wait until tomorrow to change

tomorrow

I entered accounting for a simple reason. Having spent time in Germany during high school as an exchange student, I was itching 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, 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 accounting 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.  So be it.  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 am a risk-taker when it comes to my career, and 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 have had bodyguards to protect me.  But I hate taking risks and my risk-taking muscle has atrophied over the years – or maybe it was just 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.  Bubelah 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.

Yep.

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

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20 comments

  • Interesting post. I'm not in the career path I thought I'd choose–it's low paying and frustrating at times. I have a master's degree and I have yet to break $40k. But a nonprofit job has a lot of perks. I work within walking distance from my home. I work flex hours, so I have three-day weekends every week. My boss is extremely supportive. My workplace has casual dress, is gay-friendly (important to me), and the benefits are excellent. The company is expanding right now, not laying people off like so many corporate jobs. And I don't spend my day trying to sell a product or prove how great I am/my company is.

    These are all things you simply can't put a dollar sign in front of. Sure, I could have graduated from my fancy college and gone into investment banking, like many of my friends did. But I wouldn't have fit in, couldn't have kept up with that pace, and would have been incredibly unhappy. I'm thankful for the job I have, even when I have bad days.

  • I think a lot of young people struggle with this, but in the end I always feel as follows: it's much easier to say “I should've taken the other way” when the way you took brought in some serious money. Does that make sense? I mean, when you're not making money, even if you're doing what you love, you constantly feel like you should've just gotten a job that pays well, then do what you love on the side or after you've accumulated some cash.

    I guess in the end it's all about things looking greener on the other side.

  • Chad @ Sentient Money

    I really enjoyed this post, as I have experienced much the same situation…including the degree change to an accounting focus. Damn that profession is soul sucking boring. Luckily I'm not doing it anymore, though I'm not quite at my dream profession yet.

    I couldn't disagree with Writer's Coin more. No one who actually hated their job thinks this way. I know everyone says they hate their jobs, but the majority of people don't. They hate aspects of their job or hate what happened that day on the job, but most are ok with the whole package. Of course, I think these people are lemmings, as they rarely have any great dream to follow. They might be ok with an epitaph stating, “here lies a good accountant”, but I'm not. How horrible would that be?

  • How do I identify with this post, let me count the ways! I feel like I was reading my own thoughts (minus all that exotic travel stuff.)

    As a fellow finance person, I have to agree with Chad– the soul sucking boring comment.

    But I do agree with Writer's Coin. I have a couple friends in very low paying jobs that LOVE their jobs but are constantly feeling like they should have done something that earns more money. I think it's much easier to come to the realization that the high-powered job (and being able to acquire all the “stuff” that comes along with it) didn't really make you happy when you've actually lived that life. And, for me, it is much easier to give that all up now that I've already had it and know for certain it didn't create my happiness.

    I don't think I would have really believed it if I hadn't had it first.

  • Great post!

    “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • @mjukr: One of my favorite quotes – although I could say that about almost any quote from Emerson!

  • I decided I didn't want the corporate lifestyle earlier than you. Before I graduated college. To my credit I have taken risks in my early career, one didn't work out, one is still knew. I credit myself for taking the risks, although would love the financial and career success that you have established for yourself.

    Sounds like you want to be your own boss. Ever think about starting you own accounting firm? Having people work under you, and you running the whole operations?

  • Your net enjoyment went negative your first week? Wow. I might have made it a year or so before it happened. For a while, I really thought I wanted to keep that job forever. I guess the sooner you know you want something different, the sooner you can start doing something about it.

    • @Hunter: I certainly wouldn't say it STAYED negative after the first week. I had my good times and bad times. I just knew the first week that it wasn't something that was going to keep me going. I had moments – I loved being sent to Russia for work, I loved being sent to Indonesia, I enjoyed meeting a lot of the people I worked with – but the WORK was never interesting to me.

  • This post spoke to me because I am still passionate about my day job, but I often think that I should have gone in to finance (one of my teen heros was Nicola Horlick). My job has comfortable pay, but I'll probably never earn 6 figures (in 2008 $). Maybe more money would make me happy.

    I don't feel like a lemming just because I'd rather not work for myself though, just aware of my own limitations and security levels. Besides I couldn't do my job without working in a larger organisation.

  • I dealt with the same thing for nearly 4 years. The meetings in airport conference rooms and jet-set life on three continents was fun for a guy in his mid 20s. Then the drudgery of constant travel began to take it's toll and like you, I departed.

    The money was awesome, but not enough to continue that lifestyle.

  • “THERE WILL NEVER BE A BETTER TIME TO MAKE BIG CHANGES IN YOUR LIFE/CAREER/HEALTH/WEALTH/ETC. THAN RIGHT NOW.”

    It can, however, take years to verify and validate that fact. Sometimes waiting for “right now” to actually become “right now” takes a lot of time.

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  • Boston is colder than Siberia! You made my weekend, Steve!

    Seriously, your best post. And there have been some really good ones.

    • @Curmudgeon – wow, that's a kind thing to say – thanks so much 🙂

  • Interesting post! … I am in a Ph.D. program in math (part time) while I work in finance. I shifted back and forth between the prospects for an MBA because it was esteemed more than my Ph.D. progress in the eyes of management. Just recently, I have come to the conclusion that I need to stick the Ph.D. due to not wanting to turn out like my colleagues (or management for that matter). Thanks for the reinforcement! … The corporate world is not for me and I am not far away from getting out !!!!! BTW: Here is an interesting idea for those of us that didn't find “happiness” at work from the get go … We work through college to get into a job, only to work through life to get out of one. !!! Have a Brilliant Season Everyone!!!

  • I love this post. I think there are a lot of what-ifs and regrets in our lives. But ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, are we happy now? It might have been the best journey, but it got us somewhere nice (I hope).

    You have so inspired a post. 🙂

  • Excellent insight, Steve. I am also at the point where I am tired of the corporate life. I have a good job and I do well at it, but I have reached the point that I would rather be off on my own. Though I know that now is the best time to make the “jump” I can't do it just yet. The good news is that I am actively working toward (not just saying I am working toward it). But based on my calculations, I am still a few months off. It's a good goal though. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this.

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