New town, no job…no friends?

There is so much to look forward to when you move: setting up a new home, a chance to purge the junk you’ve accumulated, exploring your new town – just to name a few. All of those things and more are very much the same when you’re no longer working. In fact, you’ve got more hours available each day to enjoy them! And you can make those numerous Lowe’s / Home Depot trips at times far less busy than you could if you still worked. But there’s something important that you don’t often see discussed on FIRE blogs or videos: the challenges of making connections and building friendships in a new town without a workplace as a central meeting point.

A brief review of recent history

I left my job nearly fifteen months ago and my family moved a few weeks later. Our new home is about three hours away from where we used to live. That means our friend group of more than eight years is within range for weekend visits, but of course those require planning. In addition, all of my close friends are still working full time – or even quite a bit more. That means weekdays are totally out and weekends are their main time to “get everything else done”. So our availability is totally different, which makes perfect sense. Admittedly I have a hard time remembering this sometimes when awaiting replies to my many text messages (sorry!).

A few weeks ago there was an otherwise inconsequential event in my life that started me thinking more about this topic. As we discussed on a recent episode of Two Sides of FI, I had made weekend plans with friends near our former home. For perfectly sensible reasons, my friends needed to postpone. I was really disappointed, and even more so than I’d let on to anyone involved. The change of plans made me feel like I didn’t matter as much to my friends as they did to me – which was of course a very silly and wholly irrational reaction. But the emotions I felt were very real, I assure you.

Why was this little thing so impactful? I had really looked forward to those plans, it seems. But why? Sure, it would have been fun to see friends. But we didn’t have anything monumental planned for that weekend, after all. And we’d likely all get together in just a few weeks (we did, and it was great). The answer is pretty simple: I haven’t made many friends since we moved, and I’m almost solely relying on my out-of-area friendships for that connection. There are a variety of reasons I haven’t yet made many friends in my new town, COVID being just one of them. But there’s a simpler reason well within my control, and one I just hadn’t yet realized.

Making friends for the world to see

Your place of work is not the only opportunity to make friends, of course. Many people build friendships through civic groups, clubs, or places of worship. But at least for me, my closest relationships have always come from the workplace, so it’s what I know best. There is no easier place for me to find like-minded people, and the collision factor of working in an office provides many opportunities to learn about people. From there originate the kernels of what later yields close friendships. It’s a very different beast to start from zero in a new area where you are no longer working – at least for me, anyhow.

My ever-astute wife, Lorri, pointed out something rather eye-opening to me while filming 2SFI: I hadn’t really been doing very much to make connections and build new friendships since moving. Honestly I hadn’t really thought that my inaction was such a big part of it but of course she was 100% right. People clearly weren’t lining up on our doorstep to introduce themselves and hang out with me – I have no illusions that I’m so interesting or fun to be around such that they’d want to do that. So naturally I had to be much more motivated about the whole thing. Obvious, right? Truly, it hadn’t been to me until that moment.

Current status + steps taken so far

I’m not lacking for social interaction in our new town. In fact, one of the very reasons I took the job one day a week at the winery tasting room is for that engagement with others. That goal has been achieved, and I’m really enjoying it. But it’s not likely I’ll make effective friendships from a largely tourist customer base. However, just working in wine has given me a springboard to meet others in the industry who clearly share common interests with me, and that’s been great. Lorri works part time at a brewery. As you’ve gathered, I like beer, and frequent those establishments as well. So any of these things could well yield friendships. Recently, I’ve started to more actively seek out opportunities to meet industry folks. I think I’m off to a good start and have met some great people but clearly need to keep it up.

As I wrote above, clubs are also a great place to connect with people through common interests. Both Lorri and I are 20+ year homebrewers and love engaging in activities around beer. There is no local club dedicated to homebrewing in our town, so we are starting one! After polling for interest in a few online forums, our first meeting is a week away. I’m excited for the possibilities here. In addition to hopefully making a few good friends, this is also an opportunity for me to teach, something I really enjoy. So even if I’m wrong about it being a great way to make friends, I know I’ll find benefit from starting up this organization.

Where do I go from here?

I think persistence is the name of the game for me at present. As described, I’ve taken a few smaller steps to put myself out there more and actively seek opportunities to connect with people. And I’ve met some nice people who I enjoy hanging out with. But I also know that I’m just getting started. I need to follow up on the leads I have and also seek more. There are a few people with whom I feel there could be a connection. I need figure out if that’s true or if they might just be nice acquaintances. It takes time to build good friendships, after all – and that’s OK. I certainly believe it is effort well spent.

I will certainly continue to get together with my very good friends who live out of the area – several are irreplaceable in terms of their importance to me. And I don’t want that to change! But realistically, I also need to keep seeking opportunities to make friends locally. This town is where we’ve chosen to live and at least for the foreseeable future, will remain. It just makes good sense to find a couple of good friends nearby. Wish me luck!

image source: Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

How we decided where to live post-retirement: A discussion

Part 1:

Part 2:

We didn’t just throw a dart at a map and end up on the Central Coast of California, did we? Of course not! Those who have been following this blog for a while may recall that I’ve written about this topic previously. Re-reading that post, I think there’s plenty of good content in that article and I’d still recommend checking it out. But we can always improve on our work, right? To that end, our most recent Two Sides of FI episodes are a two-part series on this important topic. And in my opinion, the conversational format of our YouTube channel is a great match for this subject!

Of course not everyone chooses to relocate in retirement. They may well have a paid-off house in a town they love, have built up a network of good friends, and are very happy where they are. But particularly in the case of those who are on the FIRE path and elect to retire early, a move is often in the cards. This is commonly the case when one lives in a (very) high cost of living area, like the San Francisco Bay Area – as I did. My family really enjoyed the eight years we spent there, but had always planned to move to a lower cost of living area once I stopped working. That’s a great starting point, but how to proceed with the search to find a new home town, particularly when your options are so numerous?

To learn more about the process my family followed and how my show partner, Eric, is doing the same, please check out the videos linked above – or the podcast version (parts 1 and 2) If a move is definitely or likely to be in your own future plans, I think you’ll find value in the approach we discuss. If you would like a free copy of the “Where to Live” tool that we discuss, you can find one for download at the episode’s show notes.

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!