From my earliest memories growing up, I followed the rules. I checked off all the boxes.
And I was miserable. Little did I realize it, but I had unwittingly followed society’s guidelines that led me to stepping onto the hamster wheel of constant consumption.
Check out this amazing YouTube movie by Steve Cutts which exemplifies the rat race. Yes, I know, I’m mixing metaphors but it’s a really good 5 minute movie!
K-12 Private School: Teacher’s Pet
I was basically the perfect student (read: teacher’s pet) for most of my K-12 years at private school. Being that eager (read: annoying) student in primary school, I was always prepared and raised my hand for every question. It got to the point that when I took tests, my teachers would be shocked if I didn’t get an A.
In high school, I was on the soccer and wrestling teams. I was in the school orchestra and a singing choir that toured Europe my senior year. I also volunteered and joined other clubs to pad my college application. And all this was in addition to AP U.S. History, AP English, AP Calculus, and other APs that I can’t remember.
And it worked. I got into a very prestigious Ivy League college. College here I come!
Ivy League Dual Degree: Business and Pre-Med
In college, I never became particularly wild or rebellious – though perhaps it would have been better if I did. My focus was on studies. I was on the pre-med track in the beginning, but then abruptly decided I wanted to do business instead.
So I decided to do both degrees. It was a continuation of high school in many ways – high GPA, student clubs, dozens of interviews during on campus recruiting.
And it worked. I got a coveted early offer during fall semester to work at a Big 6 (now Big 4) accounting firm’s consulting division. My career was set!
Work: Big 6 Accounting, Wall Street, Global Business Services
I progressed in my career, switching from consulting at a Big 6 to capital markets at several investment banks. After getting my MBA, I moved internationally to enter the managerial ranks at a global business services firm.
I got promoted, with all the perks: higher salary and bonuses, business travel, and client entertainment expense accounts. I was rising through the ranks!
Self-Medicating by Consumption
But the hours were brutal. During my first year in consulting, I traveled for 11 months with barely a break. When I switched to capital markets, it was 70-80 hour work weeks (including weekends) for a several months before settling down to only 12 hour weekdays. But no weekends, at least!
In China, the stress was different – client relationships, business development, and managing 65+ staff. More people meant not just more problems, but the greater likelihood that any single problem would quickly escalate to a crisis. There were even 2 occasions where the police were called in.
My life in New York mirrored my peers, as I moved into Manhattan and spent money on dining and entertainment and, of course rent! All of us devoted so much of our time and energy to our jobs that any moment not at work had to be lived to the fullest. This meant spending whatever was needed at the time on whatever we hoped would make our lives bearable.
The dopamine hit gave me a brief moment of pleasure, a respite from the pain of existence, but it did not give long lasting contentment.
Stepping on the Hamster Wheel
I soon realized that I was working very hard to make money in order to spend that money on things that didn’t really make me happy over the long term. But I thought that if I just made even more money and spent on even more expensive things, then it would solve the problem. And that cycle became the now well known hamster wheel of misery (aka hedonic treadmill).
I started to ask myself, why do I even want to be promoted and rise through the ranks?
It would just mean more work and more responsibility. Sure, it also came with more money and more respect from my peers, both inside and outside the company. But if more money and more respect didn’t make me happy, what am I doing this for?
It was then that the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit, and I had other concerns besides contentment and personal fulfilment. When all the dust settled, I was off to the races embracing FI.
Unfortunately, I was let go ahead of schedule!
But that question of contentment and personal fulfillment didn’t go away. I had hoped to have an answer to that question before I pulled the trigger on FI. But now I’m trying to answer that very question.
How about you?
Looking back, do you feel like you just followed the program set before you by others and then suddenly realized you didn’t want that path?