So You Just Got Promoted, Part 2

This is the second and final installment of everything I found that worked about managing teams from three decades in the Fortune 500 world. If you are reading this then you probably read the first part, but if not then please check out Part 1 to get the complete picture.

As detailed in my previous post the reason I decided to post this was because a former employee had recently looked me up just to tell me she had modeled her career after mine. She told me I was the best boss she had ever had and she wanted her team to love their work the way my team had back in the day when she was an intern. That was pretty awesome to hear! It also fits into this community to suggest ways to get ahead at work because promotions and salary increases will speed your way to FI or FIRE.

In the first post I covered how critical it is to not only treat every team member as your equal but to really believe it, or get another job! I covered how your function is no longer to produce a ton of work but to equip, inspire and lead your team to produce multiple amounts of work. Also how important it is to hire talent because having a world class team is what will lead to personal success. Finally, I covered fighting for your team when it comes to raises, training and even when facing layoffs.

But there is a lot more to cover so here it is!

Teach your team that customers come first. Our team was composed of graduate engineers and engineering student interns. We did not deal with the end users of our products very much, the people that you would normally consider to be your customers. We did both the design on plant expansions and also solved technical problems that impacted the operations of the chemical plant. Also, since we were the “whiz kids” that could solve any problem that came up we acted as a sort of technical support department for the 500 or so other employees at our site and every difficult problem eventually got dropped on our desks with a plea for help. These were problems of our internal customers and not our own team’s problems and we were not given much guidance from above on how much time to spend on them.

I say all that to explain how we prioritized. We had assignments from my boss and his boss and then we had requests from all the other departments. So how did we decide what to do first? Obviously you do what your boss requests first, right? Wrong! I strongly encouraged my team to put the requests from those without the authority to demand action ahead of the demands from the top.

I decided to place the requests from other departments (our internal customers) as the top priority for myself and my team. It may sound crazy to prioritize a request from a junior accountant in another department over a directive from the plant manager or the vice president he worked for but that is exactly what we did. We also got the boss’s work done, early if possible, but we jumped on the lower level requests first. Most of those requests were short term in nature and it proved surprisingly easy to get them out of the way without derailing the important big projects we were assigned.

What did that accomplish? We made friends because we bailed people out of trouble on a timely basis when they knew we didn’t have to. There is nothing as important as trust and gratitude in a business environment and we built both by showing we valued coworkers by prioritizing their requests. Was there a downside? Yes, because to avoid being late on deadlines from upper management we sometimes had to stay late to solve all the lower tiered internal customer issues. Was it worth it? I think so. Of the eight engineers in my former team, and the interns, most of them are now vice presidents, or manage large departments and are making medium to high six figure salaries. Some have retired early like me. I rose to the top job in the company by the time I was 41 by being promoted past the other department managers even though they were all ten to twenty years older than me. And they were, by and large, happy for me because of the trust and affection my team had earned. This concept is not taught in college and is not obvious to most people so it is an easy way to separate yourself from other team leaders if your team has internal customers. Most people think that you get promoted because of talent. That’s only partially true. The most important factors in getting bigger paychecks and promotions are how much the decision makers above you trust you and how much they like you. The fact is they are constantly evaluating your brand among your coworkers in determining how promotable you are. If they see you are well liked and trusted by other teams then you are on your way.

Lead by example. Part of the work in our team was dividing the large chemical complex into separate areas and having each team member responsible for about one hundred million dollars of process equipment and the products it produced. In the past the team leader, always a former team member, would not assign himself part of the plant, he’d just assign his old area to someone else on the team when he promoted to team manager. I didn’t do that. I kept my old area assignment because I did not want to lose touch with that important part of what my team members did. There was a fair amount of tedious record keeping and data analysis that went with optimizing the operations of your part of the facility and when there were operating problems you were sometimes called out on nights, weekends or holidays to get the “ox out of the ditch.” That isn’t so much fun but it is way more tolerable when you see your boss doing it too. I not only came out when my part of the plant messed up but I also came out when theirs did. Sure, I had to work some extra hours, but not that many and we really bonded when they saw I had their backs, no matter what. It also kept me from saving the “cake” work for myself and delegating the “crap” work to my team. Most team leaders do way too much of that. The results were it gave me a loyal team that respected and protected me.

Teach your team all your tricks and tips. I was one of those lucky people who fit my job like a hand in a glove. I never had to work very hard, it just all sort of flowed on its own. A lot of the “secrets” of being successful were obvious to me but not always to every team member I had. I made it a mission to share everything I could to help my people succeed. Things like the knowledge that most of the credit you got on a project was not determined by the quality of your work. Sounds a little insane, right? What I mean is that the quality of the project is judged not on the meat of the work but on the elegance of the presentation. One misspelled word in a report, one bad use of grammar in the presentation to management can destroy a hundred hours of flawless calculations. It is not fair but it is how the world works so I taught my folks to spend a lot of extra time triple checking the deliverables on their work. I’m a typo fiend, I can rarely read a novel by a leading author without finding at least one typo. They just jump off the page at me. (That said I’ll probably make one in this post!) We preached incessantly that perfection was the only acceptable level for the final presentation and I firmly believe that led to the stellar careers that my former team members are enjoying today.
We also encouraged everyone to have a buddy on the team that would proofread their reports and backcheck their calculations. That is just one example but there were dozens of technical tips that we shared freely. All of that was based on the fact that my team was not my competition, they were my launching pad to future success.

Help them go somewhere else if that is the best thing for them. I hired the best and our company did not have enough promotion opportunities to match the number of top level people I was training. That meant that some of them would get stuck at levels that would not let them reach their full potential. In those cases I encouraged some incredibly talented people to leave our company. Consequently I have friends all over the country in important positions, just like my intern that inspired this post. You are not doing your company a service by keeping talented people stuck below their true potential.
In other cases you may have a talented team member that wants to change direction within your company, maybe transfer to a sister facility or a completely different functional area, like marketing. You could view this as a personal loss and try to stop it or slow the process down but that is a mistake. You have to consider the opportunity from their position and do your best to make it happen if it truly will benefit them. I transferred out so much talent to other locations and departments that I felt like a training department. But that has given me a great network that makes some of my entertaining retirement side gigs possible today.
And then there is the rare situation when you have hired someone who just cannot do the job adequately. They are not bad workers but their skill set does not match the job. That is on you, not them, and you owe them your best efforts to move them to an area where they can excel. One of my young engineers was earnest and dedicated but the work was just outside his level of competence. Our projects were extremely complex and just because he had a chemical engineering degree did not mean he had a facile enough mind to keep up with the rest of the team. I was able to convince him to transfer to a very important department where mentally balancing multiple equations at the same time was not a requirement. He was hesitant but reluctantly agreed to the move. He was awesome at it and a few years later was running a major department in his new specialty at a sister facility. He would tell you now that it was the best thing that ever happened in his career. Many managers would have fired him and in so doing they would have thrown away a friend and a huge company asset.
Finally you need to fight to get your people promoted within your company, even if they may get ahead of you in the food chain. Of my two best team members over my career both first worked for me and I later worked for them and then finally one worked for me again. We stayed friends through it all and did our best to promote each other’s careers. There are many twists and turns in a career, some people see it as a fail when they do not get every possible promotion. But if you trust and appreciate a team member then when they win it is a win for you too because you trained them.

Have fun! This is pretty big. In fact my intern that modeled her leadership style after mine remembers the fun we all had more than anything else. It was little things like constant pranking. Not mean spirited, nothing gender specific and mostly nerd humor but we had a blast. I remember in the early days of powerful personal computers we had a big new one arrive and it had an odd quirk in that the wiring to the speakers would actually receive radio signals. This was a bug and not a feature. If you touched the case in a certain place you became part of an antennae and the radio broadcast of one particular station would come through very audibly but if you moved your hand it would revert to silence. I decided to convince one of my team members that all computers had a radio built into them (this was before wifi so they definitely did not have radios in them). I wrote a piece of ridiculous code that did nothing except send random things to the screen and I got my team member to come watch. I’d run the program, which did nothing, and then touch the case without him noticing and the music would play. I gave him a copy of the “program” and he spent days trying to figure out why he couldn’t get any other computer to receive radio stations. It was hilarious watching him try to convince others he could turn their PC’s into a radio. OK, you’d have had to be there. But we operated like a family, we went on vacations together and had mutual hobbies in the department with team members. We helped each other move, went to family events and genuinely liked each other. The most common sound heard in our part of the building was loud laughter, it is my best memory of those days!

So that is it for what I learned in three decades of working with teams. A few paragraphs does not look like much but there really is a pretty narrow space between a successful, highly paid career and an average one. I had the former and so did most of my team members and I sincerely believe the few concepts I shared here made all the difference in the world.

Down Six Figures in Six Days

I was feeling a little smug last week, have to admit that. My net worth and my investment portfolio were closing in fast on new all time highs! My spouse and I were heading out on a two day drive to Breckenridge CO for some skiing and there were no worries to be found. Now back in the condo after a day of glorious powder I checked the market and to be mild it dropped like a boat anchor today. Added to last week’s losses my investments are $110,000 lower than they were one week ago. Fortunately as a slightly early retired couple our portfolio is less than half equities so the loss could have been much higher. My brother, also slightly early retired looks like a genius because he texted me last Tuesday that he was going to cash with a big part of his portfolio and he got the trades made right before things started to go mideval on my net worth.

Most of you have experienced something similar as investors these last few days. You may be early on in your journey to FI and if so rejoice! You lost little and will get some discounted prices. Or you may be already at FI and already early retired and this market bobble might be a particularly hard sting to your peace of mind. That is precisely where I am and I watched myself react to see if I really believed all the things I’ve said to others about investing. And…I passed. I actually got a wry smile on my face when I checked the indices for a couple of reasons. First because I’m not losing anything if I don’t sell. And second because my portfolio is diversified, doesn’t have exaggerated cap weighting and can handle a blip, or a correction or even a historic bear market. And I have to say I was pretty happy I didn’t have any exposure to crypto currency just now.

So is this a speedbump, a genuine correction starting or is the fabled bear coming out of hibernation to visit? Nobody knows, it is fair to say that as of Monday afternoon on the 5th of February, 2018 Wall Street looks to have another down day tomorrow. If the futures markets are correct, there is already blood in Tuesday’s streets. But profits are strong, the tax package will make them even stronger so there is every chance this is just a speed bump in another good year or two of equity growth. However price to equity ratios are quite high and the bond interest rates appear to be creeping toward business borrowing depressing levels so that’s a downside. Of the many indicators out there of future prosperity you can find one you like if you look hard enough.

The real question to ask yourself that you can actually answer is how did you react to the market suddenly acting like it has always acted, outside of the last few years? Were you OK with the way it felt, did it make you feel good about your investment strategies and your FI or FIRE plans? Or were you distraught and kicking yourself because you weren’t my brother and weren’t able to time the market with precision? This little slice of history is a perfect time to evaluate your risk tolerance. If you can’t avoid a knee jerk reaction to unexpected market moves then perhaps you need to reevaluate your plan. Personally when I made my own investment decisions I found days like today caused me angst, pain and fear. Now that I have three managers handling parts of my portfolio and I’m hands off my own money I felt no real pain at all. Today might be the day that some of you decide to turn to a financial planner or a financial advisor yourself, or it might be the day you take your money back into your own hands to manage.

It would be interesting to know what the last few days felt like to you. And whether that provided you an insight into your own thoughts about your journey to financial independence and perhaps early retirement. Please let me know. Now as for me I’m expecting 10 to 15 inches of fresh powder tomorrow here in Breck, something that the weather guys are actually fairly decent at predicting. Maybe we should let them try to model the stock market?

So You Just Got Promoted! Part One

So you just got promoted and now you are leading a team. First, congratulations! One of the fastest ways to FIRE is to accelerate your income and one of the fastest ways to do that is to move up into the management ranks. As someone who did just that during a corporate career ending up with over seven hundred employees on my teams, I intended to someday share the things I learned and borrowed that seemed to work.

But I did not plan to make this post so early in my fledgling blogging career until something happened a couple of weeks ago that changed my plans. A profoundly meaningful event overtook me by surprise. It had nothing to do with the new year of 2018 or resolutions or goals. Instead it reached back twenty years or more into my past.

A friend was in town, an engineer who had briefly worked for me as an intern at the plant when she was still in college getting her chemical engineering degree. I was in my first management position in those days running a group of eight young engineers and a few paid interns. Since graduation she has worked at a major chemical corporation out of state but she was back in our little town visiting family and friends. She had looked me up just to tell me in person that she was now managing a young group of engineers and interns very much like mine when we worked together.

But what she said next was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten, something unexpected and wondrous. She said that she loved her job and that her model and her daily goal was to lead her team exactly the way I had led mine. She said that it was so much fun it didn’t seem like work at all to be a part of our team. She said that I was the best boss she had ever worked for and she just wanted me to know. That’s big to me, so affirming!

I hate opening this post this way because I know it sounds like the least humble brag imaginable and that isn’t my point. I’m thrilled to get feedback that I was not a terrible manager, it is the kind of thing that lights us older guys up in a way I could not begin to communicate to a younger version of myself. But the reason for the story is that it spurred me to take some time to ask myself, why was that such a great time in my life and hers? What exactly did I do as a manager to not suck the life out of my people and to not kill their spirits as seems to be all too common then and now?

I think any ideas I can share within this community on leading and managing teams and departments could be useful stuff for young millennials entering into management for the first time. So here is everything I can remember that worked to create a little happy and successful Camelot of a department of incredible young professionals. Very few of these are Steveark originals, I tried to steal from only the very best.

This got kind of lengthy so I’m putting in two parts, here is Part 1.

Treat Everyone as an Equal

Sure you just got promoted to be the boss/leader/manager but why would you think that makes you of any higher value than the newest or least paid employee in the company? It doesn’t, all that promotion means is that the bar just got raised for you and now you need to step up your game to an even higher level than the one that got you promoted in the first place. It is a verifiable fact that everyone on your team knows some things that you don’t know and is better at some parts of the job than you will ever be. Do not ever see yourself as being better than your team, you just have a different job description. It is not just a matter of what you do, you have to believe in your core that your team members are just as valuable and their hopes and dreams and fears matter just as much as yours do. You cannot fake this, if you don’t feel this deep in your heart then you need to find another job.

Hire Talent, You Cannot Teach It
I don’t care if you are Nick Saban (arguably best college football coach ever even if I am an Arkansas fan), you cannot win with a team of “C” class players. Happy productive teams need “A” class talent, not in every position but in most of them. This can be tough because as a new manager you probably did not get to hire your team, they were already there. But over time you may get to have some say in bringing new people in. Realize that picking talented people that can play nicely with others is the most important thing you can do to win in the corporate world. Your future promotions depend far more on the talent of your team than they do on your own talent.

Understand Your Job
As the team leader your job is no longer the job that got you promoted. It is perverse and counter intuitive at first, I know, but your job is to get excellence out of your team and most likely that will limit the amount of work product you get to produce yourself. That can be frustrating because you know you are good, it is why you got put in charge, and now you do not have time to spend on what you were so good at. Frustrating, sure, get over it! Once you learn to focus on building the capability of your team and improving the quality and quantity of their work and their overall enjoyment of the team’s mission and their engagement with the company they will absolutely blow the tiny amount of work you used to be able to produce on your own out of the water. When it is working like it should some days on your commute home you will realize you did not do any work at all. You just helped others get their work done, that is when you know you have got it going on!

Fight for Your People
If you are getting this then you now realize that your success is no longer going to be based on your ability to produce work. It is completely in the hands of your team. That is what management and leadership is, getting sustainable results out of people. To do that you have to have a team that trusts you, loves you and wants to win for you. And to do that you have to be a leader that trusts them, loves them and wants them to win individually and together. So you fight to get them raises much harder than you fight to get one yourself. If you elevate them then your compensation will take care of itself generally. Give them full credit, maybe even too much credit for their work. Don’t you dare put your name on their work and pass it off as yours. If you have to have your name on the report or you have to give the presentation based on their work because of company protocol you make sure you write or speak the full name of the person who did the work and compliment the work they did in front of everyone at the meeting. You want the CEO to know you’ve got a talented team, it is the kind of thing that lights up young talent and makes them happy and it really helps when you are fighting to get them more money if the top dogs know who they are! And if worse comes to worse, which it will at times, fight to keep their jobs in the face of a layoff. Make a case as to why your team needs every member, let them hunt elsewhere for sacrificial lambs. You may not, probably will not win that fight but they are your people. Fight like they matter to you because they should.

Train Your Team
We sent every team member to at least one out of state seminar or class every year. Sometimes they went to several. I heard old guard managers grumble that if you train them that well then someone will want to hire them away. How incredibly ignorant that view is! People do not leave jobs because they have employable skills, they leave their jobs because they fear they are becoming unemployable. If you train them in the latest greatest of whatever it is they do then you give them the confidence that they can get a job anywhere. Paradoxically that makes it much less likely they will even look for another job. And it is not just the information they will learn that builds this confidence but the network they build from interfacing with other companies at these events.

The other thing we did, and I did steal this idea from a mentor, was to wait for the aging giants in our sector to retire from competitors or large engineering companies and then to hire them to come in and teach my young engineers the absolute best practices they had developed over their 40 year careers. I do not know of anyone else that did this but we gained incredible guidelines, principles, practices, procedures and ideas that we never could have come up with on our own. Every sector has a few Einstein’s and they are eventually retired by their companies. They often still feel they have useful knowledge and sometimes they are thrilled to feed young minds. We were careful to stay away from proprietary information and patents. I just wanted to expose my young padawans to Jedi masters and the way they thought. It was big! I am still sharing many of the ideas I was taught by these masters in my consulting side gigs today. And I still cannot fathom why more companies do not do this.

But Wait, There’s More!
Indeed there is and I’ll put it in a post in the very near future! The second and concluding installment of the very few things I may have done right in my early 9 to 5 career. But first I’m headed to Colorado to ski for a week, if I post from there it will probably be about new powder!

If I had a million dollars

It isn’t just a great barenaked ladies song or a preposterously small blackmail demand for not destroying the world, it is also a Blogger Challenge from Slow Dad on the Rockstar Forum. Write a post about what you’d do if you won a cool million in US dollars. Ok, I can do that. Game on….

What would you do if one million dollars just fell into your lap, no strings attached? That is a common question asked to stimulate people’s imagination. It is a gut check on your inner FIRE self-control muscle. Really, what would you do? If you know me then you know I’m a hugely annoying “know it all”, or at least a know it all wannabee. And this is a perfect opportunity for me to shine in this role because while you have to guess at the answer I know the answer. That’s right, I KNOW!

Three years ago I received an unearned, undeserved windfall of one million dollars. It wasn’t by writing a hit song or selling my blog (let me get off the floor because I fell out of my chair laughing trying to type that!) It was just free money inherited from a relative’s estate. It was two million dollars in cash and stock investments divided equally between my brother and me.

Of course there was grief over losing a loved one and also relief that years of suffering had ended for them. But once those emotions receded and the legal processes were complete then with a few taps on a keyboard and a few signatures my net worth went up by seven figures instantly. So while you may think you know what you would do with a million dollar gift you are just guessing, I know what I did because it is a part of my past.

At the time I received the money it was in two investment accounts with fairly high fee managers, plus balances in a couple of bank accounts, proceeds from a small life insurance policy and 500 shares of Walmart stock. Curiously the Walmart stock was in the real paper certificates (my dad was old school!) My wife and I initially decided to do nothing with the investment accounts, I told both managers that because they had dealt fairly and ethically with my father that out of respect I would leave the accounts as they were for at least one year, which I did. Big mistake!

Here is a tip, if you have two money managers never tell them that they are competing with another manager. In retrospect I realize that was fairly stupid because it inspired one of the two to make a high risk bet on oil company stocks about two weeks before oil fell from $100 per barrel to $40 per barrel. And no, I’m not buying any bitcoin right now because I know what it feels like to see speculation go medieval on me. Fortunately he only had about a fourth of the money so he only lost about $50,000 overnight, ouch!

I sold the Walmart stock immediately because I don’t like owning individual stocks. And yes, I know it is over $100 a share now and I sold it at $75 which is exactly why I hate owning individual stocks. I also hate managing my own money so after the year was up I liquidated all the investments and moved the money over to Personal Capital. Since the account was over $ one million I got a fee reduction down to 0.79%. I know that is way high versus Betterment or Vanguard but I have pretty big accounts with those companies too and I want to see if the Personal Capital smart beta approach would beat the pure robo investors with their lower fees.

When I retired slightly early I initially planned on DIY investing because I have helped manage two eight figure funds for nonprofits. But I found out knowing how and actually managing my own money are two different things. It is hard to explain why except to compare it to the way blood affects me. Even though I am an engineer I have medical responder training and experience and have been first on the scene to badly injured, dying and dead people. Never rattled me, others people’s blood might as well be special effects dye. The import of the crisis focused my thinking and made me razor sharp in my decision making. However, when I’ve been badly cut or injured myself I lose my objectivity because it isn’t someone else’s pain to manage. It is my pain and my blood and all I can think about is “make it stop!” That is not helpful when it comes to first aid and it is death when it comes to managing your own money, so I don’t.

Sure seems like I am leaving something out? Oh yes, buying stuff! Let me say first I was already a self-made multimillionaire, already FI, already debt free with a paid off house and with paid for cars. So was nothing to do with the money other than save it or spend it, and we did a little of both. My wife and I are extreme hikers and we do a lot of bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is just like hiking a trail except there is no trail. You just make your way the best you can across cliffs, swamps, briar patches and creeks in the search for a set of coordinates on your gps that mark the location of waterfalls or some other natural wonder.
Extreme hiking is strenuous and compares to marathoning in some ways and often on our bushwhacking adventures we would take a day or two off and rent an all-terrain vehicle. If you haven’t seen them they look like little dune buggies (see the pic above) and they are a lot of fun. We had wanted one of our own for years and we spent $15,000 of the million and bought a brand new Polaris Trail RZR 900. That was 1.5% of the inheritance. We also spent $20,000 on a new bass boat/motor/trailer to replace our ancient wreck of a boat after several fishing trips were spoiled by a motor that would not run reliably.

$35 thousand is a lot of money to spend on toys! That kind of thing can get you kicked out of the FIRE community or at least damage your frugal credibility. We have always gotten by with cheap and unreliable playthings in the past but we splurged this time and replaced our two toys with state of the art brand new ones and two years later we don’t regret it at all. We use them both frequently and they’ve added joy to our lives especially because we use them as a couple. We are also getting a little older and more risk adverse and some of the fast waters we fish can kill you if you cannot count on your boat performing reliably. P.O.S. ATV’s can also get you stranded beyond cell coverage in very remote locations. Those were risks we were willing to take during our accumulation phase. However, once we were past fat-FI it didn’t make sense because $35 thousand is only 3.5% of the windfall. 96.5% is still invested and earning money! We also bought an emergency beacon that will get help via satellite anywhere in the world but that was very inexpensive.

What about giving it away? We have always given over 10% of our gross income to church and nonprofit charities. Hundreds of thousands of dollars over our careers and we do the same with side gig income now. My dad did that as well his entire working life so I did not view the inheritance as an increase but as a family transfer. We are still trying to figure out the giving thing in regards to investment passive income and what to give away versus what to leave for our three kids someday. We expect to have a long time to figure that one out.

The million dollar windfall changed my mind about work forever. If there was one huge change that the windfall brought with it that was it. Precisely because we stuck 96.5% of it in savings and investments without spending much. That convinced me that we had way more than we needed. I knew we had plenty before the inheritance but I did not feel it. If one million dollars, many people’s crazy fantasy figure, did not move the needle on my lifestyle or net worth enough to matter then why in the world was I working at a job I no longer enjoyed? So two years ago I walked away from my corporate job and my life got so much better. The million didn’t cause me to retire but it started the thought process that only had one possible outcome. It was reality slapping me in the face, and I finally got it. It was time to do what we wanted and leave the 9 to 5 world behind. So maybe in my case it was worth far more than money.

So what would you do with one million dollars?

How would it change your life?

The American Dream Lives On

I’ve seen dozens of posts on the death of the American Dream.  You know, the house, white picket fence, dog and 2.5 kids.  The one where the guy works until he is 65 while the wife stays home and raises babies and frequents the tennis club and does charity work in her spare time. The one where at retirement they either have a fat pension, millions in the bank or perhaps both.   This is purportedly a myth, an anachronistic throwback to an earlier time, a time long long ago when dinosaurs and creatures known as Boomers ruled the earth.

The claims on the Dream no longer being possible center on a number of issues including high cost of college/student loans, lack of decent paying jobs, lack of opportunity to advance and a lack of affordable housing and tighter rules on obtaining house loans.  They are also sometimes portrayed as inherently less competitive in life due to being victims or poor parenting and the advent of the age of social media and digital overload.  So in short, against insurmountable odds  there just is no way they can achieve the American Dream the way previous generations did.

That is so untrue! Don’t get me wrong, the disadvantages are real inarguable truths.  But the idea that they represent some Great Wall of China impenetrable barrier is untrue.  There is a huge difference between something becoming more difficult and something becoming  impossibly  unicorn rare.

Full disclosure, I’m older than most in this space so I realize can’t use my own experience as proof that things can still work this way for you but I have lots of younger friends and three millennial kids that I can bring forth as expert witnesses because unlike me, they have current generation cred.  Since one of my side gigs is being an expert witness let me do this like we do in court.

“I call my millennial kids to the stand.”

“Raise your right hand, swear to tell the truth, etc.   How is life going for you, son?”

“Dad, it is going pretty great, I am heading to Tanzania in a couple of weeks for my last rotation of medical school and after that is over my wife is coming to climb Kilimanjaro with me.  I’ll be matching with my specialty in March and then headed off to six years of residency.  I guess we will sell our house since we probably won’t be coming back to the same city or maybe we’ll rent it to someone.  It took me awhile to decide on my career, I started of course in engineering and did that for six years while I put my wife through medical school and now she is doing that for me as I earn my MD.  We have some school loans but she makes great money and I will be earning at least a little soon so we are on solid financial ground headed forward.  Plus you and mom did teach us to avoid debt and invest for retirement so we are doing that as fast as we can.”

“Son, how much did Mom and I help you pay for school or really anything after high school.”

” Well Dad you didn’t pay for anything.  I had a free ride through college for my engineering degree and after that I was on my own.”

“Son, would you say you will earn more, save more and give more than I was ever able to in my life?”

“You’ve done pretty well Dad, but we will blow by you like you’re standing still in less than ten years, most likely.”

“Daughters?”

“Yeah Dad, you also didn’t shell out much of anything for our college and we also graduated with zero loans. Yeah, like bro we worked while in high school and college and learned to shop in thrift stores.  And we had free rides too including room and board through our four-year degrees because we had good grades and test scores. ”

“How did you get your advanced degrees after the scholarships ran out?  Did you rack up enormous school loans?”

“No student loans at all, Dad.  We both worked for the university to pay for our masters degrees.   We have good jobs, one with a pension.  One of us owns a house and one is renting but neither of us have any debt, except the house mortgage. We see marriage, kids and owning a house as near certain parts of our future.”

“I’ll call my last witness, Ms.M.  M you obviously have it going on for a millennial right now so I’m guessing you started out with rich parents, right?”

” You are hilarious, mi amigo.  I’ve told you my story on those many early morning six-mile runs we made together but I suppose you want these people to hear it from me.  Short version goes like this, at 16 I was literally starving to death in Mexico and in desperation ran away from home, crossed the river into the USA and started taking odd jobs.  I married and divorced from a bad man and ended up in your small town where I was working as a maid in a rich family’s home.  I had nothing, no family, no friends and no money.”

“Wait a minute M, you are now a Nurse Practitioner with four college degrees.  You are a wealthy lady, how did you get there in just a few years?”

“I did not really believe in the power of education but the lady I was a maid for nagged and nagged and finally dragged me to get my high school equivalent certificate and then convinced me to go to the community college and get my licensed practical nursing credentials.  I then got my RN, and then a BS in Registered Nursing and finally was accepted into medical school where I earned my Advanced Practical Nursing degree.  Along the way I married another Mexican immigrant, now a surgeon and a very good man, and we live in Florida.  Yes we are millionaires with no debt and yes we did all of that by ourselves with no financial help from anyone else.”

“So at the risk of leading my witness, M would you say you are living the American Dream?”

“Yes, it certainly feels like the American Dream, going from starving kid to medical professional.  From loneliness and poverty to a great life partner and wealth”

“I rest my case.”

And that is my version of why I think the Dream lives on.  No doubt it is just one side of the argument.  And, sure, it is tougher now than it was for me and my small set of examples do not adequately represent the millions of millennials struggling against odds I didn’t have to face. But the fact is most of the millennials I know, and I know a lot of them, are living lives that resemble mine at their age without a lot of obvious differences.  They have jobs they enjoy and are making nice salaries, buying houses and having kids just like their parents did.  And some of them like my, running amiga, can just drop the mic and walk away after they tell their story.  

The Unbearable Lightness of Being….early retired

As 2018 slowly begins now the holiday season has passed a strange thought has hit me this week. It occurs to me how different everything feels about my life now that I no longer have to go in to work. Two years ago I was facing the unrelenting pressure of a demanding CEO, working long hours keeping production maximized at a chemical plant. Worried about my workers’ safety, the competitiveness of the plant, staying within my operating budget and fearful that I would inadvertently run afoul of one of the hundreds of environmental, safety and transportation regulations that applied to my facility. It was about six months prior to leaving that I realized I had enough money, more than enough, and that I wasn’t having fun anymore after a mostly fun and long career with the company. I pondered that situation for six months then two years ago this week I walked away from my medium six figure compensation package to the strange and unstructured world of being retired. In my case what I like to call Slightly Early Retirement.

And…it…is… so much better. I never realized the stress that weighed on me, or at least not until the very end of my career. But as soon as I left, despite the uncertainty I walked into, I was amazed. I was floored actually by the incredible lightness of my body. I felt like I was 50 pounds lighter, like I was floating. It wasn’t in a physical sense it was metaphysical, a spiritual lightness that remains just as strong two years later and it makes me smile, makes the child in me laugh and the old man in me tear up with joy.

It isn’t that I live a life of pure leisure, I still work. In fact just before I started writing this I opened checks for over $13 thousand for work done in three of my five side gigs in December 2017. $6,000 of that was a one weekend consulting job for old friends in Texas. I don’t need the money but I loved earning it, and it validates me in some strange way. Plus I enjoyed being the one guy that could come in and solve their seven figure problem in a couple of days and nights of work. But it had none of that old weight or stress or fear of failure. I walk in and walk out and don’t have to worry that I’ll get called in the middle of the night because there is a fire, or worse. It isn’t my zoo, and they aren’t my animals any more. I’m just like a visiting veterinarian who can make a house call or not, my choice.

Back in my 9 to 5 days that stretched into decades I did not think it could be like this, be good like this. I told people I wanted to work until I was 70 because in my mind I really did not have an identity outside of work. I cannot explain why I saw things that way, I had and have a lot of hobbies and volunteer gigs but I did not think they could ever give me the sense of mattering that work did. And while I was crazy wrong about not having an identity outside of my corporate world I was actually dead on about that last part. I do need to work and the reason life is so good now is that I have great work.

Work that is challenging and significant but not work that beats me down and kicks me in the teeth. I have clients that respect me and look up to me. I am no longer a Sisyphus facing a never ending and impossible task. I’m in control and the freedom of being my own boss is almost narcotic in its power. The knowledge that I have the time and money to reinvent myself as many times in the future as I want gives me a safety net under my high wire act. I don’t want to fail at anything but if I do, it is more of a shrug than a death. And instead of crazy 60 to 70 hour weeks I usually only work about two days a week. 

I would like to say there was a master plan to get here but it happened more organically than that. Along the way in my career when I would find tasks that put me in the zone of deep work, contentment and excitement I began to consider what kind of jobs have a high percentage of that kind of work. And when it finally occurred to me that I was done with the old job I had a network of contacts that were receptive of my pitching them to become my clients and it all just worked from day one of being slightly early retired.

This post is not to tell you how to get to where I am. This post is to tell you that it is a lovely place to be no matter how you decide to build it. Whether it is teaching English in China or backpacking across Europe or being a part time consultant like me who spent this week hiking to frozen waterfalls in remote parts of Arkansas mountain country.  However you choose  tobuild your future life it is wonderful to have the freedom to live it on your own terms.

It is a new year, what are you going to do to gain financial independence and freedom? What life are you going to build?

The Incredible Lightness of Being….early retired

As 2018 slowly begins now the holiday season has passed a strange thought has hit me this week. It occurs to me how different everything feels about my life now that I no longer have to go in to work. Two years ago I was facing the unrelenting pressure of a demanding CEO, working long hours keeping production maximized at a chemical plant. Worried about my workers’ safety, the competitiveness of the plant, staying within my operating budget and fearful that I would inadvertently run afoul of one of the hundreds of environmental, safety and transportation regulations that applied to my facility. It was about six months prior to leaving that I realized I had enough money, more than enough, and that I wasn’t having fun anymore after a mostly fun and long career with the company. I pondered that situation for six months then two years ago this week I walked away from my medium six figure compensation package to the strange and unstructured world of being retired. In my case what I like to call Slightly Early Retirement.

And…it…is… so much better. I never realized the stress that weighed on me, or at least not until the very end of my career. But as soon as I left, despite the uncertainty I walked into, I was amazed. I was floored actually by the incredible lightness of my body. I felt like I was 50 pounds lighter, like I was floating. It wasn’t in a physical sense it was metaphysical, a spiritual lightness that remains just as strong two years later and it makes me smile, makes the child in me laugh and the old man in me tear up with joy.

It isn’t that I live a life of pure leisure, I still work. In fact just before I started writing this I opened checks for over $13 thousand for work done in three of my five side gigs in December 2017. $6,000 of that was a one weekend consulting job for old friends in Texas. I don’t need the money but I loved earning it, and it validates me in some strange way. Plus I enjoyed being the one guy that could come in and solve their seven figure problem in a couple of days and nights of work. But it had none of that old weight or stress or fear of failure. I walk in and walk out and don’t have to worry that I’ll get called in the middle of the night because there is a fire, or worse. It isn’t my zoo, and they aren’t my animals any more. I’m just like a visiting veterinarian who can make a house call or not, my choice.

Back in my 9 to 5 days that stretched into decades I did not think it could be like this, be good like this. I told people I wanted to work until I was 70 because in my mind I really did not have an identity outside of work. I cannot explain why I saw things that way, I had and have a lot of hobbies and volunteer gigs but I did not think they could ever give me the sense of mattering that work did. And while I was crazy wrong about not having an identity outside of my corporate world I was actually dead on about that last part. I do need to work and the reason life is so good now is that I have great work.

Work that is challenging and significant but not work that beats me down and kicks me in the teeth. I have clients that respect me and look up to me. I am no longer a Sisyphus facing a never ending and impossible task. I’m in control and the freedom of being my own boss is almost narcotic in its power. The knowledge that I have the time and money to reinvent myself as many times in the future as I want gives me a safety net under my high wire act. I don’t want to fail at anything but if I do, it is more of a shrug than a death. And instead of crazy 60 to 70 hour weeks I usually only work about two days a week. 

I would like to say there was a master plan to get here but it happened more organically than that. Along the way in my career when I would find tasks that put me in the zone of deep work, contentment and excitement I began to consider what kind of jobs have a high percentage of that kind of work. And when it finally occurred to me that I was done with the old job I had a network of contacts that were receptive of my pitching them to become my clients and it all just worked from day one of being slightly early retired.

This post is not to tell you how to get to where I am. This post is to tell you that it is a lovely place to be no matter how you decide to build it. Whether it is teaching English in China or backpacking across Europe or being a part time consultant like me who spent this week hiking to frozen waterfalls in remote parts of Arkansas mountain country.  However you choose  tobuild your future life it is wonderful to have the freedom to live it on your own terms.

It is a new year, what are you going to do to gain financial independence and freedom? What life are you going to build?

The American Dream Lives On

I’ve seen dozens of posts on the death of the American Dream.  You know, the house, white picket fence, dog and 2.5 kids.  The one where the guy works until he is 65 while the wife stays home and raises babies and frequents the tennis club and does charity work in her spare time. The one where at retirement they either have a fat pension, millions in the bank or perhaps both.   This is purportedly a myth, an anachronistic throwback to an earlier time, a time long long ago when dinosaurs and creatures known as Boomers ruled the earth.

The claims on the Dream no longer being possible center on a number of issues including high cost of college/student loans, lack of decent paying jobs, lack of opportunity to advance and a lack of affordable housing and tighter rules on obtaining house loans.  They are also sometimes portrayed as inherently less competitive in life due to being victims or poor parenting and the advent of the age of social media and digital overload.  So in short, against insurmountable odds  there just is no way they can achieve the American Dream the way previous generations did.

That is so untrue! Don’t get me wrong, the disadvantages are real inarguable truths.  But the idea that they represent some Great Wall of China impenetrable barrier is untrue.  There is a huge difference between something becoming more difficult and something becoming  impossibly  unicorn rare.

Full disclosure, I’m older than most in this space so I realize can’t use my own experience as proof that things can still work this way for you but I have lots of younger friends and three millennial kids that I can bring forth as expert witnesses because unlike me, they have current generation cred.  Since one of my side gigs is being an expert witness let me do this like we do in court.

“I call my millennial kids to the stand.”

“Raise your right hand, swear to tell the truth, etc.   How is life going for you, son?”

“Dad, it is going pretty great, I am heading to Tanzania in a couple of weeks for my last rotation of medical school and after that is over my wife is coming to climb Kilimanjaro with me.  I’ll be matching with my specialty in March and then headed off to six years of residency.  I guess we will sell our house since we probably won’t be coming back to the same city or maybe we’ll rent it to someone.  It took me awhile to decide on my career, I started of course in engineering and did that for six years while I put my wife through medical school and now she is doing that for me as I earn my MD.  We have some school loans but she makes great money and I will be earning at least a little soon so we are on solid financial ground headed forward.  Plus you and mom did teach us to avoid debt and invest for retirement so we are doing that as fast as we can.”

“Son, how much did Mom and I help you pay for school or really anything after high school.”

” Well Dad you didn’t pay for anything.  I had a free ride through college for my engineering degree and after that I was on my own.”

“Son, would you say you will earn more, save more and give more than I was ever able to in my life?”

“You’ve done pretty well Dad, but we will blow by you like you’re standing still in less than ten years, most likely.”

“Daughters?”

“Yeah Dad, you also didn’t shell out much of anything for our college and we also graduated with zero loans. Yeah, like bro we worked while in high school and college and learned to shop in thrift stores.  And we had free rides too including room and board through our four-year degrees because we had good grades and test scores. ”

“How did you get your advanced degrees after the scholarships ran out?  Did you rack up enormous school loans?”

“No student loans at all, Dad.  We both worked for the university to pay for our masters degrees.   We have good jobs, one with a pension.  One of us owns a house and one is renting but neither of us have any debt, except the house mortgage. We see marriage, kids and owning a house as near certain parts of our future.”

“I’ll call my last witness, Ms.M.  M you obviously have it going on for a millennial right now so I’m guessing you started out with rich parents, right?”

” You are hilarious, mi amigo.  I’ve told you my story on those many early morning six-mile runs we made together but I suppose you want these people to hear it from me.  Short version goes like this, at 16 I was literally starving to death in Mexico and in desperation ran away from home, crossed the river into the USA and started taking odd jobs.  I married and divorced from a bad man and ended up in your small town where I was working as a maid in a rich family’s home.  I had nothing, no family, no friends and no money.”

“Wait a minute M, you are now a Nurse Practitioner with four college degrees.  You are a wealthy lady, how did you get there in just a few years?”

“I did not really believe in the power of education but the lady I was a maid for nagged and nagged and finally dragged me to get my high school equivalent certificate and then convinced me to go to the community college and get my licensed practical nursing credentials.  I then got my RN, and then a BS in Registered Nursing and finally was accepted into medical school where I earned my Advanced Practical Nursing degree.  Along the way I married another Mexican immigrant, now a surgeon and a very good man, and we live in Florida.  Yes we are millionaires with no debt and yes we did all of that by ourselves with no financial help from anyone else.”

“So at the risk of leading my witness, M would you say you are living the American Dream?”

“Yes, it certainly feels like the American Dream, going from starving kid to medical professional.  From loneliness and poverty to a great life partner and wealth”

“I rest my case.”

And that is my version of why I think the Dream lives on.  No doubt it is just one side of the argument.  And, sure, it is tougher now than it was for me and my small set of examples do not adequately represent the millions of millennials struggling against odds I didn’t have to face. But the fact is most of the millennials I know, and I know a lot of them, are living lives that resemble mine at their age without a lot of obvious differences.  They have jobs they enjoy and are making nice salaries, buying houses and having kids just like their parents did.  And some of them like my, running amiga, can just drop the mic and walk away after they tell their story.  

First Real Post

Finally I figured out how to get rid of the “site coming soon” page and open my blog to the public.  Now I’m just full of questions about how in the world anyone will find it?  How can I get on Rockstar’s directory so that maybe somebody will take a look?  What plugins I need to fix the place up, and so on and etc.  But mainly I’m happy I can finally Google Steveark.com myself and see this post!

I’m also very pleased that my first guest post ever, which appeared on 99to1percent  was submitted by Ms 99to1percent herself to Physician on FIRE who included it in his Sunday Best!  All in all this has been a good start to something new and highly entertaining for me.  As a slightly  early retired guy who typically only works a couple of days a week it will be a fun way to grow some new skills.  I look forward to meeting many new people in the FI, FIRE, Retirement, Investing and Side Gig communities.