After graduate school, before tenure, a lot of academics wonder if they’ve made the right decision. Is this really what we want to be doing for the rest of our lives, and at this institution, in this geographic region? We start to notice things like there’s life outside of work and if we don’t start now our youth will have slipped away before we enjoy it. Our similarly smart friends who didn’t go into academia or graduate school often have spouses and children and money and houses and they’re living where they want to be living. Some of them are even independently wealthy and in partial retirement.
It’s hard because it’s not too late to change. It’s not too late to forget that we made these decisions and try to do something completely different. (Of course, it is never too late to change… but given that employers like best to hire folks in their 30s, it’ll take more effort on the other side of that decade.) Folks at our stage are not necessarily miserable, but they do notice that in general things are not perfect. We wonder if making a change is going to destroy everything or make things better. It’s scary.
And even when the impostor syndrome isn’t keeping us down, the current economy is making our outside options not quite so attractive and diminishes our ability to take risks. It’s not obvious that the alternatives out there if they exist are better. If we’re not truly miserable, it’s harder to make that jump. If we are truly miserable, then sometimes that jump is worth taking anyway.
Going through this pre-mature mid-career crisis and watching many many of my academic friends and colleagues do the same in the past few years I’ve come to a few conclusions:
1. Life is a journey, not a goal. Things are never all good or all bad. Even if things aren’t great today, you can make a plan to make them better in the future. When we’re smart and educated we can create an escape plan, even if it involves doing something completely unrelated to our current skills and experience. That escape plan helps us enjoy today too because we are never truly trapped.
2. You have a LOT more options when negative shocks occur and you’re a lot less trapped if you’re good at living well below your means and have a serious emergency fund saved up. If you’ve got some extra saved and it’s making its own money, that’s even better. Not buying as much house as we could afford (keeping fixed expenses down), and living like graduate students even after we’d gotten a real salary until we had a real measure of security, has allowed us amazing opportunities to explore and keeps us from ever feeling trapped or too stressed out about our specific situations. We put in our time being poor, saving too much by some measures, and it was completely and totally worth it. Thank goodness for us in time t-n. Scrimping and saving now buys freedom later. That freedom is priceless, no matter what Suze Orman says about the importance of using loans to consumption smooth when you’re young.
3. If your health is being affected, you need to take a break. Even if you don’t have the money to do it. Talk to friends and family outside your department/university and come up with an escape plan.
I didn’t come to these simple conclusions alone though, and even if I knew them rationally I didn’t really understand or internalize them, just like folks reading are probably not internalizing them from my brief paragraphs. Your Money or Your Life is really not the best written book, and the introduction of the new edition is waaay too preachy on the subject of environmentalism, BUT it is an incredibly thought provoking book and an amazing read. Before reading it, I did not realize the things that are actually possible, even on a modest income. I thought I understood money and rationally I did, but I didn’t really internalize exactly how money really is time and freedom in addition to goods and services.
I read YMOYL. It made me think. It made me dream. It gave me a path to freedom which grants its own mental freedom. Then I made DH read YMOYL. It snapped him out of a 3 year long job-related funk. It got him interested in our finances (something that had been just me before). It made him think that maybe everything is going to be ok. I bought it for the other half of this blog. She thought it was great and got many different things out of it. DH got a copy for his colleague who can’t seem to find a job he likes– it has made him calmer and more relaxed about taking chances and I suspect has had spillover effects on his academic spouse. I suggested it to a friend who is unhappy with her current position. It helped her build a multi-year escape plan which in turn is helping her enjoy life as it is.
On the other hand, I suggested it to a lawyer I know who is completely stressed out about work and family and finances despite having a family income of something like $500K/year and she pretty much bit my head off. (I had to apologize for forgetting that some people complain in order to be listened to, not in order to solve their problems. I’m such a guy linguistically.) DH also bought a copy for his cousin with the 5 kids and the money problems and he hasn’t cracked it open yet. Similarly with another friend who just left a truly awful employment situation (but I’m sure it’ll help once she gets a copy). But still, it’s super thought-provoking and can really help with that early mid-career angst.
Anyway, I totally recommend you read it, even if you’re not going through mid-career angst. It’ll make you think if nothing else, and thinking can be fun. Then tell me what you got out of it. My friends are all getting different things, and I think that’s wonderful.
If I had to be in a book club… that’s totally the book I’d pick.