Is Your Life Up In The Air?

I’m a pretty firm believer in transparency. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

There is something endearing about a person who is willing to share details about their life that go beyond the standard superficial details that are readily thrown about at cocktail parties.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been in the Department of Defense contracting industry for quite some time now—on all ends of it. I’ve worked corporate overhead, I’ve worked on client bills, I’ve worked in the government. I’ve written proposals and priced out labor categories. I have a pretty good sense of how much money most folks around me make and how much I can expect to make (for government workers, I can almost tell you to the penny since it’s largely public domain). When I went to Wall Street on a wing and a prayer, though, I was blind. Of course I knew that tons of folks made huge money in investment banking. But, I also knew that the disparity in compensation depended significantly on exactly where you worked. Salary and bonuses can vary wildly within a company, line of business, and cost center based on any number of real or arbitrary factors. This is partly why there was zero talk of salary from day one of internship all the way through my first offer letter.

Nobody wants to share their details because they don’t want to set any expectations, since the corollaries between one person’s situation and another are impossible to draw. This makes planning very difficult. Thankfully, though, when I got to my first assignment, the next person we brought on the team was an internal transfer who was totally transparent about what she made. We talked for several hours–we were the same grade, same age, similar education, similar background. We’re also now the same cost center, so our compensation comes from the same pot of money—yet she had a bit more experience and was probably two years ahead of me salary-wise. This was super valuable, as I could finally tell with some proximity what I could expect to make over the next couple years. Needless to say (since I left), it just wasn’t compelling enough given that I only wanted to work for a handful more years and the lifestyle and expenses were horrendous. I’m extremely grateful to this girl, though, for sharing this information with me, as it likely saved me working even longer with expectations loftier than what was likely to happen.

Sure, there are risks to oversharing, but so far sharing details about myself has attracted more friends than enemies. So I’ll keep going with that.

With that out of the way, I want to let you all in on a little secret about me. It’s not a particularly damning secret, but a piece of information that I just don’t have cause to bring up all that often.

I have recurring nightmares.

I’ve had them for probably fifteen years. Crazy. Not every night, sometimes not even every week, but probably every month or so for half of my life I’ve had the same three nightmares. And, without a doubt, this is numero uno of why I want to retire very early.

The Nightmares

The word “nightmare” conjures up images of death and dread. We dream of falling off buildings, getting shot or getting into a car accident. Terrifying stuff, for sure, but that sort of dream experience isn’t what I have. The effects are the same, though: waking up suddenly in a shiver, face and chest are wet with perspiration, immediately looking for a light to make sure the wife and baby are okay.

The three nightmares are all a little different, and keep in mind: nobody said dreams have to be rational.

Nightmare #1:

I wake up in physics class in high school. I’m not sure how I got there or what’s going on, but I know it’s near the end of the semester. My impression is that this is the last day of class and for some reason today is the first time I’ve shown up. Despite it being the last day, I haven’t done any homework or taken any tests. I’m going to fail. 


Nightmare #2:

I’m at the office, and I get a message from somebody. Might be my boss calling, an e-mail, a coworker talking to me, or just a piece of paper I see lying around. But, for whatever reason, my security clearance is being revoked.


Nightmare #3:

This one comes in several variations, but I’ve got some project I’m working on (it’s usually a real project), and I push and push and push until I don’t have time to do it. The thought of starting it terrifies me, and I get found out (by my client, or my boss, or a coworker), and I get fired.


I know what you’re thinking. Either, “Dude, relax,” or “Dude, get some help.”

Look, both of those might be reasonable ideas, but I’m going to give you my interpretation of what’s going on here. The timing of these dreams is rather critical. I only have the high school nightmare when I’m currently enrolled in classes (next semester starts on September 24th!). I only have the security clearance nightmare when I’m currently in a periodic re-investigation (every five years, next in a couple years). And I only have the firing nightmare when I’m lagging on a project or deliverable (not all the time, but certainly often enough). The last few weeks have been stellar at the job, so I’ve been free to dream about Wife29, Fantasy Football, or Wife29 playing fantasy football. However, the clock is tickin’.

My conclusion for why I’m having these dreams is pretty simple. I’m vulnerable. The craziest part of these dreams is that if I got fired, we’d probably be just fine. If I lost my clearance, I’d be fine. And if I failed a class, I’d definitely be fine. However, all of these situations involve me being vulnerable. The full situation is outside of my control. My company might downsize. My professor might hate me. My investigator might say, “Whelp, looks like you drank some beer in high school. Denied.” Those things will 99.99% not happen, but obviously in dreamy land, I’m unable to discriminate between what is likely and what is possible. 

Up In The Air

Up In The Air is a movie I’ve seen a few times, most recently about one hour ago (it’s now on Netflix). If you haven’t seen it, do so—it’s pretty good. Spoiler Alert: It’s about a guy, George Clooney, who flies around the country full-time firing people because his clients are too afraid to do it themselves. The folks that are fired are absolutely torn up about losing their jobs, some are driven to suicide, and all are driven to extreme and kneejerk conclusions about how their lives will be dismantled by job loss. The climax occurs when these terminated employees discover that they end up being just fine with the support of their families, while Clooney himself finds that he is lonely and despondent from living his life…Up In The Air (cue dramatic music).

Here’s the rub. My life generally feels pretty up in the air. Even though I’m a high performer at work, a straight-A college student (okay, I got a few B’s a couple years ago), and have really no concerns about keeping my clearance, I still suffer from the thoughts that I’m vulnerable to the decisions of others. Yes, they can’t kill me or take away Baby29, but they can certainly hurt me. As much as I try to reconcile the fact that I would be just fine if any of the nightmare scenarios played out, I still find myself every month or so waking up with some night terror.

My solution, beyond any deep psychoanalytical stuff, is to remove those vulnerabilities from my life as soon as possible. Some may call this radical, but I call it just common sense. I don’t want another man or woman (other than Wife29) to have the power to push my life off the tracks—even if it only means I just have to catch the next train. Sure, nobody can ever be completely immune to the acts of others, but I seem to have nailed down my weak areas. It’s clear that I have difficulty functioning in an environment where I’m relying on a manager, company, or client to sign off on my livelihood.

This isn’t the only reason, there’s a pile of stuff I want to do with my only life (see here or here). But, for lack of a better reason, refusing to live up in the air is reason enough to hang it up less than five years from now.

Thank you for reading what I write,



  1. When I was in college, I had similar dreams about not being prepared for a test, etc. I think high performers dream like this because they are pouring everything into what they do and don’t want to screw it up. I think it’s totally normal, I wouldn’t sweat it.

    After I retired and slowed down, dreams like that rarely came because I was moving at a much slower pace and no longer had any work anxiety.
    Steve Miller recently posted…App Review: Golf GPSMy Profile

  2. Starting around age 5 until about age 25, I had a recurring nightmare I couldn’t shake. I also had incredible, terrible, upset-stomach-all-of-the-time anxiety. Fortunately, I took a bunch of grad school classes in psych and was able to recognize that I was the common denominator in all of this and that I am the only person who can change it. I try not to live with worry anymore and trust that the future will be OK, much like you suggested. Consequently, the recurring nightmare stopped!
    Claudia @ Two Cup House recently posted…Weekly Recap of Inspiration and Knowledge Gained from the Blogosphere, #7My Profile

    • Glad to hear you were able to control your nightmares through personal growth. I’m not emotionally connected enough to do the same, so I’m just trying to remove the underlying issue. Hopefully it works!


  3. To answer the title of this blog post…..yes, annoyingly so! In all reality, I sympathize with your nightmare issues. I’m not an expert on dreams, but I’m sure your subconscience is trying to tell you something…..and get your attention. A few years ago I went through a period where I started having panic attacks and nightmares. This was a big change from my past. Turns out my subconscience was trying to tell me that I was too stress, and had stayed in a caustic work environment too long. I left that job and they issues stopped within a couple weeks. Three years on, and I’m doing fine.

    It might help if you take a little quiet time to think about your life…..what you like…..and what you don’t. Your issues don’t sound as extreme as mine, but I’m sure they aren’t fun….all the same. Hoping you have a great week!
    Income Surfer recently posted…Time and MoneyMy Profile

    • A little time away from work is never a bad idea–unfortunately I don’t have a lot of vacation built up right now and I still really need the money. Ugh. I will try to get better at leaving work at work, though.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Bryan.


  4. A common recurring nightmare for me is going back to work at a couple of the jobs I really hated early in my working career. The success I have enjoyed, the money I made, and the knowledge I gained, is not used and lost. I am back on an assembly line. Essentially all my life was a waste of time and I am back at the spot I was 30 years earlier.

    The ball buster supervisor says to me “yeah that’s great Bryan, now get back to loading that truck and sweeping the floor when you are done”. Man this is depressing just thinking about it! 🙁
    Bryan@Just One More Year recently posted…The Arizona Trail: A Path Less TraveledMy Profile

    • Sheesh Bryan, that sounds terrible. Part of me thinks that way about my day job right now. It’s a fine job, but I worry about how I’ll feel looking back at the work I’m doing when I’m finally out of the workforce. I feel like every additional day I keep working will only add to the ball of regret that I’ll have to swallow when it’s all over.


  5. The problem with being too transparent is that a lot of people will use what they know about you against you. Unfortunately, there are a lot of nasty people in this world who will do anything to one up you. Considering that Corporate America is very cut throat, I can understand why most people would like to keep to themselves.
    Tony @ Investing Track recently posted…Why the First Federal Reserve Rate Hike is Important for This Bull MarketMy Profile

    • Tony,
      That’s certainly a bucket of cold water, but also true. Not everyone is as well-intentioned as most that come around to the Retire29 blog. However, I keep the important things (SSN, birthdates, passwords, family names) in the dark. I also check my credit report about once a week (although not out of fear, just because I like to).


  6. Ha ha, Wife29 playing fantasy football.

    But seriously, I can relate to this. While I don’t have the nightmares, much of my motivation for early retirement is to remove my reliance on others and also my vulnerabilities. Eliminating vulnerabilities (or potential for others to criticise me) was key to pushing my way up the career ladder as fast as I could. And now that I’m where I want to be, there are still some (different) vulnerabilities that I will happily be rid of in retirement.

    While it can’t be fun to have the nightmares, at least you are putting them to good use – as motivation.
    InsiderAccountant recently posted…Self-sufficiency – it’s all about attitude!My Profile

  7. I have recurring nightmare #1, too. My other big one is where I’m in a car, and can’t control it. Either cannot reach the pedals or I’m in the back and can’t get to the front. The definite common theme is a loss of control, but oddly I never thought to psychoanalyze them.

    • It’s so awesome to receive this kind of feedback, it makes me feel less lonely about some of these things (my wife’s nightmares, when she rarely has them, are more of the crazy variety). Your nightmare sounds very scary, and also falls into the loss of control realm.

      Thank you for commenting!


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