By Laura Shin
This is half of a two-part story. Read the related article of how Sam Polk walked away from making millions at a hedge fund: How Sam Polk, Former Wall Street Trader And ‘Wealth Addict,’ Broke Free Of His Golden Handcuffs.
So … you’re unhappy with your work, but the money is too good to jump ship.
You’re trapped by what are called “golden handcuffs.”
The phrase is used to describe financial incentives companies offer employees so they don’t leave — for instance, stock options that vest several years down the road, or policies that require departing workers to return a portion of their bonuses. But from an employee’s standpoint, it is to be unhappy with your job but uncertain how to leave because of financial fears or the loss of prestige.
“Golden handcuffs are the financial security, comfort and safety of high-paying, cushy jobs that are unfulfilling in some way or all ways, or downright miserable-making, but they keep us bound to our desks and offices because we become dependent on them or scared to leave or addicted to the various aspects of fast-paced, high-stress career,” says Sara DiVello, author of Where in the OM Am I? One Woman’s Journey From the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat.
Like many in your high-paying track, you may have adopted its lifestyle, whether that means a multi-bedroom house with a big mortgage, a private school education for your children, or even a country club membership — along with a group of friends who also belong.
It may feel like an impossible situation, but many people have broken free of their golden handcuffs and landed in a far better place.
The key to success is to do some soul-searching and even spiritual work, combined with some very practical financial homework.
To break free of golden handcuffs, here are tips from Sam Polk, former Wall Street trader who published a New York Times op-ed about his “wealth addiction” and talked with Forbes about his decision, and three career experts.
1. Find out what is really making you unhappy — your job or your career.
Sometimes, your dissatisfaction stems from a toxic boss or a poor work environment, and your problem can be resolved by switching firms, says Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, executive coach psychologist and partner of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting. “Network with people in similar positions at different firms,” he says. “Talk with a career coach. Is it a bad fit for me to be in corporate finance or corporate law or is it that I need to go to a smaller firm?” If you find out that what you’re experiencing is the nature of the industry, you’ll need to make a bigger shift.
2. Bolster your savings.
Even if you figure out your next career path before you quit, you may still experience an employment gap. If you are in such a high-pressured job that you don’t have brain space or time to figure out what you want to do next, then you’ll definitely have to live on savings. Either way, begin to see how you can cut back expenses, or make extra money. Polk, for instance, downsized from a $6,000/month apartment to a $2,700/month one. Or, maybe your partner can start logging extra hours.
“Since the average job search takes about four to six months, you should craft a plan of action, which entails saving and living on that for at least six months,” says Dr. Orbe-Austin. Note that he said “at least six months.” If you think you’ll need to take time to figure out your next career move, amass more savings, or downsize your lifestyle even further.
Having enough savings will help ensure you don’t chicken out. “If we’re worried about not having enough money, it will be hard to do this transition,” says Heather Hans, psychotherapist and spiritual healer and author of The Heart of Self Love: How to Radiate With Confidence.
3. Figure out what you want to do next.
If your current job is all-consuming, you may not be able to accomplish this before you leave. You may instead have to do step 4 (quit) first and figure out what you really want to do later.
Regardless of the order you take these steps, try out these suggestions to help discover your new path:
- Think about what you like to do or excel at. “What makes you unique, what makes you happy, what do you get lost in to the point where it doesn’t feel like work? We are so used to being ourselves, we think everyone else is like that, but we forget they’re not,” says Hans.
- DiVello suggests writing down what you wanted to be when you grew up at the youngest age you can remember — “the one before reason and logic and judgment set in.” Also note what careers interested you in high school, college, or even after college.
- “Take up any kind of mindful practice whether it’s running, karate, painting or whatever. Something that keeps you in the zone,” says DiVello. “With that silence and stillness, answers will start to emerge. It’s hard to have those answers emerge when you’re working really fast and hard. When you’re still and relaxed, that’s when things can come.”
- “Explore the most salient values for you at this time of your life (e.g. giving to others vs. prestige or high earnings) and envision how you might make this transition to ensure they are present in your life,” Dr. Orbe-Austin wrote in an email. “Sometimes values are more important to career/life satisfaction than interests.”
- Take some career personality tests such as the Strong Interest Inventory, theStrengthsFinder, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram, or see a career coach or career intuitive, says Hans, who is herself a career intuitive and describes it as a professional who uses numerology and look at a person’s soul path on earth to figure out what they are supposed to do. (It sounds kooky, but a lot of people have done it, according to The New York Times.)
- “Ask the five people who know you best and who you trust the most what they would have you do if they were in charge of your life. You might be surprised what they say, but remember that they see you without any of the self-doubts or judgments that you see yourself through,” says DiVello.
4. Work up the courage to quit.
The reason why so many people become ensnared in golden handcuffs is that we all need a place to sleep and food to eat, and those things cost money. And there’s no question that it’s nice to have nice things. So, inertia can take hold.
If you feel deep down that you want out but you’re wavering, DiVello says to ask yourself: “Who am I at my most essential self? What do I want to do with this one glorious, adventurous life? What am I passionate about? What do I really, really want in life? How can I better serve the world?”
What helped DiVello was getting some perspective. After spending 13 years chasing the next promotion and the bigger office, she was passed up for a promotion. She realized the company didn’t care how many Friday nights she had sacrificed to work, or the fact that for five years, she had worked instead of going home for the holidays.
When deciding whether to leave, DiVello even recommends pondering death, as morbid as it may sound. The early death of her mother at age 49 of cancer prompted her own soul-searching. She asked herself, “‘If I died tomorrow, would I feel good about the life I’ve lived? Would I feel that I lived broadly and bravely and fully?’ The answer was no.” (A similar incident prompted this couple to quit their jobs and travel the world for the rest of their lives.)
5. Find support.
Gather your cheerleaders, whether they be your family, close friends, a career coach or therapist, or like-minded people, says Dr. Orbe-Austin. “Also, find people who have made such a shift and find out the challenges and joys in the process,” he says.
6. Set small goals.
“You’re considering a massive life shift and life change, and the wholesale outcome can be overwhelming, but if you take bite-size pieces, it becomes more realistic and achievable,” says Dr. Orbe-Austin. Some of your goals may be financial — maybe it’s to have six months’ worth of living expenses saved in the next six months. Or, maybe it’s to find three new contacts and have six informational interviews within the next six weeks. Read here for tips on making SMART goals that you’ll be more likely to achieve.
7. Have faith.
Polk, the hedge funder who stepped away from Wall Street, recalls one moment that helped put him on the path out of his golden handcuffs.
“When I was about two months away [from quitting], before I got that $3.6 million bonus, my twin brother came over and we got into an argument, and I got so overwhelmed, I burst into tears. I’m not a big crier, so it was out of the ordinary, and he said, ‘What’s wrong? and I said, ‘I’m so scared about what’s going to happen when I leave this job.’ He said, ‘In 10 years, you’re going to look back and thank God that you left because of all the things you’ve done since then.’
“That’s what I would say to people trying to leave. You see your career path and you know what’s there. But you cannot see what will happen if you leave — that path is obfuscated. But that doesn’t mean nothing’s there. It just means you cannot see it. It’s a test between trust and fear, between faith and fear. Are you willing to trust that you have the skills, whatever your spiritual beliefs are, that the universe will provide for you or that you have enough skill or character or integrity to take care of yourself and hold out long enough to see what’s behind that corner?
“I called my brother after this New York Times piece, because I’ve spent, what, four years — I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and I started Groceryships and I wrote a book — but it wasn’t until this New York Times piece came out that I called him and said, ‘This is it. I couldn’t have seen this four years ago, and look what happened. If I let myself be weighed down by my fear, then something like this would have never happened, so thank God I left.’”