I loosened my tie as I slumped back against the wall. Suit jacket feeling strange yet familiar. It still fit, an outcome far from certain after gathering dust in the wardrobe for the best part of a year. Business shirt sticking uncomfortably to my back, as a trickle of sweat ran down my spine.
An old rotator cuff injury burned. My body’s equivalent of writing a strongly worded letter to management, protesting about unreasonable levels of tension. Exhaling steadily, I consciously relaxed my rigid shoulders.
I had just completed a job interview, via video conference. A novel experience.
The hiring manager had sat with the sun shining directly behind him. Face deep in shadow. Halo effect surrounding his wispy balding head. Wing-nut ears glowing bright red. Collectively, they created an effect of speaking with the devil. Incongruous, given he came across as a lovely fellow.
But then the devil probably would!
Shortly after the interview commenced, I experienced a curious dissociative feeling.
My conscious mind stepping outside my body, watching events unfold like they were happening to somebody else. Something I have only previously experienced when going into shock. While heavily concussed. Or the time I received a terminal medical diagnosis, incorrectly as it turned out.
My conscious mind sat next to my inner saboteur, eating popcorn and enjoying the show.
It was a somewhat bizarre experience. Watching as I slipped into character and performed the ritual dance that is a job interview.
Doing more listening than talking.
Using the information, cues, and tells revealed by the interviewers to ask astute questions.
Attempting to discern what they thought they wanted? What they really needed? What they feared?
In this hire did they seek a colleague? Friend? Mentor? Minion? Saviour? Scapegoat? Wingman?
Acting out the role that they were attempting to cast. Part chameleon. Part mirror. Part muse.
Making friends with the panel. Serving up empathy, encouragement, or humour where appropriate.
Recounting relevant war stories to create the reassuring impression of being a safe pair of hands.
Conjuring the perception I would solve their problems. Fit into their team. Be good company to spend time with.
Basic social engineering. Manipulation 101. All that is required to get a stranger to like you enough to give you what you want.
It took less than 30 minutes to secure the role. The hiring manager’s phrasing shifting from neutral terms of “the successful candidate” and “they”, to the more familiar “you”, and finally the collective “we”. The panel’s body language transforming from polite disinterest to learning forward in their chairs as they hung on my every word. Minds already skipping ahead to the great works we would do together.
The interviewers were excited. It was heartening to see. They turned on the hard sell. That salary package outlined before the interview? Entirely negotiable. Benefits. Bonuses. All very generous.
I politely thanked them for taking the time to interview me.
Made suitable noises in response to their entreaties that I accept no other roles before they could get their paperwork together.
Then closed the laptop and slumped back against the wall with my eyes closed.
My inner saboteur gave a slow clap and a mocking “chapeau” to my performance. For that was all it had been: a performance. The interviewers might have been excited, but I wasn’t. Not even a little bit.
After nearly a year out of the workforce, I can honestly say I haven’t missed it in the slightest.
The interviewers had seemed genuine. Offering a great opportunity at a forward-looking firm.
New enough to not have much in the way of baggage. Still consciously crafting their workplace culture. Not yet having capitulated on the quest to align behaviours with values, in favour of playing political games for selfish ends.
Rich enough that money was no object to securing the tools and talent required to get the job done.
My younger son looked up from the bedroom floor, where he and the lockdown kitten had been quietly playing with Lego. Home from school with a head cold and a sore throat. Feeling miserable.
His eyes teared up and his lower lip trembled.
Fearful in the knowledge that any new job would impact him considerably.
A return to the bad old days of breakfast clubs. After school nannies. School holiday programs. Self-absorbed parents running around doing “very important work”. Too busy or too tired to just play.
Business as usual for many kids. An often necessary evil, from which I thought we had escaped.
Three years remain before he will be old enough to make his own way home from school. To look after himself.
Three years seems like an eternity to his impatient young mind. Nearly half a lifetime.
Three years that I know will pass in a blink of an eye. Little boy replaced by independent minded “tweenager”.
I climbed off the bed, the quiet place to which I had attempted to escape for the interview, and gave him a hug.
After wiping tears and snot on my suit coat, his body started to shudder. I thought he was sobbing, more upset than I had appreciated by the thought of my potential return to work. Then I realised he was gazing at our reflection in the full-length mirror and laughing.
Looking back at us was the incongruous sight of me decked out in sartorial splendour. Suit coat. Business shirt. Tie. Barefoot and wearing an old pair of bright green board shorts!
A metaphor of sorts. A glimpse of the internal conflicts that exist beneath the mask. Ridiculous enough that I couldn’t help but laugh too.
As a boy aged around my son’s age, I had dreamt of one day having a million dollars in total.
Today, I had been offered a job that would pay a quarter of that amount every year.
Granted, the years in between had seen inflation tarnish the lustre of that seven-figure sum.
Once the domain of the affluent.
Today, virtually anyone with a decent workplace pension and London property bought 30 years ago qualifies.
Destined to become the default state, notable only in its absence as a sign that something has gone horribly wrong.
Yet the idea that I would not leap at the prospect would have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago.
Once, the money alone would have made all the compromises and sacrifices seem worthwhile.
Somewhere along the way, my priorities had changed. I had passed the point of “enough”. Not with great fanfare. Nor a ticker-tape parade. It had been observable only in hindsight. A change in perspective rather than a magic number appearing in a brokerage account or on a bank statement.
I no longer wanted to rule the world.
I no longer needed to demonstrate how ambitious, capable, driven, or smart I was.
Nobody cared how far I had travelled. How fast I had climbed. How much I had earned.
In fact, nobody had ever been watching. Those Joneses I competed with didn’t even know I existed.
Money had ceased to provide a meaningful measure of value. More no longer equalled better.
Perhaps it never had?
Maybe I had grown up.
Deciphered the illusion.
Seen through the matrix.
Realised the pursuit of more was a game without end. Each new level playing slightly faster and harder than the one before. The only way to win was to stop playing. To find contentment in what I already had.
Or perhaps my lady wife was correct in her judgement that I had simply given up. Abandoned my ambitions. Surrendered my hopes and dreams. Too afraid of failure to risk trying to succeed.
That character assassination had stung just enough to suggest there may be some truth to it. Not in the way she intended, involving business failure or career risk, but rather a defeat on the home front. In the endless trade-off between playing the roles of husband, parent, provider, and being true to myself. The man behind those many masks, whomever he may really be.
Childhood has a finite window.
Lasting roughly a decade, during which our offspring require our active assistance. Starting with nappy changes and midnight feeds. Evolving into trips to the park, playground, and toy shop. Each activity possessing a used by date. Fun while they last. Before eventually ageing out.
By the time our progeny venture off to high school, their increasing self-reliance and desire for independence gradually replace that constant need for assistance with a sporadic want for attention.
The parent’s role as caregiver, cheerleader, coach, confidant, and disciplinarian remains. Morphing into an on-demand part-time gig, as our child’s ability to amuse and entertain themselves grows.
By the time they come of age, we have instilled within them a unique moral code. A value system. Established a baseline for what is acceptable and what is “normal”. Imprinted a decision-making framework upon their thinking.
A small part coming from what we said.
A larger part informed by what we did. Or failed to do.
Some part because of us.
Some part in spite of us.
The remainder originating from outside influences. Friends. Peers. Teachers. Society. The media.
Beyond that point, what remains is to be their friend. Trust them to make good life decisions. Perhaps bail them out occasionally, only if they really need it. Bank of Mum and Dad. Caring for future grandchildren.
My interview with the devil had been in response to a growing awareness of looming change. Financial plans built upon a core set of assumptions, some of which may prove to be unfounded.
Recognising the inherent conflict that “peak earning years” coincide with the years of peak parenting.
Appreciating that life swiftly swings from feast to famine. Overstretched and in-demand today. Surplus to requirements and redundant tomorrow. The circle of life, as the old make way for the young.
Learning the hard way that, despite what FIRE seekers proclaim to the contrary, white-collar careers have a finite shelf life. Technical and regulatory knowledge quickly becoming stale, then dangerously outdated. As time passes, the corporate escapee ages. Those resume gaps become chasms.
One of my core skillsets has been rendered obsolete. A generational shift in approach crashing into unfavourable market conditions. Demand for managers of do-ers evaporating, an unaffordable luxury during challenging economic times. Their former duties reallocated to a new breed of hands-on department heads or outsourced entirely. “Do more with less”.
Some of my former industry peers, most of whom are older than I am, sought refuge in the traditional preserves of the dinosaur: the non-profit and government sectors. Where noble intentions and inadequate budgets allow old dogs to continue performing their old tricks for a little while longer.
In a desperate final throw of the dice, a few attempted to monetise their professional networks as commission-based sales consultants. Short-lived roles for which they were ill-equipped to succeed.
Those caught without a seat when the music stopped found themselves unexpectedly retired early.
FIRE proving to be an externally imposed employment status, as opposed to attaining a magic number. “Do more with less”.
My son’s tears and inconvenient illness provided a reminder that my parental responsibilities have a few years left to run.
My exploration of the job market suggests that my professional shelf life will prove to be shorter than that.
The big salary offer makes for a good story, but glosses over the lived realities of being culled and rejected at the application stage more times than my fragile ego would care to admit. Fortunate to have the option, something for which my former colleagues would trade places in a heartbeat.
My preferred semi-retired seasonal working pattern proving to be a boom time luxury with long-tail consequences.
Which raises what should be a simple opportunity cost question.
Do a deal with the devil, trading those three remaining years of my younger son’s childhood for a salary and the opportunity to reskill.
The grown-up choice.
Or wear some rose coloured glasses to go with my green board shorts. Trust that everything will work out ok in the end, like a Hollywood movie. Take a leap of faith and stay the course.
The idealist choice.
Not my natural state.
Nor is hope a sound basis for a financial plan.
Airlines tell us to see to our own well-being before attempting to help others. That cognitive dissonance I experienced during the interview suggests my conscious mind rejects the premise that I face a simple binary choice.
A third way must exist. I just haven’t been smart enough to figure it out. Yet.