My last week at work flew by.
It was full of all of the usual things that you’d imagine someone’s last week would contain. Goodbyes to co-workers. Explanations as to why you’re departing. Mixed emotions — relief one minute, excitement the next, then reflection and perhaps a touch of nervousness before the cycle repeats. Waves and waves of this stuff.
But that’s just a very high level way to describe the experience. Once unpacked, textures and small details become visible.
It’s time to explode this compressed ball of memory.
(Note: My last day was April 10th, 2015 — it’s just taken a while to put this post together.)
Final Project Claw Detach
On Tuesday morning, I closed my final project.
For the tech heads: I’ve been upgrading this open-source infrastructure application for the past 4 months because the version we’re on has security vulnerabilities, making it unsafe to use. But there are problems — documentation for this thing is horrible and in addition our company has several customization layers on top of the previous version, and of course, those layers conflict with the new version, requiring updates (merges) to those layers. Gaaah!
For the non-tech heads: Imagine you have a car, and there’s a recall-incident on it that needs to be fixed — say, an issue with power steering. But when techs dismantle your ride, they notice that certain internal components directly related to the power steering have been replaced with after-market products. Suddenly the fix is not simple: it’s essential to evaluate whether the solution to the recall that works on a factory model will also work on your own heavily-modded hack-a-car. Something that was supposed to be easy and straightforward is now a time-suck, and as an added bit of blarg, your car is now stuck in the shop for a while the techs work it out.
I was that tech.
At any rate, it’s all over now: every project complete.
And ever since, my head has become a lot quieter.
So I mentioned in a previous post that projects are the Gorilla Glue(TM!) that bind me to my employer. They take up space in my brain — I’m compelled to think about them constantly. What are the next steps? How will I troubleshoot this problem, get over this roadblock, fix this issue? Am I on track? Do I need to cross-train other people so they know how to support what I’ve done? And so on.
I’ve come to think of this never-ending sequence of obligations as the HAVE-TOS. I don’t mind that my brain does this — and if you possess a similar flow of consciousness, you shouldn’t either, because it’s generally a boon. This internal little guy or gal helps you to anticipate the future, to prepare, and to handle things in stride. Most people — office workers or no — with complicated, high-stress
jobs lives have some form of this train-of-thought chatter going on, although I concede that it’s louder and bossier for some folks than others.
It’s pretty loud for me, personally. Most days, I can already hear it going while driving into the office.
Okay, I have to do <thing> as soon as I get in. Then I have to email <person> so that <other thing> starts to happen. At that point I have to talk to my manager about <political thing> so we can come up with an appropriate response to upper management. Oh, and I also have to check my calendar. Pretty sure I have to attend a couple of meetings. If there’s any prep work for the meetings, I’ll have to do that shit too.
By the time I’m seated at my desk, the have-to voice is even louder. I check my emails, and a few of them ask me to do certain 1-off things. They get added to the have-to list as well.
You get the idea.
Wednesday, the day after I completed the project close-out paperwork, driving into work, I realized there was something off. It took me a minute to identify the difference: more space existed in my head than usual (and believe me, there’s already quite a bit of hot air in there…)
The have-to voice was gone.
Just… gone. Vanished without a trace.
I’m sure this was a direct result of completing that final project — I simply didn’t have anything left to do. For the remainder of the week, I showed up mostly for a) appearances and b) to answer awkwardly phrased questions from co-workers about why I was leaving (family) and where I was going (nowhere) and what-exactly-am-i-going-to-do-without-income?!?! (Mug ex co-workers for income.)
During those last few days, I could hear something very soft in the background of my brain as the hours passed in the office. A different voice — one that I’m familiar with, but I rarely hear during work.
It says: I want to, want to, want to.
As the week progressed, I became aware of a slowly mounting sense of incredulity and disbelief — disbelief that nothing stopped me from executing my plans, disbelief that no pianos had been dropped from high buildings and onto my head (so far), disbelief that I was actually going to leave not just this particular place, not just this particular employer, but rather this entire industry, this entire way of life — all of it! Forever! It couldn’t be true, could it?
Because when you’re planning to do a thing (quit) for as long as I’ve been planning to do this specific thing (quit) you’ll have days when you think it’ll never actually happen (the quitting). Days when you’re certain your plans (to quit) are a pipe-dream and will never come to fruition. That things will never change. (That you will never quit.)
But now I’m here in this different place, this alternate universe where it’s already happened: I’ve quit. And suddenly things are changing right before my eyes. Work ties are, if not completely severed yet, then severely mangled, frayed and hanging on by a thread. Also, my house is under agreement, making a physical move imminent. The construction of life is suddenly fluid instead of fixed.
Mixed in with the mounting disbelief are small, piercing seconds of fear, momentary micro-panics. These hit me without warning, like the unexpected bite of an insect.
I’ve poked around those feelings and determined that there’s really nothing I can do to stop them from coming up.
It’s like this: I’m a skydiver on a plane, thirteen thousand feet in the air, just prior to the fall. I’m wearing the appropriate gear and I’ve completed my training. I know exactly how to open the parachute to slow my body down. And the thought of taking the leap is exhilarating. I’ve been anticipating it for a long time. I want to step off the threshold. I’ve told everybody in my life (outside of work) that I will jump. There’s even another guy in the cabin who will push me out if I don’t jump myself because I’ve given him clear instructions to do so. I’ve signed waivers and paid money to make this thing happen — believe me, it’s happening.
And yet there exists an idiotic, primitive part of me that balks, that imagines the chute malfunctioning and failing to deploy, that visualizes a freak storm appearing out of nowhere to slam me with a thunderbolt, that predicts I will have an aneurysm mid-flight, preventing a pull of the ripcord. These are the insect bites of fear I’m feeling — a natural, mammalian reaction to forcing yourself to jump out of the protective cabin of the plane and into the wide open sky with nothing positioned directly under your legs to support you. It feels like for sure you are going to die. (Airplanes, falling, bites — yeah, that’s right, I’m mixing metaphors all over the place today. Lazy, lazy writing from someone who is about to become a whole lot lazier in retirement.)
Over the week, I’ve learned that it’s best to just squash these fears immediately, like the bugs that they are. And my flyswatter is rationality. I must trust my research and training — not just my own research and training, actually, but the research and training of an entire community — the FIRE community.
And I also remind myself that I don’t want to go back to my old life. I don’t want to un-make the leap. If something goes wrong, so what? I’ll still enjoy the freefall before I go ker-splat on the ground.
I need to become secure with the new way of things, the no-regular-paycheck way of things, the momentary blips-of-uncertainty way of things.
I’m already retraining my brain to register that fear as excitement. To feel the uncertainty as freedom. To sense the brief smacks of panic as simply recognition that I can do anything I like — as opportunity. When I look at the feelings this way, they become energizing rather than paralyzing.
I will harness this force. I will use it to power my current and future life.
Who says I’m not a goddamned optimist?
I’ve read a few accounts of other people leaving the workforce. Their last couple of days in the office. Another blogger, Brave New Life, chronicled his own experiences in great detail, and it came down to farewell conversations with individual people regarding his own plans to leave work forever. He was completely transparent about the reasons behind his departure.
I intentionally avoided most of this. I’m just not that social at work. I get along with people quite well, but at the same time I don’t consider whatever it is that we have going to be real friendships, so I don’t discuss anything of substance with them — smalltalk only. You might say this is lazy on my part, and I could have perhaps ‘reached’ a co-worker or two, but my feelings on the subject are different.
In the end I decided that it would be a sign of respect to my employer to not reveal I’m retiring to my co-workers. It makes me just another guy passing through — quickly forgotten. Because if I told them I’m retiring, I’d be remembered. Legend. People would think: Ahhh LAF. That’s the guy that got out.
And I don’t want to be remembered. I don’t want other people to be resentful or jealous — not a single person.
I’m aware that retiring early is something to be proud of at the individual level. I consider it to be quite an achievement. But I’m also aware that many people won’t see it that way. When I was younger I thought it’d be great to publicize everything, but when I found myself up against the reality of quitting, my opinion changed and I grew more sensitive to what other people might think about someone who bragged about leaving work to retire super-early. And more importantly, more sensitive to what other people might think about themselves after seeing someone else do it. Yes, I admit it: probably too sensitive.
Fact: If you retire as young as I did, many people will assume that you disliked work unless you take pains to explain that you didn’t.
Fact: The only way anyone retires this early (outside of winning Powerball, or receiving a large inheritance) is careful saving, investing and planning.
Fact: That takes a decade or more for most people. The main reason anyone would be bothered to do something like this over so many years is because they don’t love working — or, related, they want to do something different with their lives. (It hardly matters which.)
The person that seeks this escape is Andy Dufresne, patiently tunneling out of Shawshank with his rock hammer over a period of seventeen years because he doesn’t want to stay in prison forever. The escape doesn’t happen by accident; Most go to these lengths because they have a slow-burning need to get out.
To clarify a bit more: I actually don’t care if anyone thinks I left work because I don’t love working. But I don’t want folks to think that I’ve been stewing all of this time. That I’ve hated it. Because that’s not accurate either.
Besides, it’s the next association that I really, really don’t want people to make: I don’t want people to think that I harbor any condescending feelings like pity or scorn, because I don’t. Although it is true that I view the “office-life-game” as just that — a game, and one that I’ve figured out how to leave — I don’t want people to feel envious, or resentful, or <insert_negative_emotion>. Just because I’ve personally chosen to get out of the race doesn’t make working itself undignified or valueless. I actually don’t see the point of sharing these details — my view, cultivated during a decade and a half or so on this FI journey, is that most people are so set in their ways and thoughts that, even after confronting them with clear evidence underscoring very real possibility of doing something different with their lives via early or semi-retirement, they will still go back to their default lifestyle choices and spend everything they make.
It’s kind of like Narcotics Anonymous. If you don’t think your addiction to speed is a real problem, you won’t attend sessions. And even if you did, you’d find the advice to be ridiculous. Besides, you like getting hopped up! It’s not a problem! It’s not as though it makes you type the same sentences over and over again by mistake when you’re on it! You like getting hopped up! It’s not a problem!
Look, I just don’t want to be that guy giving unwanted, unsolicited advice — and I figure that by the time someone reaches that point where they do want advice, well, there’s this crazy thing called the internet that you may have heard about. A few words into google, and I bet they’ll find what they’re looking for, given how many personal finance sites exist out there.
This is the key piece: Quitting isn’t about me and my relationship with the people I’m leaving behind in the office, anyway. It has nothing to do with them. If it did, I’d honestly question my own motives.
Quitting is about my personal decision to leave, period.
Bottom line: No one at the office needs to know that I’m leaving my industry for good. This is a life-choice that doesn’t involve them.
And that’s the way I like it.
Late in the week, on Thursday, my manager asked if I would be up for a goodbye lunch. A team thing.
I asked if it’d be funded by the company. I asked specifically because the last time I considered attending a lunch outing like this — to say goodbye to a co-worker — it wasn’t funded, so I didn’t go. Instead everyone ponied up $30 or so for the privilege of saying goodbye to some exhausting dipshit-type dude that nobody liked and was leaving because he was turned down for a promotion and needed a ladder somewhere to climb. Again, I didn’t go myself, but I remember the gossiping afterward. My teammates were less than thrilled when the bill came and — surprise! — they had to fork over some dough not just for themselves but also this toolbag.
No. Individuals will have to pay for themselves. But usually everyone chips in to cover the person that’s leaving, so you’ll personally be taken care of.
In that case, no thanks.
Here my manager had the audacity to act hurt, as if my unwillingness to let other people take me to lunch constitutes an act of aggression or is unkind in any way.
But if you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’re aware that my tolerance for these sorts of exchanges has been reduced to something less than zero over the last three weeks. The cord is cut. I say what I think.
So I told him in no uncertain terms that the next time he takes his team out for lunch that he’d better offer to pay for everyone, one way or another — otherwise, the excursion can be considered a form of punishment.
Punishment? What do you mean?
Well, you’re essentially forcing people to spend money out on lunch, whether they’d like to or not.
That’s not true. If they don’t want to spend money, they don’t have to come.
I stared at my manager like he was a six year old child. Could he really be so dumb? So insufferably blind?
Your subordinates are scared to refuse, you know. Your invitations are interpreted as commands. Including attending lunches where spending is mandatory. Are you aware of this? They don’t have personal choice in the matter because they worry that they will get on your bad side. And you control their future lives.
That can’t be true, I always make it clear that its their personal choice.
But it’s not. When’s the last time anyone refused to go, other than me.
Other than you?
Right, like I said — other than me.
He thinks for a while but can’t come up with anything.
Then I point out that several people on the team eat lunch at their desks every single day. He considers this bit of information for a few seconds, eventually saying, yes, I’ve made the same observation.
Finally I ask if he’s ever refused an invitation from his own manager — my director — to have lunch out somewhere.
And, finally, he puts it all together. His eyes widen, and I see the lightbulb go on. (It’s about time.)
Things that I tell people are their choice they just don’t feel are their choice, is that it?
Exactly right, genius. Because you’re their boss.
What if I get approval from the company to pay for this lunch?
Don’t bother. The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away.
I don’t think he understood what I was trying to say at the end there, but that’s what came out of me.
Apparently I can channel B.B. King now.
Still, my manager told people I was leaving, and some of them did stop by to bid me adieu. Most conversations were short and pleasant enough. I even exchanged personal contact information with a handful, providing my real email address instead of firstname.lastname@example.org
I said “most,” though. One team member was a certifiable pain in the ass.
Late in the afternoon, when I was getting ready to leave, a woman caught me in the hallway and started shouting at me.
She’s the only person on my team I have trouble tolerating — I find her to be immature, unprofessional, and exhausting.
Most of the time when she shouts at me in the hallway it’s about
a) Some political issue she’s taken a passionate stand on, i.e. an inappropriate topic to yell about in public.
b) How she was up late the night before drinking wine and playing Candy Crush while simultaneously catching up on her DVR backlog so she’s really tired and by the way do I want to talk about her viewing experiences for the next twenty minutes?
c) The horrific amount of work she has, how toxic the environment is (mirror much?), how she has to work late and she’ll never, ever catch up, how grossly unfair the world has been to her.
She’s surly and sour, a complete pessimist through and through. She’s also, in no particular order, an insecure knowledge hoarder, a ridiculous spendthrift, an unreliable teammate, and completely humorless. Compared to her, I am a walking beacon of light — a glowing orb radiating hope, serenity, and good cheer. I am optimism incarnate.
Anyway, this time when she starts shouting, she deviates from her standard routines.
How’d you pull that off?
Leaving. You lucky son of a bitch.
I have family concerns. I don’t want to get into it in the hallway.
Right, Riiiiight, “Family” issues. I totally understand. What happened, you find a better job? I wish I could find a better job.
No. But again, really, I don’t want to talk about it, especially right here in the hallway, near the lavatories. It’s private.
Well, I can see why you want to leave. I can see why anyone would want to leave. Hell, I want to leave myself. I hate this place. It sucks. I’m so jealous.
It doesn’t suck–it’s been the best place I’ve ever worked.
If you feel that way, then why are you leaving? Tell me.
You’re going to have to excuse me, I have to use the restroom. Besides, I already told you. Family concerns.
Oh, that’s bullshit, I see right through you and your fake politeness. What, you don’t want to tell me? Do you not like me or something?
<At this point, her aggression has done its work: I sense that I’m about to return the aggression and there’s very little I can do about it. That’s the way it feels, anyhow.>
You’ve pegged it. Good for you. Very insightful — brilliant, actually. I’m not interested in sharing my life with you. Well done.
What’s your problem? Sounds like you have a bug up your ass.
Look, I’ll say it in a way that even you can understand: You’re awful, and I’m glad I’ll never have to speak to you again after this week. In five years when personality chips are available, I recommend you buy a new one.
I’m smiling as I say this, a big grin riding up the sides of my face, my mouth partially open, upper teeth visible — it’s one of those smiles where you’re not genuinely happy but you find your cheeks lifting anyway because it feels so damned good to just be yourself and say what you really feel.
But she’s not smiling at all. Nope, she’s standing up straight and getting ready to throw a fit. It reminds me a little of when I see one of my young nephews get ready for a meltdown — you can see it coming. The buildup. The huffing. The inflated chest, the balled fists at sides, the eyes narrowing, the conscious determination to spend the next ten minutes or more of your life as an incoherent, raging mess.
But instead of hanging around for the show, I duck into the men’s bathroom, just a couple of feet away, chuckling the whole time.
Early on Friday, my last day, I finally cleaned out my cube. After 3 years, it’d become embarrassing and gross: twenty five percent usable computer stuff, the rest items of questionable value. I pulled a blue recycling bin over to the edge of the desk and dumped stuff into it: printouts of networking diagrams, server names, data workflows, training materials, unused notebooks. I yanked a picture of a vending machine with an X through it off my velvety cube wall, a reminder to never, ever buy anything from the evil dispensary of ultra-processed quick-fix pseudo-food.
Next I filled a small box with unused office supplies to be returned: staples and paperclips, thumbtacks, a stack of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, twenty double A batteries. In another pile went stuff to drop off with our facilities group: network cables, an extra mouse and keyboard, a docking station, a VOIP headset.
Then there was the trash, the stuff that could not be gifted, re-used, or recycled: An old plastic jug of peanut butter with a nutty crust at the bottom, pink stress balls with vendor logos printed on the sides, a key-chain, all sorts of other schwag picked up from conferences that was destined for a landfill the day it was created. One drawer held plastic knives and forks, a stack of napkins, and a bundle of individual-serving condiments: Gulden’s spicy brown mustard, Hellman’s mayonnaise, the items pre-dating my arrival, and I wondered why the previous occupant of this cube stashed these away in the first place. I left these for the next inhabitant, half-hoping they’d eventually slather this stuff on a sandwich sometime in 2016, and super, super curious about how their intestines would hold out.
It took me an hour to sort through forty-odd months of accumulated junk and all along, I kept thinking: I will never do this again, I will never be here again, this will never be my cube again, I will never drop crumbs into the crevices of this keyboard again, I will never stare into this monitor again while constructing status updates on projects or updating documentation, never do effort reporting, never hear someone knock against the metal frame of my cube to get my attention because I have my headphones on while I’m coding, never see my manager lean against the wall behind me as he tensely gets me up to speed on some outstanding issue that he is dumping off to me, never this, never that, never never never.
I’ve left plenty of jobs before, but never had these feelings of unreality, because I always knew that I’d be going somewhere else where I’d have similar experiences — another cube, another manager, another set of processes to follow, other co-workers, some of whom I’ll probably like well enough and others who will take the place of Cruella or Cthulhu or the other office-villains who have inhabited my existence at various points.
Because this time is different.
It’s the first time in my life that so many things will never happen again.
After I cleaned out my cube, I walked around the office, fighting thoughts that circled around the lastness of everything. But I couldn’t help it.
Today marks the the last time I stand as part of a circle in the hallway with a few co-workers, smelling the aroma of stale coffee drifting out of the kitchen. The last time I sit in a team meeting listening my manager droning on about the importance of some initiative, my head nodding into my neck, not because I’m agreeing with him, but because I’m so bored I’m falling asleep. The last time I glance at the clock and wonder why the hell it’s not moving. The last time I see Cruella stomping down the hallways, glaring at people.
And I think: Holy shit. I’m feeling a tiny bit nostalgic for people I sincerely dislike. That’s when I realize that something sick is happening inside of me, perverting my senses.
Even with all of the planning I’ve done, even knowing that this was going to be my date for at least the last 15 months or so, even though I knew I would be leaving at this time, these feelings come at me — there is nothing that can prepare you for it. Preparing to leave is not the same as leaving; there is no way to build up an immunity. I’ve had good days here, good days in my industry, good days with my team, good days with my manager, days where people would congratulate me for pulling something out of the fire or making a good decision on a particular project, days when a co-worker would gratefully thank me for covering their ass on something, days where someone did a similar favor for me and I felt something briefly, a connection to them. Everything here is fake and flimsy, cardboard, but the memories are not. All of my work-related experiences over the last 15 years of my life — all of the frustration, the intensity, the love and pity and compassion and violence and boredom and backstabbing — they all kept welling up inside of me.
This is why I’ve planned everything so intricately and precisely. Even when you badly want to leave, leaving is hard. Leaving takes work. Leaving takes some amount of imagination, scrawling your future plans into a notebook or an online journal, perhaps sharing plans with a significant other and then working at them, shaping them like a sculptor to reach a final product, over and over again until you have something you both agree looks good enough to justify quitting your job. In order to leave, you must imagine yourself into your fate, and then execute. Your vision of the future will guard you against the inexplicable and baffling nostalgia that may creep up on you at the end.
And then you will finally leave, for the last time.
Just to prove that I can, in fact, write using fewer words, here’s the (< 140-character) Twitter summary of the day:
So I cleaned out my cube. And I got all unexpectedly nostalgic. And I said warm goodbyes to a few people and fuck you to another. Good times!
Just a bit before four o’clock in the afternoon, it’s completely, 99.9999%, now-and-forever over. I have nothing left to do and I’m about to leave.
I glance at my email for the last time and see a message from my manager notifying the company that our team is going to do some late-night stuff — some IT-wide initiative from the previous weekend failed and there was to be a re-try of efforts. Most of my teammates had to stay in the office to support this Very Important Work.
I’m not involved. I wasn’t involved in the previous weekend’s work either.
Because: Not an Assignable Resource Anymore.
I delete the email and walk out into the hallway to leave the building for the last time. And I find that most of my soon-to-be-former team is clustered near my manager’s office, which is, in turn, pretty close to the exit. They’re talking about the upcoming work.
My manager’s there. Cruella, too. And three others, people who I actually like pretty well, people who I feel just a little bit bad about leaving behind. There’s one last goodbye before I walk out. I shake hands with a few of them and walk toward the doors.
I can feel them watching me as I move toward the exit.
I see my working life flash before my eyes.
The fall into the office cave of darkness.
The search for a solution to the madness — a way out. The vision of light — the realization I can eventually leave if I cut spending and save and invest enough money to live on the passively generated income.
Blowing up large swaths of my consumerist lifestyle to make the exit hatches appear.
Committing to live underground in order to enable the growth of a large stockpile of funds — a stash that would allow me to live without work forever. Committing to creating a life worth living inside of the darkness for a decade or more.
Doubling down on work, assimilating into corporate culture, becoming valued — a good teammate, a good leader. Not just a perfect drone, but also a perfect leader of drones.
Then, finally, pulling back.
Leaving my corporate identity behind, saying goodbye to absolutely everything I’ve ever done here. Goodbye to the imperfect yet comfortable home I’ve created for myself inside of these subterranean caverns.
Goodbye to the ego satiating construct of work.
Goodbye to the misery and satisfaction alike.
I blew apart what I had built.
And as I leave the doors of my building for the final time, and I feel the eyes upon me, it occurs to me that my co-workers don’t have a clue what they’re seeing.
It’s my final escape.