Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Man Who Got Away

You can escape the drudgery of the middle-class, but it takes some thinking.

When I was a kid, my parents had some friends who were "unconventional" to say the least.   They were hippies before there were hippies.  Wealthy hippies.  And while my parents were friends with them, they were not close friends, as I think there was some tension between them because these folks had rejected the middle-class corporate ladder that my parents were on.   That, and the fact they were virtual millionaires and had retired before age 40.   Yea, I think my folks were jealous, particularly my Dad.

What they did was not very high-tech or difficult.  But they did go against the grain of social thinking at the time - or even today.  He got a high-paying "tech" job with ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia back in the 1950's.  It paid some outrageous salary, like $50,000 a year, back when that was a huge pile of money.

But here's where he did something different:  Rather than indulge himself by getting a larger car and a bigger house and putting his kids through private schools (as my parents attempted to do) he banked it all and invested it.   Since his living expenses in the ex-pat "compound" in Saudi Arabia were paid for, why bother spending money on living expenses?

Within a decade, he had a huge sum of money saved up - and nearly doubled by investing wisely.  They moved home to America and promptly retired.   But his cleverness didn't stop there.

Since they had to live on savings, they spent carefully.  He bought a plot of land in the Adirondacks and built his own house.   Why not?  He had a lot of time on his hands, and he felt greater satisfaction in building his own house than in working at a job.   They lived carefully and frugally, but certainly didn't deny themselves anything in life - they traveled, they had fun, they partied - boy-howdy did they know how to party!

He usually drove inexpensive cars, like VW Beetles, except for one time he bought a secondhand Mercedes diesel, simply because it was reasonably priced and built like a tank.   Back then (the late 1960's) a diesel car was a certain novelty.  It may have been a grey-market import for all I know.

The point is, he made different choices and had a different outcome.

How many people today working in the tech field are bringing home huge salaries and then spending it as fast as they make it on fancy cars, clothes, designer coffees, and the huge cost of housing in tech cities?   How many are banking that salary, living as inexpensively as possible, and looking forward to the time they can chuck it all and live large?   Not many of the latter - not today, not back in my Dad's day.

(And eventually, they will be forced to chuck it, too.  See many old, white-haired coders or engineers where you work?  Didn't think so.  Wonder what happened to them?  Probably started a blog or something....)

You see, it takes a lot of courage to say, "I will sacrifice now so I can enjoy later" simply because we don't see ourselves as the same person now as later.   As I noted in an earlier posting, most of us consider the "us" of the future to be a different person and we hate that guy.  He's always whining about saving for the future (for him!) and not having fun today.

Conversely, the us of today despises the us of yesteryear as that asshole spent all our money on stupid shit like cars and junk instead of thinking of our well-being in the future.   Stupid jerks!  I hate both of them!

Seriously though, I hear this from a lot of people - even readers - that "you have to treat yourself in life" and reap the rewards of your hard work, even if it is with borrowed money (think about that for a second - if you are borrowing money to have a "reward" you really haven't earned it yet, have you?).

So what happened to my parent's friends?   They lived happily ever after.   Well, they lived, enjoyed life, didn't have to work for a living, saw their kids grow up and move away, and eventually, they got old and died like we all do.   The difference was, he didn't spend an additional 20+ years behind a desk doing a job he hated.

Now some folks would say that was a horrible life.   And maybe for some folks that would be true.  There are people who find great meaning and pleasure in work.  Work provides them with an identity and a purpose - and status.   I ran into a Patent Attorney the other day who is a decade older than I am, and says he will "never retire" as he loves the work so much.   Of course, he is doing US filings of foreign cases, which is a pleasant pastime and a lot less stress than writing original cases, as I did.   It is less stressful as most of the decisions are made for you by a foreign attorney, so if things go horribly wrong, you can argue it isn't your fault - just don't miss any bar dates!

Myself, after 30 years of doing the same thing over and over again, I kind of lost interest.  Plus, along the way, the rules of the game changed, and not for the better.   And the stress of deadlines was, well, not what I wanted anymore in my life.  Fortunately I was in a situation where I could say, "no more" and kick back and relax.

And maybe that is the point.   Maybe you don't need to "run away" from a career and live in a cabin in the mountains.   But it certainly would be neat to be able to do that if you wanted to.   Sadly, most middle-class Americans make a lot of money and spend it as fast as they make it on status items - even status items they don't think are status itemsThey run the treadmill, day-in and day-out, trying to get ahead and never seem to get ahead, and they rail at the unfairness of it all.

But is it unfair?  Or is it a choice in life?