Who Are Your Real Friends?

Question: What is important in life? Friends? Family? It’s definitely not material things. Unless you live a wildly opulent lifestyle, the history books won’t remember what kind of shoes you had. They’ll remember you for the kind of person you were and for the things you did. Historians will write about your relationships, decisions and experiences.

So let’s agree that your relationship and experiences with friends and family are the most important things in life.

Now who are your friends and family? Who are the people that will be there for you when the sh!t hits the fan. The people who will help take care of you when you’re recovering from knee surgery. The people who will mourn you for months or years when you are dead. These are the people you should be dedicating your time and energy to. Yet, we spend 8+ hours a day with a group of people who behave in a friendly manner, call themselves ‘family’ but who couldn’t really care if you were there or not. We call these people ‘work colleagues’.

Throughout your career you may pick up a few really good friends, but most of your work colleagues will drift away once you move on. I think there’s nothing wrong with this, so I’m not trying to be a downer. I’m simply trying to help you realize that there are people out there who appear to be your good friends but really are not. This doesn’t mean you should be unfriendly to them. Simply recognize that some friendships have more depth and longevity than others.

Moral of the story: If you think friends and family are the most important things in life, you need to ensure you are committing your free time to the right people.

This is why I take my kids places on the weekends. This is why I try to go home from work as soon as I can.


Trapped at Work?

There are some that truly thrive in a corporate environment. There are many who simply go with the pace. And then there are some who hate it and feel trapped, yet remain nonetheless. Today, I’ll talk to you about the third group.

Somehow I’ve met a lot of people throughout my career that are stuck working a job they dislike in a corporate environment. Most have unfulfilled dreams of entrepreneurship or significance that never materializes. Work in real life is not like the movies – I’m sure Wall Street (the movie) motivated many wide-eyed youth to join Wall Street (the financial district), only to realize that beneath the sexy veneer exists mundane tasks, bosses with moronic ideas and colleagues you’d never associate with outside of work. To people who had a youthful dream this reality can hit them quite hard and they can become depressed or even passive aggressive.

These people don’t simply quit and pursue their dreams for many reasons. Some are in debt, some have families and others are simply too scared to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. So they feel trapped.

Let me end the sob story here. Nobody should feel sorry for these people.

1. Most of these people are doing things most citizens of the world could only dream of. Or said differently, they’re not doing things the rest of the world is forced to do: work in dangerous environments with minimal protection for crappy pay. If you’re safe and making an average wage in a developed country you are the envy of much of the world.

2. These people still have a choice. Financial independence (or what I sometimes call ‘career independence’) can be a long-term goal, requiring long-term planning. People in debt are often in debt because they don’t have the discipline to get out of debt. If debt is keeping someone at a job they hate, they should cut their spending and pay off their debts. Many people are trapped because they are too lazy and undisciplined to change their predicament.

3. Those who are truly trapped should learn to play the game. We get one life and can only walk down one path, so make the most of it. If a person is trapped in a box they should make that the best box they can. When properly understood, a corporate environment is actually one massive social and psychological experiment. What it takes to succeed often has little to do with competence at a specific function. Instead, success in a corporate environment is driven by understanding and manipulating the motivations of your colleagues and superiors. People who hate their jobs but are stuck can treat their career like an social experiment or psychological game. This might make the entire experience more interesting. Of course, shifting to this kind of attitude can be difficult for those who truly want to make a difference.

Having said all this, ideally one never enters a situation that they dislike in the first place. I will write more about that later, but it is critical that young kids and teenagers make career choices based on a true understanding of what they’re getting into. For those already stuck in the rat race, it’s not half as bad as you think.


What Successful Senior Executives Realize

Entering the workforce can be intimidating at first because you’re suddenly surrounded by knowledgeable, competent experts, while you only know what you learned in school (much of which doesn’t equip you for the workplace…but more on that another time). However, what I have discovered during my working life is that most employees are simply putting on a good show. Sure, they know all the jargon, processes and history of a company or industry, but they really don’t know much beyond what can be laid out in an instruction booklet.

Corporations need people who can follow instructions because they are the muscles and ligaments that move a corporation. In contrast, senior leadership requires expertise and foresight beyond the known. They need the ability to synthesize thousands of pieces of seemingly disparate information into a cohesive strategy. Said differently, there is a set of employees that follow instructions and there is a set of employees that write the instructions. When it comes to writing the instructions most people are simply making it up along the way. The employees following instructions need to feel like they are following the correct instructions. So those writing the instructions require conviction, confidence and consistency…even if they are dead wrong.

I have discovered that the key to success in a corporate environment has nothing to do with competence or expertise. Instead, those who can form a convincing narrative out of a random assortment of information will thrive. People who are willing to shape the unknown and ambiguous into a framework for others to use will become the future leaders.

Many senior managers realize they are making things up along the way, and that they are taking a chance on one strategic path of thousands of possibilities. There really is no way around the uncertainty of strategic planning, but those who do it best are the ones that acknowledge their limitations and have the confidence to alter course when it makes sense.


2 Things You Should Always Do At Work

Of course, there are many habits that will help you become successful in your career, but here are two that have helped me: 

1. Write lists. This helps you remember and track what needs to be done and what has been completed. Lists will help you become someone that delivers and gets things done. The psychology of a list puts pressure on you to finish things on the list. No list? Tasks are easily forgotten and dismissed. 

2. Be early. I’m not a morning person, but there have been periods in which I was the first one into the office every day. During those periods I felt like I was a couple steps ahead of everyone else. By the time other people strolled in an hour or so after me, I would have already completed a number of tasks. Also, I’d have a coffee under my belt so I’d be fully awake while the later arrivers drag their arses around. Being early also gives the general impression that you have it together and that you’re a hard worker. Hell, go to work early and just read the news if you want. You’ll still benefit from the perception. For me, another reason to show up early is because I am super-productive in the mornings – I’m fresh and there are few distractions. What takes me 10 minutes at 8am seems to take 40 minutes at 5pm.


5 Things You Should Never Do At Work

There are many things you should never do at work, but here are a few of the less obvious:

1. Don’t insult anyone. You never know when you will need them to help you.

2. Don’t talk about politics or religion. These kinds of conversations are divisive and political and religious debates are unwinnable. These are subjective topics with no right answer – ironically, everyone with an political or religious opinion seems to think they have the right answer. Don’t even go there.

3. Don’t fall in love with your coworkers. Go into work with the mindset that you are there for business. If, for some reason, you still manage to go crazy for a coworker recognize that you may need to find another place to work if you decide to pursue the relationship. Many companies don’t like coworkers having relationships because of the conflicts of interest that arise.

4. Don’t screw your coworkers. Especially if they are married. Do I really have to explain this one? Still, it happens more often than you’d expect and I have seen careers ruined because of tarnished reputations.

5. Minimize the profanity. Highly-selective swearing can be effective in the right situation with the right people. However, swearing properly is a skill many lack. Those who don’t do it properly lose credibility and sound like uneducated buffoons.


Burned Out

People used to admire my ambition and drive.

For instance, in 2007 I was working full time, doing my MBA part time, taking care of an infant and throwing special events on the weekends. People asked how I did it. Well, I worked about 90 hours a week. Somehow I had the energy (and support from my family) to do it.

This was not unique to 2007. Since high school I have consistently pursued multiple, escalating goals. People were impressed by my ambition and more so by my execution. When I set a goal – mostly related to my career or education – I did everything in my power to achieve it.

I was ambitious after high school because I was a slacker during high school. Shortly after I finished high school, I had a wake-up call that was like getting poked with an electric cattle prod. I suddenly realized I’d been wasting precious time and needed to catch up. The only way to catch up was to work twice as hard as everyone else around me.

Things have changed. I’m hesitant to write this statement down, but today I have no goals. It’s not that I don’t want a clear goal. It’s more like the clear goals that I could have easily identified in the past no longer exist.

What the hell happened?

I think somewhere between 2014-2016 I burned out.

During that period I was running a few massive projects and working long and stressful hours as usual. After years of getting ground down, I think these projects were what finally hit bone. I can’t point to a particular moment at which my conviction shifted, but the warning signs were intensifying. One night while taking out the garbage I flipped and threw the garbage can onto my front lawn. I was self-medicating every night. After 20+ years of remission, my eczema returned.

The pressure of work and responsibility of middle class family life broke me. After 2016, something permanently changed. I stopped giving a sh!t about other people’s agendas.

I am still a valuable asset to my employer. But today I focus on what I think needs to be done, cutting out as much bureaucracy (i.e. BS) as possible. I dedicate my attention to work that interests me and is valuable to the company, instead of wasting time with activities that no self-respecting entrepreneur would do.

My problem now though is that I’m hitting goals more accidentally than deliberately. In the past I would set out a goal – e.g. get my CFA – and do everything in my power to achieve it. Today, I focus on the work – e.g. thought leadership for the financial services industry – and achieve results that I never set out to achieve. I’m traversing the ocean, but I’m rudderless.

Does it matter? I don’t know. I still spend a significant amount of time trying to come up with goals. So far my only goal is to write more.

Perhaps this is what happens after you burn out. You stop scrambling to reach the next achievement and instead you calmly savor the process.


Do You Owe Your Employer Gratitude?

Are you loyal to your employer because you think you owe them gratitude?

This Christmas day, I want to remind everyone that loyalty in the workplace should be a reciprocal relationship. Unfortunately, more often than not, behind the curtain of pleasant corporate employee-relations PR is a pack of rabid dogs attacking each other for scraps.

In the days leading up to Christmas, AT&T notified hundreds of staff that they would lose their jobs. I presume more layoffs will be confirmed by AT&T in the weeks to come. At the same time AT&T announced it would provide special bonuses to 200,000 of its employees in celebration of the Republican tax overhaul. This is like adding sugar to a pile of shit to make it more palatable.

Over the past 6 months alone I’ve heard many horror stories of dedicated staff being destroyed after decades of commitment. I’ve seen friends fire friends – these are people who did all the right things to build trust and loyalty. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve had your boss and their spouse over for dinner, the corporate machine will find a way to chew up and spit out anything that interferes with the profit imperative.

Corporations are entities that are built to generate a return on capital. They have no other purpose. Charitable activity, community engagement and philanthropy are done by corporations because they improve the public persona, potentially driving the customer purchase decision and, more importantly, reducing the public pressure on regulators to clamp down on corporate malfeasance.

While the individuals within a corporation may have souls, the corporation itself does not. How can it be expected to care? A corporation is a legal structure defined by its articles of incorporation and investor expectations. 99.99% of investors risk their money to generate a return on that money. To generate a return, a corporation must generate and grow profits that can eventually be distributed back to investors. There’s nothing wrong with this, but people need to realize they should stop expecting more from a legal structure.

One way or another, the corporate machine will force benevolent individuals to abandon their principles in the name of profits. Individuals that don’t abandon their principles produce a lower return on investment (ROI) than those that do, and will therefore eventually be terminated (assuming they are discovered). Companies that can’t weed out the weaker producing staff will eventually be running slower than competitors. Corporate death – whether by bankruptcy, liquidation or amalgamation – ensues.

So should an employee be loyal to something that cannot be loyal back, despite the best efforts of a few kind-hearted staff? Can you love someone that doesn’t love you back?

Do a good job. Earn your paycheck. But recognize that the corporation by definition must extract more value from you than what it pays you in return. To do otherwise would be slow-suicide. In the end, you need to do what’s right for you.


You Live. You Work. You Suffer. You Die.

Yesterday, as I left a doctors appointment, walking down a small residential street I heard a call from between two houses. I stopped and looked. I saw an old man, maybe 75 years old, hunched over behind some garbage bins, holding onto a walker.

Our eyes met and he called me over again to help him get back up to his walker. As my sight adjusted to the scene, I noticed his pants were around his ankles. It became clear that he had a stomach issue and sought the closest semi-private spot for bittersweet relief. 

I knew what I was in for, but I felt worse for him. How humiliating it must be to call to a stranger as you just half shit yourself in public. 

Before diving into the problem, I first asked if there was someone I should call to help. Family? “My wife is at home”, he answered. Clearly that was a dead end path to follow. 75 years on this planet and nobody of any strength to depend on. It was all on me. Fuck.

I struggled to help him back up to his walker. His legs shook and buckled beneath his weight, with no power to simply stand – even with assistance. The man had yellow-brown smears on his shirt and coat and I tried my best to limit my contact. 

Weak is an understatement for how I felt. Powerless perhaps? It’s hard to move 170+lbs of dead weight when you can’t really get your back into it. 

Besides the event of the moment, the gentleman had obvious issues with basic self care. This was his life on the regular.

I was making no gains, so I walked back to the street to get some help. I saw a guy walking with his girlfriend and thought “here’s his chance to show his girl how he’s a good guy”. I was wrong – I got a lame excuse and off they went.

I hailed another guy and he didn’t hesitate. Looking back, I can understand how it might have looked like some elaborate scam. As a city-dweller, that was my first instinct when the old man called for me. But within a second of looking at the gentleman, it was quite obvious this was a real situation.

Teamwork won. We struggled, but got the guy back on his walker. He pulled up his pants and we helped him back to the street. 

All the while we asked the gentleman questions. He had just come from an appointment at the same clinic as me. He had planned on walking (?!?) to his home on Cosbourn Avenue – about a two hour journey given what I expected of his maximum pace. But he insisted there was nobody we wanted to call for help. 

The gentleman, my helper and I parted ways, but I’ll never forget the final look the gentleman gave me. The look itself burned into my brain, but I’m still deciphering what it meant and what he was trying to communicate to me. It was some combination of humiliation and sadness. I wonder if he was crying for help with his eyes, while telling me he was fine. That look has been haunting me.

I walked away towards my car that was parked about 100 metres down the street. As I opened my door I looked back and could make out his silhouette but could still sense his eyes on me. I feel like I abandoned him. I thought about offering him a lift, but he was covered in shit. Fuck. What was I supposed to do? I had already offered numerous times to call family, the police or an ambulance. He refused, and I can understand. Sometimes you just want to be left alone to lick your wounds. My final thought as I drove away was that at least he’s out in the open and can more easily get help if he needs it again.

Today I wonder who this man is. What’s his story? Is he going to die soon or does he have to live like this for another 10 years?

This can and will probably happen to many of us. We take our strength and health for granted. This old, feeble man once ran and jumped as a child. But during his last hours, months or years, he is burdened by complete dependence on others. It sucks, but we can fight it. 

Weight training and exercises to help with hip mobility and leg strength are immensely useful for maintaining your quality of life. Perhaps there’s nothing this man could have done to prevent his predicament, but many do have a choice.

I’ve also wondered what happens to people who don’t plan for the day they can no longer take care of themselves, whether or not they have children themselves. Many people do have kids, but live an impractical distance away. Others spent decades allowing their relationships with their children to rot on the vine. 

I am also left with the impression that on the aggregate, humans are seen as expendable machines with a useful working life. At the individual level our relationships are infinitely valuable. But society at large – the general public, corporate entities, political systems, etc. – seeks to extract every ounce of value from humans during the best years of their lives, only to leave them to mainly fend for themselves during the worst years of their lives. 

People are brainwashed to devote the best, most productive, healthiest years of their lives to a system that doesn’t care about them and will discard them once proven redundant. Your boss won’t be there to wipe your ass when you’re sick. He doesn’t give a fuck. You may have been the best widget maker in the city, but none of that matters when you’re keeled over in a back alley because you shit yourself. 

Life has to be more than working, suffering and then dying.

You need to spend your healthy years on yourself, your friends and your family. What matters is the family you’ve built and the friendships you’ve fostered. You need to plan for the moment you become dependent on others. 

Perhaps that is what this gentleman was trying to tell me with his eyes.


When Should a Middle-Aged Family Man Quit His Job?

The other day I was venting to a colleague about the stagnant swamp I call my career.

Despite having a decent job with decent pay, I am slowly getting destroyed by inane politics and busy-work that ignores my capacity and capability.

“So quit”, says my single, childless, mortgage-less, 30 year old friend.

When I was 30 I would have said the same thing. In fact, I left many jobs early in my career for the sake of advancement.

Today, however, I am more averse to risk. I am in my mid 40s with a wife, kids and a mortgage. If I screw up I have to answer to a whole lotta people, possibly as we wait in line at the soup kitchen.

At this point of my life, walking away from job security – and the accompanying severence package if I were laid off – is a big risk. At my level of seniority, pay and experience, my severance would be significant.

If I quit and moved to a different company, there is a chance that it wouldn’t work out, sending me back into the job market, resume in hand. Except with nearly zero tenure at the new firm I would receive approximately zero severance.

At my current job level it could take 2 years to find something similar. In comparison, a 30 year old a couple levels down from me could pick up a decent job in 6 months if they tried. It is a simple supply and demand equation. Plus, with fewer responsibilities and a longer career ahead of them, younger job seekers can afford to take a pay cut to start over.

Essentially, for people in my situation there is a huge potential downside risk to leaving a secure job for uncharted waters.

So when will it make sense for me to quit? When the risk of starting somewhere new is paired with substantial incremental financial compensation and job satisfaction.


Are You Wasting Your Life?

As you get to middle age the way you see time changes. When you’re young your life is like an open plain that goes forever. You’ve got plenty of time and don’t mind wasting some of it. 

Once you get past 40, you realize that you’re somewhere near the half-way mark. You may have even passed it. Suddenly every second becomes precious. This feeling only intensifies as you continue to age. 

So how do you know if you’re wasting those precious seconds? That’s a complicated question to answer, but I’ll give you a simple step by step way to make sure you’re not.

Step 1: Make 2 lists – one for things (activities, people, things, etc.) you like and one for things you dislike. Twenty of each should be all you need.

Step 2: Do at least one of the things you like every day. If there’s something you like of particular importance (perhaps because it generates income or keeps you healthy) try to do it every day. 

Bonus Step: Ensure you aren’t doing more than one thing you dislike every day. 

There – now you’re no longer wasting your life. Ridiculously simple. But guaranteed to work.