In 1999, when I was 27 and the world was about to end due to the Y2K computer bug and another thousand years of decadence, the technology company I’d worked at for one year gave me a choice:
Option A – move from the west coast to the east coast with more stock, more pay, and a promotion.
Option B – take a severance package with full vesting of all current stock – four years of vesting in 1 year.
In the year I’d worked there, the stock split 4 times, which wasn’t unusual for the latter days of the crazy 90s, so option B made me a millionaire. Easy choice, of course, especially for a 20-something kid. I took the severance package and kicked up my heels on the carefree yellow brick road from good to better.
Two Old Men
Old man #1 sat across a small table from me in a large Chinese restaurant right after I took my severance package. His dark striped suit and perfectly knotted tie clashed with the slapdash feel of the restaurant’s décor and my ratty t-shirt, and he was trying to get me to listen. I wasn’t listening because I was invincible. I could hear him trying to sound casual and not-old-guy as he raised his not insignificant, multi-hued eyebrows to repeat:
“Diversify. You’ve got to do it now. This market won’t last.”
“Mmmhmm, good thought,” I said around a mouthful of something greasy, “I’ll, um, take a look at that when I get back.”
“Well, sure,” he said, some strain in his voice, likely from fighting the urge to slap me, “I’m just recommending you act soon, very soon, like now, for instance. I’ve seen situations like this before. Up to you, of course.”
I was about to head off on a couple months of travel – first to India, then a few other places, thus my ‘when I get back’ comment.
Old man #2 held my wrist in his hand and stared at the lines snaking across my palm. He was my tour guide in Jaipur, India, and we were taking a break from the intense heat to get a cool drink in a small and nearly empty restaurant. As I sipped my soda and felt the air conditioning start to dry the sweat on my back, he looked at me, then sat back and raised his not insignificant, multi-hued eyebrows to make me an offer:
“I’m not a superstitious man,” he said, “but I learned to read palms long ago. I just do it for fun, but turns out I’m usually right. Have you ever had your palm read?”
“Nah,” I said, “I don’t believe in any of that stuff. Horoscopes, religion…all that stuff…just not into it, but hey, I’m cool with whatever anyone else believes as long as they don’t mess with me.”
“Uh huh, uh huh. Sure,” he nodded, “so do you want me to read your palm, just for fun?”
“Um, I guess,” I said. I felt silly walking over to him with my hand out, palm up, under the cheap fluorescent lights in the little place we’d stopped at. The proprietor watched absently from his corner behind me. I wondered if this was some kind of setup – oh well, at least he hadn’t asked for money yet.
He mumbled as he followed the lines in my palm. Although I don’t recall all of what he said, I remember him looking up into my eyes to say, “You will make a lot of money and it will slip between your fingers.” I laughed. Crazy old man.
Very Tight Pants
I swung the ax in a full circle, then brought it down hard for the final split. Damn. Missed again – hit the far edge of the firewood with the handle and felt the shock in my fingers wrist and shoulders. Worse, for a 13 year old dude, I felt stupid because the hot older teen girl from the family that had just moved into the place behind us was watching me do my cool full circle chopping technique.
She’d do that. She’d walk quietly up to her side of the six foot cedar fence between our back yards, and she’d watch me through a crack between the fence slats. It was the 80s, so out of the corner of my eye, I could see her big kinky blond hair spreading out across a couple fence gaps on either side of her staring eye. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her because her dad had long hair and wore a bandana, so he may have been a hippy who did drugs and liked weird sex, and his daughter wore very tight pants, so they were a bad influence. At least my dad said they were a bad influence, and what he said went, or else, so I always pretended I didn’t see her, at least when I was potentially under surveillance.
My dad also taught me that a focus on earning money was vulgar and that money wasn’t important. His view of money, and mine for some time, was almost romantic, in a storybook kind of way. Money was never discussed when I was growing up, other than to condemn focus on it or to note that we didn’t have much of it, especially when I wanted to do something that required it. We wanted to live in a world where we could earn enough to humbly take care of the family, give and get help from friends when needed, read beautiful novels, walk in the mountains, and not worry about filthy mammon. I still kinda wish the world worked that way.
Unlike many people I talk with now who grew up relatively poor in the in United States, my dad’s approach worked for me – I never once worried about money as a child, not even when standing in line at a food bank. I’m sure my parents worried about money, but they hid it well. From our childhood perspective, money happened or it didn’t, and we accepted our circumstances either way. My parents worked at unglamorous jobs for unglamorous pay and gave us kids a small allowance until we were old enough to get jobs. We did all the chores around the house, but were told our allowance had nothing to do with the chores – chores were just pulling our weight. I was given a little extra money to chop up the firewood rounds my dad bought instead of buying pre-split wood – a good deal for both my dad and me until I was old enough to get a paper route.
Then I hit the high teens and had to pay for life and college, on my own. Money suddenly mattered a whole hell of a lot. It didn’t just happen; I had to make it happen, and that sucked! Strangely enough, at least it’s strange to my older self, I still wasn’t worried about it. There always seemed to be a way to get money, and if I couldn’t get enough in time, I could borrow it. I didn’t like borrowing, so I lived very simply, which is easier to do when one is young and accustomed to not having much. And I worked, sometimes a lot, certainly more than anyone I knew at my state college. I graduated with about $20,000 in school debt for 5 years of college – remember, this is the early 90s when school wasn’t absurdly expensive like it is now, but still, compared to others in my class, it wasn’t much even then.
For about 6 months after college, I picked up more hours at the jobs I did while in school and played between shifts, but then started looking around for a way to use my B.A. as a ticket to a job that paid more. I decided I may as well upgrade my life as long as I’d put all that work into acquiring the “ya, he did college” piece of paper. I had no plan, no savings, and wasn’t concerned in the least. I could afford a cheap car, modest apartment, a girlfriend, a few toys, and a little travel, so life was good, but people kept asking me when I was going to get a “real” job, like something that required a degree.
Other kids from school were working for corporations and getting paid two or three times my “blue collar” wage, and some even got paid to travel! That paid travel thing got my attention. I entertained a fantasy of looking out the window of an airplane as the big tug was pushing the plane back from a gate. A gorgeous flight attendant was bringing me a screwdriver, the drink, not the tool, with a flirtatious smile. I took it with a wink and sipped it absently while watching rain stream down the gray window next to me, dreaming of the sunny beach I’d soon be walking on, all expenses paid! Ok, fine. I wrote down some goals.
Along with other goals on my list of things to achieve by 30, I’d be a millionaire earning over $100,000 per year, and would play the guitar. At the time, I didn’t own a guitar any more than I owned any sort of plan to become a millionaire. However, although I didn’t pay much attention to business news, I couldn’t help hearing that a bunch of people seemed to be making a lot of money with this internet thing, so I talked with people who knew people who helped me get an entry level job with a software startup, which promptly failed.
So…I did some telemarketing, selling software by the numbers. It was one of those big open call center places where they blew whistles and threw stuffed toys at you when you made a sale. I soon had lots of stuffed toys and some credit card debt. Living hadn’t gotten any cheaper. S*** happened, like the car breaking and rent going up, you know, the usual, and I did what most people did – picked up debt to pay the bills. It seems creditors won’t accept stuffed animals or whistles as payment.
Some of those people from the failed startup got involved with a different small company and pulled me in to help write some user manuals for products I didn’t understand. As it turns out, that’s exactly the kind of person who should write user manuals. I figured that if I could write user manuals for these products, I could write the software that ran on the products, but that turned out to be false figuring on my part. Regardless, my boss thought I could write test scripts to test the software that other people wrote, people who know what they were doing, unlike me.
In exchange for promising to stay there for one year, they put me through a software test scripting class. I ended up writing some software they sold, so they released me from the contract and I left to take a crack at working for the big boys.
My first interview with the big boys was a dismal failure. It was so bad that the hiring manager just stared at me for a while after I stopped butchering the answer to the last technical question he asked. If words were bodies, the room would have been knee deep in bloody carnage.
“So….why should I hire you?” he finally asked, and he seemed to genuinely want to know if there could possibly be a reason I was sitting in front of him.
It was over, so I felt I had nothing to lose. May as well end with a bang. I leapt to my feet, threw both fists high above my head and yelled, with a huge grin, “Cuz I’m the best!” I stood like that, looking down at his tired, bored face, and he looked back at me, then he started laughing. He slapped the desk and threw his head back, laughing some more.
“Oh, man,” he finally said, “ok, uh, get outta here.” And he waved toward the closed door, shaking his head.
I walked out the door and through the long double row of other candidates, mostly young men like me seated outside the interviewing room, all nervously reviewing technical information, all vying for the same job I’d just lost.
As I passed the recruiter, I briefly noted I’d blown it and the hiring manager told me to get out. He gave me the ‘Oh, bummer,’ fake sad face and waved me out as he turned to the next candidate. As I was stepping into my old beat up car at the far end of the parking lot, I heard someone holler my name. I turned, one foot still the car, to see the recruiter running toward me, waving his arms.
“Where are you going?” he asked, breathing hard as he stopped to lean on my car.
“Did you talk to the manager?” I asked. “I told you, he asked why I was there and sent me out. I couldn’t answer his questions.”
“No, no,” he panted, “whatever. He loves you. Says you’re hilarious. When can you start?”
Although I didn’t realize it until later, I’d just received the first of many lessons I’d get about skewed fairness, merit and value in the corporate world.
A couple years and a couple jobs later, I was that 27 year old millionaire.
A couple years after that, at 29, after many adventures, travels, oh, and a stock market crash, the money was gone. Turns out the two old men were right. I walked north, back across the U.S./Mexico border, and not too many mornings later, woke up to a large dog licking my face. It seems my new friend from the night before neglected to mention the bed they’d offered to me was the dog’s bed, and the dog wanted it back. I apologized to the dog and rolled out of the way. The dog took my place with a satisfied grunt, then rolled over for me to rub its belly.
I kneeled there and rubbed that dog’s belly, and I laughed. I felt I’d learned a lot in the previous few years, mostly that I was one of the stupidest smart guys I knew. I stayed in southern California for a while. The girls were beautiful and friendly, the beach was close, the locals were colorful, and I could always find a way to make enough money to get by.
Long story shorter, I fell in love with a girl from my home town up north and moved back. We dabbled with running our own small business doing fun stuff, but we had kids and money was tight, so I packed up my soul, put it in storage, and went back to corporate life.
Ten years later, at 39, I was a millionaire again, this time the hard way, you know, working hard, saving money, that stuff, but this time with my wife’s help. I could have worked harder and stacked up more money, but I never wanted to. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I’d work too much, when I’d forget my answer to the big question, I had folks to remind me. What’s the big question? Everyone born unrich who reads something like this eventually asks this question and we each answer it differently:
How much of my life’s time do I spend buying the rest of my lifetime?
The eldest of my two daughters finished brushing her teeth and she walked out in her long nightgown to say goodnight to me. The nightgown was long for her, but would have just been a t-shirt to me. In fact, it was one of my t-shirts, but I didn’t see that because I was sitting at the end of the dining room table staring at my computer screen and frowning, again.
I’d been doing that a lot. Just about every night. She’d been trying to get my attention that evening, but I’d been brushing her off. She padded silently over to stand at my right elbow, staring up into my face. She tapped my arm. I didn’t look at her.
“You’re a workaholic, aren’t you?” she asked in her small voice.
I turned away from the screen to look into her beautiful, curious eyes. “What? Workaholic? Nah…what?”
I pulled her up to my lap with my right arm as I quietly closed the laptop with my left hand.
“Where did you learn that word, sweetie?” I asked with a smile as I hugged her close and she wrapped her arms around my neck.
“At school,” she said in my ear. “Workaholics are sad and they don’t play with their kids.”
“Well, ok, here’s the good news: I’m not a workaholic and I’m not sad, and I’m sorry I have been working so much that I haven’t played with you. Tomorrow, we play, ok? But right now, bedtime!” I carried her to bed and hung out for a while as she chattered herself to sleep.
If I’d been paying more attention for the last 20 years, I’d have wisdom to share, real pearls, I’m sure. Alas, I haven’t paid proper attention, but I have learned I’m wary of selling the present to the future. My future is uncertain, money hasn’t yielded my greatest joys, and it can’t stop time.
So, as much as I value the freedom of financial independence, I want it less than time NOW with the people I’ve chosen to love.
Financial freedom will be on layaway a bit longer, and that’s ok.