Wanted: knowledge, altitude, and perhaps more?

aerial photo of a hilly landscape

After my recent posts, I decided that I’m overdue to write a lighter piece. I’ve previously posted about one of my favorite topics, my never-ending quest for knowledge. In envisioning what “retiring early” from my biotech career might look like, I always knew that taking coursework and learning new skills would likely be a big draw for me. In-person classes haven’t been an option for the past year due to COVID restrictions, but I’ve found numerous other ways to satisfy this need. The 6+ months I spent improving my app development abilities is a really good example of that, as have the hours spent in the kitchen trying to master Oaxacan moles! But what have I been up to for the past week, and how does that involve a quest for knowledge, altitude, and perhaps something more?

Drones, UASes, and quadcopters, oh my!

Seven years ago, my wife, Lorri bought me a quadcopter as a gift. It was a nice model in the midrange of the “toy” portion of the drone market, and a fun one to fly. It’s less tricky to pilot than others I’d tried previously, and in its time, took decent quality photos/videos. While I like it very much, I must admit I’ve always eyed the higher-end drones (officially “UAS” or unmanned aircraft systems to the FAA) for their impressive capabilities – particularly in recent years as their high prices finally started to drop. They are much easier to fly, stable in poor conditions, have high quality camera platforms for photography and videography, and fly longer/farther/higher. More recently, watching my friend Eric’s drone footage on his YouTube channel has only made me more interested in these drones.

Early this week, that interest grew after I struggled to control my quadcopter in a moderate wind. I quickly decided that I wouldn’t be able to get the footage for our latest Two Sides of FI YouTube video as I’d hoped. I also realized that the video quality now paled in comparison to 2021 standards. As a result, I started to wonder if this was a good time to consider upgrading. As is my standard response to a knowledge gap, I ended up down a deep rabbit hole of research. I spent hours learning everything I could about the current state of consumer drones. That included some areas I hadn’t thought much about before – federal and local regulations about the use of these craft, the many business uses of drones, as well as lots of content about how to produce high quality photos and videos with the impressive cameras now commonly used in these vehicles. I bet you can guess where this is headed…

DJI Mavic Air 2 (affiliate link)

Yep, I bought a new drone

After much consideration of what I was seeking vs. the options available, I decided on one of the top-rated models from last year: a DJI Mavic Air 2. While prices have come down a lot in recent years, an $800 purchase is definitely not one I make lightly. I slept on the idea, talked it over with Lorri, and decided to go for it. To be sure, this price point is well outside of my monthly “fun money” in our budget. But I’d recently been pursued by a firm looking for some consulting calls with me, and while I’d initially hesitated – freedom to spend my time how I want being something I value a lot – this purchase pushed me to accept some calls to offset the expense. This is a real life example of what I view as the greatest value of achieving financial independence (FI): you can choose to take on work if and when you want to. Here it made good sense to me. As it turned out, it was a good choice. The client’s interests aligned well with mine and I enjoyed the first call I had with them.

So now at the end of the week, how have things gone? I went out and flew on three of the four days (one day I volunteered at the vaccine clinic, so had to skip that one) and plan to get out later today as well. I definitely got much more comfortable flying and took some cool photos and videos along the way. Looking back to why I started thinking about upgrading, it’s hard to believe just how easy this drone is to fly even in strong winds, and also how great the pictures and videos look! Between my hands-on experience so far and all the research I’ve continued to do in between, I’m learning an awful lot. I even got some footage for the YouTube channel – stay tuned!

I’ve also realized that I may want to “do more” with my newfound capabilities. I’m really getting into the videography side of things and I can see a lot of opportunities there. Maybe it will turn into an occasional or part-time business? I certainly don’t know where things may go but I’ve got all kinds of ideas rolling around in my brain. To that end, both to increase my knowledge and to prepare me for that potential next step, I’m working on my FAA Part 107 Certified Drone Pilot license. This certification is required for anyone wanting to pursue any commercial usage of drones. Even if I don’t ever go beyond my current “recreational flyer” status, I’ll have learned plenty that I can put to use. I’m enjoying learning the material needed to pass the exam, and can already see how it will only make me a better, safer pilot.

And if you’re wondering – yes, I’m very responsible about where and how I fly. I’m equally irritated by drones used improperly or where they aren’t permitted! The rules are clear and for good reason.

Leveling up your career and your income – a key strategy!

episode thumbnail from YouTube channel, Two Sides of FI

All but the newest readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for the “Two Sides of FI” YouTube project on which I’ve been working lately. We now have two episodes available for viewing. Our most recent installation, “Two Careers, Two Paths to Financial Independence“, is really picking up steam in terms of views – it’s very exciting! Cutting our conversations down to ~30 minute episodes means we often end up with great content left on the editing room floor. That’s why movies have Deleted Scenes and Director’s Cuts, right? But how does this relate to telling you how to level up your career?

This episode concerned our career paths, which between my creative partner Eric and I, differed quite a bit. In my case, I undertook a strategy he termed “leveling up” my career. In my mind, it is really just working smartly (not merely harder!) to grow my income and my assets in order to achieve my goal of financial independence and early “retirement”. Since I couldn’t dive into all the details on the YouTube video, I’d like to share more about that with you here. Irrespective of your own path – FIRE or otherwise, I believe you will find something of use. If you haven’t yet watched the episode, I think you’ll find it good background to the rest of this post below:

You must establish and maintain a strong personal brand

This section won’t read like an obvious strategy to level up your career and income, and isn’t something we talked about in the video. Yet I believe this is the right starting place. Above all, you simply must work hard and do high quality work. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet I think you’d agree that many of your coworkers miss the mark on this. Most industries – biotech was mine – are rather “small worlds” when it comes down to it. As such your reputation will always precede you, particularly in today’s connected world. Trust me, it’s easy to find out what kind of worker an applicant is via LinkedIn contacts you both share – most people do this homework, I assure you. I always strived to do high quality work, to be known as one willing to work hard to achieve the goals, and to be someone people could rely upon. As I result, I have gotten jobs that I wasn’t a strong candidate for on paper largely on the basis of my reputation. I bet some of you have as well. I got hired to build and run a customer support organization without ever having done so before. Hell, I’ve hired a couple of you because I knew what kind of talent you had, irrespective of whether you ticked all the boxes on a job description! This. happens. every. day. Make sure you’re on the right side of that equation in your own careers.

One strategy in establishing my brand was to find ways to be known; to “put myself out there”, and volunteer for opportunities that arose. I also asked for meetings with management where appropriate to propose new ideas or even role changes for myself. I saw needs and I formulated ways to improve things, or add capabilities I felt were absent. In the best case, they’ll agree with you – and voilá: You just created a new opportunity for yourself! Early in my career, I turned a lab role into a bioinformatics position for myself, gaining a nice office and support for coursework I wanted to take to advance my skills – just by making the case to my boss. That role didn’t even exist before I proposed it!

Is there risk associated with this approach? You are likely creating more work for yourself, for starters. In addition, management may well disagree with your proposal and that won’t feel very good, particularly if you’ve put a lot of work/thought into it. But if they’re good leaders, they’ll respect your initiative and will be that much more likely to consider you for a future opportunity. If they judge you negatively or there are repercussions for your proposal, I would recommend looking for a new job. Don’t ever work with people who don’t value initiative or respect people who (reasonably) challenge the status quo!

“I figured out what annoys me about you. You’re not the most likable person at this company, but you are among the most liked. You get along with everyone and that makes me crazy…How do you do that?”

Those are the words that a particularly cantankerous colleague confronted me with one day at work. For the record, I am not liked by everyone. Frankly, I have firsthand knowledge that I annoy the crap out of some people. But it is true that I have always recognized that working well with others is a path to success. You never know when you will need help with something, right? When it comes time to recruit team members, don’t you want to be someone people want to work with? I’ve always tried to find ways to connect with people and to gain their respect – even if they don’t “like” or agree with me. I try to listen well and understand perspectives that differ from mine. I attempt to defuse conflict into productive discussion where possible, and work towards solutions. Again, this sounds obvious, but give some thought to how poorly some people do this. Make no mistake: you won’t – and don’t need to be friends with all your colleagues. That’s not the aim here. But strengthening your diplomacy skills is a key element of building leadership muscle.

Broadening your skills is essential for advancement

In many fields, it is easier and faster to advance in salary and title/level by changing companies as opposed to staying within a given company. While I do recommend and did practice this approach, truly leveling up your career takes more than that. One of the most impactful things I did was leave my familiar playground of science / R&D to take a product management role at the same company. The VP of R&D thought I was crazy to pursue this role and tried to talk me out of it. At that point, I’d spent the entirety of my then 12-year career as a scientist or R&D leader. He didn’t understand why I’d leave that path and “throw away my career” (his words) to join Marketing! I knew it was the right move. Sure, I could continue to ascend in R&D management and lead bigger teams. But for new and larger opportunities to open to me, I had to broaden my abilities – and here was a safe way to do it! I already had a good reputation at this company (see the first section above) and knew the technology well. That meant they’d be willing to take a chance with me in a first-time role; not so easy for an external candidate. I could always go back to R&D anyhow, right?

That role turned out to be an absolute game changer for me, and is a clear pivot point halfway through my career. In one of many small decisions that yielded big impacts, it was a simple lunchtime conversation with friends that inspired the courage for me to talk with the head of Marketing about the job. Learning product management filled in huge gaps in my knowledge, including many aspects of business and operations. I didn’t spend the money nor the time to earn an MBA (though having the company pay for this can be a good strategy), instead learning much of essential parts of that curriculum through on the job training! Through this role and ones that followed, I gained the breadth of experience to make me a viable candidate for senior management jobs that would come later.

This is just one example of how you must stretch yourself and leave your comfort zone to truly grow. I’ll be honest, there were some wholly uncomfortable times in that job. My peers in regional marketing had a lot more experience than I did. And as I was part of global marketing, our teams relied on each other for a variety of things. At times they took advantage of my inexperience, or even threw me under the bus when they had business downturns. But I wouldn’t change any of it! Through these challenging times, I grew tremendously. As part of that, I took advantage of a strong mentor from whom I could learn much. The skills I gained through working with him were of huge benefit then and later on, and opened new opportunities to me. They also taught me a lot about product development, project management, and so many other areas to which I wasn’t being exposed in my former R&D life.

Big gains come from aggressively pursuing and creating opportunities

By now you are hopefully understanding that a central element of my career leveling up strategy was a willingness to seek out work that would help me grow. Equally important to my aims of financial independence was increasing my responsibility level and therefore my income. To do this full, I feel you must be comfortable embracing change and be willing to take risks! Paraphrasing a comment in the video, I was rarely risk averse about work, because I’ve always felt that things would turn out well in the end so long as I worked hard and built up a good reputation. If a new role or company turned out not to be all I’d expected, I was willing to move on. Nothing is permanent and you can recover from temporary setbacks. I don’t mean to say I was unequivocally optimistic! I weighed the risks, considered my options, and went for things that I felt fit my aims.

I left what I would term “sure things” twice in my career, departing good roles at stable, respected, well-performing companies, to join start-ups. I could have spent the entirety of my career at either, as many people do. The benefits were great and they really took care of their employees. They were also admittedly kind of boring and I felt, pretty limited or at least programmatic in terms of career progression. In one of these companies, I was honored to be presented with a path through their talent management program, and the leadership roles for which I’d be eligible. I chose to leave that behind to join a scrappy startup down the road. Not only did that move eventually produce some nice income from stock options, I leveled up my skills hugely in the next five years there, along with my salary and title. Yes, I had to take a big risk to make this happen! In fact, that was my third start-up and the first that actually succeeded in any commercial sense. So it’s not like I had a lot of confidence it would pay off financially. But I was sure that I would learn a ton as I had from the others, and I could likely level up my salary and titles quickly as the company grew. This all came to pass! In my experience, start-ups are a great environment for learning, given the pace and there often being too few hands to get the work done.

Chasing opportunities isn’t all upside. At times, they can mean taking difficult decisions – moving away from family and friends, for example. I was once at a management offsite meeting when news emerged that a company leader was moving to a new role. My boss asked me: “Are you interested in his old job? If so, you should move quickly and throw your hat in the ring.” Did I want that? I really liked my current job and my team. Any hesitation soon passed. In a moment of clarity I realized I had an opportunity to negotiate something big. I was based in Connecticut at the time – far from a biotech mecca, and wanted to get to California eventually. Job opportunities were (and still are) so much more numerous there. It is also a highly competitive market! If I could get the company to move me there, it would be a big step in my leveling up strategy. I ducked out from cocktail hour to call my wife Lorri, who was supportive. We agreed it would be difficult to move away from so many people we cared about, but we knew we could always move back. So I told my boss plainly (after another martini for courage), “I’ll do it but I want X title, Y salary, and a paid move to CA”. He said he’d back me, and without hesitation walked over to the President of the corporation. He came back a few minutes later and told me they would go for it! Just like that, it was decided.

Seizing this opportunity by acting promptly and decisively – just as in other moments in my career, would allow me to level up my career, enabling so many things for my family as a result. Taking this position led me to the last few role changes in my career, along with big steps up in responsibility and my compensation. It absolutely accelerated my aims to retire early not to mention set my family on to the next exciting chapter in our lives. Admittedly it’s kind of crazy to me when I review these things in hindsight. Such a small moment in time, when managed properly, can lead to truly big things down the road! Why was I confident in being so bold? Quite honestly, I felt that I had little to lose. What’s the worst that could have happened? They’d say no, right? My hope is that in sharing this story and the other anecdotes with you, it might inspire some exciting change of your own. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

Why retire early? What does that even mean?

photo of a snowy mountain top and trees

While I’ve touched on the topic of why to retire early before, I haven’t devoted an entire post to it until now. This week I decided the time was right for two reasons: First, as part of of an upcoming episode of the Two Sides of FI project, I was reviewing my own FIRE path and specifically why I elected to work towards that goal – even before I knew a catchy name for it. Second, unfortunately several people in my life recently found themselves in tragic or otherwise difficult situations that arose suddenly and without warning. Those people’s lives will be forever changed by what they are now dealing with. No amount of planning could have prevented these things nor prepared them for them. What do these two concepts have in common? Plenty.

FIRE = FI + RE

Let’s get some terminology out of the way. The so-called “FIRE movement” has a bit of an identity crisis. That is, many people on the FIRE path prefer to separate the two elements: Financial Independence (FI) and Retire Early (RE). This is for a variety of reasons, though primarily centered on the concept that one does not necessarily (or immediately) require the other. In other words, you may achieve financial independence – the time when you could retire early, but electing to do so is an independent decision. This makes perfect sense. Achieving FI is merely a number: the point at which your assets will allow you to fully meet all of your projected expenses for the duration of your lifetime. For most people this means building a financial portfolio that enables them to “live off their investments”. But of course you can achieve this milestone, have a well-deserved glass of champagne, and then continue working in your career for as many years as you choose. Maybe you will even “Retire Normal” at a more typical retirement age of 65 or older?

However, many people like me are perfectly fine with the “FIRE” label. In my case, it is because like many I equate the “RE” to leaving my chosen career early. I worked for a series of biotech companies over 23 years and stopped about a year after hitting my FI number. It has now been nine months since I left that career and I have no intention of going back. Therefore, I “retired” from it. That said, I’m also only 47 years old. Like many people who’ve achieved FI, I will absolutely “do” more things – and I don’t just mean exploring hobbies and other interests. I think there’s a high probability that I will start up a small business of some kind that may spring from one of my existing interests or perhaps something entirely new. But wait – is that still “retirement”? I’m not interested in debating semantics. This is precisely why I often put the word in quotation marks! The important point is that since FI, I don’t “have to” work, and anything I do choose to undertake doesn’t have to be full-time. Maybe it’s even something I can step away from for months at a time while my family is off on an adventure, living abroad? That sounds pretty different from a “job” to me!

But why? You hated your job, right?

Why retire early? To be clear, I did not hate my job! In fact, I loved many things about my chosen career, despite the fact that in many respects I stumbled into it. Rather, my desire to retire early comes down to putting a very high value on gaining the freedom to spend my time as I wish. Why is that so important to me and to others on the FIRE path? I’ve heard lots of reasons, but for me it’s simple: My lifetime is finite and unknowable in duration. While I’m fortunate to be a very healthy individual, that tends to be the case until you suddenly aren’t. There are many things utterly out of your control, such as accidents. None of us knows how many healthy and able-bodied years we will have in this life – same goes for our loved ones, good friends, and everyone about whom we care. And since I believe this lifetime is the only one I’ll get, I want to maximize how those years are spent and have the freedom to do the things I want to do when I want to do them. If you’re thinking that COVID-19 has only steeled my feelings about this idea, you’re 100% right.

Coming back to work – when you’re employed by a company, priorities, timelines, etc. are established and controlled by someone else. You may oversee a large organization and have a lot of ownership and freedom in how you operate – that was the case for me for many years of my career. But everyone has a boss in the end and even the most flexible job puts many constraints on your life: business hours, weeks of vacation allotted, traveling away from family, expectations around email/phone availability – just to name a few. As a result, the majority of your waking hours – often including weekends, are largely spent in the service of your employer. By definition, the time available for “everything else” is rather limited.

Freeing your time creates the space needed for everything else

Since leaving my career, I’m now in nearly complete control of my time. As a result, post-FIRE, no two weeks have been the same. Some have largely involved education – taking Udemy courses on iOS development, as one example. Others have been full of chores, including getting our new house and the landscaping up to snuff. I’m now volunteering once a week at our local COVID vaccination clinic. Yesterday, I spent half the day with an oscilloscope probing the various circuits in my semi-functional digital piano. A few days before that, I was on a family ski trip looking up at the beautiful mountain shown in the photo at the top of this post. That was a last-minute outing that my wife, Lorri booked for us. That wouldn’t have been possible while I was working, since of course such trips were limited to vacations planned well in advance. And even then I’d still have been checking email and taking calls for work – largely early mornings before my family woke up so I’d stay out of trouble with them! That’s just a simple example of the degree of freedom that is important to Lorri and me. Post-COVID we may well take off an entire summer to travel – or even longer once our daughter is in college. Who knows? The options are limitless.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s my belief that simply creating this space will enable other fun and exciting things to follow. At least for myself, I only had so many “spare cycles” of processing power remaining after long days of work to explore and daydream. I suspect many of you can identify with that degree of fatigue. It’s why Netflix is so popular! Sure, I came up with ideas about vacations I wanted to take, and spent a few hours here and there on hobbies of interest. I did make time for the things I was excited about. But that’s a very different thing from being able to spend as much time as you want thoroughly exploring ideas, brainstorming, and testing out different things that could grow into larger pursuits. Only now by having this time, where I can truly wander about without consequence, trying and failing at many things, can I fully undertake this pursuit. I’ve learned a lot about myself already through this process, and am excited about where it might take me and my family!

That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone

All that said, while many judge those who follow the FIRE path, I don’t think negatively about anyone who doesn’t feel the same way I do. This goal is the farthest thing from interesting to some people with whom I’ve discussed it – and that’s perfectly fine! I’ve met many who choose (even once financially independent) to stay with their chosen career until mandatory retirement age or some other set schedule. They are perfectly fulfilled by that choice and I think that’s great. It’s just not the path that I have chosen and since my family supports me in this aim, here we are!

In the end we all have to make the many choices that define our lives. As I’ve written before, if you’re reading this post on a smartphone or a computer, you are among the most fortunate of our species on the planet. Whatever choices you elect to make in life, be true to yourself and to the things you hold most important and dear. Spend your years in the ways that make you happiest and feel most fulfilled. Irrespective of you specific goals, I wish you all the best for overwhelming success in what you hope to achieve!