“Why did you give up your corporate career to start your own business?” This is a common question that people ask me when they first learn about my career transition.
Once upon a time, I was the senior director of finance at a high tech company in Silicon Valley. From the outside, things seemed fine and I was on my way to becoming a VP or maybe a CFO one day. On the inside, I was stressed by a job that didn’t excite me, worried about my relationships and frustrated with a feeling of emptiness. That is, until one day, I reached a profound realization that I was creating my life from a place of deep fear and quiet desperation. This realization helped me find the courage to upend my life and reach for something more.
My Old Life
Having grown up with a successful family business, I had not needed to worry about money or think too deeply about what I wanted to be when I grow up. I’d studied hard in school but never had to work for money. The only real decision in my mind was whether I would go into the family business or find something else to do. Unfortunately, in my late 20s, a significant recession hit much of the world and we lost the family business. What was even a bigger shock to me was that my parents never imagined this would happen and had been reinvesting all of their wealth back into the business. When they lost the family business, they also lost all the family wealth.
Scared for my future and didn’t know what else to do, I started a job in corporate finance because a finance job happened to be available. While I had never wanted to work in finance before this, I regularly put in 12+ hour days and worked through weekends to climb the corporate ladder. My fear and a desire to get back to a semblance of wealth I knew drove me.
The thing about fear, is that it can push and focus a person. I wasn’t conscious of this fear, the clarity only came in retrospect, but now I see how I made big life tradeoffs to offset tiny risks to my finances and career. This myopic focus only saw what’s wrong and further justified the tradeoffs I made. So, things got better, I moved up the corporate ladder and made enough money to start enjoying some luxuries.
The other thing about fear, is that it is a bottomless pit. When my daughter was born during the Great Recession, my “paternity leave” was taking 1 day off from work and cutting back my hours to 10-hour days for 3 weeks. I was with people who took pride in complaining how long and hard they are working. What I couldn’t see clearly was that while my economic conditions improved, everything else in my life was falling apart.
My health was failing. When I went to see a doctor directly from work, I would be diagnosed with high blood pressure. However, if I were to see a doctor after 3+ days of rest, my blood pressure would test normal. The relationships with my (then) wife and kids were almost non-existent. Since I worked all the time, I missed many of the kids’ events. For years, my wife and I became more like roommates than spouses. I had no life outside of work, and I was not fulfilled by my work.
After the Great Recession, I hired a financial planner because I no longer had time or mental energy to think about my own finances. What I didn’t realize is that I had hired a financial “life” planner. I will write more about financial life planning in a separate article. For now, a financial life planner is someone who integrates the client’s values and life’s vision into the financial planning process. After I talked about changing jobs for 4 years but had taken no actions, my advisor and I sat down and had one of the most significant conversations I’ve ever had.
She guided me on a journey to uncover the roadblocks I’d built for myself and to clarify the future that I want. I saw that I did what I was doing because I felt I had no choice. I’d come to believe that, to feel safe, I needed to have money. To have money, I must work hard. To work hard, I must sacrifice other things in my life. My choices were all based on fear; fear of loss, fear of what could be, fear that I’d been lucky and that I’m not good enough to do anything else.
I realized that, if I were to die tomorrow, my biggest regret would be that I lived my life in a prison made of fears. I would regret never having taken action to find out what sparks my fire, what excites me and what would fill me with joy. I also saw that there are always choices. Perhaps not all the choices are good and certainly not all are easy, but they are there if I am willing to see. And, suddenly, the world changed.
My New Life
The awareness that I am constantly choosing is quite profound. If I believed I had no choice, it’s because I chose to believe I had none. I chose to work instead of spending time with family and I chose to believe that working less would have catastrophic consequences. Now that I realize I am choosing, I am accountable to my choices. Life becomes a continuous refining of intentions.
I decided that I would become a financial life planner myself. I want to help others who may be experiencing struggles similar to mine. I want to believe that it is possible for us to design beautiful lives for ourselves through awareness of what’s important, persistence to what we want, and compounding small changes over time. Ultimately, my clients are responsible for the choices they make on their own journeys but they don’t need to take that journey alone.
Today, I work with clients in the realm of money. While it may seem like I’m managing assets and projecting future cash flows, I’m really helping people live better lives. Much of my time with clients is in the exploration of what brings them joy, what needs to happen so that they can experience this joy, and what resources they have – internally and externally – to head in that direction. There is a freedom, passion and purpose to this work that not only energizes my work life, but also my personal life. While my wife and I ended our marriage, we were able to do it with compassion and understanding. I’ve attended all of the kids’ events and become much more a part of their lives. I visit my parents more often and now have a social circle. And, I am excited about my life like never before; realizing that finding joy in the present is also a choice I make.