I admit it – I spent the majority of my early working life looking for the next big promotion. Everybody wants to be the boss, and I drove into work each and every day with a big smile on my face, making a conscious effort to say the right things around the right people, to better position myself for an increase in responsibility.
I loved talking to my manager about the accomplishments that I was able to achieve and the people that I mentored along the way (mentorship shows leadership, ya know). I would throw little “I rock”-isms off the cuff into seemingly innocent convos. It was a never-ending drive to make myself out to be the perfect candidate for the next promotion or big bonus. No conversation at work, in my mind, didn’t include some form of politics. Young and naive, this is how I defined success at work.
One day, I finally got the opportunity to lead a small group of technical developers. My work responsibilities increased and they threw a couple extra bucks into my paycheck. “Cool!”, I thought. I was finally somebody’s boss. I was the one who they wanted to impress. I was the one who had to be impressed. One step closer to the next promotion, and the next, and the next.
A couple years down the road, and several million insincere smiles along the way, I got an opportunity of a lifetime. At the ripe old age of 32, I had the chance to lead an entire information technology department. Developers, database administrators and system engineers, all under my control. Wow!
Here I was, a software developer turned Director of Information Technology in one day. I went from writing code and giving status reports to my managers to being the guy that directed the daily activities of the staff. I wanted my responsibilities to increase. And boy, did they ever increase.
I was the decision-maker and had the final say on anything Information Technology related. I got to prioritize work for my staff. I got to shift responsibilities around so the work that my department put out was more along the lines of what I wanted. I was offered a nice raise and got several bonuses.
But, I also got to answer for the mistakes of my staff. When anything went wrong from an IT perspective, I was on the hook to figure it out and get it fixed. I had to make my staff work nights and weekends when emergencies happened.
I also got to put on fancy clothes and pitch a plan in front of the board of trustees to upgrade our aging information technology infrastructure. I worked weekends putting the plan into place, crunching numbers, developing slides, rehearsing the speech. Nearly every waking moment was consumed, in some way, with my duties at the office.
After all, I was the boss. My hard work finally paid off. All those “I rock” moments, all that face time in front of the right people, all that “Sure, I’ll come in on Saturday” with a big, fat smile on my face bullshit. All those extra hours. It all worked, and now I was the boss.
I should have been happy. This is what I’ve always wanted. This is what I worked towards for the last 10 years of my working life.
Was this true happiness?
The truth is I was not very happy with my situation. The money was good. The job itself was fine.
But, I did not like what being the Director was doing to my career. It was setting me up for many years of long hours, responsibility and stress. I thought that is what I wanted. I thought I had finally succeeded.
Not many people want a demotion, and at 32, I was already the Director.
What’s next? Something bigger and better, of course. Maybe a Senior Director? Vice President? Even longer hours, more stress, more crap to deal with.
In my desire for more power, money and influence, I inadvertently positioned myself in the direct line of fire. Managers are easily downsizable. When the shit hits the fan, who gets canned? Usually, managers. They get hit from both sides of an organization. Managers are pressured from above for increased efficiency and receive backlash from below as they carefully navigate the treacherous waters of staff productivity vs. employee morale.
Maybe actually doing the work is a lot more satisfying than managing it.
Sitting in my corner office one day, I finally realized something downright shocking. I spent 10 years working my ass off to get promoted. I put in long hours and tried my best to impress the right people along the way.
And in the end, all it got me were even longer hours, more people to impress, a lot more responsibility and generally a more stressful life.
Nothing really changed except the people that I reported to, and they were more demanding, critical and bottom-line oriented.
Holy crap. What in the hell did I do to myself?
I fell straight into the phenomenon that keeps so many Americans working for the majority of their lives in stress and without an easy way out. Being the boss does not mean that life suddenly becomes better. It does not mean you magically become more important than your next door neighbor or fundamentally transform into a different person. Truthfully, nothing changes but the amount of “stuff” that you have to deal with.
You might get paid more, but who cares? An aggressive savings schedule can easily make up for any additional salary made through a more stressful job. A challenging job role? Maybe, but I find setting myself up to retire by
40 36 to be equally challenging, and the reward for accomplishing that challenge is light years better.
This was amazing. I accomplished what I set out to do with my life as a bright, eager young lad straight out of college and became the boss of an entire IT department. Once there, I realized how brainwashed I had become over the glamorous idea of having authority and “being the boss”. Is this “success”?
It suddenly came full circle to me.
This was not what life is about. I was not made to spend my nights and weekends preparing presentations for boards of trustees. I did not want the lingering stress of running a department on my mind at night. Weekend phone calls, responding to emergencies, employee reviews, keeping my workforce happy, conflict resolution. Basically, manager stuff.
And so, 10 months into my stint as a Director, I politely said “thanks, but no thanks”. I quit my job as “the boss” and found another opportunity that allows me to work from home. Stress is almost non-existent and the job allows a lot more freedom for me to engage in some of my other projects, like writing.
Celebrate good times, come on!
I am no longer the boss, and quite frankly, I like it that way. I am not looking for the next promotion or opportunity to show my face in front of senior leadership like I once did. I do my job, I do it well, and I spend the rest of my time at home enjoying my life with my beautiful wife and two very adorable dogs.
The wonderful feeling of utter indifference towards promotions or bonuses can only be described as, I don’t know, maybe pure euphoria.
My stress level has receded faster than my hair line in my mid 20s. I am content with where I am. I love the goal that my wife and I are working every day to achieve. This is awesome. I think happy thoughts. I do things that bring a smile to my face every day from the comfort of my own home.
To me, this is success.
From now on, my mind remains focused on the ultimate prize: financial independence and eternal happiness. Promotion or no promotion, bonus or no bonus, it no longer affects me, nor is it the driving force behind my willingness to work hard at what I do. I work hard because of a solid work ethic. I want my work to be useful. I make it useful and my customer recognizes that.
And truthfully, that is all that I can ask. A happy customer, a happy Steve – at least as far as my work is concerned. My personal ethics demand it.
Now, I no longer envy senior level leadership positions – as I once had. I no longer desire for the decision-making power and being the one “in charge” because of the managerial nonsense that accompanies such a position. It is not worth it to me. My time is more valuable than that. My health is more important to me than recognition or status in the workplace.
My goal in life is financial independence, retirement and true happiness. My job gives me the resources I need to accomplish that goal. Through my job I succeed in life, but my job is merely the path – the roadway towards the glimmering light at the end of the tunnel.
I hope to see you there.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.