His thinning hair was totally white. He wore a ruffled shirt displaying the kind smile of your favorite uncle. He looked perfectly ordinary. Nowhere near like a multi-millionaire. At least the one’s you see in movies, TV, and gracing Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. No one would mistake him for J.P. Morgan or Warren Buffet.
He sat in the Beer Garden, Soi 7 Sukhumvit Road, a semi-sleazy place, which serves good food. It is a place to have fun. Fun, though, requires energy and time. Money helps. I struck up a conversation after overhearing him advise a Czech tourist that Phuket was twenty-minute drive by taxi from Bangkok. It crossed by mind that he was either winding up the Czech or was sadly ill-informed. He turned out he was a lawyer for a big American law firm and made more than one million dollars a year. He fell in the ill-informed category, as there was malice or ill-intend in his wildly wrong estimate of driving time to Phuket (maybe 12 hours if the traffic gods are on your side.)
I’ll call him Robert (not his real name). Robert was 55 years old but looked ten years older. Life shows a map of wear and tear on everyone. Some people’s youth are sandpapered down to the fine polished masks of an ancient monk, others retain the rough bark of youth. Robert’s had carved him into the image of a semi-old man. His assets were substantial. He billed 3,000 hours a year. Figure 1,200 non-billable hours are spent at a partnership meetings, conferences, includes all travel time and the time required to keep current in the field. There are 8,760 hours in one year. That leaves 4,560 hours. If you sleep 8 hours a night, deduct 2,920 from that total. Now you are down to 1,640 hours. A rough count is less than 4.5 hours for everything else: sports, laundry, checking email, surfing the Net, eating, drinking, cleaning up, reading (you might have to cut that), chasing women, catching them, feeding them, bathing, shaving. In other words, Robert didn’t really have a life. He had a profession and he pretended that was life. Only an impressive list of clients that kept him on planes to London, Sydney, with 24 hour down time reserved for Bangkok.
I asked Robert why he didn’t retire? He had millions in the bank. He made more than a million a year. Was it that he loved his work? No, Robert said, he didn’t love his work. It was hard and tiring work. Then why not quit the law practice and do something else? He said that he’d been thinking about it but since he’d been working since 18 years old, Robert couldn’t imagine himself or what his life would look like without his job as a partner in a major USA law firm. He’d climbed the mountain. He’d planted the flag. Robert had no intention of getting off that mountaintop. That’s where he was stuck, waiving the flag, feeling happy he’d been up the challenge, wondering why after living with the view for years, he had an unsettling boredom. Instead of dealing with 7.8 hours a day, he’d have to find something to occupy himself for about 15 hours a day. The thought terrified him. Too much unorganized, uncategorized, unplanned time caused him feel panic. What would he do? How would he know what to do? Who would he bill to investigate what to do?
That partnership in the law firm was the key to his existence: having clients set his time, design his day, inhabit his every waking moment with one problem or another, and best of all, he didn’t have to think what to do next. It was done for him. He could use his brain to solve other people’s legal problems. 3,000 hours a year renting his brain out for others to run their problems through. He was a million dollar man but he wasn’t happy. It would be going to far to say that his life was empty, meaningless life. If anything it was too full; but too full of stuff that he was doing for money and wouldn’t otherwise choose to do if no money was attached. The meaning came in meeting the expectation of a client. But he’d reached a point where satisfying a client wasn’t providing much personal satisfaction.
Robert had become someone who couldn’t quit the rat race because of his dependency on others to confirm his value, identity, and work day schedule. Without the clients, he’d be lost. It wasn’t just the money. It was the fear of the emptiness to fill if the clients no longer called.
From the people I talk to I don’t find the millionaire lawyer to be exceptional in his fear. Most people who roll through the system are taught to aspire to a career, fame, and fortune. They are never taught what they should do once they achieve these goals. Instead, they continue their lives on automatic pilot, feeling guilty that they can’t find another way to live. They have left living for the future and that day, it seems, never arrives.
Robert said he thought he’d probably live to seventy-five or eighty, and in his mind that gave him plenty of time to make the right decision. This was a defining moment. He had the right idea. Think ahead. How much time was left on the clock? Roughly, Robert had about 175,200 hours left on his personal clock. What do to with that time? Bill it? Or live it unbilled?
The gap between 55 and 75 or a period 20 years needs some accounting. Robert had glimpsed his 75 year old self and wasn’t certain what to do for him. What Robert hadn’t done was put himself in the position of Robert who is now 75 and who was looking back over the past 20 years. What does the seventy plus Robert wish his 55-year old self would have done? That Robert owned large amounts of property, investments, and could easily live on the income with luxury and comfort. So it wasn’t the fear of poverty that was the driving force. What the two differently aged Roberts needed to find was a compromise that allowed each of them space.
I suspect the 75-year-old Robert would have wanted something other than billable time over the last twenty years. Or may be that is wishful thinking. I am not that cynical. Not yet. Even at 55 years old, I believe someone like Robert can find a way to design his own life, time and organize experiences that don’t need to be billed but hours that belong only and solely to him, carrying the freedom to do whatever makes him happy.