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Monday, July 13, 2015

Quantity of Life Versus Quality of Life

We are often told that there is a trade-off between quantity and quality, and it is indeed one of the main truisms of life. What I have been suggesting in my posts is that life as a self-employed entrepreneur is a higher quality, lower quantity life, at least initially. But why?

In my old career, and I suspect most professional careers, there is an expectation, as one moves up, to give up ever increasing amounts of not just one's time, but one's very mental and emotional presence to the needs of the firm of which the individual is a part. I have never encountered a professional services firm that had finite goals about what it wanted to accomplish in terms of the number of clients serviced, the absolute dollar amount of profit, or the level of efficiency with which the clients were to be served. Instead, a collective greed mentality takes hold where defining such goals takes a back seat to an "as much as possible" mentality. In that kind of environment, it becomes impossible to practice one's chosen profession and place firm boundaries on what one is prepared to give in terms of time and presence. I'll explain what I mean.

When I started in accounting, my responsibilities were very limited. I was expected to work long hours if it was necessary to get the work done, but I was told explicitly what to do, and I was not ultimately held accountable for the results. As long as I did what I was told correctly, I was doing a good job. I was paid $24,000 per year back in 1994. That did not afford me quantity of life by any stretch of the imagination: money was very tight indeed. But in terms of time and emotional and mental presence, except for tax season, I was able to start work at 9 am and leave it behind at 5 pm. Because all my decisions were made for me by my supervisor, there was no real demand placed on my spiritual presence outside work. In other words, once I left the office, I really didn't think much about work.

As I gained 2-3 years of post qualification experience, I became a supervisor and then a manager. My salary went up to $80,000 as a junior manager, and by the time I made partner, I was making $155,000 per year. Now, we are beginning to see quantity of life: I am making more money than is needed to pay for the basic necessities of life. I was in a position to begin adding more and more luxuries to my lifestyle. At $80,000, I would have to pick and choose between a nice car, regularly going out, nice clothes etc. I still didn't really make enough to buy a house unless I was prepared to give up all the extras. But at $155,000 I really didn't have to choose between anything: I could basically have it all - at least within the bounds of what I have come to regard as luxury. However, I was increasingly responsible for not just getting the work done, but was accountable for how it turned out.

As a supervisor, my responsibility was ensuring that my staff turned in a good product for the manager's review. I wasn't yet responsible for the meeting the time budget: that was the manager's job. But I did have to direct the work of my juniors and had to train them as I found mistakes in their work. I had to make decisions for the first time and be responsible for those choices. Soon, I began to reflect on the day on my way home and on my way in to work. As a manager, I was now responsible for scheduling the client work so that it could get done on time, and manage multiple client engagements in such a way that they could all get done with the limited staff we had. If someone booked off sick or had an exam, I had to figure out how to deal with it. I was also responsible for turning in a finished product to the partner within the budget. Now, for the first time in my professional life, my success was no longer just dependent on my own efforts, but those of my staff, over which I had only limited control. This was when I began to experience real stress and I began to actively dwell on work at home during many evenings, much to the dismay of my ex-wife, who frequently complained that I was not present. This was in addition to actually having to roll up my sleeves and step in if something wasn't getting done on time. Many a night, I would take a half finished file home two or three days before the deadline and work until 3am getting it done. This was often necessary when my junior staff simply couldn't handle the responsibility due to their limited experience.

So as I made more money, and had more money to spare, I had less free time, and less free mental and emotional space. I would consider that any time that I spent thinking about work to be the same as actually working. So even though my average work week was 45 hours on the clock, if I factor in the commute, which was an extra 15 hours a week, and the time I spent thinking about work, which was say the first hour after I got home, I was really working a 65 hour week.

By the time I made partner, I was not only responsible for the duties of a manager, since our firm didn't have one, but I was also responsible for managing the overall profitability and growth of the firm.

But what I noticed the most in my past marriage was that the more money we had, the more we spent on the trappings of professional life:

1. Private school for Sequoia,
2. Bi-annual vacations to 5 star resorts and places like Greece, Turkey, Vietnam and London,
3. Complete re-model of the house and a move to a bigger house in the downtown core,
4. Designer furniture,
5. Dinners out several times a week,
6. Brunches out every Sunday.

and the list went on. Yet for all these things, I was not happy, and did not feel that my life had any quality. It felt as if the above trappings were a drug designed to anesthetize the daily pain of living knowing what I really wanted to do but not being able to do it.

Then a series of life changing events occurred that brought everything into sharp focus. In December 2012, just before Christmas, my ex-wife began complaining bitterly about my work schedule and began to pull away. It became clear from her actions that she did not love me anymore, but she didn't know how to deal with it. Devastated, I agreed to move out of the house in mid January 2013. It became clear in the subsequent weeks that there was no saving the marriage. I agreed to give up the house and most of the furniture so that I could keep my Nigerian stamp collection. I walked away from well over $150,000 to avoid a long and grueling battle with my ex. Just two weeks after I moved out, I met Steph at a Craft Beer Lover's meetup. She was actually there as the DD for a friend, as she does not drink at all. We hit it off instantly, talking about James Bond films, the Kinsey Scale and philately.

Over the coming months, as Steph and I dated, I would begin to take an interest in the simple things again. I met her family and found some of the warmest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Steph had a simple upbringing in a small town just outside Toronto. Her family was of modest means, so she simply wasn't accustomed to the trappings I spoke of above. Instead, she took pleasure in simple things like:

1. Going for walks in nature.
2. Road trips - we did one to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia after less than 6 months dating.
3. Making meals together.
4. Watching movies cuddled up on the sofa.
5. Having Sunday dinners with her family.
6. Going to cheap plays.
7. Reading books together.

Thanks to her, I discovered again the pleasures of a simple life, free from all the trappings of professional life, with their accompanying demands.

Am I suggesting by all this that it is folly to be a professional? Not at all! If you can find meaning and fulfillment going to an office for your entire working life, then all the more power to you. For me, it was not sustainable, largely due to my autism because I can't handle having to constantly interact with large numbers of people every day. As a matter of fact, I am indebted to my profession because once I gave up the trappings and started saving my money, I had enough saved up to be able to start my business and  have a year of savings to fall back on. Another thing that being a partner did was it allowed me to develop relationships that I could never have hoped to develop otherwise. Finally, it gave me an excellent grounding in financial concepts, which is essential to the success of a startup business.

So I believe that being a professional is an excellent use of your time when you are young - in your 20's and 30's. But I think by the time you reach your mid 40's, if you have a passion that lies outside your profession, then I believe you owe it to yourself to arrange your affairs to make your dream a reality.

In the next few posts, I will talk about how I did this over the past year.

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