Of Mice and Molecules...
Let me throw out a scenario.
You train for a job. You train really hard, spending late nights learning the fundamentals, packing your brain with field-specific knowledge, burning the candle at both ends. You spend years where you're always at least a bit tired (and maybe a few where you're more than tired).
The training, if that's the right name for it, is rough. It's like climbing an endless mountain on a bike. You're pedaling hard but you're barely moving forward, barely staying upright. At some point you realize that you're going flat out, that you're at the limits of your capability and you're going to fall over unless the road becomes a little less steep real, real soon.
But the road does lessen in severity. And you finish. And you struggle into the next phase of your career, the part designed to throw enough frustrating bullshit at you so that enough of your peers quit for the survivors to obtain what everyone refers to as a "career". At this point, any real interest you have in your profession is a vague memory, a ghost that is summoned periodically when you do something unexpectedly interesting. Most of the time, you're just surviving like everyone else.
But sunk costs being what they are, the only route seems to be forward. Amazingly, through a combination of dumb luck and stubbornness, you persist and get one of the so-called "good jobs". Now you have health insurance and retirement contributions and a nice salary with a bonus. Better yet, you're getting paid to do something you love. People out there would stab their cousin to do what you do.
But once the novelty of the new gig wears off a few months in, you begin to realize: you don't love this anymore. At first, you thought you were just temporarily burned out; all you needed was a little breather to get yourself back together. After a year, though, it's crystal clear that's not going to happen. Your relationship with work is fundamentally altered.
Even though you kept working and pushing and trying the whole time, something important broke. The little part of you that made it OK to stay for an extra hour on Friday, just to finish up an experiment, that doesn't talk anymore. To use the country music parlance, your give-a-damn is broken.
Two years in, you find yourself sitting in another endless meeting and you have an epiphany - you are flat-out not enjoying yourself and this is unlikely to change. On paper you should be having a great time. Students at conferences look at you with a mixture of jealousy and envy (and you know those are different things because you felt the same thing once upon a time). You should be counting yourself very, very lucky.
After your epiphany, you begin to ask yourself questions. Am I depressed? Is there a particular reason, a particular person, that's stressing you?
One by one, you eliminate the possibilities, until you are left with the immutable truth that you're just plain burned out. The worst thing is that you can't admit it. Not professional. Bad for morale. Not the kind of guy who has any future in the company. Everyone else is full of passion for the bland corporate mission statement that's rammed down your throat by a management team that you swear is comprised of at least 30% sociopaths.
Despite your lack of joie de vivre for the job, no one seems to notice. You get a bump up in the organization. Then another. While the money is nice, it actually makes things worth in another paradoxical way - it's now time to manage other people and pretend that you care. Set a good example and all that. You look around and see colleagues (not all, but a few) who still seem to have passion for their work. It's not clear whether they know something you don't or are just doing a really good job of faking it. Asking them directly is out of the question; you need this job and shouldn't fuck with that to quell some idle curiosity. You wonder whether your underlings can see through a facade that feels paper thin.
The promotions are also sort of golden handcuffs. You've moved past most of the jobs that are advertised on the job boards you occasionally poke through; even if they were the solution, taking a haircut doesn't sound too good. The only other jobs that are left are director-of-this and head-of-that. The kind of jobs where you're the man for whom the buck stops. The type of position where your shitty, unmotivated decision-making could hurt people other than yourself.
You want to do something else. Anything. Give bike tours of Navy Pier. Manage a gym. Working in a deli doesn't sound bad. Free food. You realize that you're fantasizing about working a crappy job. It's depressing, but it also focuses you. A better scenario - doing something you actually like. What's that? You vaguely remember enjoying photography, writing, artsy shit that was dismissed during your youth because it doesn't pay well. If only you'd just gone to work after undergrad. Consulting or something. You could have been done with it by now.
Your life is rapidly being filled with inconsequential garbage. Last week you sat through an hour on corporate brand guidelines where you were asked to memorize the company's primary color palette and there was an eleven-minute discussion on whether the logo on the doormat in front of the entrance was consistent with the company's outward-facing image. It almost broke you. It was just a stupid little meeting and it almost broke you.
In the aftermath, you back to your shitty office cube and have what you later assume to be a mild panic attack. This swiftly convinces you that you need to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible.
Can I do that? Could I quit? Your heart says yes, but your head says that's a bad idea. Think of walking away now, after all the shit you waded through to get here. Plus, you're a very specially-trained monkey. You'd never make as much money anywhere else. Oh, and all that useless knowledge you crammed into your neurons. Use it or lose it - couple of years and it'll all be gone. And it's competitive. If you leave, that's it. Your skills will rot. What if you run out of money? Know what the only thing worse than a crappy job? A crappy low-paying job.
The only way you'll be free to chase your dreams (your real dreams) is if you are totally, 100% independent of the corporate money machine.
You investigate how much money you'll need to save to be able to live off your investments, where you only need work if you want to. It's daunting; all the experts say you need to save about 25 times your annual spending to pull the plug. You look at your paltry savings next to what you spend and nearly laugh. Even though you live a simple life and don't need much, it'll take close to a million dollars to be able to check out for good.
It seems impossible. But the alternative is more panic attacks. You give it a go and it sticks. You spend less and you save more. There are consequences. People begin to wonder who's taking all the food home after dinner meetings. Your significant other complains you don't take her out for sushi as often, worries you're changing from the person she fell in love with. You explain your motivations and she nods, but you still see her watching with concealed trepidation when you keep biking to work during the winter to save on gas.
Time changes. The interval between paychecks - now viewed as weapons in a very serious war - feels like an eternity. Investing feels like putting sand into a bottomless pit. Every time the stock market ebbs and flows you cheer or cringe. Hidden in your work computer files are no less than three spreadsheets tracking your net worth, along with future projections. It helps, a little.
Years pass and you plow your lonely furrow. At work, you speak not a word of your mission - no one can know your plans. It's too risky - no one likes it when one of the other prisoners makes a break for the fence. The middle is the worst. You have so-called "fuck you money" (that's what James Clavell called it in Tai-Pan - click that link), but you're still light years from being able to leave and never come back. You fear setbacks - a car accident, a major medical expense. Boredom and frustration are familiar companions. You're the impatient captain of a sailboat halfway across an ocean.
Very, very slowly, you spot land. One day you realize you have less than $100K to go to reach your goal. You have a cupcake when the financial distance shifts from six figures to five. Your projections of how long it'll take before you hit your financial independence shrink to the point where they can be measured in months instead of years. The days erode, one by one. Unbelievably, it's even tougher now; as your monetary dependence on your job wanes, the only thing lashing you to your post are your fraying internal motivations, of which you possess precious little. It's a struggle to simply show up some days. Your facade starts to crack, but it's OK - it needn't last much longer.
On the first Monday of the month, during the staff meeting, you log on to your accounts and tally your net worth, adding the same columns just as you've done a hundred times before. This time, though, they add up to a number higher than what you need. You're... done?
The change in status quo is disconcerting. You thumb through your records (disguised as meeting notes, of course). You re-add the numbers. There's no mistake: your investments will throw off more income than you spend. You're positive of this, having tracked every dime you spent the last two years just to be sure.
The meeting's been going on for several minutes without you noticing. You realize that you've made absolutely no plan for what happens next. Should you just walk out right now? It's paralyzing. You hold your fire, interested in what happens next.
Interestingly, things at work get a little better. Long-term problems lose their importance. Distant deadlines don't mean anything. Ditto for layoffs. Everything from here on out is gravy, safety margin. Best of all, you realize that you don't need to keep your mouth shut quite so tight anymore. What are they going to do - fire you?
This reprieve, however long it might last, is transient. It's nothing more than a cool-down jog after a long race. There was a prison documentary where one of the guards pointed out that a corrections officer doing 12-hour shifts was basically serving half the time of the inmates he guarded. There's truth in that.
You're still not sure what the future holds, but it's nice to have the get of jail free card in your back pocket. Part of you hopes to forget the last decade, while the rest of you still seeks to gain some final insight into what - if anything - all of this meant. On the latter bit, there's still precious little. The biggest revelation has been that the nastiest, soul-sucking parts of your job were the things that motivated you to accomplish what once seemed like a Sisyphean task and, in a way, have been the bit of grit that you've gradually - very gradually - made into a pearl.
Maybe there's more. Then again, maybe we're looking for meaning in a place that offers precious little.
Of course, this is purely hypothetical. None of this applies to me.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.