After working a while I started to feel like I’d been thrown into jail.
A nice jail. A white-collar jail. A place where I don’t live in fear of getting shanked every time I’m out on laundry duty, and the guards sing me to sleep at night.
But a jail is a jail, and any place a man can’t be free qualifies.
Don’t believe me? That doesn’t surprise. I hardly believed it myself, the first time the thought popped into my head. Surely we all choose to work, don’t we? And if we all choose to work, how can employment be a prison?
After chewing on it for a while, I’ve come to believe the similarities are a lot more than the differences. In both places you have your schedule made up by someone else and you better follow it, or there are consequences to pay. You report to someone. There’s bad behavior and good behavior, and if you’re good, like you actually complete projects on time instead of doing nonstop social media updates and sexting, you’ll be rewarded. In prison, you might get extra time in the yard for following the rules. At work, you might get a raise, but you’ll also certainly be rewarded with more work because you’ve just raised the bar on yourself. Sometimes the reward is simply being allowed to keep your job.
In either place, you can’t choose who you’re locked up with, and you have to pretend to get along with them or face the music. There are cliques that you can either join or avoid. The powers that be love it when you suck up but the people you’re locked up with hate to watch you brown-nose and might even let you know it. You have to spend the majority of your time in a tiny little area, nearly immobile, and this horrible little spot is a 4 letter word beginning with C, a cube or a cell. Some people’s cubes are actually significantly smaller than a prisoner’s cell.
The most powerful similarity is that both places thoroughly institutionalize you. You start out hating it but the years wear you down. Eventually you can’t imagine a life without it. The institution is your life. Red articulated this concept best in The Shawshank Redemption so I’ll let him do some talking.
Thanks for that, Red.
Anyway, it’s hard for a lot of younger people — particularly people who have been at their jobs for just a few years — to imagine becoming so conditioned to it that leaving is scary. For example, when I first realized that I couldn’t stand the thought of staying in my industry forever, I felt a burning need to quit right that instant. But my rational brain wins out over my emotional brain just about every time (that’s why I’m in the software industry, after all) and my rational brain said that I couldn’t leave without having a plan. Not after spending so much money on my education, and so many years of my life to get where I was going. The salary was too good, and I had to stick with it for a while in order to make the investment worthwhile.
Well, I’ve stuck with it for quite a long time since then. And since hitting my FI “number” I’ve come to realize I no longer hate my job. I still want to leave it, sure. But after fourteen years of doing the same thing every day, having the same routines, the same hierarchical structures in my life, telling me what to do, where to be at what times, how to dress, what sorts of things I can do for extra credit, well — I just don’t feel the same fire burning to up and walk out the door in a huff.
And I’m not alone in this. Lately I’ve been scanning blogs of other folks who are able to retire early, and some of them are choosing not to, for various reasons. A lot of people get a condition called One More Year syndrome, where you keep making excuses to work an extra twelve months before you quit. Then the deadline to quit is continually extended as the individual keeps coming up with reasons to keep going. Some other people say that they’ve suddenly “realized” that they love their job after all, and want to stay simply because it’s enjoyable and they can’t imagine doing anything else.
I think that the reasons people give publicly for not pulling the trigger and retiring early isn’t the desire for more money. And it isn’t that they’ve suddenly discovered they love spending 50 hours a week going to meetings, pushing papers, giving presentations, and solving other peoples’ problems. No, they’ve just become institutionalized.
We’re so scared of what’s out there that we choose to stay behind bars indefinitely. We’re dogs who won’t run more than a few steps away from their masters, even though we’re no longer on a leash.
Here’s hoping that it’s not too late for me and I can do what needs to be done in early 2015. There must be no One More Year. I will claim my freedom, even if it scares the hell out of me.