestingly, years of living like a grad student/postdoc had acclimated me to a relatively modest lifestyle. Even though I now had more money, my lifestyle never crept up to match. As a result, extra money started to pile up in my checking account.
The Goal Meets The Plan
In 2011, something happened to focus my efforts. I was on a modest Christmas vacation to Arizona when I discovered the concept of Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) through the Mr Money Mustache Blog.
Using the 25X formula I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I calculated I was spending roughly 35-40K a year, meaining I would need to save between 875K and 1M bucks to make it happen. I'd ticked up my savings by then and had now amassed about 120K. A few quick calculations told me I could reach a point where I would be financially independent in about eight years if I continued to save, invest and - most importantly - control my spending.
Five Years on Cruise Control
It's been five short years since I decided to embark on this journey. At first, the process was very abstract. I'd liken it to being on a long car trip: no matter how fast you go, you're still many hours (or days) from your destination. Each time my patience was tested, I thought back to how close I'd come to losing everything with just a little bad luck.
On the savings side, I made some minor accommodations to my lifestyle, which drove my annual spending down to only 28-30K/year (essentially where I was as a postdoc). On the income side of the equation, I've experienced more professional success than I deserve. My salary has crept up each year with annual raises, plus one market adjustment and two promotions, putting me in a territory where I feel I'm overcompensated for what I do. This year I'll bring in 150K or so, give or take. Plenty generous, but certainly not crazy for a 35-year-old professional in a technical field.
With the help of a strong stock market, I think I can safely say I'm currently about 18 months from true financial independence. As the distance to the goal line grows shorter, I have to address the question of what exactly I want to do next.
One option is obviously to keep working. It's certainly a viable option; I certainly don't hate my job. On the other hand, life is short. I asked myself what I really wanted to do with the freedom. There are certainly a few once-in-a-lifetime things to tackle (I'd like to ride my bike from Oregon to San Diego, for example) but, without long-term goals, I'm afraid I'd just waste my time playing video games and binge-watching Netflix.
To brainstorm, I wrote out a list of other careers I found interesting:
(2) National Geographic Photographer
(3) Comic Book Artist
(4) Pro Runner
I'm too tall for (1), too slow/heavy for (4), too untalented for (2) and (3). That left writing, the only job on the list that I can probably do concurrently with a real job.
With the financial issue on track to be solved, I can devote myself to the various challenges associated with establishing a presence online and developing a readership (issues I admittedly know little about). There's no doubt it will take time to conquer these intermediate steps. So even though I'm still a working stiff, it's certainly not too early to get started.
Last post, I mentioned that I was in the process of making some life changes to pursue writing. Now I'd like to delve into this a little more.
I've given much thought to the challenges of transitioning to full-time writing and am planning a series of posts in which I'll air my thoughts on how to overcome them. I'd like to start with one of the obvious challenges: Supporting yourself in a field that is traditionally not very lucrative. So while most of my posts will probably be aimed at some aspects of writing, this one will be about supporting yourself.
Writing is an occupation with a sharply have- and have-not culture. On the pointy end of the scale, the Kings and Rowlands and Grishams make seven-plus figure livings, but for every one of them there are thousands of people just trying to scrape by. These are the so-called starving artists (a term I kind of hate). The smart ones start plying their craft fresh out of school, plugging away until they either make it or lose passion/give up and start fresh on a new career.
Unlike these young idealists, people coming into things after more than a decade in the work force have additional worries. Even if you don't have a wife and kids to support, there are still significant opportunity costs associated with attempting to break into a tough field like writing.
Let's start with a simple truth for old dogs like me: You need to ease into new ventures carefully. Imagine your career like a series of stones (i.e., jobs) crossing a stream (i.e., your life). While your goal is to make it from bank to bank smoothly as possible, you certainly don't rush blindly from one stone to another. However enticing that next step may look, you don't trust it until you've put a toe on it and felt things out. You need to know that the new stone is going to support your weight when you finally make the jump from the old stone, otherwise you're getting wet.
In the corporate world, this means not quitting your current job until you have a new offer lined up. For a writer, however, things aren't so obvious. What constitutes stability and success? Is it selling your first book to a publisher? Is it making five figures a year from writing? Six figures?
The answer is usually not obvious, as success can be both arbitrary and fleeting. What's not debatable, though, are the additional costs incurred by an established professional who puts their career on hold to pursue their passion. Let's use me (our dunce ju jour) as an example: Imagine I quit a six-figure job to take a year off and write my first novel. I have no great illusions of success and am prepared to live more modestly in exchange for doing something I'm really interested in. There's one problem though: My book stinks. It's so bad I decide to give up and go back to science. However, in my absence, the world has moved on: my cushy job's long gone and I wind up doing shitty contract work for half the salary as before. Eventually, the soulless corporation wears me down and I'm fired when my bosses mistake my perpetual thousand-yard stare for drug addiction. I then fall into deep depression and spend my life savings on the companionship of strippers before hanging myself in the maintenance room of an Extended Stay America (patron hotel of the shamed single man).
So yeah, it could be an expensive lesson. And while money isn't everything, it's silly to deny that there's no relationship between income and quality of life. Unlike a 22-year-old with nothing to lose, caution is certainly advisable to someone who no longer lives with their parents.
There are several other good reasons to pursue a dream from a position of financial security:
(1) Free time. Bootstrapping a project sucks. I've done it. It takes three times as long to do anything.
(2) Relatively quick success or failure. Working faster allows you to try more things in the same amount of time, increasing the odds you'll find the right combination that works for you.
(3) Lower pressure. No one does their best work under desperate circumstances. Knowing you'll starve if your new novel doesn't sell is not going to make your prose better. Nor will rushing your work to meet financial deadlines.
(4) Full commitment. With a certain amount of success, your growing creative endeavors will demand you step back from your day job. Juggling a job is a powerful temptation to put off doing what you need to do to move forward.
All of this points to one inescapable conclusion: In order to give yourself the best shot at being successful, you need to come into this from a position of stability.
In the next post I'll explain a strategy for achieving sufficient financial independence to do whatever you want. And no, it doesn't involve hitting the powerball.
I go to a lot of meetings. Most of them aren't my idea, but I go to them anyway. In my working life I'd estimate I've sat through about 2,000 hours of corporate tete-a-tetes. That's basically an entire year of all-day meetings. If the thought of that doesn't make your skin crawl, you're either very young or the asshole who schedules them.
Like everyone else, I try and find ways to make the time pass a little faster. I started off doodling until I could sketch out an invisible cube with the best of them. Next, I tried holding my breath. That ended when I more-or-less blacked out at a conference table after setting a personal best*. No one noticed.
I tried everything to entertain myself. I imagined myself and my co-workers as wild animals having a business meeting. I would make myself little mental dares that I never actually did. If I took this empty soda bottle under the table and peed in it, would anyone notice?
Regardless of what I tried, the tedium eventually began to wear me down. To borrow a phrase from a better writer, I felt thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. I wasn't unhappy with my job, but I also wasn't thrilled with the idea of thirty more years of this.
Then the journal happened. Initially, it was just another time-occupying activity for the endless parade of sit-downs. To the casual observer, I figured it would just look like I was a diligent note-taker. Initially my efforts were sporadic, once or twice a week at most. Although I felt like a twelve-year-old girl, I took to it surprisingly quickly. The frequency of my entries increased as did their scope: daily recounting of events and my inner thoughts were soon supplemented by actual ideas, future plans, hopes, dreams. Ironically, writing about the miscellany of my life rejuvenated my interest in science. Work - or at least the meetings - got better.
This all happened several years ago. Gradually, it dawned on me that I enjoyed writing enough to maybe make a career of it. Not as a scientific- or technical writer, but as a novelist or storyteller.
It was a far-fetched notion, I'll admit, but the nascent idea stubbornly resisted quashing and wore me down until I found myself asking, "What if?"
Realistically, though, there were two things holding me back:
(1) I needed to have confidence that I have the ability to write something people want to read. Writing isn't exactly new to me. I've written scads of scientific articles, pieces of patents, lab notebooks and the like. I've even published a book and a few articles of the non-scientific variety. However, I've never published a novel and feel I need some work honing my voice as a storyteller.
(2) Financial and career risk. I have an advanced degree in biomedical science and I've spent decades cramming a very specific set of skills into my brain. Currently I make a very comfortable living as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company. It's doubtful I'll ever do better financially than I do right now. That said, this is the smaller of my two concerns. When this idea took hold, I made some changes in my life that - I hope - will allow me to pursue this. I'll get into these later, but for now, let's just say that the fear of losing out may not be an insurmountable obstacle.
What finally happened was the realization that I didn't need to make the grand gesture of quitting my job and moving to a cabin in the woods. Writing can be done anywhere in any form. The important thing is to Just Do It (TM).
And that's where this comes in. Of Mice and Molecules is my foray into the rarely-used right hemisphere of my brain. It's an exploration of whether or not I have the capability and/or determination make it as a storyteller, whatever form that takes. Finally, it's a documentation of the process for anyone else who has a 9-to-5 but is still passionate about chasing a dream.
*Two minutes, thirty-six seconds.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.