Make Your Corporate Job Work For You

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People often pursue the Untemplated life as a way to rebel against “sellout” jobs–jobs that pay well in exchange for enslavement to corporate America, leaving little time to even enjoy the big paychecks.

But what if a sellout job (and I use the term in jest) could enable you to live an uncommon life, and even create a mobile lifestyle? It seems contradictory, but I pursued this kind of job straight out of college in order to find freedom from the career template.

Most of my college classmates, like me, were clueless about what they wanted to do in life. After graduation, my classmates would often take a year or two to Explore. This often meant traveling, volunteering, or working at a coffee shop–you know, things you do while you figure out what you really want to do. Ironically, after a few years of this, people often seemed to end up in corporate jobs anyway.

This was not going to work for me. I was tired of being broke, and extending my financial and career insecurity in the name of Exploration was not appealing.

So I decided to do the opposite of my classmates. That is, I would get a sellout job straight out of college. I would pursue a healthy paycheck and work experience. Then, after my requisite 2-3 years, I could have my soulful post-college Exploration year.

I took a job at a small New York City management consulting firm, where I worked for 4-12 months on projects all over the country. It turned out I had a knack for business, and and my sellout job ended up being pretty great. With a little maneuvering, I turned a job that would bore some people to tears into a fantastic adventure. I eagerly joined unpopular projects in unsexy cities, and I’d spend evenings exploring each city’s unique features. I moved across the country a couple times to be closer to clients. When my firm was hired for a year-long project in Eastern Europe, I volunteered to relocate for the duration of the project. My bosses loved it, since having me based in the client’s city would save money and time, and I could work more closely with our client. On weekends, instead of backpacking through Europe on a shoestring, I was able to leverage my Eastern Europe home base and New York City paycheck to travel in style.

The choice to work in a corporate environment certainly required sacrifices. I worked long hours, and my social life suffered. The work was sometimes stressful and dry, and I wrestled with the fact that I was not tangibly contributing to the betterment of the world. But I kept sight of the fact that this was part of my plan to finance my post-college Exploration, and in the meantime, I enjoyed pursuing an unconventional life through my job.

I saved diligently. I maxed out my retirement plan. I bought an investment property. And then, when the time was right, I quit my job. Now, I’m fully entrenched in my Exploration year. I feel like I’m fresh out of school with a world full of possibilities, only now I have 3 years of solid work experience, a retirement account, and a professional network. Doing things backwards certainly can have its rewards.

While not everyone has the option of getting a high-paying job, traveling the world, and then quitting to follow their passion, the fundamentals of this path are applicable to anyone graduating from college, hoping to pursue an unconventional life:

1) Be realistic. Realize that whatever you do, you’ll need to pay bills from day one. Learn ahead of time what those bills will be, and find a way to pursue your passion while taking care of everyday living expenses.

2) Value self-sufficiency. Your parents have supported you for decades, and I understand the temptation to accept their financial help. But see if you can stand on your own two legs now, even if it means taking a job that isn’t your dream. You’ll learn more about how the world works if you make your own way.

3) Be opportunistic. Always have your eyes and ears open for opportunities, whether professional or personal. Keep your definition of success fluid so you’re open to anything.

4) Keep your cost of living low. The larger you live, the harder it’ll be to quit your job when other opportunities present themselves.

5) Stick to your goals. If your plan is to take a 9-to-5 job while working on your startup at night, do that.

6) Avoid indecision paralysis. Big decisions are hard. But not making a decision isn’t an option in life–if you don’t choose, then the world chooses for you, and the outcome is rarely very good. So jump in, and start living your life.

“Personal

Unconventional Guides

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg May 10, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Very interesting thoughts – and a very unusual approach to a career! But I think you’ve got it about right. The future belongs to those break the old patterns!

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Rebecca May 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

I agree, Greg! That’s one thing I like about Untemplater – it encourages young people to break patterns and experiment.

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Rachel May 10, 2010 at 6:11 pm

You are an inspiration! This is definitely good advice for all–but especially for women. You get a real taste of the working world, understand its demands, and then you are able to make an *informed* decision about starting a family and what that will “cost” you.

This is especially great:
6) Avoid indecision paralysis. Big decisions are hard. But not making a decision isn’t an option in life–if you don’t choose, then the world chooses for you, and the outcome is rarely very good. So jump in, and start living your life.

It’s like what T.S. Eliot writes in The Waste Land:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed

…or my own personal motto: “fuck it!”

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Rebecca May 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for reading! I also like Jeff Bezos’ Regret Minimization Framework: when you’re old and about to die, what will you regret not having done? Helps give you a kick in the pants when you need it :)

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Michael May 10, 2010 at 10:34 pm

“my sellout job ended up being pretty great” – that’s all we can hope for when we sell out!

I agree with #4 – keeping your cost of living low is so important to maintain flexibility.

Great post.

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Joe May 11, 2010 at 12:09 am

Great advice for graduates, but it makes me wonder just how powerful the allure of “exploring” is? Thoughtful and eloquent as always… thanks Rebecca!

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Adventure-Some Matthew May 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

This is my wife and I’s plan as well! Upon graduation, we’ll take the “traditional” jobs if that’s all we can find. But for a reason: to pay off our school debt as quickly as possible, then a bit longer to build up our savings and retirement. Max time-frame? 5 years. And that’s with minimum wage jobs.

After we’ve payed off our school debt, we’ll be free to take the jobs that really excite us, or just take off and explore more of the world.

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Rebecca May 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm

It sounds like a smart plan to me. Get rid of your debt so you can really be free. It sounds “uncool” to prioritize debt repayment, but just talk to a 45 year-old who’s still paying off student loans and they’ll tell you to do exactly what you’re doing.

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SongH May 11, 2010 at 10:59 am

That’s an interesting take on the structured corporate pipeline and I think that without the framework that you’ve laid out, people in a similar situation can end up in a very different place. http://baselinescenario.com/2010/05/04/why-do-harvard-kids-head-to-wall-street/
Way to stick it to Gen X!

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Kathryn May 11, 2010 at 11:37 am

This article redefines the period of exploration! It isn’t a once in a lifetime episode, or an abandonment of responsibilities, and it isn’t just wandering around somewhere with a backpack (though it could be). It’s open to anyone if they let themselves walk through more doors than they close. Maybe young and old will see more of life as a process that they influence and create every single day. Nice writing!

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Rebecca May 11, 2010 at 3:31 pm

@Song – great link! Thanks for the insight…it’s true that it’s all to easy to get stuck creating financial WMDs if you’re not careful.
@Kathryn – It’s so true. Exploration is something you can do throughout your life, and in different ways. Thank you for reading!

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Edward - Entry Level Dilemma May 11, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Similar (or opposite, depending on your prospective) to your story about sell-out jobs, I took a “temporary” job in college and discovered that I loved it. I’m at a different company in a different state, but I’m still doing that “temporary” job.

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Rebecca May 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm

There’s worse things than stumbling upon your dream job! Good for you :)

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Jane May 12, 2010 at 9:35 am

Such an unusual path for a college grad to take; it seems that you hear about the career path being pursued right out of college … and never, ever deviated from. Or the backpacking thing happens. You leveraged your time and your experience really well … and now you’re in a position to explore options with some $ in the bank and lots of confidence …. not to mention work experience, should you wish to jump back into the corporate game.

I’ve gotta hand it to you, Rebecca. Well done.

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The General May 12, 2010 at 8:54 pm

This is perfect timing for this post! I am in a very similar position right now: I am in a 2 year finance program with my company (1 year down) and have been considering doing a similar move that you have done. I just paid off the rest of my debt, so I can now begin to start building my savings account.

I’d love to hear more about your journey so far. How long have you traveled? Where are you traveling? Are you earning an income on the side? Volunteering?

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Rebecca May 12, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Good plan! I’m actually not traveling at all. Since my job involved so much travel, for me “taking a break” means staying home. After a couple big moves, I’ve found the right city to live in. Professionally, I’ve basically been exploring new, independent career options–writing a book, writing a blog, and now starting my own company. I’ve been following through on each project until I find something that resonates as a long-term prospect.

I’m not earning income on the side (other than rental income on my property), which definitely makes things a bit more stressful than I’d like. But I’ve got a firm handle on my finances and I know exactly how long I have until I need to pony up and get a job (which I’m trying very hard to prevent by building a viable business). I think for most people, traveling and volunteering is a great way to do your Exploration time, and I’m sure you’ll love it!

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Gali Hagel May 15, 2010 at 6:28 am

Great piece! It’s good to know the younger gen has it down. I think you’ve been doing it in exactly the right order…and now have all that flexibility to design your life and career, whether you continue on your own or jump back into the corporate game. Congratulations Rebecca!

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