Mid-Life Crisis and Alternate Universes

One of my favorite Onion jokes of all time is “Alternate-Universe James Hetfield Named Taco Bell Employee of the Month“. This genius post encapsulates the randomness of the world we live in, since the likelihood of James Hetfield being a guy who does odd jobs, plays guitar in a basement, and loves metal is so much infinitely higher than the odds are that he becomes a rich superstar as the singer of Metallica.

This philosophical view is somewhat similar to Taleb’s theories in “The Black Swan” and his other books where, if you did your life over and over, you would get vastly different results and individuals attribute too much of their luck and good fortune to their specific actions and experience. We are all dealing with the “Survivor’s paradox”, where those who did well get to tell their tale and those who didn’t fare so well are essentially erased from the common consciousness.

I saw this car down in my garage in Portland and thought to myself “This is the alternate universe for Carl” which is to just keep my prior job and old way of life and buy a shiny new expensive car (this is a Bentley, I would have bought a new BWM 7 Series, but who’s counting) as a distraction. That would have been a fine life, a life I understood, and the car purchase would have been a modest but visible change and distraction from what was otherwise a quite predictable path.

Instead, however, I changed everything, by moving jobs and careers and physically relocating away from my entire ecosystem of family and friends to the Pacific Northwest. This was a vast change, much larger than cosmetically purchasing a new conspicuous automobile. Starting a new job forced me to change everything, from the way I listened and studied, to the way I interacted with the environment around me. I went from walking to work to commuting by car (like 90% of the world) which is a primary negative, although at least I have been listening to podcasts which turn that driving time which was initially pure frustration into at least a positive learning experience.

For me, the goal in any professional career is to

Avoid negative events or surprises that could have been anticipated and mitigated through preparation, research, communication or hard work

This philosophy requires continuous dedication, work, outreach, and communication in order to get ahead of problems so that they can be framed in a constructive way rather than “blowing up” on you at the last minute. This in turn requires a team of skilled professionals who can take unstructured randomness and turn them into processes that deliver consistent outcomes and raise exceptions so that they can be escalated and dealt with. We also need to be able to anticipate new situations based on what the company or organizational unit is facing, and develop new strategies to at least meet these challenges head-on rather than being surprised and dragged along someone else’s line of reasoning which may be inferior or expeditious rather than being optimal.

Whenever I find myself in a negative or “catch up” situation, the question I ask myself is

Could this situation have been avoided if I had taken alternative actions?

Often the answer is yes, and for this I hold myself accountable, and try to change my forward looking actions to do better the next time. This is a very high bar and I would not generally recommend it for most people – it demands a very high level of personal responsibility and commitment to work and the ecosystem of your career (continuous learning) that can be daunting.

It is interesting when I get questions about hobbies and what I think of Portland or Oregon and I basically tell people that I don’t have hobbies and I don’t think about what’s outside much at all because changing jobs and moving into an unfamiliar company and learning everything from scratch at a rapid pace is all-consuming. I don’t think I will be able to pop my head up for a few years. To do my job at the standards to which I hold myself, there is a lot of work to do in terms of self-knowledge, team optimization, and changes needed to pivot to what is important to the organization as a whole.

On top of that, you need to keep up your web of professional connections outside of work, which means collaborating on common problems, going to conferences, and helping others outside of your organization professionally. Jobs now are transient and subject to change along with the organization so you need to continually groom your network and participate in events outside of work or you could be left high and dry if you need to leave your job whether it is for work, family or other reasons outside your control.

I was in auto-pilot in all these areas with my old career and job so I could have just picked up that shiny car to distract myself and continued on until retirement. My old job too was all consuming in its own way except I had more of the variables under control (or so I thought, could have been 100% wrong) and could anticipate conversations and where everything was going much easier than in a new, unfamiliar environment.

Due to the way corporate jobs work, when you are vested after 5 years you are in a far better place financially then when you start over from scratch elsewhere. Thus you walk away from a lot when you leave and you need to stay for a while at your new employer to even have a chance (unlikely) of ever making it back. With this in mind people ask me if I have regrets from moving but in reality I don’t give it a thought because it is wasted effort since there is no way to turn back the clock and change my situation – I’ve moved on and am going to put 100% into making my new career a success. There is simply no other way. In a way I liken it to the NFL – whether you are a 5 year veteran or a rookie, every day is hard and all-consuming, and the pace and workload and requirements just go up, up and up every year. There is no slacking or relying on insider knowledge – you need every scrap of knowledge and intensity just to stay in place or move forward slightly. Someone is always coming up from behind and looking at your job as an opportunity for advancement, and that’s the way it should be, since that’s the way it always worked for me on the way up. That’s capitalism, especially since almost all companies (not the government, sadly) are constantly looking for ways to economize and there’s a large number of new applicants out there, unless you have specific and useful skills and experience (which I’d highly recommend you try to obtain and make apparent through self-marketing).

Cross posted at LITGM

10 thoughts on “Mid-Life Crisis and Alternate Universes”

  1. The Juxtaposition between that $200,000 Bentley parked next to the $3,000 Vespa is something else! I wonder if the same guy owns both?

  2. What I find fascinating about life is it so many profound things can happen just on the smallest of changes at the time. For example my sister was out of work some years ago and while at the dentist another patient in the waiting room suggested she apply to General Mills. From that small suggestion she did exactly that and after having a rather unpleasant job there for a few years has risen to the top of a department. All because she listened to someone in a dentist office.

    I don’t really believe in a randomness Theory of life. You sure can question why some good people get killed in accidents while some who live as cockroaches seem to go on forever. But the best advice I ever had on life itself is a simple statement. “Life is all about choices”.

    Where we are at this exact moment is the result of choices we have made in the past-good and bad.

    In the case of the metallica singer I can guarantee you that one little window opened up and he decided to take it. Whether he worked at Taco Bell or it was a singer for a hate group was not simply a random event or “luck of the draw”

    But most people tend to forget about success as it generally those who have achieved it have experienced far more failure. And it’s the failure that dissuades most people from trying to take new opportunities

  3. Voice transcription sure is a dual edge sword and there’s only so much I can see on this little iPhone. Obviously Metallica is not a hate group but a hit group

  4. My mid-life crisis was having my back finally collapse from an old injury in college. I had a three level compression fracture from a fall.

    While in medical school, I began to think about future consequences. The Pathology chairman and a well known member of the department both wanted me to go into Pathology as a career. There was a pathologist at LA County hospital who was quadraplegic so that was one consideration. Pathology does not require physical strength or agility. I did not have that much foresight to make that big an accommodation to my potential future problems. I liked Surgery and chose that as a career even though it requires physical agility to a greater degree.

    After my training was complete and I began practice, I was prudent enough to buy disability insurance. As my income rose, I bought more. I also used after tax dollars, which made it tax exempt if I had to use it.

    Finally, when I was 54, I had neurological changes that indicated it was time to have the surgery on my back I had been putting off for all those years. I had shown my spine x-rays to my partner one time and he did not believe they were mine. The injury looked so bad on x-ray and I had been working as thought there was no problem. I finally quit trauma call when I was 48 after two 40 hour sessions without sleep in one month. Still, I went on in a limited practice another six years.

    I showed my x-rays to a neurosurgeon friend who said, “Don’t complain, You should be paraplegic.”

    Anyway, it was finally time to do it and I went to UC San Francisco to the chair of the Orthopedic Surgery department who had the best experience in the country. I told him I would like to have it all done in one stage if possible. The procedure usually was done in two surgeries a week apart. He agreed and just at the end of 1993, I had a 14 hour operation to decompress and fuse my spine. I spent the next six months wearing a fiberglas chest cast, that was hinged so I could shower. There was no way I could resume a surgical practice. In fact, my ability to do surgery had been prolonged several years by the development of laparoscopic surgery, which allowed me to stand up straight looking at a TV screen to do abdominal surgery. I was one of the first in California to adopt this technique and had doctors’ relatives coming from out of state to have me do it until other surgeons learned the technique.

    In the spring of 1994 I was retired at 55 and had already given some thought about what I wanted to do with the next 30 years of my life. I had been interested in the concept of measuring medical quality and had served on several boards and commissions. Most of these required that I be in active practice to serve so I had to find another way.

    That summer, I attended a program on quality improvement and heard a talk by Jack Wennberg who had done more than anyone else I had heard of to start measuring medical care in a way that indicated, if not quality, at least consistency. After his talk, I introduced myself and asked if he thought Dartmouth would accept a 55 year old surgeon in the new Masters program on quality improvement in Medicine.

    The next September, I began a new program as a student again and moved to New Hampshire to do so.

  5. I saw this car down in my garage in Portland and thought to myself “This is the alternate universe for Carl” which is to just keep my prior job and old way of life and buy a shiny new expensive car as a distraction.

    I occasionally have these thoughts after retiring @ 45-years-old and now living quite frugally off rental housing. But when I think about it longer I realize that I’m quite happy with my life w/o a fancy new car, etc. I just don’t care about those things. IMHO fancy cars and whatnot are simply expenses, more often than not status signals to our peers. I read Your Money Or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley years ago and decided that status just wasn’t a worthy goal for me.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that and I realize that everybody has different circumstances. Working many hours every week for those things is just not worth it to me.

  6. “Working many hours every week for those things is just not worth it to me.”

    I had a couple of Mercedes when I was working because it was fun and they were a write-off. Now, I have much less income and no incentive to have a big write-off. Plus, when I bought them, a Mercedes 450 SL was $16,000. They lost me when the cars got ridiculously expensive.

  7. Somebody say that Consumerism is buying things you don’t want, with money you don’t have, to impress people you don’t like.

  8. And the corollary is that there is no time to enjoy the object, because it is all spent working to pay for it.

  9. Thanks for all the comments! Lots of good ones.

    The car isn’t for others… it would be to distract myself. You do a job for a while and you get tired of it and in a rut but it is very difficult (and financially destructive) to leave. So you spend some of what you would leave behind on a car and it is a “financial win”.

    But sigh did not do that – chose a route that was a lot more work – and started over in a new town with a new job and now need to figure everything out all over again in order to mitigate some challenges that inevitably occur.

    I like the story of corporate decay too that’s a funny one.

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