Thursday, March 23, 2017

What a Difference a Decade Makes....

When you decide to change your life, it can change fairly quickly.

A reader asks me, in response to my seven steps out of poverty posting, where to move to.   I cannot say for sure, as each person's situation is unique.  And moving somewhere and expecting your life to change magically is nonsense - and what poor people do.  You get the job there first and then move there.  That's how it is done. 

But you see poor folks do that all the time - schlepping a broken-down Camaro hobby car behind a U-haul truck to some new State hoping their fortunes will improve, with no real plan on how to improve them.   If that is what you took away from my previous posting, you got it all wrong.

But another reaction I get when I tell people they can change their lives is that it "takes too long" to save up money or accumulate wealth, and who wants to wait 30 years when they can have a new jet-ski right now?   The payback just is too long-term!

Well, it needn't take that long.   Almost 30 years ago, I reported for duty at "Patent Academy" which was a lot like the "Police Academy" movies without the car chases.   July 22, 1987.   I was offered the princely sum of $21,000 a year and had to borrow against my first month's paycheck to find a place to live.   It was pretty hand-to-mouth those first few months!  I was flat broke!

But ten years later..... a lot had changed.   When I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, I remember driving through historic Old Town and thinking, "someday, I'll own a row house here!"

By 1997, I did.   Actually, this and a whole lot more.   Within a decade of moving there, I had graduated from law school, opened my own law practice and bought a office building in Old Town for my practice.   We also had a house in Mt. Vernon, with a swimming pool no less.   We also owned a duplex and a condo, which we rented out.

A long way from my two-bedroom flophouse in Chittenango, and I can tell you that I would still be there if I had not moved to Washington - and if not for Mark.

A freaking decade.  That's all it took.   A decade of hard work to be sure.   I finished my Engineering degree at Syracuse and got a job offer from the Patent Office.  I also got some offers from HVAC companies in charming places like Fort Smith, Arkansas.   The problem with jobs like the latter was that the company making the offer was the only employer in Fort Smith, and that meant if I moved there and didn't like it, my options were limited.

The Patent business, on the other hand, was more flexible, as there were dozens if not hundreds of places to work (law firms, government, Patent Office, solo practice) in the D.C. area, which meant more opportunity.

Four years of night school weren't easy, to be sure.   But I was young and in my prime - what better time to do it?   Some folks actually discouraged me from going.  "You'll be 32 by the time you graduate!" they said.  "Yea, but this way I'll be 32 with a law degree" I replied.  And the long hours at the law firms and at my own practice weren't easy either.   But it all paid off.

In a freaking decade.  Ten short years.  From Bush to Clinton to Bush.

Now, this is not to say you are guaranteed the same results.   It all depends on who you are, how smart you are, how dedicated you are, how hard you work, and how willing you are to sacrifice things like smoking pot and feeling sorry for yourself, in order to get ahead.   It depends on your skill sets and what the market thinks those skills are worth.

I was "lucky" that I had a skill set (writing patents) that was in high demand back then.  Since then, demand has oddly slackened (in terms of pricing) even as the number of filings has skyrocketed.  Of course, it wasn't so much "luck" but realizing that studying Electrical Engineering was a better bet than "Communications" as my brother did.   He had a lot of fun in college.  So did I - all 14 years of it.

I am no longer a young man of 30, able to work ten hours a day and then go to night school for three or four more.   So it is good I am in  a position to wind down.  The brain gets tired.  I worked when I could so I can relax now that I can't work as hard.  This too, will happen to you - getting older.   You want to be a position to be kind to yourself later in life, trust me.

The sad thing is, to me, is that I see a lot of people in those prime years - age 25-45 - when your energy is at its peak, your mind at its sharpest, and your earnings often peak.  As a recent article noted, if you haven't made your fortune by age 45, odds are you aren't going to make it.  Or put more succinctly, by age 45, you can pretty much figure out where you life is headed and how much you will make in life.

This is not to say some don't buck that trend and become great writers or artists late in life.  It does happen.  But for most of us, this is not the case.

It is a crime to squander the best part of your life on pot-smoking and feeling sorry for yourself.

"I saw the best minds of my generation..." do just that, destroyed by drugs and low-self-esteem - sorry Mr. Ginsberg!

Change can occur pretty quickly, but not right away.   The turning point for me was 1985, the year I decided to stop smoking pot.  I went back to school full-time and finished my degree.   That meant I had to work night jobs and go to school during the day - all year long.  It took about 18 months, but I graduated.   Hard work, not a lot of money to spend, and not a lot of fun and games.   But I got it done.  My life hadn't gotten "better" but I was happier than I had been getting stoned and shitfaced all the time.

And the first few years in D.C. weren't too much better - long hours at work, a small apartment, but someone to share it with.  We squandered money on stupid things, but life seemed so full of promise and exciting and fun.   Those are the "best years of your life" when you are wanting and not having.   The future is an open book.

But things got better from there in a real hurry, even before I graduated from Law School.  I left the Patent Office and went to work for a law firm, making $52,000 a year - an amount I never thought I would ever make, in depressed Central New York - but a pittance in the D.C. area.   That was in 1990 - only three years after moving to DC!

I graduated in 1992 and was making close to $80,000 a year.  I had moved to another firm and stayed there for a couple of years.   In 1994, I took a big risk and hung out my own shingle.  The rest is history - a chapter of my life I am closing at the moment.   And by then, we were investing in Real Estate, which is quite frankly, where I made the most money.

From drug-addled lab tech to successful attorney in less than a decade.   All it took was making some different choices.

Those years was the part of the roller coaster where it goes clackity-clack up the hill.  Not very exciting in and of itself, although the view is great and the anticipation is exhilarating.   Now I am in the "whee!" part all the way down the track.  I can coast now, and along the way we have had a lot of fun.
For some of my old friends, family members, well, they spend their most productive years mired in drugs and alcohol, failed marriages, bitter divorces, acrimony, depression, hatred, and sadness.   I feel bad for them, but they made different choices.  And many of them resented me for making other choices

Back in Chittenango, I used to come home from United Parcel at 4:30 in the morning and find my old '68 Chevy covered from hood to trunk with a row of beer bottles.   My old neighbor Gwen Swatski would lean out the window in her nightclothes and say, "your friends were here last night!"   They were pissed I was no longer a party boy and wanted me back in the fold.  It was touching, really, but I knew that if I went back to drinking and smoking pot, my happiness and plans would be derailed.

Well, that's my story.  Yours will be different.  It may not even work out for you.  But I suspect if you try to improve your lot in life, odds are, at least in some small way, it will improve.   Not trying at all, on the other hand, is bound not to have any effect - which seems quite logical to most people, but it seems to escape others, who merely assume that life will improve, somehow, though luck or something, but no particular effort of their own.

Tell me how that works out!