Think hard, save fast and retire early. How to re-shape your lifestyle to find true happiness out of life and pursue the things that truly interest you. This is a blog about financial independence and taking control of your life. It is my little space online where I can postulate ideas and techniques on how to retire from your 9 to 5 job and start to enjoy the virtues that life has to offer.
In the public sector, we have a saying that goes something like this: “Good enough for government work!”. It implies that the government doesn’t expect perfection, so “good enough” is often all you’ll need to put into an assignment.
This article is a part of the Kill It! series of articles aimed at streamlining your life into a well-oiled machine.
Sadly, it also implies that “good enough” is somehow inferior. After all, the saying isn’t “Give it your all and forget the rest”. We’re talking about calling it good somewhere before you reach the unattainable level of “perfect”.
The truth is perfection is impossible to achieve. Flat out impossible. We’re humans, and humans make mistakes. With everything we do, there’s always something that we could have done differently. Done better. Quicker.
You, my friend, are not perfect. I’m not either. That’s life.
In fact, this study suggests that those who constantly seek perfection are more likely to experience both emotional as well as physical problems.
Umm, no thanks.
My life of good enough
As far back as I can remember, I lived the “good enough” life to a T. Perhaps I was born a natural economist. I never put forth an ounce of additional effort when I believed that I had already squeaked out as much as I could.
It’s like when you’re at the bottom of a can of soda. You drink until no more comes out even though we all realize there’s just a bit still left. You stop with the soda stops. It’s good enough.
In school, I strived to keep my grades slightly above average. More Bs than Cs. An occasional A here and there. I didn’t strive for straight As because I didn’t feel they were necessary. I did my best to plant myself in that well-populated area slightly above the fold, then called it good.
I always used a similar philosophy when at work. Each assignment I completed to the very best of my ability. I did the work – sometimes went above and beyond, but I knew when I had already squeezed out as much juiciness as I could from the task. At that point, I was done.
Hell, even with early retirement, I chose to utilize a good enough philosophy. We retired with close to – but slightly less than – a million dollars in the bank, which is far less than most people believe that we need for early retirement in our mid-30s. But, we did it anyway. We were close enough. It just wasn’t worth another year working a job that I didn’t enjoy.
Damn, look at all this “good enough”-ness. I’ve never done anything perfectly, and probably never will.
But still, I retired from full-time work at the age of 35, and I never looked back. I called it good – to include my career – without trying to eek out another year. Another hundred thousand. Another year working a job I didn’t enjoy. We achieved our good enough number, then bailed.
This isn’t about half-assing your life
Good enough is not the same as half-assing it. Being irresponsible or intentionally lazy with your school, work or life, in general, will never be the answer to your prayers. It won’t let you escape the wretched grasp of corporate America and live a life of pure freedom.
In fact, it’s precisely the opposite.
When you’re lazy, you leave money on the table. You miss promotions at work that could send your progress toward your goals into overdrive. When people cannot depend on you, you create a scenario that keeps you on the outside. An outlier, but not in the positive sense.
Never mistake good enough for not trying your best.
Getting closer to perfection
Former football coach Vince Lombardi once said:
Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence
While perfection is impossible to achieve, there is wisdom in striving for the best that you can be. Incredible wisdom.
Here are several techniques that can help you reach toward perfection and hopefully get a little closer to it. I’ve employed these techniques throughout my life to maximize success with the time I put into my tasks.
Break down tasks – One of the biggest inhibitors to success is the sense of being overwhelmed. When things appear too big to handle, we clam up. We assume that they are too hard or just impossible. But, nine times out of 10, they are achievable. We just gotta approach them the right way.
For example, let’s say you want to lose weight. 100 pounds. To most people, losing 100 pounds probably seems like a monumental task. How could anyone lose 100 pounds? That’s insane!
But, think of it this way. It’s not so insane when you break that goal down into more easily achievable parts. Say, two pounds a week. Or 10 pounds a month. Doesn’t two pounds a week seem like a much more reasonable task than losing the entire 100? This is how I lost 50 pounds several years ago after ballooning up to 260 pounds leading an unhealthy lifestyle.
Focus on your time, not the end result – “Keep your eye on the prize”, right? While I understand the wisdom behind those words, I also believe that it keeps us focused on the mountain that we’re climbing rather than the smaller and more manageable steps that we’re taking to get there.
In the back of our minds, we know that we’re climbing a mountain. Every time we look up, we see that distant peak that looks impossibly far. Way too high for any reasonable human being to reach. In this case, don’t keep your eye on the prize. Keep your head down and focus on those steps. Each step represents progress. Sweet, sweet progress.
Instead of focusing on that mountain peak, pick out much closer milestones. Then, set out to achieve each and every one. That rock about 30 feet away…yeah, that looks like an awesome rock to stop at for a minute. Let’s just get there. Then, it’s the patch of green grass over there. That looks soft and comfy. Let’s go there. Before we know it, we’re halfway up that sucker.
We’re about to conquer that mountain!
Do your best and forget the rest – Regardless of how well you may do something, there will almost always be someone out there who will do it better. Faster. More efficiently. And, that’s okay.
While there is wisdom in doing the best that you can and consistently improving over time, resist (yes, RESIST!) the temptation to compare yourself with others. That’s always a lose-lose proposition. Your life’s goals isn’t about anyone else. The car someone else drives should have no bearing on the car that you choose to drive. That’s their life, not yours.
Just F-ing do it! – You don’t need the “perfect” plan before you begin. If your goal is to lose 100 pounds, get yourself into the gym and just start. Start on the treadmill or on an elliptical. In short order, you’ll build enough confidence to branch out a bit and maybe pick up a dumbbell or two. It all adds up. Progress builds. But, you gotta start. You just gotta start.
Believe me, I didn’t have a clue about working out when I first set foot in a gym. I’d be the guy you’d see reading those little stickers on the machines to figure out how to do the exercise. I selected a very light weight, then pushed through an easy set of 10 reps to get a feel for the exercise. Then, I’d kick it up 10 pounds and try another set. I’d keep doing that until I was comfortable with the challenge. Each time, I had the strength to do just a little bit more.
Progress can only happen after you start. You don’t need a detailed plan. You don’t need it all worked out. You just gotta f-ing do it.
Here’s the deal: I love you people. You’ve been exceptionally kind and supportive through my journey toward financial independence, and equally supportive after we reached it. Therefore, I feel compelled to give something back.
In this case, I’m talking about Amazon Gift Cards. And, $150 worth of ’em.
Gift Card Contest Details
I’m giving away a total of $150 in Amazon gift cards (sent through email to all winners). One card per winner.
A total of five (5) cards will be given away to winners
$50 card to the very best comment (chosen by my wife and me)
Four (4) $25 winners chosen at random
All cards will be purchased (by me) and sent to winners straight through Amazon
Be sure to include your email address in the comment form as that will be the way that I contact winners; it is YOUR responsibility to respond to my email if you’re a winner!
How To Enter
You MUST be a subscriber to my newsletter (form provided below); if you are already signed up (thank you, BTW!), proceed to next step…
Write a comment below with one of your best financial achievements, and also a financial decision that you regret; both of these must be present to win
Remember, the best comment receives the $50 gift card.
The drawing of the winners will be held on Friday, March 16th at 2 pm EST. If I do not hear back from one of the winners in three days, I reserve the right to select another winner.
Legal stuff: No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.
I am currently a researcher at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. I completed my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, worked as a product design engineer for Apple, founded my own business, and pursued my research passion combining textiles and electronics.
Despite my accomplishments, I often felt like a failure, not believing that I truly belonged in engineering.
This is imposter syndrome.
[Note from Steve: Fay (a long-time friend of my wife Courtney) reached out to me after reading a post I had published about lying to yourself. The post resonated with her because she’s felt the effects of impostor syndrome, but through perseverance and help from her support network, she was able to overcome the worst of what she felt as a Ph.D. student and engineer at Apple.]
This is the story of how one Apple engineer bested her impostor syndrome
In the beginning
I didn’t always suffer from impostor syndrome. In high school, I took eight AP classes, ran track, played violin in the orchestra, served as secretary in Mathletes, and painted scenery in theatre. I didn’t know much about engineering, but a three-week summer engineering program piqued my interest. My group tested toy cars in a wind tunnel to measure drag – it was so fun! I had done well in my high school physics classes, so I chose to major in mechanical engineering.
You don’t belong here
Starting in my freshman mechanical engineering course, I struggled. My class had 100 students and I felt nameless in a sea of faces. I enjoyed the class projects but performed terribly on problem sets and exams. Classmates made comments, planting the seed of impostor syndrome:
“You haven’t had the experiences in your childhood necessary for you to become a successful engineer. I have.”
“You only got in because you’re a girl.”
And so I began to build a narrative that I didn’t belong and that my experiences didn’t count.
In the meantime, I played frisbee, made friends, and later became co-captain. I took more physics classes and enjoyed learning about relativity. I ended up doing undergraduate research in the physics department, examining friction on a bowed violin string. I enjoyed robotics classes, programming robots to navigate mazes, stack cups, and flip pancakes. I had enough coursework to earn minors in both physics and robotics.
However, my grades remained a disaster. Near the end of my undergraduate coursework, my academic advisor told me: “It seems like you’re not taking your classes seriously.” I internalized this feedback; it confirmed what I already believed. There is something about impostor syndrome that lets in all the negative talk, compounding it and blocking out the positive.
After I graduated, I worked in various labs on campus for a year. I was accepted into graduate school despite my less than stellar grades.
It has a name
In graduate school, I started my first term taking three classes, TAing, and playing frisbee. I slept four hours per night and would fall asleep through all my classes. This didn’t bode well for my grades. I remember learning about impostor syndrome for the first time at a luncheon hosted by a female professor. She told a story about how she would compare herself to others in grad school, but every now and then, she was able to muster confidence. “How?”, I asked.
“By pretending I was someone else“, she admitted. She would pretend to be a female labmate whom she found to be very capable. Knowing the name of impostor syndrome was only the first step. It took many years to dispel it.
This is a test
In my department, the qualifying exam included a 6-hour written component and a 1-hour oral component. Half of the students failed their first time. I was one of them. For the first time, I felt noticeably different from my male lab mates. I would want to talk about the difficulties of quals prep. I’d cry and be loud. I wanted to talk about my feelings. My male lab mates would quietly hunker down and study harder. I felt alone.
I started meeting other female graduate students from various engineering departments. We talked about classes, relationships with advisors and partners, taking qualifiers, and the various hurdles of grad school. We called ourselves Ladies in Engineering Graduate Studies (LEGS).
In graduate school, people often emphasize the importance of a good relationship with your advisor. I feel that peer mentoring is the least emphasized support; people don’t talk enough about the importance of peer support. These women were not just any peers, but standouts in our very male-dominated fields. They were instrumental in helping me complete my Ph.D. About a decade since its inception, I still keep in touch with many of them.
In preparing for my second attempt at quals I put more supports in place. My partner is a man of few words and understandably didn’t know what to say when I was upset. I wrote him an index card of the things that helped. It sounded like this:
“You have been studying for months. You have been studying as hard as you can. You even studied on vacation. I know you are taking this seriously, and you will do the best you can.”
This worked for me because I needed to hear something concrete. I chose words that were grounded in evidence. That felt far more reassuring than “don’t worry, you’ll do fine, you’re smart”; in contrast, those words felt unfounded and based on belief.
For my advisor, I brought him a tissue box and said, “This tissue box is for you, for me, for when I come and cry in your office.” I still needed them for the second time I took quals – when I passed. Sometime later, he had another student who needed them. The student smiled and noted, “This is Fay’s tissue box.”
There came the day I finally finished my Ph.D. I delivered my defense and passed. Surprisingly, this achievement did not make my impostor syndrome go away.
It made it worse!
The night after I gave my defense, I was awake all night replaying my words and wishing I had said things differently, even though I had passed. Later, when I met people who had done amazing doctoral work, I felt like they had done far more work than I had to graduate. I believed I had tricked my committee into signing my paperwork. It didn’t help when people said: “You don’t know this? You have a Ph.D.?” It stung. I truly felt that my Ph.D. was not good enough.
A picture of Fay and Courtney (my wife!)
Years later, my impostor syndrome finally started to unravel when my partner’s family said something truly remarkable to me:
“Impostor syndrome is based on the belief that you are good at nothing except fooling the people around you. In a sense, you believe that the people around you are idiots because they can’t see past the facade.”
This struck a chord. How many people had I thought I had fooled? The list was long: my quals committee, my dissertation committee, every interviewer for every job, and then all my supervisors and colleagues. With this reframing, I could believe they were good judges of character with regards to me. I started to hear positive feedback and believe it.
The day it changed
One day, I was home alone, lamenting, “I’m not a real engineer. I don’t like CAD.” And then it clicked: “I’m a product design engineer at Apple. If I’m not a real engineer, then who is?”
Armed with these thoughts, I was finally able to turn impostor syndrome on its head.
What made this a breakthrough for me was the ability to challenge the impostor syndrome narrative on my own, without an outside prompt. I had strengthened a narrative of my capabilities and used it as evidence to fight a 15-year-old lie. This empowered me to see myself for who I was, including both my capabilities and limitations. I realized that there will always be people who are better than me at anything. Interns are better than I am at CAD. It’s okay. It means that I can learn from anyone. I know I can do hard things, hard things that I’ve never done before, and teach myself the skills I need in order to accomplish them. That’s what got me through my Ph.D. and various jobs, running my own business, and it’s how I approach my research interests.
I can’t say that I’m “cured” of impostor syndrome, but its narrative is largely gone. Going through this journey has taught me a lot about myself. I have better clarity of what kind of work I enjoy (and don’t), what I’m good at (or not), and what resources I have (or not). It has taught me how to value my story and use that story to fuel my direction. It inspires me to share my story with others. You don’t need to be an engineer at a high-profile Silicon Valley company to dispel impostor syndrome, but these things helped me along the way:
Reframing. Impostor syndrome is paradoxical. You must simultaneously hold the beliefs that you are both good at nothing and the world’s best illusionist. How do those two beliefs sit with you?
Build the support you need. You are not alone in your narrative. What are the kinds of words you might need to hear from others?
Build a narrative as evidence against impostor syndrome. I started by collecting thank you cards and emails from dear friends. Now when I get an exceptional email, I flag it and print it out. It can be hard to listen to oneself, so hearing from others can help. Don’t know where to start? Ask trusted friends and family for three words to describe you.
You’ve heard it time and time again, I bet: Minimalism is where it’s at. It’s how to declutter and take back control of your life. People blog about it. It’s all the rage in many alternative-living communities. But, I also don’t believe in it.
This article is a part of the Kill It! series of articles aimed at streamlining your life into a well-oiled machine.
Don’t get me wrong, minimalism isn’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with the tenants of minimalism. After all, minimalists live with less. They understand that value is a more important qualifier than price alone. Minimalists the world over preach that the less stuff we have, the happier we tend to be.
And you know what? I agree. I’ve seen and experienced in my life the incredible power of downsizing and ridding myself of stupid stuff. It is an amazing feeling to live in a 200 square foot Airstream and honestly feel like we have enough.
But, I also don’t believe living that small is required to take control of your life. And, I also don’t particularly like the word “minimalism”. To me, it’s a bad word choice for the movement.
Hold it! May I interest you in some non-secret secrets?
Why “minimalism” is the wrong word
According to Dictionary.com, one definition of the word “minimal” is “barely adequate or the least possible“. Or, how about “the least quantity or amount possible, assignable, allowable, or the like”.
Pardon me for being blunt, but that just sounds horrible.
And by the way, who is to say what is truly “minimal” in your life? If you buy a $50 set of silverware instead of a $20 set, is that against the tenants of minimalism? After all, that $50 set isn’t what represents barely adequate. You don’t NEED a ceiling fan in your bedroom either, or that car in your garage or driveway, or your laptop computer, or…
Your mindset is one of the most powerful forces in your decision-making process. Don’t focus on something with a negative connotation in order to better your life. That is entirely counter-productive. None of us are seeking to skate by in our lives with the bare minimum.
Forget the term “minimalism”. Actually, forget the entire movement.
Living a sensible, not minimal, life
The point of this whole Kill It! series isn’t to teach you how to live a life of the bare minimum. Of barely adequate. I am not here to criticize your spending habits or argue that you should never treat yourself to jewelry, or a big screen television or even a nice car. If you can afford them and they bring you genuine happiness (but not an escape!), buy them.
The truth is you can live well – in fact, in the lap of luxury, and still set yourself up to achieve financial independence and retire super early. The key in all this is living a more sensible lifestyle by making smart decisions with your money that directly add value to your life. Think about your happiness, first and foremost. Forget adequacy.
Every decision that you make, ask yourself this simple question: Is it a Value Add?
If it is, then it’s probably a good decision for you at that time. Good decisions can (and do) include spending money. Adding value comes in all different forms, like:
Volunteering in your local community
Buying prime-cut steak instead of choice
Opting for a more expensive bottle of alcohol as our “sipping drink”
Monthly date nights with our spouses
Unfortunately, minimalism doesn’t automatically make us better people. If it did, we’d all be minimalists. The movement means well, but it also clouds the underlying concept of living within your means and ridding our lives of excess by using a label that almost any dictionary in the world would define as something that a lot of us generally want no part of.
And naturally, we all need to understand what makes us happy. Hint: It might not be stuff. In fact, it probably isn’t stuff. For most of us, the secret to our happiness isn’t buried in things. Things are a diversion.
What happens if we live within our means?
Note that I said within our means, not below it. Within.
Living within your means is a lifestyle choice that prioritizes a new and non-ridiculous way to spend your money. Maybe we don’t need that 70-inch television from Costco after all, or that pricey prime-cut filet steak every week, or those $100 date nights every month.
Heck, a true minimalist may not have a television at all. But screw that. Be honest with yourself about what makes you happy and do those things. Just don’t be an out-of-control maniacal spendthrift when doing so. Within your means.
That’s right – if you want that pint of expensive “designer” ice cream, throw caution to the wind and buy it. Enjoy it, but enjoy it over time. Meaning, don’t crash in front of your television and destroy that pint of delicious ice cream like it’s going out of style.
Or hell, do that. But do it every 6 months, not every week. Moderate yourself. In other words, be sensible, not minimal.
Treat yourself when you feel like you need to. But, doing it too much makes each treat less special, and it probably costs you some cold hard cash, too.
Live within your means, not below it
Achieving financial independence and early retirement doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to live below our means. A feeling of “sacrifice” doesn’t usually put a smile on our face, does it?
Living within our means is enough.
I keep saying that life is a mind game, and I believe that to this day. Everything we see, hear, smell and do is a representation of reality that we build in our heads. The buck stops up there in the ol’ cranium, every day. Every time.
Once we master that mind game, we begin winning. Think of it like a water filter, and the stupid stuff we used to do are dust and tiny carbon deposits in the water. Our brains act like filters to strip out the waste, leaving in its wake only pure, crystal-clear water. Clean drinking.
Giving yourself a label doesn’t provide that filter. Simply “living with less” doesn’t do it, either. Actions are wonderful things. The power behind actions spurs amazing changes in our lives. But unless we believe in those changes, we’re missing the critical element of what accounts for so much of our happiness: Our minds.
I leave you with an equation: Belief + Value = Victory.
I will come right out and admit it – creating an email course was a ton of fun. Designing each email and coming up with the content was a super engaging process and the fact that ConvertKit makes it incredibly easy to put together these courses definitely helped.
By the way, you’ll see links to ConvertKit throughout this email, and they are affiliate links. I almost never write these types of posts laden with affiliate links, but I had to make an exception in this case. It’s worth it.
What is ConvertKit?
It’s an email marketing service. Every newsletter signup form on this web site comes straight from ConvertKit, and I use it to manage all of my email lists. ConvertKit is similar to services like MailChimp and Drip, but I feel it offers the best combination of features for the price.
In other words, it’s one of the best values in the business.
Check out the graph below. ConvertKit displays this graph on your main Dashboard page and it measures email signups each day. That huge spike you see on February 8th was my pre-launch of the email course I designed with ConvertKit. It nearly doubled my email list that day.
ConvertKit’s dashboard graph that depicts email signups
Next, I’m going to show you exactly how I used ConvertKit to create my free email course quickly and easily.
How I built my email course using ConvertKit
First, in case you didn’t know, I have a free 7-day email course about starting your own money blog. I talk about domain names and web hosting, building an email list, awesome features of WordPress as well as the pros and cons of blogging anonymously. If you haven’t signed up for it, please consider doing so! Maybe I’ll love you forever if you do.
In ConvertKit, there’s a concept called ‘Sequences’, and you will need to use this feature to create an email course. For the purposes of this blog post, an email course is a sequence. I refer to those terms synonymously.
As the name implies, these are sequences of emails that get automatically sent to subscribers of the sequence. Think of it as a configurable batch routine. Once it’s setup, you’ll never need to touch it again (unless, of course, you want to!).
To access the Sequences area, simply click on the ‘Sequences’ link at the very top of your dashboard – as of this writing, it’s the middle link:
Next, select + Create Sequence on the right to begin a new sequence of emails. The next page asks for a name:
Give your sequence a name, then select ‘Create Sequence‘.
The next page is where all the magic happens. ConvertKit will automatically build your very first email for you and fill it with some dummy text. This will be a Draft email. Any draft email will not be sent to your sequence’s subscribers until the email’s status is changed to ‘Published‘.
The ConvertKit Sequences screen | Click on image to enlarge
Take note of the different areas of the Sequence screen. On the left, we see each email in the sequence. To add a new email to your sequence, punch the + Add Email button. Emails can be rearranged by clicking and dragging an email on the left to a different spot within the sequence.
Also, the name of the sequence is listed at the top left (in this case, “Demo Sequence”), and it’s configurable by clicking on the pencil icon to the right of the name.
Let’s take a look at the middle of the screen and discuss each element:
STATUS – The status of an email is either ‘Draft’ or ‘Published’. Draft emails will not be sent to subscribers. This enables you to work on new emails in a sequence without affecting the user experience until the email is ready for primetime. Click on the drop-down menu and select ‘Published’ to mark this email as “sendable” to all subscribers of your sequence.
DELAY SENDING BY – Setting the email’s delay (offset) will change when each email is sent relative to the email before it, and the offset for each email can be configured by clicking on the pencil icon next to this value.
For example, choosing ‘1 day‘ will send that email one day after the previous email (if it’s the first email in the sequence, it’ll send that email one day after a subscriber joins the sequence). The ‘Day’ option can also be changed to ‘Hour’. Days of the week are configurable by selecting them. Unselect Sat and Sun to only send emails on weekdays.
Note: The screenshot above references “after subscription” only because this is the first email in the sequence. After creating another email, it will reference “after last email”.
FILTER (icon) – This feature enables in-depth filtering of exactly who should get each email within the sequence (and filters can be different for each email). For example, you might want to only send certain emails to subscribers who possess a particular tag. For the record, I did not use the filtering feature at all in the making of my email course.
DELETE (icon) – This will remove the email from your sequence (after confirmation).
PREVIEW – The ‘Browser’ and ‘Email preview options let you preview the email. Always preview your emails! I always preview each email by using the “Email” option before sending or scheduling. Simply click the ‘Email’ button, type in your email address (if it’s not already there) and check your email.
The Email Subject and Email Content areas should be self-explanatory. Notice the design toolbar at the top of the Email Content area that provides quick access to utilities for your email:
If you use WordPress (or virtually any online editor), these tools will probably look familiar to you, except for the PERSONALIZE option on the right. This option lets you customize the email on a per-subscriber basis.
Select a choice and ConvertKit will automatically add the code to your email. Play around with these options to see what works best for your needs. I use ‘Subscriber’s name (with fallback)’ a lot, which gives me the option of customizing the greeting depending on whether or not the subscriber gave me a name when they subscribed.
How subscriptions work
Sequences contain subscribers. A subscriber is an email address that joins the sequence and receives all ‘Published‘ emails within the sequence. All sequence subscribers will also become a part of your overall email list of subscribers (if they aren’t already).
Subscribers can be added to sequences in a couple of different ways. The most common way is through a sign-up form that ConvertKit manages. For example, the sign-up form for my 7-day email course automatically adds subscribers who sign up through that form directly to the sequence.
For instance, the screenshot below shows the settings for my email course’s sign-up form. I’ve selected the ‘How To Start Your Own Money Blog’ sequence. The drop-down box will be filled with every sequence that you create, making the creation of sign-up forms easy.
This week, my wife Courtney sent me a link to a video and asked for my thoughts. Little did I know, I was about to watch one of the most powerful videos I think that I’ve ever seen on the subject of financial independence and mindless consumerism.
Do yourself a favor and stop whatever it is that you’re doing and give this video your undivided attention (and for the record: I don’t know this guy. Never met him — it’s just a bad-ass video, one of the best I’ve seen).
Everyone Needs To Hear This | by Jay Shetty - YouTube
It starts out with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “We sacrifice our health in order to make wealth, then we sacrifice our wealth in order to get back our health.”
Imagine a world where everyone lived their passion
A lot of this video is pie-in-the-sky platitudes, but it’s also rooted in the depressing state of affairs that plague so many of us living (and working) in the first world. The United States doesn’t have the monopoly on the disease of mindless consumerism. It covers the first world completely.
Though sometimes not easy, we all have the passion and potential to do almost anything. The only thing that separates those of us who DO, and those who DON’T, is our minds.
Last week, I read Steve’s post “Why are careers in information technology unfulfilling?” as I too have spent my entire working career in this field. Fact is, I’m still there. I understand the viewpoint presented, yet I also felt there is – or could be, a different perspective. Rather than dumping this entire post into a comment, we decided a separate guest post was better.
Let’s jump in.
The three main arguments in the original article were:
Information technology isn’t about people
Information technology is full of stress and pressure
Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched tight
Information technology isn’t about people
I would guess that most people who think about software engineers assume they sit in a cubicle with headphones on. A lot do. I did (at least when I could get away with it). Many software engineers are introverts and unskilled in the fine art of socializing. Still, I have met a number of IT people who are very extroverted and they are, by nature, very much people oriented.
In my career – and I don’t believe my career was all that unique – I wrote software that directly led to the employment of 1000s of people. The same software enabled dozens of businesses to thrive and be profitable (some of which were publically traded so by extension stockholders benefited as well). I was, and am, proud of my contribution to that software product.
Throughout my career, I have found that writing software was a form of helping people solve a problem. When I could, I would sit with end users and watch them use my software. When I observed something that seemed awkward I would ask the end user about their process to gain insight. After receiving their feedback, I would make software changes to help solve the issue. Hearing a ‘thank you’ and the occasional grateful response was fulfilling and rewarding.
[Note from Steve: This kind of autonomy in your job is a huge boost to job satisfaction. I’ve worked on projects like this before and fully attest to the difference this can make]
To Steve’s point, IT work often involves hardware and I can’t agree more that working with hardware is impersonal. My mantra when I was in these situations was always “I hate hardware.” There is absolutely no reasoning with hardware, there is no warm connection with hardware. Unfortunately, software doesn’t work without hardware.
Information technology is full of stress and pressure
In my career, I have been the guy on call 24×7 for operational issues and when “the system is down”, businesses not only lose money, they lose customer trust and brand. Steve used VISA as an example. If VISA’s systems were down, do you think people may switch to American Express or MasterCard? As a consumer, I may or may not change. As a business owner that relies on accepting payments, if I couldn’t receive payments, I would certainly look to make a change.
At the same time, information technology is not the only job that places workers under stress and pressure. Examples abound.
My uncle was a research neurosurgeon. He typically didn’t see patients until other neurosurgeons determined that the patients’ condition was likely terminal. He was, for all practical purposes, the last resort. I cannot begin to imagine how he dealt with the prospect that very few of his patients would live and that he would need to discuss depressing prognosis with family members. I couldn’t do this type of job. I would buckle under the stress in these dreadful life circumstances, but my uncle had a passion for research and for neuroscience. It was that passion, I believe, that kept him going.
Steve contrasted an accounting job as possibly being less stressful. I think, after reading a number of posts by The Wealthy Accountant, I would not characterize accounting as not having stress, especially during tax season. Every CFO that I have known during my career talked about the hours and stress of producing financial statements, especially for the companies that were public.
My own career had its share of stress and pressure. At times I had operational responsibilities. On one occasion, the fiber optic cables connecting our data center were broken when a railroad bridge, where the cables ran, was moved laterally 10-feet by a flood. I got the dreaded call from the VP about how much money the company was losing and asking why I couldn’t get service restored “NOW!”
After I pointed him to the Weather Channel story about the flooding (yes, the storm made national news), I got a little reprieve. I still needed to resolve the problem but I at least had my VP helping and not harping. This incident became a learning experience for me. I learned. I grew.
There is a difference between occasional stress and unreasonable stress. When a given job is nothing but stress, there is something wrong. Maybe the process is flawed. Perhaps the wrong resources are being used. If your job is nothing but a source of stress, it probably is time to consider your options. This applies to any job, not just Information Technology.
Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched
After personally seeing salaries at a .com company, I couldn’t agree more. Steve mentions Amazon as an example. Browse Glassdoor for salary information and you will see that Amazon, and many name-brand internet companies, do pay generous salaries. I can also attest to the difficulty that exists in walking away. While Steve up and quit his job (for good), I’ve walked away from more than one position and each time had the difficult decision to leave money on the table.
One point that Steve did not mention is stock. A lot of Internet-based and startup companies use stock and stock options to attract workers. This is where, in my opinion, tech companies really handcuff you.
For the right candidate with the right skills, you can receive a $75,000 – $100,000 stock grant when you are hired. The company often sweetens the deal by providing an additional $10,000-$20,000 grant every year. Of course, every grant typically vests over a 5-year period. Thus, how can you ever leave? There is always a carrot that is hanging out there in the 3-5 year timeframe that keeps us working jobs not just for the dependable salary, but for the extra stock perks.
With this stated, doesn’t salary bind us all, at least until FI? Are we not all working so we can achieve the goal of FI? In reading several FIRE blogs, I have run across individuals who are more willing than I am to make sacrifices so they can achieve FIRE sooner than later. Some may choose to accept the unfulfilling aspects of work so they can accumulate their FI target sooner and can then step away from the unfulfilling work. I choose a balance where my salary may not be as high but I am able to find my level of fulfillment.
When Steve wrote “Our expectations change over the years and we soon begin to depend on that money to fund our lifestyles that become more and more expensive as we earn more and more money”, I couldn’t agree more. The challenge we have and the discipline we need is to not become a slave to our jobs simply because of the salary. We need to remain focused and live within our means while staying focused on our FI goals.
Keeping our eye on the end goal should mitigate the effect of the golden handcuffs.
I believe information technology jobs are not very different from any other job. Most (all?) jobs can be unfulfilling at times. A job is work. When my kids entered college, I told them to find their passion. If they can find work in the area where their passion lies, they will enjoy a fulfilling career. If they simply found a job to pay the bills, they would have toil.
Find where you fit. As a software engineer, I found fulfillment by the expressiveness of creativity in solving a problem. As a manager, I found fulfillment by mentoring and helping my staff grow (sort of like a parent with their child).
Find your passion. If you are struggling with your work, make a change. Your time is too precious to waste being unhappy and unfulfilled. I’m not saying that everyone will be entirely satisfied with their work but there is no need to be overly stressed and miserable either.
Let’s face facts: Budgets kinda suck. They aren’t fun. They take time and effort to create and maintain. And, they typically cause so many of us to manage our finances completely backward. Maybe it’s time to ditch the budget.
Wait, what? Ditch our budget? Yes. Hear me out.
Traditionally, budgeters take their money and pay other people or entities first. That could mean the government through income taxation, social security taxes, property taxes, etc – or loan repayments, or monthly service fees, or anything else. Those things tend to come first. Then, whatever we have afterward becomes ours to do with as we please. To spend. To save.
This means our retirement comes in second (or third, or fourth) behind other people or entities – including our own spending.
Paying yourself first, on the other hand, flips the equation on its head. Paying ourselves first means we fully fund our retirement accounts before paying anyone anything…yes, even the government. And best of all, there is nothing illegal about it. It’s called a 401k (or a 403(b), or SEP IRA) plan.
These accounts let us take our own income and immediately contribute pre-tax money into a retirement account that will grow along with the stock market before the government gets its hands on our money. Amazing, isn’t it? And better yet, many corporations will match a certain percentage of your contributions. That’s free money!
And, that’s what paying yourself first means. You’re funding your future before forking out your hard-earned money to anyone. In essence, you are pre-paying your retirement expenses now. And, you aren’t paying a single penny in taxes until you withdraw that money later in life. Even better: pre-tax accounts reduce your taxable income as well, which cuts the amount of money you’re required to pay to the government.
Such a deal!
It’s not just about your 401k, either. Roth IRAs are a pretty sweet deal as well, which requires that we pay taxes now but allows us to withdraw tax-free in the future when we actually need the money. We fund Roth IRAs with post-tax money. But, they are still a good deal. No tax later!
How much money do we pay ourselves?
Opinions on this question are varied, but I like to set the minimum threshold at around 15% of your income. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should go into work tomorrow and immediately increase your 401k contribution to 15%. It’s okay to do this gradually. If you aren’t saving anything, start with just one or two percent, then increase it over time.
Save as much as you can. Before my wife and I quit our full-time jobs, we saved a whopping 70% of our combined income. We did this by maxing out our 401k and Roth IRA accounts. We also opened a Vanguard Brokerage account and funneled money into it. Lastly, we opened an Ally savings account to build up a sizable liquid asset collection of money. In other words, money that we can get at quickly and easily. We have three years of living expenses saved in an easily-accessed savings account.
But, this took time. Saving money in general always takes time. Once you begin paying yourself first, your lifestyle will adjust accordingly. Soon, you won’t need that additional money to feel happy or satisfied.
Do these four things to begin your savings adventure:
If your employer offers a 401k retirement account, use it! If they match a percentage of your contributions, contribute at least this much. This is 100% free money. No gimmicks. No exceptions. Matched contributions amount to extra money for your retirement. If you already have a 401k, consider increasing your savings percentage. Remember, this reduces your taxable income, too, which keeps more of your money in your hands.
Open a Roth IRA account if you don’t already have one. Roth accounts are built using post-tax money – your “after tax” take home cash. You won’t pay taxes on this money later in life when you withdraw those funds.
Consider a savings account for easily-accessed cash. Look for high-interest accounts to make a little money on whatever you have saved there. Ally’s online savings accounts typically offer interest rates around 1%.
Make it automatic. Setup auto deductions from your paycheck or checking account to fund these accounts. Don’t rely on you to make those transfers every month. It’s way too easy to forget or lose interest. Automation is key.
Don’t forget emergencies!
When we talk about saving money, it’s easy to pinpoint retirement accounts as the primary destination for that money. In reality, your retirement accounts are the only thing to focus on when it comes to paying yourself.
Let’s talk a second about emergency funds.
What happens if you get into a car accident and need a few thousand dollars for repairs? Or a medical emergency sends you to the ER and, naturally, a nice big bill in your mailbox days later? Or a family member has an emergency and needs some money, quick? Or, you suddenly lose your job and you’re forced to live for months without any income. What happens?
Well, you sure as hell can’t withdraw any money from your retirement accounts (without penalty). In fact, you don’t want to withdraw money from your retirement accounts anyway. You want that money to stay put.
You may not have several thousand dollars sitting around in your non-interest bearing checking account, either. And you’d hate to put emergency spending on your credit card, right? Because…credit card debt!
This is where your emergency fund comes in. Emergency funds are typically stored in a savings account separate from your checking. This is money that should never be spent unless an emergency requires it. It’s money that you’ve set aside for when you need it most. You can always depend on it being there. It’s lying in wait, for a situation you hope never comes.
Great, but how much money should we keep in our emergency fund? It seems everyone has an opinion on this point, and I am no exception. I recommend at least three months of living expenses – minimum. This will easily support you through sudden job losses for a little while, and will probably provide enough resources for any other emergency that might befall you. Yup, three whole months.
Fund your emergency savings first (especially if you don’t yet have any!). Then, focus on your retirement savings. My wife and I use an interest-bearing Ally savings account to hold our emergency stash. Each month, we’ll get small interest payments that help pad that stash a bit, which is cool.
Lastly – the benefit to using a savings account rather than your checking account is separation. You’ll be less likely to spend your emergency savings if it’s not easily accessible from your everyday spending account. But if you do need access to it, it’s still relatively easy.
In the personal finance community, we get to read a lot of people’s stories about why they chose a path to early retirement (or at least financial independence). Commonly, the impetus stems from working unfulfilling jobs, and many times, those jobs just so happen to be in IT.
I’m a primary example. I worked in information technology my entire professional life. From the moment I graduated college, my life revolved around the computer, as if the computer had this invisible gravitational pull that kept me locked in. I spun and spun, and it eventually felt like a soul-sucking monotonous drain on my life. I wanted out, and badly.
Through my career, I’ve met a LOT of people who are unsatisfied with their careers in information technology. Most continue to work in IT simply because they need the money (often exacerbated by lifestyle inflation), but that genuine feeling of happiness that we all like to feel just isn’t there for so many of us who work jobs in technology.
But, why? What makes so many of our careers in information technology so unfulfilling? Why is it so common?
Why information technology jobs are unfulfilling
As a happily retired information technology dude, I’ve had time to think about this phenomenon. I believe it can all be distilled down to a few basic problems.
Information Technology isn’t about people
The large majority of us humans feed on the enthusiasm and interaction with people. Even the most introverted among us need people in our lives to feel like we’re connected. People enable very organic relationships that most of us intuitively understand. With people, we aren’t dealing with the 1s and 0s of computer languages where every damn decision is computationally determined based on a series of predetermined variables that aren’t governed by emotion or external factors. Computers aren’t organic.
Careers in information technology are about systems, not people. We work with inanimate objects. Machines. We don’t get to converse with them and establish relationships like we do with people. It’s just code, or hardware, or networks, or machinery. So impersonal.
We don’t get to “change a computer’s life” like we could with another human being. Connections like those simply do not exist in technology very often, and that absence of an organic relationship can, over time, begin to drain our sense of purpose. All we do is work with machines. Dumb terminals. And at the most basic level, they are all pretty much exactly the same. Over time, this becomes relentlessly tedius.
Information Technology is full of stress and pressure
Technology is everywhere. We depend on it in virtually every facet of our lives, and when it works, it’s great. Everything seems to be tied into “the system”. All things are connected. Cities can monitor every stop light through a series of cameras accessed from a central location. Internet providers can pinpoint sources of congestion and bottlenecks through sophisticated network monitoring apps. Schools uses technology to connect students to the world outside. Businesses rely on technology for their livelihoods.
When everything works, life is good. But, almost nothing always works in information technology. Tech systems are connected in weird and complicated ways. Variables change. Insanely tight deadlines encourage engineers to cut corners. And, people interact with systems in ways that we didn’t (or couldn’t) anticipate. In some cases, hackers and other nefarious entities intentionally screw with the systems that we’ve put together. In other words, things go wrong…all the time.
Here’s the larger problem: When our entire world runs on the collective hum of technology, problems are instantly magnified. Businesses lose money every second that the network is down (imagine if Visa couldn’t process credit card transactions for 10 minutes – they’d lose millions). What if stop lights in your city suddenly went dark? Or the power grid collapses?
Technology problems have profound consequences, and those who work in information technology feel that pressure. Pressure leads to stress, and that stress builds over time. It becomes a nearly constant strain on our lives. And, those of us who work tech support-type jobs feel it the most. Managers want to look good by keeping their systems operational and often put pressure on their staff to do whatever it takes to keep everything humming along.
We might be able to keep up with this pressure for a few years. Eventually, the pressure of technology begins to break us down. We fix one problem only so we can move on to another. Problem after problem, we keep churning through “the system”, fixing this, enhancing that, developing a new cool feature that we hope never breaks. And around and around we go.
Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched tight
If information technology is so unfulfilling, why do so many people work those jobs? We work them primarily for the money. Tech jobs pay well. In fact, they have to pay well or most of us simply wouldn’t do them.
We use those higher salaries to help ignore the stress of the job. We buy things to make us feel better and relax. Our expectations change over the years and we soon begin to depend on that money to fund our lifestyles that become more and more expensive as we earn more and more money.
The golden handcuffs keep us working stressful IT jobs because the alternatives seem dire. If we bring in $150,000 a year working a highly stressful tech job at Amazon, there aren’t many who would entertain a $75,000 accounting job at a local firm, even if that job is far less stressful.
We want the money, and our careers in technology keep us wanting that money. It happened to me. It happens to a lot of us.
The longer we work unfulfilling jobs, the more frustrated we become. Until, one day, something finally breaks and we just can’t take it any longer. We decide on another path. Maybe a different career. Or, at least in my case, that path was early retirement from full-time work.
Technology jobs can suck because…
It comes down to three primary factors: Technology jobs are about machines, not people. Those jobs are typically highly stressful and pressure-packed because our entire society relies on those systems working harmoniously together. And lastly, money keeps so many of us working jobs that we don’t enjoy. Pulling the plug on lucrative careers can be tough.
Too tough for many of us.
Sometimes, society can dismiss a lot of early retirement talk by chalking it up to highly paid tech workers. “So, Steve made a ton of money in technology and then retired early? Yeah, just like every other early retiree. Go figure!”
The reality is it’s a lot harder to escape highly paid jobs than people realize. After all, this is what we’ve all worked so hard to achieve. We all want a high paying job, right? Once we have them, it’s tough to give them up!
All that work we put into getting our college degrees (and racking up student loans), reading books, working incredibly long hours, putting up with insanely complicated layers of management that expect miracles…all that finally comes together into a highly-paid job that probably comes attached with “success”.
To give all that up – even with a lot of money in the bank, isn’t easy. Though high incomes can make it easier to retire early, they also make it tougher for many of us to stomach the stark difference in cash flow. To go from $150 Gs a year to zero (minus capital gains, of course)?
Don’t take that for granted. Believe it or not, it’s much easier said than done.