Throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I always felt poor. Largely, that’s because I was.
In my Freshman and Sophomore year, I was surviving on nothing but loans and scholarships totaling somewhere around $12,000 after tuition and fees. In my junior year, I added a part-time lab job that paid slightly over minimum wage, but it was still barely enough to get by.
Graduate schools, fortunately, offered a stipend for my degree program. With that, I was pulling in $24,000 each year. I no longer had to do a weekly check for whether my bank account was headed too rapidly to zero, but discretionary spending was still limited.
I would splurge for all-you-can-eat wings on the night they were discounted, but there were no sushi dinners on the horizon. My couch came from a thrift store. It was long past its prime when I got it, but I kept it for another 6 years anyway.
I realize that by now I’ve already lost some of you. I know there were poorer people in the world. There are poorer people in the cities many of us live in. You may have even been poorer than I was.
I am an educated, straight, white male and I just spent three paragraphs complaining about my circumstances. You have every right to stop reading right now. I’m not asking for your pity; I’m providing context for my later decisions.
Onward and Upward
I will never again experience a salary bump as large as I did after leaving grad school for a corporate job. My new salary was more than 4 times my old stipend! And there was a yearly bonus, better health insurance, a 401K match, and a signing bonus. I spent more money in my first month at that job than I had in the whole two years prior.
I’m not a glutton for luxuries. There were no expensive watches or Armani suits. But I am a man with scoliosis, and I could finally afford a couch and a bed that wouldn’t contribute to my constant back pain.
And there was my new apartment. Oh, how I loved that apartment. It was not large, but the view was simply breathtaking. I was on the 28th floor in downtown Chicago just minutes from the lake, with a view that overlooked the Chicago River and much of the Loop.
My job was cushy as well. This was my first real foray into corporate life, and I had no idea what to expect. I had met much of the team during the interview process, and I knew they seemed pleasant enough. But that was about all I knew.
This wasn’t academia, as I soon discovered. I had a manager instead of an advisor. Projects were largely assigned rather than discovered. The goal was to enhance company profit, not to discover the next great scientific breakthrough.
The hardest aspect to wrap my mind around was the lack of an ending. All my life, there had been an imminent ending to my current status. Childhood would end when I turned eighteen. Undergrad would end when I finished my courses. Grad school would end when I presented my thesis.
Endings begat goals. These goals had timelines and the ability to determine whether I was on the path to success. An ‘A’ was a good sign. A failed test was a bad one. Finishing undergrad should take four years. Grad school should take no more than six.
Now those imminent endings were gone. I had a career. And careers don’t end until you retire or die.
Sure, there were promotions that could serve as goals. I could become a director, a V.P, and maybe someday a CXO. But then what? I realized that I needed a new way of thinking about my life. My old ending-driven paradigm wouldn’t work in this strange, new world.
I formed a new paradigm slowly over time. It’s still evolving, but certain aspects are only reinforced over time.
Three requirements, in particular, have become core to my new way of life. These three requirements came to define the way I looked at my career satisfaction and life progression. And these three requirements could not survive in the corporate world.
I knew there were strong reasons to stay. In the corporate world, my salary would only continue to grow. The word ‘millionaire’ was not out of reach. But it wasn’t worth it.
Instead of six figures, I have made negative dollars this year.
Yes, you heard that right.
That’s how much these requirements meant to me.
Requirement #1: I Need Ownership
I was responsible for my education.
I was responsible for my thesis.
This is not a cry of individualism. I’m not saying that I existed in a vacuum. Dozens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of other people contributed to the completion of those goals. I had my friends and family for emotional support. I had my advisor for guidance. My funding came from donors and taxpayers. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without my support network.
But I was still necessary. If I had been removed from the equation, nobody else would have completed my thesis in my place. I had defined the project, and it was uniquely mine.
My early corporate projects, on the other hand, were assigned to me. In a universe where I had been passed over in favor of another candidate, that alternative me would have done the same projects. Sure, I could add my unique flair. I might even complete the project better than my parallel universe doppelganger.
But, in the grand scheme, did my presence make a difference?
I knew that I would get more ownership as I climbed the corporate ladder, but that would take decades. I’m patient but not that patient.
There had to be a better way. I didn’t want these cookie-cutter projects, so I started to make my own.
I spent a portion of my time exploring what data sources the company had that they weren’t utilizing. I talked to my manager about what I needed in my job. I reached out to people in several other departments to chat, figuring that something might spark an idea.
My first long-term project gave me a taste of ownership — until it didn’t. I spent a year bringing that product to life, often working well past when everyone else on my team had gone home. I poured everything into making sure it was perfect.
Then the time finally came to release the project. All that was needed was for one of the other teams to schedule the task on the company’s servers. I followed up on that task every chance I had for several months. Yes, I said months. A task that should have taken a day ended up taking so long that — by the time the product was released — nobody needed it anymore. Somebody had already built a different solution in its place.
I tried everything to revamp the project, but it didn’t matter. My feeling of ownership had been a lie. I was a cog in a machine. I thought that what I was doing mattered. When a different cog failed in their task, it made my effort worthless. And yet another cog came in and made the machine complete in our place.
I tried again and again. I became an idea-pitching machine. I would present 20+ ideas from a single dataset. I was determined to leave an indelible mark on the company.
Every chance I had, I would take ownership. But how real was that ownership if my contribution could be removed by something as simple as a scheduling bug?
My ownership was limited. There were some things that only a manager could do. There were some conversations that only a department head could have. Worse, I was redundant. I had ownership over one means of achieving a goal, but the goal would still be achieved without me.
In the corporate world, ownership was this. I was in charge of a handful of slats on one of several wooden bridges crossing a ravine. I was useless if the other slats on my bridge failed. And even if they didn’t, my bridge was still wholly redundant, and I was readily replaceable.
Outside of the corporate world, there are still scheduling bugs. But I’m not waiting for my manager to have a meeting with another manager who will tell their direct report that they need to get the bug resolved. I can’t rest easy knowing that another employee will step in to fill the void if my project fails.
None of those niceties exist in the entrepreneurial world.
Here, I am necessary.
Requirement #2: I Need to Be Productive, Not Busy
There were hours and even whole days at my corporate job when I had nothing productive to do. Maybe I was waiting on another team to complete a task. Or maybe I was waiting for the company server to have enough free processors to run my latest calculation. Whatever the reason, I was bored.
I always had at least three projects going, so starting something new wouldn’t be worthwhile. Often, I had something that I could research, especially if the whole day was looking like it would be unproductive otherwise.
But there were still times when there was not a productive way to spend those waiting hours. If I was at home, this would be the time that I would relax with a video game or a movie. But I was at work, and I felt like I had to appear busy.
This is one of the most aggravating aspects of corporate culture. Sure, there are goals set up to measure productivity. They know at the end of the quarter if you’ve done what was expected of you or not. But you will still get a dirty look if your screen is displaying the latest Star Trek movie instead of a spreadsheet.
Why does this bother me so much? There are two reasons.
- It is stressful
- It shows a lack of trust
Neither of these leads to increased productivity. Some people work best under intense supervision, but most of us don’t. We need to feel relaxed, and we need to feel trusted.
Now that I’m out of the corporate world, I am far more productive than I was then. If I have nothing to do at 2 PM today, I might take a nap. A few minutes ago, I switched over to Reddit to take a break from writing, but I know nobody is evaluating my work performance based on that choice.
I don’t have to be busy anymore. Busy is not the goal. Busy is useless. Busy doesn’t pay the bills. Productive is my new busy.
Requirement #3: I Need to Be Creative, and That Can’t Be Scheduled
My thesis work was in chemistry. My corporate career was in data science. Throughout it all, I still firmly believe that creativity was my number one asset.
I wasn’t smarter than my co-workers or fellow students. Far from it, I always felt like an impostor when I saw them easily solve math problems that would leave me scratching my head for days.
I could never be better than them, but I could be different. I could approach problems in unconventional ways. When normal solutions failed, I still had a chance.
My fellow students were stringing together complicated physical and mathematical models to produce awe-inspiring results worthy of the highest scientific accolades. Meanwhile, I built my most successful publication around an equation that a 9th-grade student could have understood.
But creativity doesn’t mesh well with the corporate world. You can’t schedule it. I can’t decide that I’m going to be creative for 4 hours tomorrow starting at 1 PM.
This requirement is strongly coupled with requirement #2. Creativity is aided by diffuse thinking. Diffuse thinking doesn’t happen when you are focused on a task. It happens when you can daydream. It happens when you can shift your focus to something entertaining.
In other words, creativity happens when you are doing things you shouldn’t be doing at your corporate job.
As an entrepreneur, I can zone out. I can spend 30 minutes staring at the wall or the TV screen waiting for creativity to strike. I can take a shower or go for a run, hoping that a new idea emerges.
Creativity likes to be the hunter, not the hunted. Who am I to try to change its nature?
I do miss the money and the lifestyle that money afforded me. Maybe someday this new career path of mine will take off, but it probably won’t. Entrepreneurship is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s something you do because you enjoy it. And I do enjoy it.
I finally feel like I have ownership.
I finally feel like I can be productive instead of busy.
I finally feel like I can let creativity be a natural part of my day.
These things are not as important to everyone as they are to me. The corporate world may be the right place for you.
You may be able to find some or all of these requirements to an extent that satisfies you by doing a side hustle, volunteer work, or something similar. I couldn’t make that work for myself.
You may not even care about any of these 3 requirements. But I do.
Will I ever go back to the corporate world?
I’ve learned in my life to never shut a door. I may find myself back in the corporate world someday.
But today is not that day.
Today, I went and had a long lunch with an old friend because I didn’t have to look busy.
Today, I am a freelance writer.
Today, I am a blogger.
Today, my happiness is worth more than a six-figure salary.