If I didn't have a friend that worked there, it's unlikely I ever would have landed an interview with The Firm. My south-of-3.0 GPA from a not-too-impressive university was not even enough to get my foot slammed in the door without having someone on the inside lobbying for my future.
Once inside That Venerable Big-8 Accounting Firm, I was careful to keep my shoes polished, my suits blue, and my left-leaning political views mostly to myself.
While the men sported white shirts only, the women were also permitted the brazen pink shirt, paired with whatever statement you chose to make through your bow tie. Polka dots? Paisley? Stripes? Go wild. But do not wear slacks.
Fast forward 25 years and I recently found myself wearing whatever I wanted at a reunion of The Firm. I thought I would encounter at least a couple fellow retirees among the crowd. I figured we'd be over in the corner talking about how great retired life is. But not one person I talked to that evening has crossed over to the dark side.
Attending the reunion brought back memories of just how ill-suited I was for that work environment. This event had assembled the largest group of overachievers I have been with in decades. Everyone has been very successful. Most still retained the ability to simultaneously drink large quantities of alcohol while speaking coherently about the intricacies of the tax code.
During my tenure, I was hardly the poster-girl of achievement. When I was out working on audits, I used to go missing for chunks of time while I hid in the bathroom just to get a little time alone.
On Saturdays during busy season, I used to arrive at the office long after the free donuts were gone, and often, after only a couple hours at my desk, I would throw in the towel and sneak out to enjoy a few hours of sunlight in the weeks before April 15th.
Many referred to me as the "vacation queen," since I knew how to work the overtime system to take a few extra weeks of vacation each year.
It's no wonder that I brought up the rear on billable hours, a fact that was common knowledge since on a few occasions, our chargeability was posted on a list at the end of our row of desks. My stats were highlighted in yellow.
Which brings me to the conclusion I arrived to at the end of my evening of reuniting. Early retirement may really be more suitable for the underachiever.
For all those that thrive on achieving, love the fast pace of their careers, don't mind the grueling hours, retirement might not be all it's cracked up to be. The overachiever may not be entirely happy giving up all that achieving.
Much retirement-planning advice is built around the spend less, save more mantra, often emphasizing that if you are addicted to accumulating stuff, you may not be happy living within the confines of a fixed income. But very little attention is given to the fact that if you are addicted to accumulating achievements, the freedom to pursue unlimited fun in retirement may not be a huge selling point.
While those of us that value fun over achievement may not have been the best at climbing up the corporate ladder, we may just be more well-suited for jumping off from the lower rungs to the land of full-time fun.
It's Not Losing an Identity, It's Gaining a Chance to Create a New One!
I can relate to this self description as an underachiever. Looking back that is who I was.
"Enjoying life is a matter of balance..." is my long time mantra. The balance I was trying to achieve was between work and play. It was not possible; the employer wanted all of my time -- kind of like slavery. Retiring nine years ago, my plan is to balance all those years of work. Now life is all play. And I am loving it.
Posted by: Wandrin | February 08, 2010 at 08:59 AM
I have to agree with the previous comment. It sounds to me like you were interested in work/life balance. Does that make you an underachiever? Not in my opinion. Maybe the others haven't retired because work fills all their time and life without it is unthinkable.
Posted by: S Hoffman | February 08, 2010 at 12:44 PM
Wandrin & S. Hoffman: Yes, that would be the much kinder way of putting it, but then I do like those sensational headlines . . .
Posted by: Retired Syd | February 08, 2010 at 03:06 PM
My vote also goes to the work/life balance side of things. Clearly you were hard-working and intelligent enough to make early retirement happen, and I would bet your work product always reflected that intelligence and work ethic.
At the same time, anyone seriously interested in early retirement and enjoyment of life would probably have a skeptical eye pointed to work in the corporate world. Perhaps 'targeted achievement' is more appropriate, rather than underachievement?
Posted by: Jay | February 08, 2010 at 06:25 PM
@Jay: Love it, targeted achievement. Let's add that to the Urban Dictionary!
Posted by: Retired Syd | February 08, 2010 at 07:19 PM
You an underachiever? I don't think so. You worked part-time through high school, enrolled in junior college, FULL TIME, while finishing your senior year in high school, worked your way through college, finishing in four years (unheard of in this day and age), worked very hard and became CFO (Chief Fun Officer) of your company, and, as I remember it, always had enough nice things to be very happy. Perhaps you should describe yourself as a just-right-achiever.
DAD of retiredSyd
Posted by: Larry | February 08, 2010 at 07:43 PM
@DAD of retiredSyd: Well, gosh, when you put it that way . . .
Posted by: Retired Syd | February 08, 2010 at 08:45 PM
Aha! The secret story of overachievement emerges from the proud dad! :-)
Posted by: Jay | February 08, 2010 at 09:24 PM
My last boss bragged about sleeping 4 hours a night and how his 5-year-old told him,"Daddy, you need to stay home more often." He demanded 60 hours work weeks on a regular basis and 80 hour work weeks whenever he wanted them. He would say, "There's no place on my team for someone who won't ___(fill in the blank)___."
Hence my retirement, the retirements of several of my peers, and job changes of several younger workers. Life is more than working.
Posted by: mamajulie | February 09, 2010 at 05:07 AM
Almost 30 years ago I did an internship with a then "Big 8" firm. It didn't take me long to decide getting a masters in Tax Accounting was not the right choice. I only had one semester left so I finished it but have never dreamed of doing that for a living. Luckily I went on to be at home mother of 3 although I helped through busy season in my husband's accounting practice I will never be an accountant. Oddly enough a few years ago I took a personality type test which identified me as "allergic to detail". That is a very accurate assessment of my personality and I proudly wear it.
Posted by: Sandy | February 09, 2010 at 11:18 AM
Jay you got it! Retired Syd always knows what she wants, goes for it and always makes it (without wasted effort or spending too many hours doing something she really hates doing); a Target Achiever! As a proud friend and witness of her journey I think she understates herself here, but reveals that she never overlooks what her life is supposed to be. Cheers to a fellow follower of her dreams....
Posted by: Overachiever | February 09, 2010 at 02:03 PM
Pretty thought-provoking. And, I suspect, more than a little true. I am NOT an overachiever, but I do love my job and I have a hard time imagining not having it to look forward to. My 59 year old bank executive sister is about to retire. Now she IS an overachievre--I wonder how she will take to a lack of routine.
Posted by: Grace | February 09, 2010 at 03:07 PM
You sound like a poster child to me..... An inspiration as to how to live corporate life :)...
I now work for myself at home and am so much happier than when i was working for companies, I am by no means a slacker though and work long hours.... But if it is called upon I can drop work and do family and friend things.
I don't earn as much as I used to but I am happier.... Hopefully I can retire early and maybe some corporate big wigs would consider me an under acheiver... I don't care, i'll hopefully be able to enjoy retirement with age and health in tact!
Posted by: Forest | February 10, 2010 at 10:21 PM
Bravo Syd! When did Americans start to believe neglecting family, friends and fun was a necessary by-product of work?
Posted by: LC | February 13, 2010 at 01:23 PM
I love it when I stumble across a blog entry which succinctly captures in words an idea which has been rattling around in my head for quite some time.
I've somehow managed to stay employed at the Big Firm for ten years now. I consider myself a closet underachiever. I try to do all the easy things which get positive attention, and slack off in areas which aren't really noticed. Basically, if my manager asks me to do something, I will do it right away. Every other task is lower priority. I've found that some tasks are completely unnecessary. If I procrastinate on everything, then eventually someone will tell you which things are really important. Everything else can slide. So far this strategy has resulted in good reviews (and modest raises) and a steady paycheck without the promotions (and increased responsibilities that come along with them).
It may sound like I am an awful employee, but as my employer continually lays off my colleagues, leaving more and more work for the rest of us, I find that these tactics are necessary to stay sane and employed.
Eventually I hope to cast it all aside as well, sooner rather than later. Until then I will continue to be an underachiever, doing only what I need to do to keep from getting fired (and nothing more).
Posted by: Executioner | February 17, 2010 at 04:28 PM
[Nice website by the way, first time visiting!]
I retired in January, 2010 and I have to say that the only thing I longed for during my 10+ years in upper management positions was to be able to hang up the skates. The accumulation of titles and personal business achievements were waaaay down the priority list in comparison to having the freedom to do what I wanted with my time and within financial reason.
However I do believe your thread really highlights just how many people are 'programmed' (for lack of a better word) differently and some people really need to be in the heat of the action and in career mode for most of their adult lives. Others on the other hand, would just like to give it all up for personal time and pleasure as soon as they can.
Personally, I believe I will always continue to be active doing projects and continue doing business or working in some capacity, but they will be on very different terms.
Posted by: The Rat | February 17, 2010 at 07:33 PM
Hi Syd, I just came across your blog and have subscribed. This looks like a fun place. Hey, if Dad chimes in, he can't be too busy either.
Posted by: Michael Crosby | February 23, 2010 at 01:17 PM
Achievement is an interesting thing. I drive through one of the wealthier neighborhoods in my city on my way to work. The yards always have lovely chairs carefully arranged on the lawn or a patio with beautiful gardens - but there is never anyone sitting in them. The people don't have time to enjoy their beautiful yard. It is a peacock tail - something there to show others their status.
I’m confused by achievement for achievement’s sake, status for status’ sake. If you have a great goal, that makes sense to me. Medical breakthroughs, engineers that design safer roads, agricultural improvements that reduce hunger, artists that produce beautiful work... I'm glad that someone is working on these things and that they feel a need to achieve.
But I don’t get the others - people who amass great wealth playing hot potato with derivatives or subprime loans. Why? So they can wear fancy suits and fly in opulent private jets? I like your use of the phrase, “addicted to achievement”. It is the only explanation.
Painting your house, travelling, and making nice meals for friends seems like a wonderful life in comparison. Enjoy yourself Syd. You’ve done your time.
Posted by: Chris | March 11, 2010 at 06:17 PM
I would say that choosing to forgo 40% of my salary (and some of my benefits) so I could regain my personal life and get rid of much of my awful commute could qualify as underachieving. That is what I did in 2001 when I switched from working full-time to working part-time.
And if that wasn't enough, in 2007 I further reduced my weekly work hours from 20 to 12 (and lost nearly all the my few remaining benefits) because 20 hours was too much and got in the way of my nonwork life.
And if that wasn't enough, in late 2008 I retired at age 45 so I could have no work at all. None of that awful commute, either.
Posted by: deegee | May 12, 2010 at 08:16 AM
Fun post. I am enjoying retirement, and volunteering in long-term care and hospices.
Posted by: Jenn Jilks | June 25, 2011 at 03:33 PM
I understand your point of view COMPLETELY. I have never been career driven and all of my working life has been composed of "jobs". I spent a 20 year career in the military (achieving a reasonable enlisted level but was never all that "in" to it, just got the job done). Since then I've been employed by the government, working a steady but EXTREMELY boring job year after year. Unfortunately, it's my underachievement that has probably hurt my opportunity for early retirement. If I had the target in mind earlier AND a plan, I might be living the life I would like right now (at 52) and not still waking up to an alarm clock every morning. Working on getting out hard now, we'll see how it works out! Thanks for the inspiration, I'll have NO trouble having fun for a living....trust me!!!
Posted by: Bob | October 13, 2011 at 11:10 AM