It was the winter of 2003, just before Christmas, and the decorations were out in full force along the Magnificent Mile. All of the stores displayed the top gift items of the season in their impressively decorated front windows. Street musicians and carollers filled the air with festive tunes. I was still a young man, fresh out of college, only 18 months into my career. Each weekday I exited the subway and walked down the iconic Michigan Avenue to my cubicle on the 19th floor of the John Hancock building, where I had gotten a job working for the 3rd largest insurance brokerage in the city. And I was about to be laid off.
My company was dissolving. The owner was being indicted for fraud and the whole brokerage was going down with him. At this point, my division was one of the few still left standing. The business, which had once occupied three full floors of this prominent building, was down to only a quarter of one. Part of the remaining unoccupied space on this floor was filled with office furniture waiting to be liquidated. There must’ve been 400 desk chairs pushed together like a bunch of cattle in one darkened corner. I would occasionally take a break there to sit and think. After all, a lot of thoughts need processing when you’re occupying a mostly empty floor rented by a mostly gutted company waiting for the axe to fall on your own head.
Over the last few weeks of December, I found myself trying out a lot of chairs attempting to figure out what I was going to do. My favorite was a nice old school leather one that was super comfortable, but it had a rip in the seat. In an effort to soften the blow of my impending layoff, and it being the season of giving, I asked if I could have it. Since the market for used desk chairs with ripped leather is rather limited, my request was granted. I was getting a new chair for Christmas, which I figured I could sit on while looking for a new job once the calendar flipped.
There was one stipulation though. I needed to take it home that day because the rest of the chairs were being removed over the weekend. So during Friday rush hour, at the height of holiday shopping season, I wheeled my new chair out of the John Hancock building and down Michigan Ave through the crush of shoppers and commuters. I didn’t make it very far before I noticed that I had a problem. Owing to the weather of the season, the sidewalks were covered in rock salt. And because it was a cold night, the plastic wheels on my already worn Christmas present were beginning to break off and lose chunks of themselves to the elements.
That left me with only one real choice. I hoisted that 30 pound beast up onto my head, steadied it by holding onto the arms, and started down the street. I must’ve been quite a sight walking down the main drag wearing an office chair as a hat. I carried it like that for 5 blocks through the crowds to my subway stop. I rode the train for 40 minutes (and for once I had a seat!) to the stop closest to my apartment, and schlepped it another 10 blocks until I reached home. I was pretty exhausted by then, and my neck was especially worn out from supporting most of the weight, but I had myself a nice comfortable chair.
And in a miraculous stroke of luck, I never actually lost that job. My whole division was purchased by another company. We were even allowed to stay in the John Hancock building. I continued to work in that division under the same boss for another 6 years, grabbing my first career promotions along the way. I got to keep the chair and the job! In fact, I’m writing this post from the same chair, 15 years after I first lugged it down the streets of Chicago during the height of winter. The plastic wheels are still missing a few chunks and the single rip in the seat has turned into several, but it’s still comfortable and has served me well over the years.
I could’ve easily replaced my old chair with a new unblemished one at any point. I could’ve easily been forced into the job market against my will. One of these things was entirely in my control and one of them I had very little control over at all. Because the path to FIRE is bound to be such a long journey, there will always be plenty of chances for things to go both right and wrong. While hard work, lifestyle design, and intentional choices play a big part, so does luck. Both Katie and I have had strokes of luck that have helped along the way, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
How we benefited from luck
We had stable jobs. Neither Katie nor I were ever laid off or fired. Working at that first job back in 2003 was the closest I ever came. Every other job change we’ve ever made was dictated by us, not for us. In 2009 when we moved to California for Katie’s job during the height of the recession, I was left without one. And even then during a terrible job market, I was able to land a full-time position within 2 months. At a time when many people were having to tap retirement accounts just to pay for necessities, we were able to continue and even increase funding ours.
We had healthy childhoods provided by loving parents. Our parents read to us instead of just sticking us in front of the TV. They answered our likely endless questions instead of telling us to shut up and go away. We never suffered food insecurity. And what we did eat consisted of nutritious home-cooked meals and not a diet of processed crap. Our moms didn’t take drugs or engage in other damaging behaviors when pregnant or afterwards. In short, we didn’t have a lot of obstacles to overcome.
We had no debt. While we are far from trust fund kids or products of the upper class, we still were able to start at zero, which is a huge advantage in these days of skyrocketing education costs. Katie avoided debt by jumping right into the working world, skipping an advanced degree altogether. My college was generously funded by my parents. While I did work throughout most of it, my contribution was comically small. Without this, we’d definitely be stuck working another few years instead of starting our retirement now.
We were given respect. There is no doubt about it, we have made some unconventional life choices. But we never faced pressure to have a big wedding, have kids, buy a house, or stay close to home instead of moving across the country. Our choices were ours to make and our families never attempted to influence or manipulate us into things we didn’t want.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think you get the point. We’ve had a lot of things go right. Of course it wasn’t all good. We’ve had setbacks as well, like when our brand new puppy needed major surgery or when we bought a total lemon of a car and felt like our entire paychecks were being signed directly over to the mechanic for a while. But on the balance, we’ve definitely had more good luck than bad.
While being fortunate helps, it’s only part of the story. We also made a lot of intentional choices to get to where we are, and I’ll cover those in the next post. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all of the help, advantages, and just plain luck that we received along the way. I was even able to avoid someone calling the cops on the crazy man carrying an office chair on his head down Michigan Avenue.