Despite the many challenges our nation faces, America is still the land of freedom and opportunity. People are free to get their own jobs, chart their own life course, and hold their own beliefs. We don’t have a Central Committee that assigns people their work roles, like they used to have in China and the Soviet Union. We have choices. If you want to become a bank president, you can try to do that. If you want to become a carpenter, professional karaoke singer, or astronaut, you can give it a shot. You may not succeed, but no one can stop you from trying.
That’s why it’s so sad, and not a little bit surprising, that so many people hate their jobs!
I understand there are forces that can pressure you into work you don’t like. If you’re living in a town in West Virginia where the only jobs are in the local coal mine, you have a tough choice to make. But the vast majority of us have enough mobility and means to position ourselves in a career that we enjoy and would stick with long past the traditional retirement age.
I learned this lesson early in life, during my brief tenure as a schoolteacher.
I Was a Teacher—For a Year
I’ve had the experience of entering a profession that I quickly realized wasn’t for me.
Once upon a time, I wanted to be a teacher. I had good memories of some of my elementary school teachers (my mom even taught Kindergarten), and teaching seemed like a noble profession. So, I went to college, earned a degree, and got a job teaching sixth grade. At the end of just one year in the classroom, I realized I made a big mistake. Teaching is a wonderful calling, but was not the calling for me. I told the principal I’d be leaving at the end of the school year.
I had no regrets. I tried it and it didn’t work.
But there was something else that surprised me and made me a little sad.
When I started telling my fellow teachers that I wouldn’t be returning, I was shocked by some of their reactions. I was in my early twenties, and they were in their mid-thirties to early forties. To my amazement, the reaction that I got from many of them was, “Oh, I wish that I could just quit too! I’d love to find something different to do, but I’m fifteen years into my career, and at thirty years, I’ll be eligible for my pension.”
The notion of “I’m fifteen years in and I have fifteen years left” sounds less like a good life and a lot more like a prison sentence.
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an isolated thing just for the teaching profession. It just so happens that was the career I tried and then put aside. There are plenty of wonderful people who love teaching and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.
One such person was Agnes “Granny” Zhelesnik. On Saturday, January 14, 2017, two days after her 103rd birthday, she passed away. Her life was notable because she had been profiled in many publications as America’s oldest teacher. As Time magazine wrote in January 2016, at age 102, she still worked almost full-time teaching preschool and elementary-aged pupils how to cook and sew. She got a ride to school each day with her 72-year-old daughter, also named Agnes, and who was also a teacher.
Granny had been a teacher at The Sundance School in North Plainfield, N.J., since she was eighty-one years old. She told the Courier News of Bridgewater that she planned to keep teaching her students for as long as possible. “These children have to grow up to be a hundred first,” she said. “I am going to stay as long as I can, make them happy as good as I can.”
I’ve advised many people over the years who are in jobs they don’t like. They do things that they don’t enjoy just to make money, which they use to buy things they don’t really care about to impress people they don’t really like.
It’s a vicious cycle that many folks can’t seem to get out of. When it comes to the notion of work and retirement, it really becomes about how you’re going to spend your time, both now and down the road. Do you really want to go to a job that you don’t like, or spend your time doing things you don’t enjoy for a shorter period of time, just because you think that maybe later you won’t have to do anything? Or would you rather spend your time now doing more of what you’re good at and build both your career and your life?
If You Hate Your Job, You Have Plenty of Company
Job dissatisfaction is surprisingly high.
In August 2018, The Wall Street Journal published an article that seemed to be cheery news. The headline was, “US Workers Report Highest Job Satisfaction Since 2005: More jobs, fewer layoffs contribute to brighter career outlook.” The article said, “Just more than half of US workers—51 percent—said they were satisfied with their jobs in 2017, the highest level since 2005, according to a new report from The Conference Board, a business-research group.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the story could just as easily have been, “Just under half of US workers—49 percent—say they are unhappy with their jobs.”
Nearly half of all American workers are unsatisfied with their careers!
Perhaps not surprisingly, the WSJ article reported that workers on the upper end of the income scale were happier than their counterparts who earned less. “Nearly 58 percent of those with total household income above $75,000 report feeling satisfied at work, compared with around 45 percent of those from households earning less than $75,000.”
Let’s turn that one around too and make it “Nearly 42 percent of those with total household income above $75,000 report feeling unsatisfied at work.” This means that even if you make well above the 2015 median US individual income of $56,516, you have a good chance of being miserable at your job.
The Pew Research Center produced similar statistics. A 2016 report revealed that 59 percent of those with an annual family income of $75,000 or more said they were very satisfied with their current job, compared with 45 percent of those making $30,000 to $74,999 and 39 percent of those making less than $30,000. This means that 41 percent of higher-income workers would report being unsatisfied with their jobs.
Sixty percent of those with an annual family income of $75,000 or more say they get a sense of identity from their job. This means that 40 percent—many millions of highly paid workers—do not get a sense of identity from their job.
Money can buy a lot of things, but happiness and a sense of personal identity are not among them.
Why are well-paid people unhappy with their careers?
J.T. O’Donnell, founder and CEO of WorkItDaily.com, thinks she has the answer. In her article “I Spent 15 Years Studying Why People Hate Their Jobs. This Is the Top Reason,” she posits that it’s what she calls “praise addiction.” Her theory is that in childhood, we are often conditioned to do good things in return for praise from the gatekeepers—parents and teachers. But managers in corporations don’t pay their workers in praise, they pay in cash. Eventually, the thrill of the big paycheck wears off, and our inner child starts to miss the praise we got when we were kids.
O’Donnell’s solution to the lack of praise is two-fold:
“If you're addicted to praise, there are two things you can do.
1) Seek employment with companies that will gladly feed the addiction.
2) Get help breaking your addiction to praise by learning to be intrinsically motivated in your career.”
I’d go with option #2—become intrinsically motivated. Do what makes you happy.
If you commit to what makes you happy, and those things that seem more like fun than work, the money will follow. This is because over time, you will become an expert in your field, and experts get paid more than journeymen.
It almost doesn’t matter what field you’re in—if you’re better at it than anyone else, you’ll make money.
For example, how much money do you think you could make selling vegetable peelers for five dollars each on the streets of New York City?
That’s right—just the $5 peelers. Nothing else. On the sidewalk—not even in a store.
There was a man who was the nationally recognized expert at selling vegetable peelers on the street. His name was Joseph Ades. From 1993 until virtually the day he died on February 1, 2009, at the age of seventy-four, Ades sold $5, Swiss-made, metal potato peelers on street corners throughout Manhattan. (Ades never bothered to obtain a vendor’s license, and the New York City Police Department often told him to “move along, buddy.”) Ades sold enough peelers to enjoy café society at the Pierre Hotel on the Upper East Side, and he lived with his fourth wife, Estelle Pascoe, in her three-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue. While on the job, he wore $1,000 Chester Barrie suits and shirts from Turnbull & Asser.
He loved the art of person-to-person selling, and he was very good at it.
Joseph Ades was born in Manchester, England in 1934, the youngest of seven children in his family. Leaving school in 1949 at the age of fifteen, he then completed a brief stint as an office boy and became intrigued by the local markets that sprung up in the war–torn cities of Northern England. He started out hawking comic books before moving on to selling linens, textiles, jewelry, and toys directly on the streets.
Joseph got married to his first wife and moved to Sydney, Australia, where he set up markets in the parking lots of drive-in movies. Eventually, he sold goods at street fairs off of the back of a large truck.
Divorce followed, and then another marriage and another divorce. His career took its iconic direction after his third wife gave him a copy of London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. Ades was fascinated by the street sellers whom Mayhew called “the patterers,” many of whom adopted the expensive dress and refined mannerisms of successful gentlemen. After the dissolution of his third marriage and a brief residence in Ireland, Ades followed his daughter to New York City. There, at age fifty-nine, he began his career as a street vendor. Every day, rain or shine, he would take his kit—peelers, vegetables in a cooler, and small stool—to a street corner in Manhattan. He’d spend the day demonstrating his peeler and pattering in his charming British accent whilst pocketing fistfuls of five-dollar bills.
He is remembered for a pithy saying: “Never underestimate a small amount of money gathered by hand for sixty years.”
Job Change vs. Career Change
If you happen to settle on a career path early in life and it satisfies you, that’s terrific. It’s worked for Stephen King, who sold his first professional short story, “The Glass Floor,” to Startling Mystery Stories in 1967, when he was twenty years old; and it’s worked for GM CEO Mary Barra, who began at age eighteen as a co-op student inspecting fender panels at GM, and who has never worked anywhere else.
But over the course of their careers, many other people—in fact, most people—work in a variety of occupations and even industries. The conventional wisdom says that most people change jobs up to fifteen times during their lifetime. This sounds reasonable. In her climb to the top of GM, Mary Barra changed jobs many times. She went from one role to the next, including a stint as GM’s vice president of global human resources, whose job description is somewhat removed from the daily business of designing and manufacturing motor vehicles.
But Mary Barra never changed her career, which was as an executive in the automobile industry. There are no reliable statistics regarding how often people change careers because the word “career” is hard to define. As the expert resource on employment statistics, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says on its FAQ webpage:
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) never has attempted to estimate the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives. The reason we have not produced such estimates is that no consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change….
“Did a construction worker who decided to start his own home-remodeling business experience a career change? What about a newspaper reporter who became a TV news anchor? Each of these examples involves a change in occupation, industry, or both, but do they represent career changes? Most people probably would agree that a medical doctor who quits to become a comedian experienced a career change, but most ‘career changes’ probably are not so dramatic.”
Ken Reinvents His Life
Ken was born in 1963 in Pamplico, South Carolina, which also happens to be my hometown. Ken’s family owned a business called Double A Body Builders, which designed, manufactured, and installed custom-built truck bodies. While still attending Hannah-Pamplico High School, Ken went to work there.
As he got older, he wanted a change. Politics called. Ken was elected to his county’s council in 2004. Four years later, he was elected chairman of the Florence County, South Carolina Republican Party. That same year, Ken sold his interest in the family company to his brother.
In 2010, Ken was elected Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. His future in politics seemed bright, but in 2012 he resigned from office. As it turns out, there’s a big difference between running the finances of a campaign and running the finances of a family business.
Having left public service, he decided to reinvent his life.
Five months later, Ken launched a new career as a talk radio show host on Live 95 WFRK (95.3 FM) in Florence, South Carolina. Teamed with Dave “The Rev” Baker on the “Wake Up Pee Dee” show, the pair was so successful that in May 2019, the show was relaunched as “Wake Up Carolina” and expanded to the Sumter, South Carolina radio market on WDXY, 1240 AM and 105.9 FM.
In addition to his radio hosting duties, Ken is also part of a development company doing work in downtown Florence, South Carolina.
There’s an old expression — “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It’s a cliché that happens to ring true with Ken. As you read this story, you may ask yourself, “What would I do if, for any reason, I had to stop what I’m doing now and find a new career?”
To find out more, let’s go back to the beginning of Ken’s experience in the nation’s workforce.
Like many kids who are born in a small town and whose family owned a local business, when Ken was in high school, he also dutifully went to work at Double A. It was a fine business, and his brother still owns it. But as a young adult, Ken wanted to see more of the world.
“I was convinced I wanted to get away from there,” Ken told me. “Like most people born and raised in small towns, you think there’s a big ole’ world out there somewhere that looks better than what you’re confined to, and you want to get out and experience all those sorts of things,” Ken said.
But as adulthood set in, those weighty words “maturity” and “responsibility” became a part of the equation. In the early 1980s, Ken returned to work at Double A.
When his father passed away in 2004, Ken and his brother, Sammie, became co-owners of the family company. If Ken simply wanted to stay in the business, he could have enjoyed a very comfortable life. He thought his family did a good job of managing the business, but for Ken, the job was not a love affair. “It was my dad’s dream and passion to some degree. It was my brother’s dream and passion. But to me, it was something I enjoyed doing, and which provided a good quality of life,” Ken said. But he always felt there was something else out there he wanted to pursue.
Ken’s father was both very pragmatic and entrepreneurial. He saw the truck body business as the foundation of the family’s income, which allowed them to branch out into other ventures—a restaurant (as a kid, I worked there as a dishwasher), a convenience store, and a catfish farm. Ken said, “My dad always stressed to me, ‘Son, you’ve got to have the financial resources coming in to allow you to try these things that are more risky.’”
Ken assumed that everyone had these various businesses, and it seemed normal. He had no idea that many people work nine-to-five in the same industry for thirty years and then retire. In his family, aside from Double A, no one did that.
He later learned that when his father, Jimmy, was a young man, he was on track to be a “lifer.” Like so many others in Pamplico, South Carolina, Jimmy worked at the town’s principal employer, a big lumberyard. One day he told young Ken about what it was like to work for an employer and not for yourself. Jimmy told his son that while another worker at the sawmill produced 300 feet of board per hour, he produced 600 feet per hour. When they each got their paychecks on Friday, the two men earned the same amount of money. There was no incentive for Jimmy to put in any extra effort.
Jimmy started Double A because he wanted to be his own boss and in control of his own compensation as it related to productivity. It was not easy, and the business struggled. In 1979 there was a national gas crisis, followed in the next year by a recession.
“I can remember when I was fifteen years old,” said Ken, “and my dad was sitting in the kitchen, looking at my mom and saying, ‘I’m afraid we’re not going to make it. To build the business, we’ve borrowed a lot of money. We’ve grown this business, but the economy is all screwed up, with high interest rates.’”
“As I blaze my own trail,” continued Ken, “I’ve always kept that that day around the table as part of my life. I think the reason most people choose the safe, secure road is that it’s more comfortable and less dangerous. It’s less subject to the ups and downs of capitalism. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Faith in a Higher Power
As an adult with a career in the family business, an injury in his 40’s led Ken to take a hard look at his life—one where he realized he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do. The truck bed business had been good for his father and was good for his brother, but it wasn’t good for Ken.
“I was lying in the hospital bed, looking at the ceiling, and this thought came to me: ‘Odds are, you’ve already lived longer than you’re going to live in the future.’ If you’re forty-five years old, that’s probably true. Your life is at least half over. And the question is, do you really want to keep doing what you’re doing now for the rest of your working life?” Ken asked himself.
After much soul-searching, Ken called his brother and told him he didn’t want to build truck beds any more. His heart just wasn’t in it.
Ken was willing to do something that, to someone else, probably didn’t make a lot of sense. He was willing to leave a family business that had a forty-year track record of being successful and providing security. His future was uncertain. Ken told me that at the time he thought, “I’m just going to trust God to open doors and provide opportunities. Next thing you know, I’m running for Lieutenant Governor. Then I get elected Lieutenant Governor. In that decision-making process, I really tried to allow my spirituality and belief in a higher power to grant me discernment and give me wisdom,” he said.
Ken wanted something that he could call his own. He wanted to look back one day and show his children that he forged his own path. Ken said, “My spirituality combined with my personal ambition and need to create something special on my own led me down that road.”
In 2008, Ken sold his half of the business to his brother. He was forty-five years old, which for many people, represents the beginning of their peak earning power. The sale gave him a small nest egg. “It was not ‘going-home’ kind of money,” he told me. “It was not the sort of money that would allow you to go to the beach, drink margaritas, eat cheeseburgers, and just watch the passive income flow in. But it did create some financial security in my life. I began to look around to try to understand and contemplate what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Ken continued.
He saw that people in politics didn’t work from dawn to dusk as his father had, and yet they seemed to be making a comfortable living. In fact, they drove BMWs and wore Rolexes—or at least that’s how Ken perceived it. Ken wanted to find out how they did it. He looked at his foray into politics as an investment in himself. While he didn’t like taking from the nest egg at such an early age, he was willing to take the rewards of his first career and subsidize his search for the next opportunity.
He knew in his heart there was going to be something out there that he would enjoy, that would provide a good living, and that would become his second career. He also knew that it would take a little while to get there. Ken took some of the nest egg and loaned himself some money. It’s the way he chose to legitimize it. He was willing to take from his savings and subsidize his life for three, four, or five years if necessary, while on a personal journey to find his new path.
There was risk involved. Never before in his life did he have more cash going out than coming in. But he believed the investment was worth it, and if it took him four or five years, there was going to be an opportunity on the other side that would pay him back.
Prepare for Uncertainty
When Ken decided to get out of the truck body business, he had no clear path forward. He didn’t have another career waiting in the wings. He said, “Too many times, people who are looking for second careers expect to start the second career right away. But that may not happen. It’s almost like you need to put a pro forma together in your head and recognize there will probably be several years of uncertainty. You need to be prepared for that. I didn’t do that intentionally, but if I were going to advise anybody who’s going to sell a business or quit a job, I’d tell them to prepare financially. Don’t take the first job that’s offered to you just because the salary is good, and it will put your financial life back in order. Look for something that you’re excited about doing every day,” Ken said.
If you’re willing to be entrepreneurial in your retirement remix, there will be many more choices than you ever imagined. If you’re willing to get a little uncomfortable, have some anxiety, and be nervous, then the possibilities are almost limitless.
Remember, “retirement” can happen not by your own choice. Your boss can call you to his office and say, “I’m sorry, but we’re cutting the labor force by twenty percent. We’re doing away with your job. Here’s six months’ worth of severance pay. Have a great life.” You then may have an unexpected opportunity to reinvent your life.
The end to Ken’s political career was the beginning of a new chapter.
“Not in a million years would I have imagined a career in media,” he said. “I could imagine being a lobbyist, the head of the chamber of commerce, or the head of an economic development partnership. But not a guy doing morning drive-time radio show,” Ken said.
Ken is proud of his ability to take what his first career—working at Double A—taught him and being able to make that a big part in pursuing his second career. As much as he believes his dad would have wanted him to build truck beds for a living, he thinks his dad would respect him for the effort he gave in pursuing his second career. “I think about that a lot,” he said. “Whether I’m hosting a radio show or trying to develop property downtown, I think about the foundational principles that the truck bed business inspired in me,” he said.
One of the beauties of midlife is understanding that as much as you think you’re in control, there’s so much of which you’re not in control. As much as you may believe you’ve got a plan, as much as you believe you know where you’re headed, there are a lot of things out of your control. The awareness and the accepting of that will create, as Ken says, a comfort in your soul.
There are so many different opportunities that could present themselves, and if you think there’s a little bit of opportunity there, then chase it. Go for it. When they choose to make a career change, too many people have a scratch pad with about six choices listed. Ken says there are more like sixty, and you owe it to yourself to explore them!
The above article originally appeared as a chapter in The Retirement Remix and is reprinted with permission from the author Chip Munn. No parts of this article may be reproduced without correct attribution to the author of this book.
You can find the full book here.