Paths to Success

Jim Wasserman

MY FRIEND HAFIZ has a common midlife problem. He’s built a successful career over 20 years. But now he wants a change—a new direction to focus his energy and talents. Over coffee, we kicked around the different paths he might take.

Some were offshoots of his current job, such as becoming an industry consultant. Others were wholly new, like becoming a writer.

“The problem,” Hafiz sighed, “is that whatever I do, it’s gotta pay for the country club.”

Hafiz explained that, while his wife was the primary earner, his salary was dedicated to certain lifestyle luxuries, most notably the dues at their country club.

Now, I’m not against someone enjoying country club life. We belonged to one ourselves for a while. What struck me, however, was Hafiz didn’t seem to be enjoying his membership so much as feeling trapped by it. It was an anchor limiting his movement along alternative paths to happiness.

It reminded me of a Vox piece I recently read about what they call the near-rich. We often focus on the top 1% of Americans, with their yachts and jets. They control as much wealth as the bottom 90% of the population, according to the article.

The near-rich, like my friend, are those in-between. While comprised of 9.9% of the population, often they’re the drivers of the social standards of American society.

Through hard work and good education, many of them have successfully worked their way up to achieve an enviable lifestyle. Others have capitalized on the head start they were born with. They have played the game well, done it “right,” and now reap the rewards and symbols of success.

According to the Vox article, however, there can be a problem lurking under this success. For the near-rich—and I include my own family in this group—the road to success is so well-worn that it can cut off the imagination. It limits our ability to consider other paths, or even other measures, of success.

In my friend Hafiz’s case, he has certainly earned all the rewards from building a successful career. But now, these rewards—or a fear of losing them—hold him back. He can’t imagine a successful life without a country club membership.

Fortunately, I see a change in attitude among millennials. As a retired teacher, I’m in contact with many of my former students. They’re still early in their careers, but seem less concerned with the traditional measures of accomplishment.

They’re willing to work fewer hours and are less interested in rising up through the corporate ranks. In exchange, they have fewer possessions to worry about and more time for family and friends. They shun homeownership for the flexibility of renting.

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We oldsters may cluck our tongues and call them lazy for not striving for the things we think mark success. But perhaps they’ve seen the pitfalls of those traditional trophies, such as housing busts. They’ve become more creative and thoughtful in figuring out what they want.

Some people even complain millennials are “killing” industries. But isn’t it their right to redefine consumerism on their own terms? The bottom line: Millennials are content.

My wife and I both went directly from college to grad school and then on to a profession. We were taken aback when one of our sons, whose goal is to become an actuary, said he wanted to take two years after college to teach in Japan.

Would it put him behind on the career path? What about the schedule of actuarial exams he had to take? What if he didn’t come back?

He went, paying his own way. And, after two years, he returned. He’s just taken his fourth-level actuarial exam, and has a good job with State Farm. Even more, he has a world of extra cultural exposure. I realize now that, even if he had decided not to be an actuary, that would have been okay, too.

Our other son had a high-paying software developer job in Madison, Wisconsin. He walked away to take a similar job with a smaller company in Austin, Texas. Austin is closer to his family and friends. Also, he’s a runner, and Austin has more tolerable running weather.

When we are young, we’re told to imagine all the possible places we could go. We can’t let the success of one path, even a well-worn road, let us lose sight of the road less travelled.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He has authored several educational children’s books. Jim’s newest book is Enough Stuff, a story about appreciating family and friends—rather than gifts—during the holidays. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they’re currently working on a book, “Your Third Life: Reflections on Finding Our Way by Taking the Long Route.” Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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1 year ago

We both downshifted our careers when our kids were little so that we could do the best job possible of parenting them. I’m an academic, and my first job out of grad school was at a teaching-focused university with very little publish-or-perish pressure. All I had to do was be an excellent teacher, and I love teaching. My husband finished law school and went to work for a very high-powered firm. He was doing well there and almost certainly would have made partner in time, but it was so demanding and unpredictable that I felt like a single parent, and our toddler was calling strange men “Daddy” because she so rarely saw her own. He left that job after two years and went to work for a state agency—a big downshift in salary trajectory, but much more reliable hours with a good pension and benefits. We made more than enough money to get by but nearly as much as we could have, especially in his case. But we had a manageable life and the kids had two parents who were able to be present.

The funny thing about this story is that is has a twist(s) at the end. At age 48, I was head-hunted for a tenured position at a University of California campus, a research university. Turned out that, without the pressure, I’d still done enough publishing along the way to land a job like that. And at 56, my husband retired from his state job, where he’d become a nationally known expert in state business tax law, and went to work in the private sector, for a Big Four accountancy firm. He’s also drawing a pension from the state, and we both have 100% retiree health care coverage.

We’re both making a lot more money than we did at our initial downshifted jobs, and our kids are grown and gone now. In our case, the “road not taken” turned into “the road for later.” It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

1 year ago

How soon us baby boomers forget we were idealistic when we were younger and the older generation said similar things as we are stating about the younger generation. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Wonder where the 60’s/70’s flower children are today?

1 year ago

Sounds like Jiab and you have done a great job of raising two well-adjusted young men who have good perspectives on what they value in life.

Both of your sons are working in well-paying professions that will always be in demand. This is a key reason why they have more ability than many to have the work-life balance they want. I wonder if those who are less talented will be able to have as much freedom to achieve comparable levels of work-life balance.

Our younger son has pursued a somewhat similar lifestyle since he obtained his degree in graphic design from Carnegie-Mellon 25 years ago. He is well paid because of his expertise (HBO and Disney are clients) and could easily earn much more if he was willing to move to a larger firm. However, he prefers his current situation and has always worked to live rather than lived to work.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

Good article and from what I read very accurate.

However, I wonder about the long term effects of –

“They’re willing to work fewer hours and are less interested in rising up through the corporate ranks. In exchange, they have fewer possessions to worry about and more time for family and friends. They shun homeownership for the flexibility of renting.”

Obtaining material things and status symbols is a fools quest, but on the other hand, seems like dropping out of the race so to speak has consequences too that may only be realized much later in life.

I turned down promotions in my career because I enjoyed the type of work I did, but there were consequences like lower pay, missed bonuses and additional promotions. I knew that when I made my decisions. I wonder if the folks taking the new route understand that?

Last edited 1 year ago by R Quinn
Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I turned down a promotion early in my career. From that experience I always asked myself this question re promotions: would I rather work for someone else or would I rather be the boss? Being the boss was better especially when you knew the other candidates for the job.

1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I think it would be stressful as a retiree if I didn’t own my house outright and had to continue to pay $2,500/mo in rent.

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