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.
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?