The Escape Hatch

A good friend of mine whose job is quite similar to mine was recently propositioned by a tech start-up. Nothing glamorous – just an inside sales gig with a few stock options – but he had visited their office. The raw energy and sense of purpose he sensed among the employees stood in stark contrast to his current routine.

He asked me to meet him for a beer and talk about the decision. Why anybody would want my help while making important life decisions is beyond me, but I decide I’m up to the task of drinking and listening. Over several hours and a few pitchers, we hashed through the pros and cons of each decision. What were the implications for his career? His lifestyle and relationships? His happiness? It was hard to advise him dispassionately though, because the options he faced were remarkably similar to my own.

Option #1 was to remain safely in the womb of his current semi-lucrative, semi-prestigious profession. The pay is good, work is not stressful because it never involves taking actual risks, and we are almost guaranteed employment and gradually increasing pay until we retire in thirty years. Woohoo.

Option #2 was to quit his job and join the start-up at a reduced salary. There would be no job security. Hours would be long, pay would be conditioned on his performance, and he might wind up passionately and openly hating his job and life. As of now, he only hates it mildly and in secret. The upside? He could be a part of something great.

We started by estimating the salary differential. What’s the difference between X and X minus 30k + 0.5% of total company sales? Answer: Impossible to say. Which is kind of the point.

Then we looked at the potential quality of life. What’s better: 90-hour weeks in an office where everyone laughs about how they all sleep under their desks, but they’re part of a team on a mission? Or 40-60 hour weeks spent contemplating your worthlessness to the human race while manacled to your cubicle?

Lastly, because it took us four pitchers to get there, we asked: How does each job reflect on us as people? As men? At this point, I was no longer talking about just him:

“Bottom line, fuck the money, fuck the hours, fuck it all. What matters is that we both know how pointless our jobs are. These guys at [the tech start-up] are out there doing something. They’re trying to solve problems, so people can live richer, happier, easier lives. What are we doing? We’re leeches. We throw sand in the gears of the productive economy, then get paid to clean it out. When I sit down at my desk in the morning, when my pay check lands in my bank account, when I lay down to sleep at night… my brain knows, my soul knows that I’m wasting my life. That shit is not conducive to fulfillment and good mental health.”

I tell him, go take the job. I’m no longer listening to the arguments, just hypothesizing vicariously through him. My friend says that their will be better options in the future, he is months away from a promotion and a big raise at his current gig, his girlfriend will be angry, the commute will be a killer. I don’t care. I tell him, take a fucking chance. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and a world to gain.

It’s not true though – he has a job that 90% of guys our age would kill for, and walking away from it wouldn’t be easy. He likes his life right now, and points out that he couldn’t play on our hockey team anymore if he took the new job. He doesn’t want to give up his evenings and weekends. I refuse to see his point of view though. I’m drunk, and focused completely on how necessary it is that we quit our jobs, no matter what the alternative is.

After a while, I realize that I’m no longer helping a friend make a decision. I’m just ranting about my own problems. These things happen when blood-alcohol content cruises into the double-digits. I check myself. I ask him, what does your gut say? If you had to make a decision right this second, what would it be? He says he would decline the job. I ask him which decision he is more likely to regret. He says declining the job. I tell him to map out his best- and worst-case scenario in each job. Compare them. How bad are the worst-case scenarios? How would you recover from them?

The waitress brings our tab. Last call was a half hour ago.

So what happened? He declined the job. The recruiter – a close friend of his – offered to negotiate the salary, the hours, the commission, but he didn’t want to hear it. Comfort, safety and security – in a single word, inertia – are not to be underestimated.