One Month Ago
My boss and I are sitting in his office. I've told him that we need to talk. It's the first time in years I've said that. My boss, one of the nicest guys out there, looks concerned. He thinks I have bad news. I do, at least for him.
He asks me what's wrong. I tell him I won't be working here anymore. At least not full time. I've come to negotiate a downshift in my career.
My manager is Asian. They don't show a lot of emotion so the reaction was muted. He frowned, asked a few questions that I think were intended to buy time to assemble a real response. What I am saying is not done in his country. Not often in ours, for that matter.
To his credit, my manager is a reasonable guy. He didn't do stupid shit like issue an ultimatum or go straight to threats or scare tactics. He did, however, do his best to discourage me with bits of information that were reasonable points. If I persisted, my career trajectory would likely be derailed. It might be impossible to return full time, should I regret the decision at some point down the road. Of course there would be a pay cut - didn't I need the money? Finally, he hinted that it might be impossible to move to part-time; the powers that be might need to replace me with someone more motivated.
Of course, he added, none of this was certain yet. If I wanted to, I could just walk out and we could pretend this never happened. It was time to respond. Shit or get off the pot.
I looked him dead in the eye and said that, one way or another, this is going to be my last job in big pharma.
Seven Years Ago
You don't always remember the exact day when big things happen in your life. It was a late December afternoon in 2010. I was on a Christmas trip to the Grand Canyon with Susan and my father. We were driving through Santa Fe (well, dad was driving and I was riding shotgun) when I popped open my phone to pass the time. Back then, I'd been following a blog by a guy who was trying to rapidly pay off his business school loans*. Anyway, this guy mentions a new blogger called Mr. Money Mustache**. Since I have nothing but time and empty highway miles, I go down the rabbit hole and check it out. It's an interesting story - MMM retired at 32 after he and his wife saved up and invested approximately $800,000, which provided enough investment returns for them to live off comfortably. They managed this working unremarkable jobs making decent-but-not-amazing money.
By the time we reached Flagstaff I was convinced that I could do the same thing for myself.
On the surface, there was little in common between myself and this guy in Colorado. Mr. Money Mustache was 32 when he retired. I was already almost 31 - a relatively late starter thanks in part to my questionable decision to get a PhD. I saved enough to feel like a responsible adult, but nothing more. I was on track to max out my 401k and fund my IRA, but nothing beyond that. My extra money was being funneled into an interminably long and expensive home renovation of a condo I'd bought the year after returning to Chicago. All told, I had less than $50K to my name and, when you considered I had a $240K mortgage, I was still technically deep in debt.
To add another kick to the balls, I was still in the first years of a career that would ideally(?) last about 40 years and I wasn't exactly having a blast. I saw myself slowly being worn down by all the little crap associated with being a tiny cog in a big business. Like water on a stone. But I wasn't so far gone that I was just an empty husk that used weekends to recover for the next session. I still had dreams, remembered when life was more than status meetings and powerpoint presentations and monthly goals. Sometimes, when we would hire a new employee, I'd ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up. No one ever mentioned being a corporate scientist (and that's kind of a job you'd think people could say... right?).
We live in a society that doesn't make it easy to get to a better place. Like most people in the company, I was paid a comfortable wage (I mean, this was the main benefit of my job after all). The pay actually makes it hard to leave, those not-quite-golden handcuffs. I think this is how corporations get that solid core of mid-level employees: they pay well enough to afford a comfortable lifestyle, but not enough for anyone to become independently wealthy to a degree necessary to maintain that lifestyle. Lifestyle creep does the rest. Buy a house (well, a mortgage anyway) and a couple of new cars. Eat out four times a week with golf on the weekends. Eventually, have 2.5 children. Private schools then college tuitions, followed by a mad race to squirrel away enough to retire at 65, 66, 67.
It's a nice enough life. It's easy to imagine and it's attainable. Office drones like me see it every day. It is, simply put, the best, most comfortable option. It's not like we see alternatives. As I mentioned, it's very, very difficult to save enough to sustain an $80,000-100,000 a year lifestyle. So we enjoy our money while we have it, save a few bucks and hope like hell our house is paid off before that final layoff or when we call it and turn to social security. None of this addresses systemic dissatisfaction. People change jobs constantly, band-aid solutions where they seek greener pastures that never turn out to exist.
MMM was the first real example of a cube warrior who'd made a successful break for the fence without having an IPO or winning the lottery. It wasn't particularly elegant or easy, but the math checked out and there's something about having a concrete example of success that makes any scheme inestimably more plausible.
So, at the beginning of my fourth decade on this planet, I got started. Priority One was to reach a point where I am no longer financially dependent on a corporate job. In fact, I mentioned this in one of the very first posts on this blog.
I won't belabor the small details of how I did it. This isn't a how-to post, although I suppose I could write something connecting the dots from start to finish if there's interest. This post - one I've waited the better part of a decade to make - is more about demonstrating what is possible with the proper and persistent application of relatively small amounts of willpower and self-discipline.
That get us back to:
It's Tuesday morning and I'm writing this from my living room. Why? Well, as of Monday, I no longer have a full-time job. For the foreseeable future, I'm a part-timer working three days a week at my current gig. We'll see how that goes.
It's seems inevitable that the vast majority of us will rent our bodies and/or minds to others for monetary compensation. It doesn't have to be forever - I just bought back 104 days of my life every year. With roughly 30 years left until I turn 67, that's an extra 8.65 years of work days where I'm no longer chained to a desk.
Come to think of it, this is the first really extravagant purchase I've made in years.
I have to admit to being not so prepared for what comes next.
Have you ever been studying for a test and your brain keeps coming up with other things you'd rather be doing? After the test is over, a lot of those other things that sounded so great just sort of evaporate, like an oasis on the horizon. While I was in Phase One I had many thoughts of what I might do with all my free time. Inevitably, some of them will evaporate now that I'm closer. It might take a little time to see what's next.
Two things I am fairly sure of:
(1) I don't think that I'll be watching Netflix all day. I'm not retiring from work, but rather towards something. Even if I don't know what those things are just yet.
(2) It's time for me to really try and see if I have any creative juices left. Writing will have a place in my day, that I'm fairly certain of. I started this blog partly as a challenge to myself to keep writing. I'm not sure if I'll blog so much now that I can take on more substantive projects, but I'll be working on something.
*I don't exactly recommend this blog, but it's mildly entertaining.
**Oh, but I do recommend Mr. Money Mustache.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.