I’ve been reading some incredibly thoughtful and zoom-out-and-look-at-the-entire-human-race-from-the-perspective-of-an-alien articles on other blogs recently, and they forced me to re-think some of the reasons I quit my job as a computer engineer back in 2005.
Two of the articles, which I wouldn’t recommend digging into while at your own work unless you are a very advanced slacker because they are so long, are these:
Are you Suffering from Careerism, at Early Retirement Extreme. Here the author points out that at some point in your career, your advancement or survival may start to depend on politics rather than performance.
The Gervais Principle, on a blog called Ribbonfarm, dives deep into a theory that all big companies are actually made up of only three very tragic-sounding levels of people. While quite bleak overall, the description is strikingly accurate and is really just a workplace-specific zoom-in on human nature itself – the annoying tendency some of us have to compete for power when placed into large groups.
The Dark Side of Early Retirement, on Financial Samurai, suggests that perhaps quitting your job is a result of being a bit of a wussy who was afraid to make it to the top, rather than a Mustachian Hero. He also points out that early retirees tend to go around promoting how good it is to be an early retiree, much like people who move to Florida talk endlessly about the warm winters. These tendencies sound pretty annoying so I’d better be careful myself.
When I read all three of these things together, it made me wonder a bit about my true motivations for quitting.
Was it because I was afraid I was not good enough, so I just quit instead? This is a sensitive topic, because I was still just a non-management employee by the time I retired – no major waves were created, no newspaper headlines were written, and I’m sure the other worker bees seamlessly swarmed in to replace my empty cubicle and pick up the work I left behind. The company didn’t miss me a bit. Was I quitting because I wasn’t good enough to reach the top?
Was it because I had started to see the true nature of big-company politics, and I didn’t like them?
As a 19-year-old engineering student just finishing his first year of university, I scored my first engineering summer job at a very good company. It was an incredible thrill and I will never forget the utter joy of even entering a real office building. The big windows overlooking professionally landscaped grounds. The luxurious front lobby and fancy bathrooms. The electronic ID badges. And even the exotic low-pile office carpet and my very own cubicle and desk.
Objectively speaking, I can tell you that professional offices are actually fucking awesome places to work compared to gas stations and convenience stores. But over the years, you grow accustomed to the luxury and human nature starts to find things to complain about rather than just being permanently starstruck.
I call this the California Effect, where people from California and especially Los Angeles, are permanently jaded, because they were born in a place that is already absolutely beautiful, with mountains, ocean, non-stop perfect weather, infinite money, and a free society in which you can easily become a multimillionaire. The arrangements of tropical flowers which bloom and lick at your ears from even the lowliest McDonald’s Drive-through are infinitely nicer than even the most advanced garden in my own hometown. But jaded LA residents insist on finding problems with it instead. And compared to Southern California, the rest of the country seems even crappier, because SoCal is actually the nicest piece of land in the country (note that I’m talking about geography rather than culture here).
So goes it in the office lifestyle as well. After I became used to the building and the cubicle and the oversized paychecks, I did start to notice that my efforts to improve company morale and profits were sometimes falling upon deaf ears. Many of the more senior managers of the companies I worked for seemed to be content with maintaining a peaceful status quo rather than really taking risks to improve the company. And that’s when it hit me: at a big company, people are not actually trying for ultimate achievement.. they are trying to prolong a stream of paychecks because they are living a life that depends on several more decades of these paychecks to come in an uninterrupted fashion.
I did have the pleasure of working in some smaller and more dynamic-feeling companies earlier on in my career. Those were a lot more fun and I could imagine someone making a longer career out of hopping from one youthful place to the next, leaving only when the company grew too large to be fun. I did a couple of hops myself, but then the 2002 tech recession hit and temporarily extinguished the supply of start-up companies in my area.. so I settled in for a longer haul.
So yeah, I would have to say that the dull and neverending nature of big-company work is what did me in. It was definitely pleasant enough to endure for as long as I needed a paycheck. But after that point was passed, the gain was less than the pain so it became logical to leave.
My self-employment gig, on the other hand, is worth doing regardless of monetary factors. That’s the kind of work that builds up energy rather than subtracting it, and sucks away abdominal fat and health problems rather than creating them. So I don’t plan to ever quit that one.
What will YOUR job, or lack thereof, look like in retirement? It’s worth thinking about from time to time, since you’ll be getting the opportunity sooner than you might expect.