Note: This post was first published in March 2021 and updated in October 2022
Fifteen or so years ago, I decided to burnish my educational credentials with an accounting designation.
Having survived the initial set of grueling exams, I was admitted to a year-long “professional development” program.
Sadly, that meant that once a month, I had to spend an entire weekend holed up in a conference room in a suburban hotel, together with a bunch of other accounting conscripts.
Not exactly what a 25-year-old wishes for, but such is the price of climbing the greasy pole professional advancement (or so I was told).
It was in that program that I met Kelly.
In her late twenties at the time, Kelly had just come back from an early career “gap year” of sorts.
Having saved enough money in her first job out of college, she packed it in just three years later – and went on a solo journey around the world.
In just over a year, Kelly did more travel than most people do in a lifetime. During our coffee breaks, she would entertain us with stories of traveling in places like Tibet, Bangladesh, and Peru.
Wistfully, the rest of us would stare in the window (facing out onto a highway), and dream of a life full of adventure.
Being holed up in an accounting session on a Saturday morning certainly wasn’t it.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Kelly.
Upon her return, she started looking for a job. With a great college degree and solid work experience, Kelly was a shoo-in for some fantastic roles. To top it all off, the job market was absolutely buoyant at the time.
Except for that damn gap year.
Every single interview she had, the (un)spoken question loomed large:
“Are you going to do this all over again in a couple of years and leave us hanging?”
Frustrated, Kelly signed up for the accounting designation.
A little further down the road, she was finally able to use it to “reboot” her career and land a plum role in a government-owned corporation. But to say it was a rocky ride would be an understatement.
Over the next years and decades, I’ve seen a variety of recruitment “models” up close, both as an employee and a hiring manager.
The classic “let’s hire an MBA with a massive student loan” approach. Grant a signing bonus – but put a clawback clause in, guaranteeing a period of modern-day servitude.
The “PSD” filtering approach (poor, smart, with a deep desire to get rich), so beloved by Jorge Lemann during his time at Banco Garantia.
Alternatively, a “married, with kids and a big mortgage” will also do. As a very senior banker once confided, this socioeconomic type was his favorite hunting ground when looking for new employees.
I’ve even met people who specifically screened applicants to zero in on those from third-world countries and in dire need of a sponsored work visa. Positive discrimination at its best.
Well, as it happens, coming off a work visa is a multi-year process.
While it plays out, you are essentially at a mercy of your employer. Losing your job typically means losing your residency status. Not going to get any pushback from this employee, lest he or she want to go back to the country they were trying so hard to leave?
And then there’s the good old “make sure to have a good explanation for all the gaps on your resume” spiel.
God forbid you happen to be the kind of person who dares to take a break between jobs. You better have an explanation for degenerative behavior of that sort!
The above are just a few “signals” you can emit, willingly (or, more often, unwittingly) in the job search process.
But what it all ultimately boils down to is that your employer will always want to have as much leverage as possible over you.
And if you want to land a job, you better signal that you are okay with that construct.
How To Own Another Person
I’ve always been cognizant of the above dynamic – which is why I rarely speak of my entrepreneurship experience in job interviews.
As with any social games, it’s something we all implicitly acknowledge, yet rarely explicitly admit.
Which is why I thought it was fascinating that Nassim Taleb took a proper run at it in his book, Skin In The Game (separate thanks to one of the readers for flagging to me – you know who you are!)
He sets the tone with the very title of the chapter (“How To Legally Own Another Person”) and goes on to say:
Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you strong evidence of submission […] displayed by the employee’s going through years depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day […]
He is an obedient, housebroken dog.
Now, Nassim isn’t as one-sided as it might appear.
He does acknowledge that for a long time, companies held up their end of the bargain, by providing lifetime employment… until they didn’t.
Which means that:
The company man has now been replaced by the company person.
For people are no longer owned by a company, but by something worse: the idea that they need to be employable.
And finally, there’s a statement that any banker (or highly paid professional) will recognize – if not necessarily admit:
The best slave is someone you overpay and who knows it, terrified of losing his status.
To be fair to Nassim, he does give a couple of hints on how to even out the balance of power.
Making a lot of money for the firm, having a crucial skillset, or having options are all part of the recipe.
And while he clearly isn’t afraid to hurt some feelings (are you an obedient dog? or a free wolf?), he also points out the explicit trade-offs.
Sure, a dog’s life might well end (and often does) when his owner passes away. But wolves face existential risks every day of their lives.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable losing that biweekly paycheck you’ve grown so accustomed to. But how about not knowing where your next dollar will come from?
That is, as Mr. Taleb eloquently puts it: freedom is never free.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned here.
Clearly, you have to be highly strategic when it comes to navigating the relationship with your employer.
Honesty is not the best policy. What your employer wants out of you, and what you want for yourself, are two wildly different things.
In other words, keep your lifestyle aspirations to yourself.
In addition, leverage is a two-way street.
You can even out the balance of power by cornering important client relationships, being the “glue” that holds a specific team together, or simply by knowing where all the bodies are buried.
Most importantly, you need to be comfortable with the risks inherent in FIRE.
As much as we want to debate decumulation strategies and safe withdrawal rates, living life on your own terms will ALWAYS be riskier than staying put in your 9-5.
Those who retired on the cusp of the current downturn are living that reality now. Portfolios down 30%, no regular income to rely on. I am 100% sure things will rebound (they always do), but it’s not a comfortable place to be right now.
And yet, as people at the very end of their journey keep telling us, living live on your own terms is the only life worth living.
As always, thank you for reading!
About Banker On Fire
Enjoyed this post?
Then you may want to sign up for our exclusive updates, delivered straight to your inbox.
Banker On FIRE is an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker. I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence, and living the best life possible.
Find out more about me and this blog here.
If you are new to investing, here is a good place to start.
For advertising opportunities, please send an email to bankeronfire at gmail dot com