Sunday, 19 February 2017

Man's search for meaning

When I first started out in the work force more than 8 years ago, I came across the aforementioned statement but did not really pay much heed to that.

Goals back then were pretty simple and revolved largely around trying to get as far up the learning curve as possible and grab on to those handrails on the gravy train without getting flung off. I shudder at the thought off getting thrown off a train moving at more than 200km/h. Yikes. It has been more than 3 years since I started riding a motorcycle, but to this day, I still feel the fear of human flesh (mostly mine) scrapping the hot asphalt in every single instance when I mount my motorcycle, which makes me feel more alive. 

The numero uno goal was to save up SGD1.0m and scoot off to find something more meaningful to do - like my mate Bono from that great band U2 sings: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" and have been trying since day 1 to determine what something meaningful in the corporate world comprises, maybe corporate and meaningful are mutually exclusive? 

Those goals made it possible to endure the long sleepless nights, the stress that came with the job, the condescending corporate stench and poor ventilation that encourages flu and cold pandemics to sweep across the entire building, the terrible morning commute on the pride of our nation (SMRT - you should be happy you got taken private), and [insert your choice in the non-exhaustive litany of office hate in here], etc. And most of all, like the proverbial banana placed in front of a monkey (that image in your mind is not too far off from the truth there buddy), it kept me going, even in the instances where the payday had to take a hit or be frozen.

For the uninitiated, investment banker bonuses (typically my description across this site for investment banking is applicable to someone who works in the front office of an investment bank in an advisory and underwriting role (think of a merger & acquisitions adviser, equity capital markets, debt capital markets, etc.)) are typically a substantial amount of the monkey's compensation. It can make up more than 50% of annual compensation, so when bonus season comes, every freaking monkey slows down foraging for more bananas (fees) and starts posturing for as many bananas as possible from King Kong. The groveling that happens is sometimes a sight to behold :) I have even heard what sounds like slurps emanating from King Kong's office at times and I'm pretty sure King Kong does not slurp smoothies and has gotten over the novel brain freeze that comes with every 7-eleven slurpee (or has he, since he still acts like a little kid at times, hmmm), so what in the world is that noise... *gasp* 

What I can accurately say is that total compensation has gone down throughout the years. Even the productive monkeys find their share dwindling as they climb up the ranks to appease other member sof the tribe (*gasp* does that sound a tad bit like communism, oh my the irony in what can be described as the most capitalistic corporate ever). So for a dumb mid level monkey like yours truly who has not found productive uses for those pile of bananas, such as purchasing real estate, a sports car, a sports bike, a luxury [audemars piguet] watch, hookers and booze, tinder and paktor flings, cigars and cigarettes, drugs, or [insert your choice of vice here], it certainly begs the question of why the fuck am I still going around gathering more bananas?

Couple of plausible reasons below:

1) Squad Goals vs Self Goals - King Kong: "RB35, you have done a great job foraging for food last year and outperformed your peers by a wide margin. However, structurally the industry is suffering and thus, we will have to pay you [20]% lower than what your peers got at the same level historically. I have tried to fight for you, but this is what you have ended up with. Be appreciative as other monkeys were put out to pastures with less abundant bananas. As you know, the bar is always being adjusted higher, so this year, we expect the team to have a [30]% increase in fee revenues and I trust you'll put your tail down, and work hard to gather more bananas."

SGD1.0m was a number I had when I started off as an Analyst. More than 8 years in, this number has been inflated to SDG2.5 - 3.0m to take into consideration a higher standard of living, setting up a family, taking care of unknown kids/alimony, exploring new opportunities, [insert self rationalisation for random inflation], etc. After all a yearly annual income of SGD120k based on a safe withdrawal (safely withdrawing in a physical context also helps with maintaining this in a congruent fashion ;p) rate should be pretty safe no? My current safe withdrawal rate is SGD72k. Question then becomes whether I need the additional SGD48k of buffer... Yours truly has tried recording down historical spending data for the last 2 years or so, you know the saying goes what gets measured gets tracked (or vice versa), but I still don't feel secure with just c. 2 years worth of data. 

2) Ego - A part of me fears leaving the job for the unknown and regret when my friends and acquaintances rise up later in life to build a crazy net worth, or have better toys or luxuries to indulgence. It's a bit of projecting into the past and wondering what could have been if I went down this path. I find a tad sad to admit this, but I do agree to a limited extent with what Goh Keng Yeow wrote in his Sunday times piece today (19 Feb 17) about folks finding their identities in their job. For better or for worse, a part of my identity will always be that of a banker. A disclaimer that I don't enjoy the recognition of being called a banker, and in fact the fewer the folks who know what I do for a living, the better I feel. Case in point, I felt a huge sigh of relief when my cousin told me a few years back that I should put my head down and work hard so I can be put on the fast track management trainee program. That was done with good intentions but was not applicable to my situation. The ego in identity is more intertwined with being able to survive and (some might say) thrive in the fast paced industry. A bit similar to Man vs Wild, except in a corporate context. So the question then lies in, what do I replace that identity with and fill up the gaps? 

3) Meaning - Given the context to a decreasing accelerating pay scale and being more senior now has allowed me the time to explore other interests outside of the job. There have been a few things outside of the corporate context that has caught my interest, which are in line with self improvement (i.e. meditation, physical training, investing), but there isn't any one defining thing that would readily replace the scheduled work-life (or whats' left of it). Refer to reasons 1 and 2, which instills a fear of not being able to go back to prison camp if things fall apart and I can't get any more meaning if I pursue those things that I am interested in. I do admit it's mentally challenging to actively choose to leave a path that pays good money (albeit a soul sucking and dreary one, but which I have found able to manage somewhat well. However, I swear that I still lose a bit of my soul each day I walk through the hallowed gates of hell the office). After all, isn't one bird in hand (even if the bird is chomping on your mitts) worth two in the bush? 

These are some challenging thoughts I have got to figure out for myself. It's a bit strange that the closer I come to FIRE, the harder it gets to actively pursue it. I have been tremendously doused with the luck of the Irish (not being sarcastic here) and blessed with a wonderful opportunity right out of college to earn, save and invest to get to where I am, and it seems the challenge lies with managing emotions (fear mostly) and pulling the trigger. 

I suppose the one thing that helps in the above is that I have been getting underpaid relative to the market (whether rightly or wrongly, that don't matter here), which makes it less stressful for me in a work context. I mean, if you were getting overpaid you'll feel obligated and more motivated to jump higher for King Kong no? This monkey now hesitates a little less to give the finger and send a kite when the situation calls for it.
For those Singapore based folks who have obtained FIRE and left their job in pursuit of the unknown, can I kindly enquire about the below?
  • Was there a personal "drop-dead" date and did you execute that according to plan? 
  • How did you conceive of your post job plans and how did it turn out in reality?
  • Any particular regrets so far? 

2017 looks like a big year ahead in search for the meaning in my life. I'm excited and looking forward to what pans out, for better or for worse. Cheers. 


  1. It might help to read the book "Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor E. Frankl.
    This might give your thoughts another perspective.

  2. Hi Mr Retire by 35, I have not execute the plan. I was suppose to be "free" when I accumulated $500,000, which is the sort of magic number. However, that magic number is always a number that is closer to what I would term Financial Security, not Independence, and so I didn't "drop dead" as per say.

    That gives an option. However, recent work developments have really pierce this idea into my head. One of the biggest problem in my head was that, I always am aiming for semi retirement and not a full one and my fear is that once i am out of this cycle, I could never get back.

    I felt its a question of searching for a meaning and purpose. Like it or not, even if you can tell yourself, you are identified by your job, even this crusade of going against the grain, that could be your purpose even if you don't admit it.

    Once you find that purpose and it consumes a large part of you, I think these questions might not linger for long because it is in the full swing of things.

    My experience of reading many is that FI folks never FI because that is in their character to do something.

    Not a "practitioner" but hope it helps.