I have maintained a daily chronicle of my thoughts and experiences during this most interesting of times
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adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Toughest job

“What is the toughest job you have ever performed?”

This is a thought experiment in the style of those proposed by SavingNinja. The one thing asked of participants is for a stream of consciousness outpouring of thoughts rather than a carefully polished article. Here goes…

Toughest job

A while ago the members of the secret society of UK FI Bloggers were sitting around their virtual clubhouse discussing weighty matters, exchanging gems of wisdom, and trading witty banter.

Picture the Avengers gathered in Stark Tower, plotting to defeat whichever evil cartoon bad guy is threatening to blow up the world or elect a spectacularly unsuitable populist buffoon to run a country equipped with nuclear weapons.

Well, it is almost exactly nothing like that. Fewer superpowers. Less lycra. Possessing a coolness quotient closer to a mid-1990s Microsoft product launch than the Avengers Assemble.

Like many secret societies, this is a group of everyday folks from all walks of life who have sought out community of like-minded folks who “get it”.

Who understand.

Few, if any, people in their real lives do!

As they often do, the conversation that day took a random turn, then disappeared down a rabbit hole.

One member asked what was the toughest job you had ever performed?

Surprising answers

My answer was immediate. Requiring no thought or introspection: palliative carer.

A role I performed only briefly. Gruelling, relentless, and thankless in equal measure.

One that taught me a surprising amount about my own ethics, values, and moral compass.

My second-toughest assignment resembled the first in more than a few ways.

Similar duties. Almost as difficult working conditions. Meeting the most basic needs of a person totally dependent upon my care. This time I was a stay-at-home parent caring for a young baby.

There was clear daylight between those unpaid roles and the level of difficulty posed by my third toughest gig: the student job I worked in a photo processing lab.

In recent times much has been written about the emotional toll those working as social media content moderators endure while screening and censoring a never-ending firehose of imagery showcasing every facet of human activity. Scattered in amongst those selfies, happy snaps, and holiday photos are images of humanity at its absolute worst, doing things with and to each other that defy imagination.

Things that cannot be unseen.

Human nature hasn’t changed throughout the ages, but the technology used to broadcast it has.

Today’s deep fakes and revenge porn are merely the modern incarnations of cave paintings and hieroglyphics from times long past. A generation ago that content moderation occurred in photo labs.

That role provided a broad insight into the ethics, values, and moral compasses of others.

Their behaviours. Their judgement. Their risk versus reward decision-making framework. How to manage them as stakeholders.

When I reflected on that “toughest job” question some more, I realised that none of the professional engagements I have undertaken over the past 20+ years has come close to the “character building” experiences endured via those three roles.

It isn’t even close.

Arbitrary deadlines, self-important executives, and undercooked budgets seem trivial by comparison.

Every engagement includes its share of bad days. A lack of fulfilment while performing work that in the scheme of things mostly does not matter. Yet all seemed sufficiently lucrative to make the sale of my time for the money on offer appear to be a reasonable trade-off. At the time.

Of all those professional roles, my time at an investment bank stands out as being the worst. Horribly misaligned commercial incentives resulted in a working culture so toxic it actually killed people. Vast sums of money on the line. The only thing bigger than the numbers were the inflated egos.

However, none of those professional roles has involved being shot at or blown up.

Rarely assaulted.

Infrequently threatened.

No heavy lifting or working outdoors in the rain.

All things considered, I’ve had a pretty good run.

I need only to remember those three tough roles to realise that I have survived worse. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make the current bad day at the office any easier to accept. But it does help keep things in perspective!

What goes up…

Watching my children grow and develop has been a fascinating experience.

Aspirations forever outrunning abilities. Physically in terms of strength, endurance, and coordination. Mentally in terms of cognition, comprehension, and reasoning.

Boundaries constantly being tested.

In the beginning, unable even to support their own heads. Then one day they suddenly could.

Sitting up. Rolling over. Crawling. Walking. Running. Climbing. Riding bikes. Swimming. An evolution of skills, each opening up a whole new world of possibilities and challenges to conquer.

An endless desire for more. Striving to better themselves. Constantly improve. Develop. Grow.

Applying hard-won knowledge and skills towards attaining the next run on the developmental ladder.

Each milestone is celebrated. Taken for granted. Then swiftly forgotten in the pursuit of the next goal.

The difficulty level increases at each level, but the marginal gain from achieving the next milestone diminishes.

… must come down

The Office of National Statistics publish some fascinating statistics about life satisfaction.

Life satisfaction

They suggest that people’s satisfaction with their lives steadily drops from around the age of 20.

That decline bottoms out in their early 50s. Things improve throughout their 50s and 60s until reaching peak life satisfaction somewhere in their early 70s. Life satisfaction then tapers off, before declining once more as the frailties of old age take their toll.

While the findings are generalisations drawn from self-reported survey results, similar results have been reported in other developed countries. They paint an interesting picture.

At the age of 20 many of us are full of ambition and idealism. We are going to rule the world. Change things for the better. Do work that matters. Make a difference.

The autonomy of adulthood is relatively new. Many of us are largely responsibility free.

Real-life has a way of laughing at the naïvety of youth! Many of us learn the swift brutal lesson that we’re really just faceless interchangeable cogs in a vast machine. Neither unique nor special, despite what our parents and participation trophies told us to the contrary while growing up.

The only people who claim to care about our hopes and dreams are those trying to sell us something.

By the time we reach our 40s, our ambitions have faded. Careers have topped out. Responsibilities and obligations abound. The realisation sinks in that many of those hopes and dreams simply aren’t going to happen.

Expectations shift. Priorities change. An appreciation for what we already have begins to replace the constant desire for more.

When people talk about seeking “experiences not things”, they don’t mean ticking off clichéd postcard destinations from a bucket list. What they really mean is focussing on the friends and family we enjoy those experiences with. A humble barbecue or a picnic enjoyed in good company can provide a rich experience indeed.

Skip ahead to our 60s. Children are fully grown. Mortgages have hopefully been paid off. Pensions become accessible. Retirement beckons. We have greater control of our time investment decisions.

At that point, many of us will enjoy a level of autonomy last seen back in those halcyon days of our early 20s, combined with the confidence gained from a lifetime of experience. The vanity of youth has faded to a distant memory. Now is the time to age disgracefully!

Childhood rewind

Witnessing the long decline of someone suffering a terminal illness was humbling. It many ways it was like watching that same developmental journey, only in reverse.

A once strong body atrophying. A once sharp mind becoming addled and confused.

Progressively undoing all those hard-won developmental milestones.

Physical strength, dexterity, and coordination measurably diminishing.

Shedding the stamina to do a lot for a long time.

Losing the energy to do much at all.

An intriguing metamorphosis seems to occur at the point that the patient realises that they aren’t going to recover. The angst, cursing the gods, and protesting of the unfairness of it all vanishes.

In its place appears a calm acceptance. Finding contentment in what they already have.

The struggle for meaning gets abandoned, as more immediate concerns like the struggle to eat, drink, or breathe assert themselves.

Eventually, autonomy vanishes. Control soon follows suit.

Devolving back to a child-like existence. Then a toddler. Finally an infant. Unable to perform even the most basic tasks for themselves.

Life’s journey nears its inescapable end.

End game

The secret society has provided a fascinating microcosm for observing how people’s financial motivations and drivers evolve over the course of their lives.

Members vary greatly by age, aspiration, background, family situation, lifestyle choice, and net worth. There are two common threads that run through them all. A love of writing, and a desire for control over how they invest their time.

The collective sharing of their stories has mirrored that “u” shaped life satisfaction curve.

Many of the younger and relatively responsibility-free bloggers believe they could sustainably survive on £8,000 – £10,000 per year. I commend their ambition and optimism. With a social security safety net to fall back on, it may even be possible. Though it would be a fragile and rarely comfortable existence.

The largest cohort of members is made up of middle-aged folks, many with young families. They have experienced more of the economic cycle. Many are struggling with childcare costs, mortgages, and student debts. Living in fear of redundancy and obsolescence.   

The older members of this group have first-hand knowledge that the markets can go down as well as up. Of what it feels like to see their net worth suddenly plummet. Then take years to recover. They are resigned to the fact that the economic gods will occasionally piss upon them from a great height, and there is precious little they can do about it.

While many of this group are seeking to leave the rat race, they are often yearning for something more than just a paycheque. More fulfilment. More control. More time.

Searching for meaning is an age-old problem. It is a nice problem to have, in a similar vein to my three toughest jobs making all my professional roles seem easy by comparison.

A blogger who has the capacity to ponder those big questions like purpose and meaning is probably no longer worrying about where their next meal will come from or how they will pay the rent. That in itself is a win worthy of celebration.

The secret society contains a few bloggers who have survived the dip, and are climbing up the other side of that “u” curve. Financial Independence in some form has been achieved, through a combination of bank balance and realistic expectations.

They recognise that the main drivers behind life satisfaction are non-financial ones. Easy to say from the lofty perch of the financially independent. Hard to imagine for those down below, desperately wishing to join their ranks.

Yet true nonetheless.

By that point, the pursuit of financial goals has transformed into a hobby in its own right. Net worth is merely a means of keeping score.

There are vanishingly few bloggers who continue writing once they make the decision to leave the ranks of the gainfully employed. They have won the game. Their story is at an end.

In real life, their adventures continue. However, in many cases the blogger recognises that those adventures will no longer be relatable to the audience who have eagerly followed their journey.

Most retire from the secret society and get on with the next phase of their lives.

For some, retirement proves to be the toughest job of all.

What is the toughest job you have ever performed?


To hear some alternative points of view check out the other responses to this thought experiment:


References

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9 Comments

  1. Dr FIRE 18 January 2020

    The first rule of fight club….

    To answer your question in a short stream of consciousness; the first thing that springs to mind is my time working in a call centre. Dull, monotonous work. Just enough employees so that there was always a queue of ~10 people on the line, which meant that as soon as you finished dealing with one query, it was immediately onto the next! Quite a feat, knowing exactly how many people to have working at any given time of day to maximise output and not giving anyone time to think. It was so mind numbingly boring that I quit within a few months, and resolved to go to university to hopefully avoid doing such a job ever again! And so far, so good.

    However, thinking on it further, the call centre probably wasn’t my ‘toughest’ job, The worst, by a long shot. But the toughest may well have been my PhD, if you can consider that a job, because to quit didn’t feel like an option. It was extremely difficult and demoralising at times. Sometimes enduring weeks or months of poor progress, or, even worse, those days where I finished in a worse position than I started. I think the biggest source of stress was the knowledge that, at the end of three years, you had to have enough new results to write a thesis. Unfortunately, cutting edge research isn’t always so obliging!

    I made it in the end, and I think the experience was ultimately good for me. However, writing all that out, it doesn’t sound as bad as raising children or, as you said, anywhere near as bad as some other jobs I could have had. As you concluded, all in all I’ve had a pretty good run so far!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2020 — Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story Dr FIRE. The call centre gig sounds thankless, while the PhD sounds like one of those trials of endurance that only seem like a good idea in hindsight. I commend your persistence in seeing it through!

      One paradox of secret societies is that they can only continue and thrive while sustained by a steady trickle of new members. Fresh voices to replace those who age out, give up, graduate or simply fade away. The population of zombies and corpses in FIREShrink’s FIRE cemetery is certainly outpacing the society membership growth.

      The second paradox is that the only way people could know about first rule of Fight Club was to be a member themselves! 😉

    • ZXSpectrum48k 20 January 2020

      I’d agree that my PhD was the toughest thing I ever did. Compared to a concurrent MSc(in year 1) and PhD (years 1-3), I’ve found working in both investment banks and hedge funds is less stressful. Doing combat in a seminar with a Nobel prize winning physicist who’s taken an irrational dislike to your most recent paper is far harder than arguing with the head of risk management!

      There is some negativity regarding PhDs in the FIRE community. They suppress earnings, increase the time to FI etc. I don’t understand that. I would argue that getting my PhD made me. Essentially once I had a PhD in theoretical physics, getting well paid jobs in in finance was trivial. I went in on £40k in 1998 and was earning six figures by 2000. To earn less that that, I would have had to screw it up badly. The institutions I work at would rarely now even consider someone with only a BSc; a MSc or PhD is the minimum. Good PhDs rate much higher than good MBAs since a PhD requires creativity/innovation.

      I wonder if the negativity toward PhDs is felt by those who stay in academia. It’s not really the PhD that is the issue, but the conditions that post-docs have to slog through. Crappy pay, the pressure to produce papers and citations constantly to ensure you have the chance to get the next post-doc position or research grant, and the fear that you will never land that prized permanent chair. That is stress I probably couldn’t handle.

      • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 January 2020 — Post author

        Thanks ZXSpectrum48k. Was the goal of obtaining the PhD always to enter the banking world? I recall back in the early 2000s many of the large banks were establishing quant shops, buying in big brains to tell tame developers what their systems should do.

        Can’t say I’ve seen the anti-education sentiment you have noted in the FIRE community. Once you look past the dreamers and the easy answer merchants, there is a pretty strong “invest in yourself” theme that runs through many of the good blogs.

        • ZXSpectrum48k 25 January 2020

          I had zero intention of going into finance. It was forced by family circumstances. The post-doc salary wouldn’t have cut it.

          I wasn’t implying anti-education sentiment. More that some blogs have expressed regret over doing a PhD, not due to actual subject, but simply that it’s somehow has made FI harder to achieve. I don’t understand that view because I think qualifications beyond undergraduate are becoming essential. When I did undergrad in the early 90s, about 7% were obtaining a first class honours degree. These days it’s 28%. So we have 2x as many students and 4x as many top qualifications. So an 8 fold devaluation in a currency called “first class degree” in less than 30 years. Even Sterling doesn’t devalue that fast.

          So postgrad qualifications can pay back that loss in time but you do need to be efficient. One of my key aims when doing my PhD was to make sure I was done in 3 years. Key reason: I had 3 years of funding. But also because by doing my MSc concurrently with the PhD in year one and then finishing the PhD in year 2-3, I would be aged 24 when done. I saw others that took 4-6 years to do the PhD, on top of a Masters, and suddenly they were 26-30.

  2. [HCF] 20 January 2020

    If you look at it like that raising a child is the toughest job of all. Also, an ongoing project with always changing requirements and circumstances. A little bit similar to software development just much more complex.

    It was interesting to read that I am at the start of the decline of life satisfaction and I only have to wait 25 years till things will get better. Good to know 🙂 I hope that the technology of the next half century if won’t be able to make us immortal at least it will give us the gift of aging gracefully.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 January 2020 — Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experience HCF.

      Parenting very young children can be alarmingly similar to an Agile project where the thinking hasn’t been done ahead of time! Lots of activity, costs a lot of money, yet provides little sense of progress!

  3. Steveark 23 January 2020

    Being incident commander during facility fires where my decisions could cost my friends and coworkers their lives. Second to that is giving CPR to a clinically dead friend not knowing if it is going to save his life. Fortunately nobody ever died under my watch and the guy I brought back from death thirty years ago is still happily breathing today. But while I actually enjoyed the adrenaline rush involved in emergency work, the consequences of failure and the stress are unimaginable.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 23 January 2020 — Post author

      That incident commander gig sounds like a tough day at the office Steveark.

      You describe well those conflicting emotions during life or death moments. Feeling incredibly wired while in the midst of the fray, then a sense of accomplishment when it worked out ok. Underneath it all is a huge sense of relief that you’re not having to front the relatives of somebody who was injured or killed as a consequence of your actions. I’ve only experienced that once and on a much smaller scale, when I rescued a couple of friends caught in a rip tide. Fortunately we all lived to tell the tale, but it wasn’t an experience I would rush to repeat.

      Well done for having made the time to learn those life saving CPR skills, and then have the confidence and courage to use them when the need arose. Everyone should have that knowledge, but in practice alarmingly few people actually seem to.

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