Cultivate your X-factor before it’s too late

Out of the 500 or so college graduates I interviewed over a 13-year period, practically every candidate was extremely enthusiastic about getting their butts kicked working 14-hour days in finance. When you can crack the six-figure mark after your first full year, why not bear torture to get ahead, right? Just don't tell them they are working below minimum wage if you go by an hourly rate.

I notice the same type of unbridled enthusiasm from many 20-something folks once they get their jobs. They tell me things like, “Sam, I love my job. Things are just so wonderful around here. I can't be happier.” It's almost like they are trying to shove their love of employment in our faces to make us feel bad or question why we also don't love our jobs.

But then something happens to the enthusiasm after they reach the 10-year mark. Enthusiasm for work drops off a cliff. I suddenly start hearing complaints about why work sucks so much. Those who ask me for advice about how to negotiate a severance package tell me about how their micromanaging boss is making them miserable. They tell me that a co-worker is stabbing them in the back or that they got passed over for a raise and a promotion. Bitterness abounds. All people want to do is get the hell out of there and do something more meaningful with their lives.

The problem with many people I've consulted with is that they've done nothing to prepare themselves to make a move. Their savings accounts are underfunded and their ideas for a new beginning are lacking. As a result, they end up staying miserable at a job they hate for far longer than they should.

BUILD YOUR X-FACTOR NOW

After three months of working in downtown Manhattan, I knew I had very little chance of surviving the brutal work hours and intense pressure for longer than five years. As a result, I saved all I could in order to provide myself a means to escape or survive if I was laid off.

Instead of renting a one-bedroom to split with a high-school buddy, we decided to rent a studio that was walking distance from my work instead. We figured the studio was just a slightly more luxurious version of sharing a college dorm room. Rather than constantly eat out at all the glorious food establishments in the city, I decided to chow down on the free cafeteria food at 85 Broad Street and doggy-bag leftovers for breakfast. I think part of the reason why I gained 15 pounds was because I felt like a bear who had to overeat in order to live off my fat during winter.

All told, I was able to save roughly 40 percent of my $40,000-a-year income after tax back in 1999. As my income thankfully grew over the years, I maintained a 50- to 70-percent-after-tax savings rate because I continued to remind myself that saving money was the only way to escape. My math was simple: Every year I worked and saved 50 percent of my after-tax income equated to one year of living expenses not having to do a single thing. Freedom motivated me to no end, and all was working well until the financial crisis happened.

Between 2008 and 2009, I lost anywhere from 35 percent to 40 percent of my net worth in a matter of months. It felt like the past 10 years of diligent savings was for nothing. I was depressed and angry that I was so stupid to buy stocks and real estate with my freedom money. I still had 25 percent of my net worth in CDs, but that wasn't enough to protect me from Armageddon.

Losing so much of my net worth spurred me to finally act upon an idea my father had told me back in 2006. He realized that I enjoyed writing because he received all my investment newsletters that I'd write for my clients. So he told me to go start a website and potentially earn a living as a writer. I brushed off his advice because I was too busy. I had just finished up my MBA part time and all I wanted to do was relax a little after three years of Saturday classes for nine hours on top of a normal 60-hour work week. But when the crash happened, I finally hired some guy off Craigslist to help me launch Financial Samurai in July, 2009.

The Light-Bulb Moment

The financial crisis to a rank-and-file-financial-services employee felt like being force-fed Big Macs even though you're a vegan. With each point of recovery in the markets, I was a little less depressed. I continued to write three articles a week on Financial Samurai as a hobby until one day I realized while relaxing at a bar on the top of Santorini, Greece after a three-hour hike that maybe, just maybe, I had found another way out.

I was drinking an overpriced 6 Euro Mykonos beer when I received an e-mail from an advertising client in London. He asked if I'd be willing to put a banner ad up for $1,200 and I told him, “Of course!” He sent the code over e-mail, I copied and pasted the code onto my site, and within 35 minutes he Paypaled over the funds. “One more Mykonos beer, sir!” I waved toward the waiter as spending $10 for a beer didn't feel so bad anymore. (Note: Any revenue that came in never went to me as I wanted to avoid any conflict while working. FS was just a hobby that so happened to grow.)

My Santorini moment happened in October, 2011, and six months later I negotiated a severance package and was gone. It's been two years since flying solo; and I have to say that, despite making much less money, it's been absolutely worth it.

TIPS ON HOW TO BUILD YOUR X-FACTOR

1) Set aside some time to think. My mother used to always encourage me to meditate for five minutes before going to bed when I was a kid because I was a naughty rascal. I found that when I did meditate, random epiphanies seemed to come to me like, “If you punch a kid in the solar plexus, you will get detention even if he did punch you first.” Life always gets in the way of calm. We have work to do, TV to watch, and families to feed. That said, I highly encourage everyone to set aside 15 minutes a week to think about ideas. You'll be surprised at what you'll come up with. Keep an open mind and give everything that creeps into your white room a chance.

2) Spend some money. Part of the reason why I didn't launch Financial Samurai sooner was because I didn't know how to launch a website. It wasn't until the great depression of 2009 that I finally forced myself to pay someone to help me. The first person got around $350 and the site didn't last for more than 6 months. The second person got $800, and the site lasted for four years until my recent redesign. Don't let your lack of knowledge prevent you from starting. Spend some money to hire someone with expertise to get you going. Inexpensive resources are everywhere online.

3) Moonlight until you gain momentum. I wrote on Financial Samurai for almost three years before leaving my job. It was after the second year when I started to realize that maybe I could do this full time. But I was still too scared to move because my job was all I had known for 12 years. All I wanted to do was write and connect with people because it was so fun. I encourage everyone to spend several hours a week working on their ideas. Maybe you can start off with one music student a week and go from there. Maybe you can go to cooking class in the evenings or on weekends. You must try in order to know.

THINGS CHANGE ALL THE TIME

After moving out to San Francisco in 2001, I thought I wanted to work in finance until I was 40 (2017). But by age 34, I was gutted because finance people became the bad guys, pay dropped tremendously, and I was working longer hours with more stress. The industry I loved for 12 years stopped being fun anymore. I wanted out, and luckily I figured out how to negotiate my way out to give myself several years of breathing room to try out my X-factor.

Don't wait until you are unsatisfied with your job to start working on something you truly enjoy doing. Give yourself at least an option to do something else. It might take years of cultivating before you decide to take a leap of faith, but believe me when I tell you that having a choice is priceless when the time comes.

Readers, have you been cultivating an X-factor? What are some things you'd like to do but never bothered trying due to the business of work? After how many years did you start feeling burnt out and wanting to do something new?

Regards,

Sam

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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

I enjoyed hearing more of your story, Sam! All good points in this article.

One thing that has helped me cultivate an “x factor” is learning. Staying on top of trends industries I’m interested in, keeping tabs on best practices, learning new skills, etc. Some of it is free (free courses, books from library, expert blogs, etc.) and some of it is classes and workshops with fees.

If we want to do something new — whether it’s launch a side gig, switch careers or even just get ahead at our current jobs — then education can be a powerful tool.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Thanks Beth. I agree that education is a powerful tool. I do wonder whether execution is even more powerful though b/c there are a lot of people who know things, but end up doing nothing w/ their knowledge because doing takes so much effort.

Can one manage to survive moonlighting for the love of it for pennies for years before catching their break? Hard to say.

late hopeful bloomer
late hopeful bloomer
6 years ago

Thank you for inspiration with some real steps towards success. Money is the source of my stress and unhappiness. It’s not even just lack of having it, but lack of financial education, attitude towards and perceptions. Since you are a learned financial person who has connected with human values as well, please clue in this bleeding heart who operates mostly from there, the heart, and finding purpose in the work but struggling with the low income that accompanies. We can probably get by but yes, I want more than survival mode. I have a family, a few dreams, but feel… Read more »

Dave @ The New York Budget
Dave @ The New York Budget
6 years ago

Great advice. There’s no reason not to start working on projects you love. If you continue to love your job, then that’s fine – you can stay with it and keep the project as just a hobby. Diversification in all things!

Artistic4
Artistic4
6 years ago

Wow, this is insightful and thought-provoking, thanks! It couldn’t come at a better time, either, as my X-Factors are niche skills and I can’t sell my skills where I currently reside. This is a great reminder to keep them up from now until I relocate, I can continue to build them. And my niche market X-factors are also a reason to relocate, as they are more consistently profitable than what I’m currently up to.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  Artistic4

One thing you’ll discover thanks to the internet is that no matter how small your niche skills, there are A LOT of people out there who share your same interests.

Melissa K
Melissa K
6 years ago

Thank you! This is just the pep talk I needed. And congrats on your transition to freedom!

Sir Pog
Sir Pog
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing this! This is really encouraging for me, as I’m in the process of launching my own blog on personal development. Like you, I love to write, but don’t see how that could sustain my family and I at the moment. So I’ve decided to launch my blog as a side project. Maybe it will grow into an income source, maybe not. But either way, I have enjoyed the early stages of writing. While I don’t know a lot, I am currently educating myself, and am also considering hiring someone to help me make my blog the best… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

Great article Sam. I feel like it was written about me. I don’t really like my full time job (though I do like that it’s easy and pays the bills, and then some). What I don’t like about it is it is uninspiring, it’ doesn’t use or encourage my skills and talents, and frankly I don’t really respect the industry. I got it because it was my first ful-time job out of school and I needed it for the income and the benefits and nearly 5 years later I’m still here. I’ve accepted that in order to reach my future… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

Based on conversations and research I had for my book on negotiating a severance package, I would say roughly 70% of people don’t really like their jobs. Each day that passes gets a little more dull until they have something happen at work that causes them to want to get the hell out.

I’m glad you found a small way to extricate yourself from having to work at your job, forever!

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago

I really enjoyed this post, Sam. And I enjoyed learning more about your story, too. I’ll second Beth’s point about education. Reading and learning about whatever you’re striving to be is crucial. I also took advantage of any opportunities I could find to hone my skills and build experience.

Anyway, mostly just wanted to say I enjoyed the piece.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Thanks for reading Kristin. The journey is always a lot more fun than the end result, provided that the end result is an acceptable one!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

I really like reading about people breaking free of their chains. I enjoyed reading this morning when this article was buried underneath another about credit scores (ha ha) and I wish it had captured more of a discussion in the earlier hours of the day. I’ve done the same thing in my own way: I didn’t have the savings to just up and quit in my city, but I left the world to live on a mountain. My Mykonos is right outside my door, I’m the bartender, and the beer is cheap and good (purchased by the case at Costco).… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Thanks for sharing your Mykonos! I’m surprised there isn’t more discussion either. It very well might be because of coming out under the credit score article this morning. Oh well. Maybe the explanation is that most people actually really enjoy their jobs and therefore there’s no need to cultivate anything!

It would be funny if all of us pulled the rip chord and decided not to do the jobs we didn’t enjoy.

We’ll have the government to bail us out and take care of us! 🙂

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

Ha! Who needs the government when you have cattle? I’m ready for the Alpacalypse! (And seriously, I might just start brewing my own beer. ) Anyway, the other article wasn’t taken down till mid-morning or something, so yours was buried, and this blog usually does its main business before lunch, which is why I think it lost momentum. A large portion of the PF crowd is people who hate their jobs and want out, want financial independence, want meaning in their lives, etc. But I have ADHD, which makes me a very impatient person–and I couldn’t wait to save for… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I don’t think it’s so much that jobs are less meaningful, just that for some jobs the meaning is more obvious, and it may not be meaningful on an individual level, but moreso on a community or social level. Most of the time when people talk about meaningful jobs they are taking about what is meaningful to them personally, and by definition it’s impossible to create jobs for the purpose of being personally meaningful to a whole bunch of different individuals. However, I don’t feel too sorry for most people who are “stuck” in a job they don’t like. If… Read more »

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago

Maybe there’s less discussion because a lot of us are stuck on step 1. I hate my job, but don’t know what else to do.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  Vanessa

Good thing I’ve got three steps to help readers cultivate their X Factor!

M. K. Arthur
M. K. Arthur
6 years ago

This is completely where I am right now. I’ve reduced my hours at my corporate job so I make just enough money to pay my bills. I’m working on starting a business as a financial blogger and money coach. You can check out my burgeoning site above, or follow my personal blog at kestra.ca where I write about my business plan, goal setting, setbacks, and triumphs. If anyone else is in a similar position I’d love to offer encouragement on your business plans as well. Having the support of people around you makes all the difference.

Wes T.
Wes T.
6 years ago

Thanks for this great article Sam!
I think the key to maintaining sanity in any career is to always keep things in perspective…look at the big picture. If you are saving and investing a chunk of your salary and thus improving your financial well-being then be grateful for your asset growth. Your job is simply a tool to build wealth, which in turn, increases your likelihood of breaking away and pursuing your dreams with financial independence!

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  Wes T.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture is always a good idea. Hope you achieve your goals!

DiDi
DiDi
6 years ago

I can really relate to this. I am living on a fraction of my income in order to get financially grounded before I can even consider making bold moves. My work situation is not dire by any means, but you can’t put a price on having options in life. Congrats on your shift.

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
6 years ago
Reply to  DiDi

Thanks Didi. And congrats to you on living off a fraction of your income. That’s more than half the battle right there. I’m sure when the time comes, you’ll find doing something different to cost much less than you thought.

I was surprised how little I needed during the two years I was out of the work force.

Slinky
Slinky
6 years ago

I don’t hate my job. I just don’t want to work 40 hours a week. My husband and I are slowly working on getting some side businesses going making unique handcrafted stuff to sell. He works with metal and I do textiles. We figure we can combine forces and share a booth at craft fairs and stuff to get our name out and try things out. Eventually, we’d both like to be making primarily custom orders.

Also, investing for income in various ways. Multiple revenue streams!

Untemplater
Untemplater
6 years ago

I used to be unhappy with my job and I didn’t do anything about it except vent to my friends and family. Thank goodness I got out of that funk. It’s easy to get so caught up in our current problems that we overlook the importance of looking forward. Great tips Sam!

fhopepack
fhopepack
5 years ago

Realize that you may have to work your way up. For example, if you want to become an apparel buyer, work for a company that manufactures or sells such goods.

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