I entered accounting for a simple reason. Having spent time in Germany during high school as an exchange student, I wanted to get back. I realized two semesters into my mathematics PhD that getting a PhD in math was clearly not going to help me achieve this goal. I also thought that it wouldn’t achieve another goal, which I believe at the time was critical: making money. So I dropped out my PhD program and spent a long time trying to come up with a list of career paths that would make money and let me live a jet-setting life. Be careful what you wish for.
My MBA helped me achieve one of my goals: I lived the jet-set lifestyle. I traveled for ten years to all corners of the globe – from Siberia to Indonesia to South America to Boston (Boston was colder than Siberia). I made a lot of money. I thought this was what a career was, and by any measure I was quite successful. I zipped right up the corporate ladder and thought the progression up was itself purpose and goal, wrapped into one.
During that time I had one – 1 – boss I liked working for, out of maybe 5 or 6. That’s not a good ratio. A saying I heard once – I wish I remember where – was that the only common element in all of your bad relationships is you, so I’m sure that some of the bosses weren’t bad – I was just a bad employee. That may be. I always had the skills to do the job, and I did my job well (at least that’s what my performance reviews and clients always said). But something was wrong, and it got worse as time went by. That’s when I realized that the net enjoyment I was getting out of my job had turned negative. Long hours, tense relationships with bosses, and a stressful profession started taking their toll. After I got married I knew things had to change.
I like to think of myself as a risk-taker when it comes to my career, and yet at the same time I am risk-averse. I abruptly changed career paths in college, going from a mathematics PhD program to an MBA program. I went to live and work in Russia during the chaotic 90s. I have worked on audits and frauds where I had bodyguards to protect me. But I hated taking risks and my risk-taking muscle atrophied over the years – or maybe it just got strained from overwork. I wasn’t ready to leap from paycheck world to entrepreneurial world, so I took a halfway step, going to contract consulting. I just couldn’t imagine going further, even though I wanted to – badly.
In retrospect this was a mistake. The early aughts (whatever we’re going to end up calling this decade) were a good time to take a chance. My wife was still working, we didn’t have kids yet and the market favored individuals, not companies. Most importantly, I needed to do something different. If I learned one thing from my half-hearted shift to consulting, it is this little nugget, oft-repeated and seldom heeded:
THERE WILL NEVER BE A BETTER TIME TO MAKE BIG CHANGES IN YOUR LIFE/CAREER/HEALTH/WEALTH/ETC. THAN RIGHT NOW.
Don’t think that next year will be the year you can finally get fit, or get out of this dead-end job, or start paying down that debt, or get around to skydiving or writing that novel or having kids or…well, whatever. It is time-worn advice, and I know many people (including me) dismiss it – eh, I’ve got the thing coming up with the people and the stuff… maybe tomorrow I’ll get on it.
I knew I was sick of corporate life. I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. I still don’t. I have not missed it at all. I thought I might be more nervous, or miss the interaction or the environment but I don’t. At all. And I can pinpoint the moment at which I got sick of working in this environment – the moment at which the net enjoyment went from positive to negative for the first time. You want to know the awful answer?
My first week at work after I graduated from college.
As I said, there were points when I was traveling to places I never would have gone (or chosen to go) when I was deeply grateful for my job. But I could have spent my time earning less money and taking more time off as a teacher after getting a math PhD and traveling (on a budget, admittedly) to the same places. Traveling for business took me to some neat places, but some – like Warsaw, for example – I remember in conference rooms and hotel rooms and hotel bars and restaurants. Many nights I ate dinner at 10 pm in the Warsaw Sheraton at the bar after another 16 hour day. The only time I ever got to “see” Warsaw was when I took a day off after three weeks of 16 hour days to spend time with a former colleague of mine and her sister. I saw the city for the first time after working there for three months.
But the big paychecks and the big travel and the big meetings all failed to deliver net enjoyment. I realized that I enjoy being at home most of the time, reading, writing, learning and maybe even playing. I know the pay’s not as good, but the net benefit to me is tremendous. The net benefit to my family is significant. I took risks to leave the US and work in a chaotic and dangerous country (at least, it was then) once before. Should I be scared to leave the corporate world? Yes, but that shouldn’t stop me. I left behind hundreds of colleagues who are OK with that kind of work – the pay makes it worth it, or the sense of self-worth from working on Wall Street or just the opportunity to get away from home a few days a week. Not for me, and if it’s not for you, you shouldn’t wait until the perfect time to make a change either.
photo by taiyofj