Thirty minutes south of Washington D.C. is the Rippon Station for the Virginia Railway Express. If you ever want to see a bizarre demonstration of human behavior, go there at 4:00 pm on a Friday afternoon when the first commuter train rolls in from D.C.
The tracks sit about 50 feet down a ravine, with a single narrow stairwell and a sluggish elevator car connecting the platform to the parking lot above. When several hundred travelers make their way off the train, a frenzy of biomass forces its way up the stairwell. Grown men in business suits and women in heels run at whatever speed their atrophied legs can take them. There is no option to walk up the stairs on Friday afternoons; walking will get you killed. A cursory glance at the physiques of these people will show that nary a one among them will run again for another seven days.
The worst part, though: deep within the huddle, you will see the figure of Eric from Retire29.
Why the rush? The weekend, of course. Until you cross the threshold into your home, you’re still “at work.” And you’ll be damned if you’re going to let somebody else get to their car before you. Every precious second counts. If I run myself into a tired, exhausted mess, then I can get home at 4:12. However, If I sit back and observe the humanity, I’ll be stuck “at work” until AT LEAST 4:14. Nope, not this guy. I need those two minutes, for TV-watching and such. So, to all you old ladies and crying babies, steer clear of that stairwell; the E-Train is a’rollin.
This scene, while only slightly embellished for dramatic effect, is particularly peculiar alongside a stat I read today from the Society For Human Resources Management. In their annual study for employee satisfaction, they found that a full 81% of workers are satisfied with their jobs. 36% were “very satisfied” and 45% were “somewhat satisfied.”
I feel conflicted. With the abundance of “satisfaction” flyin’ around the topic of work, why do all of my anecdotal data points suggest the contrary? When the President gave all government employees the option to take a half-day on New Year’s Eve, my work site was more deserted than a GOP undercard debate. On the morning metro, I count zero smiles but a good half-dozen faces that are but a cold latte away from a nervous breakdown. And then the Rippon Station, where the aforementioned humanoid blob channels its inner-Kenyan in its pursuit of the weekend.
If work is so damn satisfying, then why do we so readily and agreeably avoid it whenever possible? The answer will come as a surprise to no one…
There Is Something Else We’d Rather Be Doing
I suppose, then, that my conniption comes from the definition of “satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction” sucks. Nobody wants a satisfying marriage; they want a great marriage. Nobody wants to be satisfied with their vacation, they want an awesome vacation. Nobody wants to be satisfied with their picture quality, they want hi-def picture quality. And finally, nobody wants to be satisfied with their life, we want to love life. We demand excellence for seemingly all aspects of life except work. This is so odd, given that work makes up a plurality of most people’s lives. And this, as they say, is the rub.
The life expectancy of an American is about 80 years. We enter adulthood at age 18 and work/educate for the next 44 years until we retire, on average, at age 62. We sleep for eight hours a day. On days that I work (5 days a week with about 25 days off per year for vacations and holidays), I’m on the clock for eight hours a day. Add in a commute and a preoccupied mind, I “work” for about 11 hours a day. I think I’m about average.
Over my adult life, this is how that all works out in pie form:
So, for the average American adult, your life is pretty evenly split between work, time off of working, and retirement. God willing, you’ll be healthy throughout as much of your retirement as possible. If you’re not, “Great” quickly can turn to miserable.
So, if I’m tallying it up in my last days, it will generally sound like this:
“I spent a third of my life sleeping. Once I got out of high school, I spent half my waking hours satisfied with how things were going at work, with brief but frequent great times on weekends, holidays, and at night. After I retired, things were really great for a few years, then we had to slow down quite a bit as we got older. Now, I’m here. Is Saint Peter ready for me?”
Overly dramatic? Yes, but rightfully so. This is the life most of us come to accept as a normal path of being. The common understanding is that work is an essential component in life, and because of that, we accept its mediocrity and try to make up for it by spending lavishly for the hours we aren’t at work: big cars, premium cable, catered vacations, fancy patios, endless dining. All of these items are purchased in an attempt to make the hours you aren’t working so freakin’ special that you will strike a balance against the dullness of work.
There’s that word: “Balance.” It’s what we all strive for, isn’t it? Work is essential, but we can do it smarter, can’t we? We strike a balance between the requirements of work and the beauty of life. Work-life balance is an industry unto itself. The balanced framework purports endless solutions to the problem: flex scheduling, dress-down Fridays, telework, on-site daycare/gyms/cafes, and the list goes on. However, as Nigel Marsh says in the greatest TEDTalk that has ever been given:
The reality of the society that we’re in is there are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like. It’s my contention that going to work on Friday in jeans and a T-shirt isn’t really getting to the nub of the issue.
But, wait a minute. Maybe you’re of the fortunate sect that loves their job. Firstly, congratulations. I expect that you eagerly anticipate working weekends and that your cubicle is not adorned with a list of the federal holidays. If you love your job, then work already must feel like a vacation. If you work at my company, I will happily take those vacation hours off your hands as they are certainly of no use to you. I should warn you, though. You may not love your job forever. And, even if you do, working too hard is one of the most common regrets of the dying.
Perhaps then, more accurately, you simply don’t hate your job. If that’s the case, then we have something in common. I don’t hate my job, either. In fact, I kinda like it. I exercise my brain, my coworkers are decent, funny people, and I get a lot of flexibility in the tasks I work on. I speak frankly to others and people seem receptive to my no-nonsense, no-business-speak style of professionalism. So, why would I, or anyone else who can sympathize with this mentality, want to leave work so early in life.
Same Answer: There’s something else I’d rather be doing.
What is “Work?”
Before I talk about what I love, let me first say why I don’t love work.
In this country we place an intrinsic value on “work.” Nobody questions it. When we hear about people working 80-hour weeks and sacrificing all personal desire for the company, we say “Amazing!” and make terrible movies about them. Having to work is an acceptable response to being late for a recital, needing to go to bed early, ending a vacation, or missing Thanksgiving.
In all this, we also seem to have lost the true definition of “work.” “Work” in its purest form is nothing more than the expenditure of energy. It is the acting on a body by force. It is measured in joules. Work is only useful for the result it produces. A former boss of mine prided herself on always working to excess–particularly around the end of the fiscal year. Pay no mind to the fact that her results could have been produced with one-third the “work.” Nevermind that, of course, because “work” in and of itself is highly valued.
I see this value preference for “work” as opposed to “results” all the time in my own occupation. We started on a new task order last year. For the first few months everything went swimmingly. We could work from several locations, including our corporate offices. We seemed to get a lot done. We could telework if necessary. We still did all the proper client reporting. All was wonderful.
However, in the government space, work matters most (has anyone ever heard the term “Paperdrill”). Three months ago my whole team was put at a client site. They wanted to see us—literally. Face time became more important than anything. The fact that everyone lacked proper accesses and credentials to get onto the site, couldn’t access the networks, needed additional training, of had to fill out endless forms that were never forwarded or processed was all circumstantial. Now, about half our time is spent reporting on things performed, figuring out work-arounds, traveling between offices, and general time-waste. I try not to complain about work too much because, frankly, that would suck to read. So, I’ll just reiterate that it has become clear that the appearance of work has trumped the value of the product.
No matter how much I love my job, it is clear that unless I work under my own schedule and in pursuit of my own interests and passions, that the priorities of others will always come above my own. I’m satisfied with my job: it pays the bills, lets me save a considerable amount, and allows me to house and feed my family. So, I think I would fall into the other 81% of the population saying I’m “satisfied” with my job. But, because so much of my time is committed to a “satisfying” endeavor, I must strive for more. I must strive for a life that I love doing things that I love.
I’ve written on this topic once before, but find that I haven’t given it its due web inches. The question of “what will you do?” is, by quite a distance, the most common and reflexive question I get when the prospect of drastic early retirement is broached.
The answer is important. The first step on any road to early retirement and financial independence is “why?” What you are about to embark on is undoubtedly a long and sometimes difficult journey to adjust your lifestyle, save, and be discipline. Knowing why you are on this road is important. I call it my “Retirementality,” and it is the illustration of how I want my life to look in a few years. It is the turning of my vision of a perfect day from concept to reality.
So, what is my “retirementality?” What will I do with my time? In not so many words, whatever I want. If that’s not enough, and for reference, some of the following:
- Travel Slow and Extensively
- Learn a New Language
- Attend Culinary School
- Learn and Play an Instrument
- Home-School My Kids
- Write (a Book, a Blog)
- Coach Others To Financial Independence
- Swim the English Channel
- Join an Adult Sports League
- Read a Book Per Week
- Visit Museums
- Visit Friends and Family More Often and For Longer
- Be With My Kids
- Hang Out With My Wife
- (to be continued…)
Work, in the traditional sense, does not preclude me from doing any of these things. However, the time commitment for work is significant and unrelenting. Each minute I spend doing what I do now is another minute spent doing something satisfying versus doing something I love.
Unless I’ve been misinformed, we have but a single life to live. There are no mulligans. I’ve read several articles on what people regret in life, and they are things that aren’t impossible to achieve. But, a common theme is that work tends to get in the way of them (Romance, Travel, Parenting, Friendship, Health). So, one thing I’m confident in is that even if what I “love” changes over time, in no universe will I ever say, “I wish I had worked more.”
So, my friends, do not settle for satisfied for a moment longer. Strive to love your life. All parts of it.