Friday, August 13

Would There Be Something Wrong About Retiring Happy?

The phone rang last night around dinner time and it was A.W., someone I knew from my post-doc days at NIH. A.W. is part of a crew of guys who used to play poker together and pal around, and then we all got married and went our separate ways. We still see each other at weddings and rare gatherings, but we don’t see each other often enough. A.W. wanted me to know he was applying for a security clearance and that the FBI might be ringing me up to ask some questions about him. After the requisite teasing I admitted that I would tell the FBI the truth about him (who in their right mind would mess with the FBI?) and the conversation moved on to other things. At some point A.W. asked me if I planed on moving on professionally or if I was going to retire happy where I am now. The question gave me pause for a moment, as I realized where I am now compared to where I was in 1996.

From 1987 to 1996 I lived in the Baltimore/DC area (first in graduate school and then doing a post-doctoral fellowship). The last few years in the area my wife and I owed a townhouse that was a cookie-cutter copy of several hundred others in our neighborhood in Gaithersburg, MD. I drove to work each day on highway 270, leaving an hour before my first meeting as you never knew when the 15 minute drive would turn into 60 (or more) because of an accident or the sun coming up brightly over the beltway interchange (I’m not making this up – the SUNLIGHT could cause traffic delays!). We didn’t know our neighbors (nor did they know each other), and by the time we got done working and commuting each day we were too tired (or lazy) to brave a trip downtown to go to a play, the zoo or a museum. The first thing people wanted to talk about at a party was what you did for a living or whom you knew. My wife and I both realized early on that the environment was not for us and that we needed to grow ourselves as professionals to be marketable and then get the hell out of there.

A.W. is like a lot of people I met while in the region. He’s a transplant who ostensibly came for a few years and ended up staying. He changes jobs every one to three years, each time making more money but also guaranteeing that he’ll be away from home more and have a heart attack by the time he is 55. His question struck me as odd. Maybe I misunderstood the tone in his voice, but it seemed like the question was suggesting that staying at this same job for 30+ years and retiring happy would be a sign that I had no ambition. I got defensive, and began to reel off how my responsibilities have been growing, and basically explaining how there is plenty for me to do here that will allow me to grow as a person.

It wasn’t until I got off the phone that several things struck me. A.W., and several of my friends down in the D.C. area, tolerate their jobs, but they don’t really like them. Their professional advancement is important to them, but mostly it is because they want the monetary compensation that comes with moving up. On the other hand, I really enjoy my job. Of course there are things about it I don’t like, but driving into work I feel good about what I am doing and feel lucky I get paid for it (and frankly I get paid very well). I live in a very nice house, on 6.5 acres, within 5 minutes of my office. I CAN’T get stuck in traffic as there are no traffic lights between work and me. A.W. called me at 5:40 pm. I don’t know how late he was going to stay, but he was at work and still had a 75 minute drive ahead of him, and it would not be a pleasant 75 minutes. I was at home having dinner with my family.

This town of 2500 people, and my job, are not for everyone. If I wanted to be a world famous researcher I picked the wrong place to be. We have no Gap, Outback Steakhouse or Best Buy next to a Circuit City. There is little chance of looking across to the treadmill at the gym and seeing a senator (or someone who sleeps with one). If you spend $350,000 on a house here you are shopping for homes in the top 3% (I’m afraid to know what houses are going for in suburban Maryland these days). My hope is that my DC friends are happy in total (that is, their family, working and living environments, taken as a package, let them be happy and fulfilled). I can understand how they could be and have no questions for them other than are you fulfilled. That life wasn’t for me.

In 1996 I wasn’t in a place that made me happy. Now I am. And while I can’t predict the future, in 30 years I may well retire happy. I’m OK with that.


P.S. Baylor, the super-sweet Bernese Mountain Dog, died in his sleep the night before we were going to take him in to the vet to be put down. RIP Baylor. Love ya man (not that he reads this blog from the doggy afterlife).