Big Salary, Miserable Life

One of my best friends – we’ll call him Dylan – also happens to be one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. You’d recognize it in an instant if you met him. He’s intellectually curious, up-to-date on seemingly every current event, bitingly clever, and one of the funniest people I know.

Dylan and I met as coworkers at my first full-time job. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want on your team. Not only is he one of the hardest workers, but his analytical skills are off-the-charts. Lob out any idea or question – whether it’s “Why doesn’t this restaurant take reservations?” or “What will happen if the individual health insurance mandate isn’t enforced?” – and he’ll probably have a page-long list of hypotheses and well thought-out analysis ready to discuss in minutes.

Somehow, the guy is even more qualified on paper. Dylan has five degrees, all of them from the kind of world-renowned academic institutions that would make even the most demanding helicopter parent proud. He’s worked for the most competitive employers. And did I mention that he’s personable and good-looking to boot?

Dylan is the kind of person who should have all the leverage in the world in finding the ideal job, right? I can’t think of an organization that wouldn’t get tremendous value out of hiring him.

Indeed, he currently works for the most highly-regarded company in his field. I would guess he’s earning at least $200k per year, plus a big annual bonus.

Yet when I asked Dylan how work was going in a recent conversation, I was disappointed by the answer.

“It’s kind of a grind,” he told me.

Big Salary, Miserable Life - The Resume Gap

Hearing about his lifestyle gave me flashbacks. 80+ hours per week in the office. In the door by 7:30 most mornings. Often not home until after midnight. And usually at least a full day’s work each weekend, not to mention the constant e-mails.

“Is this what you see yourself doing long-term?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s draining. But I’ll probably stick it out for at least another five or six years to see if I can advance.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Why do so many of my smartest friends – the people who should have the pick of the litter – seem stuck in jobs with the worst lifestyle?

I hope it’s the right decision for him. It’s intellectually stimulating work, and I know he’s aware of the lifestyle trade-off he’s making. It’s just such a shame that there has to be a trade-off at all.

It definitely wasn’t the right decision for me. I’m not as smart or motivated as Dylan, but I was on a similar career track a few years ago.

It all felt like part of the plan. I had worked my ass off in high school, enrolling in advanced courses and graduating at the top of my class. I joined the Honors College at my university, taking as many as 18 credits in one semester (seven classes!) and graduating in three and a half years.

I started interviewing for full-time jobs in October of 2008 – not exactly the best timing for prospective applicants. But I persisted, taking rejection after rejection until I finally had a prestigious job offer.

What was my reward for all that hard work?

About a year into that job, I found myself on a conference call early one Sunday morning. My parents were visiting for the weekend, but I’d hardly seen them, having spent all day Saturday working. My bosses were angry about our team’s lack of progress. I’d need to spend the whole day Sunday finishing things in time for Monday’s 5:30 AM flight. I wanted to cry.

Later that month, I celebrated my 23rd birthday alone in a dilapidated Sheraton outside Denver, ordering a room service pot of coffee at midnight and working until sunrise. I wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and wake up unemployed.

It felt like rock bottom. My job was controlling everything about my life. It was draining my energy and straining my health. It was keeping me from my friends and family.

Was this what all that hard work had bought me? A big salary and a miserable life?

40 Comments

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing. For a short time, I was on this carousel in consulting field . . . insane hours . . . insane expectations . . . insane compensation . . . From this experience, I learned many of the lessons pointed out in your article — family, health, etc. It’s one of those areas that tends to confuse our brains — success = money. BUT, our bodies (and hearts) always tell us the truth — success = happiness w/life.

    • And to your point, walking away from that world can feel like walking away from “success,” even knowing that it ought to be defined differently. It can be tough to make that transition, even when it’s the right one.

  2. Matt @ Optimize Your Life

    April 10, 2017 at 4:58 am

    Thank you for sharing. I feel like this is an easy trap to fall into. It’s what we’re “supposed” to do. You do well in high school to go to a good college and then you do well in college so you can land a prestigious job. You work hard at the prestigious job so you can get a more prestigious title. But to what end?

    I lucked out and started my career in a job with a lower salary but a good work/life balance. When I has the opportunity to almost triple my salary to jump to a more prestigious job, I decided to pass. I had spent enough time talking to people and reading stories like this that I knew it was not the lifestyle I wanted.

    • Funny how we feel like we’re “supposed” to follow a certain path, even though there’s no one holding us accountable for it. It’s just self-created pressure; everyone else is too focused on their own endeavors.

      That takes a lot of self-assurance to turn down such a big career jump, but I’m glad you knew what would be best for you long-term. At some point, the money just isn’t worth the cost.

  3. I’m so happy we have both found a different option! I have no desire to work the grind. We had an amazing weekend here, and I was telling Mr. Mt that Monday has become my new favorite day of the week, after years of it making me physically I’ll. 🙂

    • Very thankful for that! I hardly know what day of the week it is anymore, and that is a remarkable feeling. I’m often only made aware by a closed restaurant or museum we wanted to visit, as happened last week and today. Bummer!

  4. The last year I was with megacorp I was in a consulting role – needed to be at least 60% billable, etc… I left megacorp after a year in that position because it was unfulfilling, draining, and I worked more in that role than I had to date in any other role. Sure, I still stuck to the 7:30-5 schedule, becuse I was commuting with Mrs. SSC but I’d bring my laptop home and end up working another 3-5 hrs most nights of the week. My boss would send emails out on Saturdays and Sundays expecting a reponse even though they were inane questions that had no urgency at all. The worst part was that the compensation was still suckville.

    When I left megacorp, over the last 3 yrs i’ve had the best work life balance of my working life, no weekend emails, I get to work by 6:10am and leave at ~3:30 every day and when I leave, I leave work at work. I get to actually work 40 hr weeks… It’s awesome! Plus, I got a 30% base salary raise and have gotten better bonuses and long term incentives which just pad the FI fund even quicker.

    I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten into a company that has a great salary, renumeration, and people to work with and NOT have a miserable life to accompany it. It seems to be a rare thing these days.

    • An experience like that will make you treasure the predictability and relatively lack of urgency in a true 40-hour workplace! I’ve still never really experienced that, but lifestyle would be #1 on my must-have list for any future work endeavors. Sounds like you’ve found a really good fit, which is awesome.

  5. Work life balance is key. I cant understand how people can work 80+ hour weeks regardless of the money. Life is just too short.

    • I feel the same way. Even when I’ve been completely engrossed in the work and passionate about it, it’s not been right for me. Too many other things I need for balance.

  6. I certainly don’t have the sheer volume of degrees to match his, but I *definitely* understand the golden handcuffs thing. I was stuck in a very similar position. I made good money (GREAT money, actually), but somehow, I still wasn’t all that satisfied. Even with my salary, I asked myself what all that money was for…just to spend it on stuff to have, which in returns requires me to earn even more?

    Terribly thankful that I found a way out, as I know you guys are as well.

    • That’s the challenge with a lot of these gigs — great pay, expense account, travel perks, Cadillac benefits… there are a lot of reasons to stay. And your complaints about work-life balance aren’t likely to elicit a whole lot of sympathy from friends and family when they know about those details! Thankful every day to have found a different path.

  7. The second half about your experience sounds just like my experience in grad school, except it was small salary/miserable life. It really shifted my perspective to one of pursuing medium salary/decent life. I wasn’t familiar with FIRE/work sabbaticals back then, but no part of me wanted to pursue a career as a professor and have to work 80-100 hours a week for what would still only be a medium-high salary. I have plenty of friends in tech who are doing the big salary/miserable life thing, and it’s appealing from a certain standpoint (I could achieve FI much sooner), but I also like my decent life and I get along ok with my medium salary.

    • I imagine that’s an even more painful path to follow when you don’t have the big income. I’ve seen the workload of some of my PhD-pursuing friends, and it can be just as heavy as in high-paying corporate jobs. Glad you were able to figure out the right balance for you, even if it comes with a longer FI timeline.

    • Ohhhh yes. I have never made big money, I have only ever had jobs I loved (with varying degrees of stress) and I’m happy with medium money as a tradeoff. Let’s not forget there are lots of miserable jobs that also pay poorly (though at least the hours aren’t usually so large but they sure can be unpredictable) and I guess between that and a miserable job that paid well I’d take the money. On bad days I sometimes think should have taken that path anyway and worked toward FIRE! But really I just want work that pays well that I enjoy, an good at and allows me the time and $ to afford the quality of lifestyle I want.

      • Very good points. There are a lot worse positions to be in than overworked and overpaid. Every job requires some trade-offs, and it sounds like you’ve done a good job figuring out what works best for you. It took me a few years to get to that place!

      • Yep! I’m thankful to have a job with excellent benefits and vacation time, and enough flexibility to actually use that vacation time, which seems like it’s harder and harder to come by in the US. It makes having a longer FI timeline not so bad, since I can travel quite a bit now, and still have time to pursue hobbies and other interests by not working 80+ hours a week.

        • Such a good point. I’ve been lucky to work in environments with rich benefits by U.S. standards (4+ weeks vacation time plus holidays), but many people don’t feel that they can actually take the days off. The pressure is real; I’ve heard bosses complaining about people taking two weeks off for a summer holiday. That’s such an unhealthy approach to work and a recipe for burnout. I’ve even had coworkers who stopped accruing PTO because they were maxed-out. Insanity!

  8. You can also look at it this way: all that hard work, birthdays alone in an hotel and not seeing friends did make you a lot of money and gave you the insight to be free now!
    A few lost years,many years to come of joy and freedom…!

    We need to go through a phase of Eran more, spend less to reach FIRE. The speed at which we do this is under our control. The coming years, we will up the spend to have more family time. Our intentional choice.

    Good that you now share your story so that others can learn

    • I definitely appreciate that as well, Amber! I don’t regret having done it, per se, but I don’t know that I would do it that way again. Good topic for a future blog post. 🙂

  9. I think this is a reality for a lot of people regardless of salary. Big salary horror stories, yes. But burnout is so high in so many fields that pay relatively less, it seems like we, as a society, are eager to chain ourselves to work period. Whether it’s the thought of a big salary now or the promise of the possibility of one eventually.

    I also think this is why it makes me so frustrated when so much of PF land advocates for sucking it up for 5-20 years in absolute misery to figure out your passion later. I don’t think it has to be either or for everyone 🙂 Thanks for writing, Matt! Good stuff to think about.

    • Good point, Penny. I know plenty of people who are burned out in academia, social work, education, and other fields without big paychecks. Maybe it’s a societal thing, not just a pay scale thing. Agreed, I don’t endorse the “suck it up” approach in its entirety. Have to find balance.

  10. I view my job as a means to an end and thankfully I’m not miserable with mine, but so many of my friends and former co-workers are. I’m in Seattle so you know exactly which company 95% of my miserable work for ** cough cough, south lake union **

    I’m at a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to be a battery that gets drained by an employer and replaced when I’m run down. Work/life balance is worth a lot to me now, even if it means I have to work a few years longer to reach FI because I’ve prioritized my time.

    • Yep, they’re notorious! I seriously considered taking a job there but decided against it because of the awful things I heard from former colleagues. The battery analogy is so true, and I’m more like a AA than a Tesla Model S battery — quickly run down!

  11. Ugh — I totally feel for your friend and that purposely-sown delusion that all that crazy work is worth it to “move up.” What we all think moving up entails is beyond me, though for years I wanted that too, until I finally realized that moving up never came with less work or responsibility, only ever more! Now I do everything possible to dissuade folks agitating for a promotion from pushing too hard for one — be careful what you wish for, and all that. And to your point about the prestige factor, I totally think companies pray on that. The whole “everyone else would kill to have your job” pressure, even if it goes unstated, is real and powerful.

    • Totally — I thought I had it bad at the time, but the people in positions 4-6 years ahead of me were living even worse lifestyles. The pay was attractive; everything else was not. Prestige is a huge factor. I had colleagues who would have quit after a month if not for that. Maybe me, too.

  12. We’re taught, starting very early on, to link work success to life success. In fact, for many, there was no difference. I had an ex whose abusive father told him that he’d become a doctor, or he’d be worthless. No joke.

    To some degree, pushing for that work success was really important in my life in a good way – it bought me a salary and a phase in my career where I can have another as close to “all” as I can imagine while still having a high paying job: total flexibility, a fair degree of location independence, authority, respect, good pay. For a woman of color in my industry, that’s nearly unheard of. I should, if I didn’t have my eye on a specific work/life balance more than a decade ago, be reporting in for 15 hour days, 7 days a week for this level of benefits.

    That said, that period of career building only had value because I had a specific end in mind – I was planning to hit a certain level and then relax my grip a bit so that I could have a family and still have a career. That things worked out this way was both due to luck and hard directed work, but many people have a more vague image of what a payoff is and when it’ll happen (“maybe someday”).

    Without health issues, I’d bet you hard cash that I’d still be buying into that. As I mentioned in last week’s post on happiness, most of society tells us that you can only be happy with success and success is related to your net worth or job. It’s tough to break that mentality! But so worth it.

    • You’re right that pushing hard on the career front can be really helpful early on in that it positions you for better roles and gives you more bargaining power down the road. Pulling yourself off that career track, though, is easier said than done. There’s always more to achieve — that next threshold or promotion to cross. I’m glad you’ve found a good arrangement for you. 🙂

  13. Compelling story. I think the American mindset towards work is usually a pretty unhealthy place to start. Everybody has different goals and values, so who am I to judge, but I worry your friend will work his way up in the company and with that carrot as his reward will continue to sacrifice his life and skill set for career advancement and money. But with a friend like you, maybe his fate will be different. Great post!

    • I agree that what didn’t work for me might be right for someone else, so I hope I didn’t come across as judging his choices negatively. I totally admire his work ethic and the work he does. I just can’t working in an environment like that again myself!

  14. It always is a little bit ironic isn’t it? The key is to get it out for 10+ years and then when you’re in your 30s you can just retire early and live the good life if you consistently saved and invested your money. The value is in the option of having options.

    • I’m amazed that fewer people don’t take that path. Clearly, it’s tough to pull yourself away after that first decade. Sure, you’ve saved a bunch, but your years with your highest earning potential are still ahead of you! It’s tough to not get sucked into the allure of more pay and more prestige. That’s why examples like yours are so helpful in seeing that it can be done.

  15. We're All Poor Here

    April 10, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    Soooo….what happened? What made you put your foot down? Is this a tbc post?

    • Haha, I was wondering if someone would ask that! I decided not to write a novel here, but there’s more to this story that I’ll share in an upcoming post. It took a bit of a leap and a change of jobs to find the right balance for me.

  16. I can definitely relate to all you’re saying. I’m commenting on this blog post from a hotel room on a work trip. This is after work emails flew in on Saturday and Sunday was a travel day to get here. I look at the people above me. Sure they make multiple six figures, but I learned a while ago it’s definitely not worth it to me. 20 years on the job definitely makes you a 1%er when it comes to income but it also comes with way too much work, travel, and stress for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten an email “let me put the kids to bed and hop on the phone at 9.”

    I’m half way through Essentialism by Greg McKeown and I think a lot of these guys need to read it… Luckily I kind of figured out making work not my #1 priority hasn’t really effected my job or income all that much. Saying “no” didn’t instantly get me fired or saying “I’m busy, let’s talk about that tomorrow” was an okay response. It doesn’t make work something I want to do until I’m 60, but it definitely makes it more bearable in the meantime.

    • Any lingering delusions that a huge income would make me happier were shattered early in my career by seeing the higher-ups’ lives. Were they getting more out of life making $300k a year? $1 million? I didn’t see it. In fact, some of them were miserable.

      Seems like everyone is reading that book these days; I should grab a copy! I’ve always pushed back on those types of work demands to some extent, but gaining a few years’ experience and reading the 4 Hour Workweek got me comfortable saying “no” even more often. Of course, in these work environments, sometimes the 10 PM phone call or midnight work still can’t wait — but it’s helpful to at least eliminate the unnecessary occasions!

  17. That is totally NOT success in my mind… nor prosperity. We are animalistic by nature, and not meant to work those long hours and have no time for ourselves. Humans evolved only ‘working’ about 15-20 hours a week to provide food and shelter, and that included movement, nature, fresh air and sunshine. The rest of the time was spent in active leisure activities such as playing with the kids, pondering, tinkering, inventing, creating, sex, etc…. They call this the ‘true affluent society’. That is why if we can all go down to part time work, and have time to focus on the things that bring us the greatest innate pleasures, we will achieve true ‘primal prosperity’. 🙂

    • Completely agreed, PP. I can’t go long periods without that free time to ponder, invent, create, and just relax. It does feel like true affluence, even if we don’t have the fanciest cars or houses. Thanks for the extra insight into your blog name; I dig it!

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