In the sage words of Douglas Adams, one of my favorite authors: “Don’t Panic!” I have not reversed my decision to leave full time employment and my biotech career as part of my FIRE journey. In fact, what I’m writing about here is nothing of the sort. But it is true that this week I accepted a part-time role at a small business in my town. But I thought I retired early! What the heck am I doing and why? Read on to learn more!
OK what is going on here?
In short, I signed on to pour wine one day a week at a great boutique winery tasting room in my town. How did this happen? A friend from our neighborhood mentioned that she wanted us to meet this other couple in our neighborhood. She said we should stop by their tasting room downtown and say hi to the wife, who was working there – which we did. First, it was really nice to meet another neighbor! My wife Lorri, and I had a really great chat with her. Second, the wines were wonderful! We were off to a good start for sure.
Over the course of the conversation (which included talking about FIRE, yes!) we learned that our neighbor was pretty new to working at the tasting room, as it had only recently re-opened post-COVID restrictions easing in our area. I mentioned that I’d been considering picking up a shift at a tasting room, myself. Coincidentally, they were looking to hire someone one day a week. I decided to express my interest and she was pleased to hear of it! After exchanging text messages with her and another owner later that day, it was off to the races! I had my new hire training yesterday evening and this afternoon I will work my very first shift at the tasting room!
I thought the goal was to “retire” from work? What gives?
In agreeing to take on this role, I’ve thought about the “why” of this new and exciting development. I’m sure you’d like some answers as well! Yes, I can hear you already: Haven’t I been enjoying the freedom to spend my time as I see fit? Doesn’t picking up a scheduled task sound like it would be in opposition to that? Am I just trading time for (a small amount of) money – i.e. decidedly notpassive income? I thought the goal was to be free from the shackles of working for someone else? All of these are excellent questions!
First, this “job” is absolutely spending my time as I see fit. Post-financial independence (FI), the requirement to work to generate income to meet expenses is gone. I don’t need to work – I want to do this. Most importantly to me, it sounds really fun and that’s why I’m doing it! I love wine, I like teaching and talking about things of interest to me, and I enjoy meeting new people. Yes, it does mean committing to a bit of a schedule, but it’s just one day a week and I’ve gathered there is a good deal of flexibility. If this doesn’t turn out to be to my liking, I don’t have to stick with it because again, there is no pressure to work. The tasting room is also just a short walk or bike ride from my house, so there is no commute. It’s also far from a high-pressure situation and nothing like a corporate job either!
It’s also not about the money. I can earn >20X per hour doing consulting vs. this gig. Sure, some extra spending money is nice, but clearly there are more efficient ways for me to earn income. In addition to the fun aspect, I’m also looking at this as a means to test out an idea. One of our long standing thoughts has been to open a small brewery and tasting room. I’ve always believed that I’d really enjoy talking with people about the beer I make, guiding them through their flight. That’s exactly what this job is only with a different beverage! So while it won’t generate a lot of cash, someone will be paying me to figure out if the beer tasting room idea has legs. Sounds pretty great to me! It’s coming across less and less like a job, isn’t it?
It is another / next phase for me – likely not the final one!
At the core, I look at this step as “the next thing I’m doing”. As readers of this blog will know, I’m always trying out new things, building skills, and exploring hobbies that may or may not turn into something more. Working at a winery tasting room is yet another part of the seemingly random walk on which I am presently endeavoring in this next phase of my life. Might I love this part-time role and desire to turn it into something bigger or longer term? Of course! But I have no way of knowing that right now nor do I care either way. I’m approaching it completely open minded. Like anything I do, I’m going to work hard, try to learn a lot, and enjoy the time I spend on it.
In the initial months after leaving my biotech career last year, I found I was fretting a bit over not knowing exactly “what I would do next”. It was a combination of pressure I felt from former colleagues as well as some I was putting on myself, to figure it all out. Talking to my wife and my Two Sides of FI partner, Eric, I thankfully realized this pretty quickly. That was an important step as I could then get back to really enjoying this freedom that I am so fortunate to have! So in keeping with that, I don’t know what if anything this will lead to and I’m totally ok with that! In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the experience and gain from it everything that I can. Did I mention the wine is really great? ?
“Responsibility is essential – Maturity, highly overrated.”
How much of your personal life connects with your work identity?
As I wrote just a few minutes ago on LinkedIn, I’ve never been one who puts up high walls between my personal and work identities. I think anyone who has worked with me would agree with this. True, I may have held back a bit on how I express my identity earlier in my career, but that didn’t last long. I’ve always felt you could be professional and command respect without wearing a different face at work. I have always preferred to “be myself” as much as possible at work and let people in to my life in whatever ways seemed most appropriate. It fits with my credo seen at the top of this post.
Since leaving the workplace more than ten months ago, I’ve kept busy with a whole host of pursuits. One such undertaking has been writing this blog. Until today, people have come to the site by two primary paths: social media (my shares or those by other readers) and via organic web search. A third way is by word of mouth – either from myself or other site viewers. I have shared this site with a handful of former colleagues; primarily those who I consider friends. However, the overwhelming majority of my large professional network is unaware of what I’m doing presently. When I left my last job I updated my LinkedIn profile with my consulting company and left it at that. Why?
What kind of messages would I be sending?
I’ve thought about this for some time and talked about it with a former colleague earlier this morning. That chat is indeed the inspiration for this post! Initially, I think I was concerned about the statement it would make to potential future employers. Wait, what? I thought I “retired” from the corporate world? True, but I was really thinking: “What if I’m wrong about early retirement? Is it risky to share a blog largely concerned with that very topic should I need to go find a job later on?” I’ve gotten over this. After nearly a year, I’m more confident than ever that I made the right choice. In addition, in the unlikely event I’m proven wrong, I have no concerns about my blog, my YouTube channel, or anything I’m doing impeding future job prospects. Would I really want to work for someone who’d hold these things against me anyway?
I think the other hesitation was around the message itself. I built up a large network of former colleagues, vendors, and customers during my 23-year biotech career. I consider this group of talented people a huge asset, and one from which I’ve gained massive leverage at times. Not everyone reacts well to talk of FIRE or the idea leaving one’s career to “do something else”, as I did. Would I alienate anyone with this kind of talk? Should I care if I did? What did I really want to share with this group anyway, and why? When I thought about it, my aims were really just to stay connected. Putting material out on LinkedIn might be a good way to do that in a broad manner. It might also bring interested parties to the blog and the YouTube channel, and open new avenues of exchange with them.
So, what did I do? A few minutes before starting this article I wrote a LinkedIn post where I shared my “keys to success” in the workplace series to my entire network of ~2500 connections. I didn’t make some grand announcement of having retired early. My goal wasn’t to do that, or to boast, or anything of that nature. Rather, I saw it as an opportunity to share something I created which I thought would add value. I hope people will read it and perhaps share it with others who might find it useful. Maybe some of my connections will dig further, and read some of the other posts that don’t concern work, and discover what I’m up to? That would be great too, and even more so if it causes them to reach out and connect with me. I guess we shall see! Be not afeard!
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!
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