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?