Am I constantly running away from my fears, chasing a goal that keeps changing, or both?

(hu, 2 posts in 2 days, what’s up with me lately???)

One of the big mottos in the Financial Independence world is Early retirees need something to retire “to”, not something to retire “from”. In other words, people should retire early because they hate their job, but because they have something better (their own business, travel opportunities, family,…) waiting for them.

The past few weeks have been a rocky ride for me. Our daughter was born 9 weeks ahead of time, I had to take lots of time off (5 weeks) urgently to take care of our other kids while my wife was spending lots of time at the hospital to care for herself and our newborn. I’ll probably talk about this one day, because I learned a few things about myself in those 5 weeks (and yes, it’s connected to Early Retirement).

I’ve also triggered the next step of our early retirement plan: Now that we’re Kind Of Financially Independent, the next step for me in the process was for our family to move back to Japan. I started looking at a few job opportunities there and things are looking good. If things go my way, we’ll be back in Tokyo around June or July this year.

The constantly changing goals

Now that the plan is looking more and more real, my fears are coming back to me. Dreaming about Financial Independence and Early Retirement is great. Actually making it happen, on the other hand, is a bit scary. That’s probably what leads to the “One More Year” Syndrome that we constantly hear about.

Yesterday I was thinking about my approach to life in general and work in particular. Sometimes it seems I’m constantly trying to chase goals that keep evolving. Maybe I’ll never be satisfied with what I have?

A prime example is my wish to go back to Japan. Almost as soon as we moved to the US (a transfer within my company), I got very depressed (which can be seen in the early posts of this blog, or even on MMM’s forum), and told my wife I’d love to go back to Japan. She was quick to point out that I didn’t like life that much back in Japan either, and that I was eager to move to the US at the time. She was kind of right. I think I’ve always enjoyed our life in Japan, but there were lots of things I complained about when I lived there.

There was also the feeling at the time that not accepting the offer to move to the US would lead to lots of regrets. Do you remember in junior high school when all the “cool” kids would do something edgy like skip school for the afternoon, and you didn’t want to do it because you didn’t want to get in trouble, and when they came back everything went fine and they had a terrific afternoon and you deeply regretted not having gone with them? That’s probably how I would have felt if I had refused the US opportunity: “I decided to stay behind, while all the cool kids moved to the US, worked on cool projects, got promoted, and had a great carrier”.

And, in fact, that was true. I moved to the US, ended up working on cool projects, and got promoted. I also got paid much more than I would have in Japan for the last 2 years, and paid much less taxes because America. So this move contributed largely to us becoming financially independent. I regret nothing, but I want to go back. My life in the US has been depressing, and this has nothing to do with the US: it’s just that I have lots of cool memories and good friends in Japan. And family.

But now that the plan to move back to Japan is actually in motion and that I have to take action to make it happen, concerns resurface. Did I idealize my time in Japan? Maybe I’ll be depressed there too, plus I’ll make less money. Taxes will be heavier, it will be harder to keep my side gig going (many of the affiliates and ad networks I work with are much, much easier to work with for someone in the US). Maybe my kids won’t like it there, and I’m already setting them up for “failure” by having them go through the Japanese education system, where I know they’ll end up with a shitty English. Maybe I’ll start hating the Japanese bureaucracy and generally accepted xenophobia again (although in that aspect the US hasn’t evolved positively since the orange dude was elected). Maybe the stress of managing my money there will be unbearable (it’s so freaking easy in the US!).

So what was my dream again? Why do I think that moving to Japan will solve all of my happiness problems? Crap, I don’t really remember. A good friend told me: “write down the reasons you want to go back to Japan. Ask yourself if these reasons still make sense today”.

The thing is, there are lots of things I like about the US, and a lot of things I like about Japan. Sadly, I can’t have my cake and eat it, I’m going to have to choose. And at the end of the day, I’m choosing the friends and family we have there, and that we don’t have here. We might have been able to build new friendships in the US (although my introverted self keeps telling me it’s too much work), but family is in Japan and in France, not in the US, so that’s that. That’s the biggest thing I remember of my first depressed year in the US: missing family and friends deeply. This gives me a very particular goal as we get closer to early retirement: making sure to proactively stay in touch with Friends and family once we get there, to make things worth it.

Running away from my fears: The exciting life of a procrastinator

The other side of that train of thoughts was about my work, and my fears. I kept wondering why I decided so quickly that I wanted to go back to Japan, after having gone through the very painful process of moving my entire family across continents.

And I think the conclusion is that I have a very bad case of Impostor Syndrome.

Looking back at all the jobs and companies I’ve worked for, I don’t think I’ve ever been an “employee of the month” kind of guy. I like to think I’m quite clever, but I compensate it by also being the laziest person you’ll ever meet. As a matter of fact, I’m still baffled that my name is not used as an example for the definition of “procrastination” in dictionaries. And looking back at my carrier, it became clear to me that my carrier moves have pretty much always been me running away from the fear of being “discovered”. What if these guys find out that I’ve been sucking at my job? I have to move out!

My first job was in France, a decade ago. My first project was to work on a user interface for some xml editor, or something. The job was trivial, but everyone seemed to love the tool. I made presentations about it to the whole company. Then, for 6 months, I did nothing, pretending to be working on the next version, but in reality doing the absolute minimum to (in my view) not get fired. A bug fix here and there, maybe. After a while, I realized it was time for me to quit before people found out. At the time I kind of half blamed the company for not giving me something more interesting to work on. And I was surprised that this was also my manager’s opinion when I told him I’d quit. I honestly thought he’d tell me “good riddance, you haven’t done anything for more than 6 months now, I’m wondering why we’re paying you anyway”. But instead, he tried hard to keep me in the team, asked me what he could have done better for me to stay, etc… It could have been managerial BS, but it sounded honest.

Fast forward to my second job. I’m now in Japan after 18 months of learning the language and having fun as a student, but I have to find an internship. I end up in a tiny startup: two employees (the boss and his wife), and me. Great people, we click. I help them build some php/mysql website for my first project, and then go back into procrastination mode. I hat myself for getting paid by these nice people while contributing pretty much nothing to their company. They even help me land a job with one of their clients before my internship ends. Internally, I’m happy I can once again escape before these people realize that I’m useless.

The next story, with the next company, is pretty similar: huge enthusiast about the product and the work in the first 6 months, then I totally give up and rest on my laurels: I designed an internal tool that the entire company uses, and I’m basically here to answer people’s questions when they need me, but most of the time I’m just slacking off. This time though, I think the company kind of gets it. I ask for a raise a couple times, and I get told things such as “in Japan you don’t ask for raises, the raise will come to you when you manager thinks you deserve it”, or “we know you work hard, but we don’t know exactly on what, we’d like more visibility on your work”. At least they got it, before I fled to my next destination. They didn’t try to keep me, the offer from my next company was a 70% boost in salary, so they couldn’t compete.

It’s 2008, and I now work for big-tech-company. Surprisingly, I manage to stay enthusiastic about the job for 5 years until around 2014. But along the way, lots of procrastination happens. Thankfully, I’ve found a very interesting pattern: the turnover at big-tech-company is so high that just by sitting on my ass working on tiny projects, not switching teams, I quickly become a “veteran” in the company, and a resource people come to constantly. Colleagues praise me for my knowledge of our systems and I get straight A’s at all annual performance reviews. All I did was being around.

I still work for big-tech-company today, I have been with them for almost 9 years. I still reproduce the pattern of being super excited about a project for a few months, then procrastinating for months until I switch projects or move to a new team. Not that I want to behave like that. If you’ve ever procrastinated for weeks at your work despite the deadlines getting closer, you probably know that it’s not a happy place! But throughout the years at big-tech-company, I’ve learned to accept a few things:

  1. I probably have a huge case of impostor syndrome. I got promoted last year, with support from many people across the company including VPs, despite thinking it had been my worst year ever in terms of procrastination. So somehow, my colleagues see something in me that I don’t, or I’ve been very good at faking, in particular for the last 9 years.
  2. I’ve realized that what I call “doing nothing” seems to be what some people consider to be an “average” amount of work. Not trying to toot my own horn here but I think I just have a strong disconnection between what’s expected of people at work in general, and what I think is actually the right bar. I’ve heard a few times that “showing up is half the battle”, and I’m starting to understand that for many people, this is actually how they consider work. So me, being around at my desk and willing to answer people’s questions or joining their meetings to provide my “awesome” and “deep” insight on a problem, might be enough most of the time.
  3. The more I stay in the corporate world, the more I find that I (and others… I’ve had lots of time to observe people in my years as an impostor) can get away with a lot of procrastination. I’m reaching dangerous levels of being an expert at doing just the minimal amount of work. Maybe I’ve just figured the 80/20 rule to the perfection, and working 20% of the day gets me to 80% of the work done anyway. Don’t get me wrong: I feel extremely bad about this, on a daily basis. At the end of the day, I get the job done, but goo through so much pain and efforts to justify delays, or work double on the last few weeks of a project. I constantly wonder why I make myself endure this.

Nevertheless, I’m back into impostor mode these days, as I feel I’ve been procrastinating since November at least. I have a few open projects that are not making any progress, mostly due to me slacking off. And so my fear is chasing me to my next destination: If I run away to a team in Japan, my current team won’t have the time to realize I’ve slacked off for the past 6 months. Ha.

11 Comments
  1. Financial Velociraptor
    • StockBeard
  2. Mr. Tako @ Mr. Tako Escapes
    • Peter @ Finance Care Guide
  3. Mike H.
    • StockBeard
  4. Sabbaticalia
    • StockBeard
  5. Joe
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