(This is a revised and updated version of what was my first-ever post on joebalcom.blog. This essay resonated profoundly with thousands of readers in just its first week. So I’ve felt a duty to revisit and improve it using the feedback of some amazing readers. I hope you enjoy reading, and I hope it causes you to rethink many assumptions you have on the topic of work.)
Stop Chasing Money and Status. Build Wealth and Meaning Instead. You’ll Never Look Back.
I recently left my high-paying job as a restaurant manager with the intent on creating my own destiny.
But why? Being in charge of such a large organization had all the trappings anyone might want: money, power, status, a comfortable two-bedroom top-floor apartment, and all that comes with such a lifestyle.
I really thought I found the key to success. I was living the life. And yet, I wasn’t happy.
Not even close.
(NOTE: This post, being available for public consumption, may render me totally unemployable. That is my goal. You might ask ‘why?’ By the end you’ll be asking ‘why not?’)
Beginning in the early months of 2018, I spent two years as the general manager of a brand new restaurant on the edge of a college campus. The place was huge, and the challenge was immense: 9,000 sq ft, 80+ employees, $4 million+ in revenue per year. The owner of the restaurant rarely spent time there, so from day one I felt it was solely my responsibility to make it a success.
I was in charge of everything, from setting up the new restaurant, to hiring and training hundreds of employees. From daily inventory and ordering, to developing an atmosphere and a community that would set the business on a trajectory to be the hottest thing in the region.
The work was hard, and at times, soul-crushing. But the process of building something meaningful had always appealed to me, and this was my big chance to make my mark.
I felt that I would work there for a long time. I could pay off my student loan debt, save money for my own restaurant one day, and I would never have to worry about money ever again. This path was my destiny …is what I kept telling myself.
Origins of my “Destiny”
I had come a long way. In 2017, only a year prior to joining the restaurant business, I was living an aimless life, doing mindless work at a payroll company. I had spent three of the most capable years of my life at the company not pursuing my dreams, and not knowing what my dreams even were. Eventually I decided I wasn’t cut out for shuffling papers for 40 hours a week, and I left the 9-5 cubicle life behind.
In the months to follow, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery that would change the trajectory of my life. I walked 500 miles across northern Spain on the fabled Camino de Santiago. And when I returned, I started my own fidget spinner side-hustle during the height of the craze.
The overarching goal of my self-imposed sabbatical was to stretch and redefine my comfort zone every single day. Over that time, I learned what it means to work for myself and I explored the edges of comfort more than I ever could in a cloistered paycheck-to-paycheck cubicle environment.
I discovered I had been unconsciously limiting myself my entire life.
Movin’ On Up
By early 2018, through leveraging my experiences, utilizing my network, and solving the principal-agent problem, I had been hired to run the restaurant. With no prior restaurant experience besides dining in them, I was tasked with building and managing this brand new multi-million dollar project from the ground up.
This location would be the largest in the restaurant group, which has dozens of locations in the Philadelphia area. Despite my blatant lack of experience, the owner of the company saw enough character and potential to hand me the keys. Through many long days, hard work, and consistency, I was projected to someday be “the best manager the company has ever seen” by one of the owner’s top lieutenants.
My admiration within the restaurant empire grew rapidly. I was soon looked to as the standard-bearer of principled leadership within an otherwise ethically-challenged organization.
The team of employees I put together was outstanding. The camaraderie and the energy within the team was remarkable. Employees felt that working at the restaurant was often the best part of their day. In essence, I had cultivated a work environment I was never able to find on my own.
The mayor, local government officials, business owners, and even some professional sports stars began dining there on a regular basis. And within a large college community, the restaurant achieved success almost instantly.
I was making a comfortable living, I had a fun and engaging job, I had the status, and I had the respect. What more could I want?
The Inevitable Turn of Events
The learning curve, after so long in a particular role, inevitably stumbles into unsavory territory. The owner had an inner-circle of lieutenants who he trusted to be his eyes and ears throughout the organization. But there was a catch–he only admitted “yes-men” into this exclusive group, or people who would only tell him what he wanted to hear. By now, I’m sure you can think of one or more leaders with this quality. They’re on TV every day. And you might even deal with them at your job on a daily basis.
I began, by default, as an unofficial member of this inner-circle, but I quickly chose to find my way out. I have never been one to tell people only what they want to hear. With this being in diametric opposition of what the owner liked, it set the stage for a challenging relationship. Put simply, he was always more interested in his way of doing things rather than the best way. It was his company, after all.
Often, he didn’t take kindly to hard truths I would present to him about many of the unfortunate realities within the organization. And as the sole owner of the company, his attitude of denial would ultimately enable such issues to persist. I had eventually lost the ability to convince him of the truth.
But do you know the beautiful thing about truth? Truth doesn’t care about what anyone thinks of it. It cannot be molded into something it is not. This powerlessness over truth causes many to avoid it at all costs. Many are scared of the consequences truth brings along. The all-powerful owner of this organization was no different. So be it.
The Writing on the Wall
As I grew to learn the inner workings of the power structure within the company, I began to sense that one way or another, I was not going to stay there long-term.
My principles and values would be tested on many occasions, but they were never broken. I did my best to keep my soul through it all.
It had been almost two years with the organization, but by late 2019, the writing was on the wall. It became increasingly challenging to work with the owner. All the money and status wasn’t enough to keep me motivated. All the cheese wasn’t enough to keep me in the trap.
I became indifferent to the non-sense and to “playing politics.” I was chronically over-stressed and everyone around me felt it. By the time my (“keep it short”) August vacation came around, I decided I needed to make a change.
Shortly after I returned, I sat down with the owner and made the decision to resign. I had reached the point of no return. I had to move on for the sake of my health and my sanity. The destiny I had envisioned for myself was little more than an illusion. I knew that working for someone else would never be the answer to my ambitions.
I needed to take matters into my own hands and create my own destiny.
That Which You Cannot Buy
During my time at the restaurant, I learned, firsthand, that money doesn’t solve all your problems, just your money problems. Money doesn’t make you happy, but can buy things that make you happy (momentarily).
I also learned that status is a fleeting concept. You are not your status. You can enjoy it briefly, but it tends to only bring you more problems, which money cannot solve.
What I was missing was that which you cannot point to, put a finger on, or buy:
I was always at the restaurant. 60, 70, 80 hours a week. After all, my top-floor apartment was literally across the street. I could roll out of bed and into work. The downside? Obvious. As the single point of authority and communication of a multi-million dollar restaurant, I constantly lacked the most precious resource of all: time.
If time is the bathwater, then freedom is the baby. Managing a restaurant will throw both out in a hurry. Want a vacation? Wait until August when it’s slow. Remember, keep it short. Want a second day off? “You have banker’s hours.” Want to take an early day? Go ahead, but you’d better keep your phone with you. I was nothing more than a well-paid tiger in a cage.
Everyone wants money and status. Until they know the price for it.
Want Makes You a Servant
I was free! Well, almost. I went from 14-hour days to…
Soon after, out of boredom and recognition of what I thought was another promising opportunity, I began working at a marketing company. Although I learned a lot of skills (many of which I am putting to use now), the company was spinning its wheels. My long-term goals and the short-term discipline of the company were not aligned, so I decided to leave after two months.
The problem I was having was letting my desires and my wants drive my decisions. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” I’ve done fairly well steering clear of the first two, but my addiction to a steady paycheck has always led me to unhappiness.
I realized that the key to true freedom is not needing to rely on someone else for your paycheck. True freedom is not needing approval from anyone. True freedom is not having to be in a specific place at a specific time. True freedom was what I was after.
Sometimes You Just Need to Go to Denver
I had spent my entire working life trying to find the nexus between meaningful work and achieving financial freedom, and I was striking out. In my time off after leaving the marketing company, I took a trip to Denver, Colorado to clear my head (if you’ve never been, the fresh mountain air is a great place for that).
While there, I worked with a career coach, meditated with a spiritual guru, and took long walks. In doing so, I came to a few realizations:
- You will never be truly free or become wealthy by working for someone else.
- All paid servitude is predicated on want. Want of money. Want of status. This is precisely why people stay at jobs they hate.
- Status and money are zero sum games. Someone has to lose for you to win. When you prioritize these, you operate from an unhealthy position of scarcity, which leads to bad decisions.
- Wealth and meaning are positive sum games. No one has to lose for you to win.
- Building wealth lifts others around you. It creates new opportunities for others that would never have existed otherwise.
- Building meaning in your work and the value that comes out of it gives people hope. Doing work you genuinely care about gives you energy.
- Building something of value is the only way to gain true freedom. You can solve new problems each day. You are your own boss. No monotony. No office politics. No “keep it short” vacations. Results are predicated on your work ethic and ingenuity. It requires the most effort, but is the most rewarding.
Extrinsic Motivation is Unsustainable
Even with these realizations, I was still stuck with this nagging question of what I wanted to do with my life. What would I be excited to wake up early and do every single day for the next 40+ years? What would bring true meaning to my life?
I spent some time meditating on these questions in Denver, and more when I returned home. I knew it would need to be something that intrinsically motivates me. Extrinsic motivation, the carrot on the stick, the cheese in the mousetrap, only goes so far. Six-figure servitude is only so exciting momentarily, while all your time and freedom evaporates. I knew I could not make that mistake again.
The Golden Opportunity
Then one day, COVID-19 became an unfortunate everyday reality for all of us. During the early phases of the pandemic, I noticed the vast majority of people had been using their newfound free time to consume…junk food, social media, news, and Netflix.
On the contrary, I knew this was my golden opportunity to go all in and build something of value, something that would stand the test of pandemics, recessions, and time. So I relocated to a cabin in the Pocono Mountains and got to work.
During my Walden-like quarantine, I began building the infrastructure I would need to thrive in an uncertain future. I built my own website and just started creating. I wrote 10 blog posts before publishing the blog. I began learning about the power of leverage, digital platforms, building audiences, and creating a sustainable online business.
I found that the answer to all of my existential questions (and I suspect yours as well), lies in experimenting widely, iterating rapidly, testing repeatedly, staying consistent, and telling all about it. Do this long enough and you’ll stumble on something at the intersection of what you love, what you are genuinely skilled at, and what the world needs (and will pay you for).
Writing, experimenting, and questioning common assumptions have set the foundation for me. Why not use these to build something meaningful and sustainable of my own? Why not explore such high-leverage opportunities without the need for capital, investors, bosses, etc.?
When you dig deep into your soul and simply start creating things, your path tends to reveal itself.
When losing everything becomes acceptable, gaining everything becomes possible.
I’m pushing my chips to the middle. I’m all in. Starting from virtually nothing but creativity, willpower, and consistency, I have embarked on a mission to create my own destiny from scratch. I don’t expect anything to come easy, and I realize great accountability comes with such a mission. There is no one to blame but myself. And I’m okay with that.
And by going public with my intentions, I have virtually cemented my mission – and my unemployability.
You might still be wondering “why is your goal to be unemployable?” The unemployability I refer to is not something external. In fact, by following your own path, and by building your own future, the skills you build along the way will only make you more appealing in the eyes of employers. The unemployability I refer to is a mindset. It is 100% internal. No one should be able to hire you for less than the value you are be able to create independently.
So I’ve begun to build my destiny, one project at a time. I’m on a mission to build a personal monopoly as the only person in the world who does what I do. That might sound irrational and unattainable, but when you embark on such a journey you realize that it is much more within your grasp than you could ever imagine.
If you are in search of meaningful work or financial freedom, I encourage you to spend some time exploring and reflecting as I did. Take a trip to clear your head–a place where you can reset and contemplate. It’s a process that can reveal direction, hope, and meaning.
And while I’m not asking you to just quit your day job and start something of your own at this very moment, I am asking you to consider whether you will look back in 20 years and be proud of having never taken the chance.
Build a life on a foundation based on chasing paper, and it will amount to nothing more than a house of cards (still standing if you’re lucky).
Build a life on a foundation based on creating value for the world, and that is a fortress you can live in for the rest of your life.
Your Prompt for the Day
Fast forward to 10-20 years from now. What advice would your older self give your present self? What could you build that will make you, your kids, and your grandchildren proud?
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