Back in my 20s, when I was still working my somewhat boring corporate job, I had a few friends who managed to “break into” investment banking immediately post undergrad.
The lead-up to Christmas was always an exciting time for them – not least because back then, quite a few banks would pay bonuses in early December.
Thus, my friends would share stories of walking into their group head’s office – and walking out with twenty, thirty, or even forty thousand dollars more to their name than they started the day with.
Those numbers, punchy as they seem, would pale in comparison to what the more senior bankers would rake in after a good year – and you will hardly find a banker complaining about the mid-noughties.
With spirits already in spending mode (thanks to relentless Christmas advertising), the bonus round was like a nitro boost for bankers.
An orgy of conspicuous consumption would ensue, as everyone headed down to the brightly lit downtown shops, topping it up with extravagant nightclub parties later on.
This may or may not have happened…
For my friends, most of whom did not come from money, it was like a trip to fairyland.
Observing them, I often wondered just how good it must feel to be able to buy anything you want, and to spend Christmas ensconced in a firm sense of financial security?
The Flip Side Of The Coin
It’s fair to say that the 2010s have nothing on the noughties, what with the hangover of the financial crisis and everything else. No more Aston Martins outside the office at bonus time.
And yet, having migrated over to the other side, I find it nothing short of fascinating observing the behaviour of people in the industry.
As it turns out, my friends weren’t lying when they regaled me with stories of spending bacchanals. At the same time, they didn’t exactly share the full picture either.
Conveniently, they would leave out the stories of anxiety, the fear of the Blackberry flashing red come Christmas eve, a signal that holidays were about to be interrupted and spent back in the office.
Control over bank account? Check.
Control over calendar? Gone with the wind the moment you signed up to this modern-day Faustian bargain.
Interestingly enough, most folks don’t seem to appreciate how merciless this trade-off really is. Year after year, they engage in the futile exercise of trying to spend their way to happiness.
Sadly, the latest trinket from Selfridges provides nothing more than a temporary serotonin boost.
On many an occasion, I would watch my colleagues waltz into the office on a Saturday afternoon, sporting a new Burberry coat or flashing a new Rolex or even a Patek.
Fifteen minutes and some perfunctory chat later, they would settle in front of their screens and stare down the barrel of a long night ahead.
Reality would slowly sink in. That expensive piece on their wrist only reminding them how quickly the valuable time goes.
Those who still think money equals happiness should take a walk through the City or Canary Wharf come the first week of January.
That experience alone should be enough to make you reach for a bottle of Prozac.
Thousands of seemingly successful, well-paid people heading back to work. Soul and bank account, both empty. Control over their time still nothing but a distant mirage.
And yet, it simply doesn’t have to be this way.
Taking Back Control
Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of Christmas disasters over the years, with just a couple of uninterrupted holidays.
One year stands out in particular. After an exceedingly tough year, I was really looking towards a period of quiet decompression at home – and bonding with our newborn child.
It was all going swimmingly until December 25th, when a calendar invite landed in my inbox for a 9 am call the following morning.
Twenty-four hours later, a client mandated us on a deal. Cue in weeks of relentless execution and more time in deserted airline lounges I could ever wish for.
It could all have been very depressing – except that it wasn’t.
A big reason was the deal’s raison d’etre.
Our client was facing an existential crisis and had to move incredibly quickly to ward off bankruptcy. Thousands of jobs were on the line, which made signing on the dotted line a few weeks later much more enjoyable than usual.
Another big part of it was the process itself.
By this point in time, I’ve already had enough experience (and confidence) to practice my craft pretty much independently. I guess you could say I was in the flow.
But most importantly, it was the knowledge that I wasn’t on a hamster wheel. By virtue of not signing up for the investment banking “lifestyle”, I had no golden handcuffs to break in the first place.
Perversely, the freedom to walk away was the very thing that kept me going in the first place.
A Moving Target
Someone once said: “By the time you have the money, you realize it wasn’t about the money”.
There’s a lesson here for FIRE devotees as well.
Pursuing financial independence can be a very blinkering experience at times. Supremely focused on the net worth number, we fail to ask ourselves what comes next.
However, as Monevator recently pointed out in yet another excellent post, there is much more to FIRE than hitting an arbitrary number in your bank account and waving your cubicle goodbye.
Just like the unrealized promise of banking bonuses, all the free time and independence could well fail to hit the spot.
In a way, thinking FIRE will make you happy is just as misguided as thinking that money will make you happy. And by the time you FIRE, you could realize that it wasn’t about FIRE in the first place.
Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t pursue financial independence in the first place. Please do – just don’t forget to enjoy the journey.
Thank you for reading!