Life Lessons from X-Men: Days of Future Past

It’s nice when mainstream action movies attempt to present a very eloquent message about the state of our world. The X-Men series doesn’t shy away from prothletising its own ethics code. Of course all of our famous stories of good and evil do this somewhat, but X-Men Days of Future Past specifically touched on how everything we do, even in an instant, is a choice that can dramatically shift the course of the entire future.

Two days ago, sitting in my psychologist’s office, we had a very good session. She recently moved to a new location where there is a large open glass wall behind her chair overlooking somewhat wild nature. One could almost forget she was smack dab in the middle of bustling Silicon Valley, where the suburbs are about as urban as many other small cities. I’ve been seeing this therapist for over a year now — which is a first for me… I usually go to a therapist/psychologist et al when I’m going through a massive depression and have them talk me out of it for a month or so and then I’m back in my own wilderness. Not so in this case. It’s surely isn’t cheap but the routine of going to see her weekly is helpful.

These days, we often discuss a lot about what it is that I want to do and am meant to do. Last month as she watched me tear apart magazines to make a collage defining who I am today she got to witness the real me — the creative, fast-moving, hyper aware of the moment, all-in, me. So this week she stared at me and as I went on and on about how I feel like I just don’t fit in my job as a manager where process and numbers are everything with this look of “well duh.” Of course I feel out of place. I’m not this type A personality who is aggressive and driven in the sort of way I’d need to be in order to be successful in this type of role. The reality is the reason I thrived on and off at my last company in marketing is because the company sold a product which was fascinating to me from a psychological perspective so it kept me interested. Due to the nature of the product it attracted creative types. The challenge was that the product itself struggled as did the business.

To handle the emotional turmoil that came with losing over $16,000 in exercised stock options from a company that turned sour due to its own creative hype, I jumped to the exact opposite type of company. One where instead of blasting our message out to anyone and everyone who would hear it to land customers who would never launch and renew, I shifted to a company where the buyer was extremely clear and targeted. Everything is measured and set. But that fights against my creative energy, where I want to just try things I intuitively understand while my colleagues all want hard data before investing in any idea. I highly respect their focus on data (and also understand that intuition, no matter how good it is, is often not the right reason to do something) but I’m just not a fit in this type of a role. I can do my best but it just doesn’t come natural to me.

My very level-headed boss was quite agitated with me this week. I am not fight-or-flight responding to the situation at hand where success is very much in my control, as is momentary failure. I’m too distracted by bigger questions. My mind wanders to how to scale this all a year from now and I find so many gaps in the story which I want to fix today. I get lost in this and fail to just focus on what needs to be done now to be successful this week, this day, this hour, this minute.

It also may be that startup life isn’t for me. I thought it was. I’ve mostly worked in startups for the last decade of my career. I also had the opportunity to work for a large company where logic and foresight also failed to be present. Maybe I need to work for a better run bigger company. Or maybe I don’t need to work for a company at all. I don’t know. I like freedom. A lot. If I feel free I am a thousand times more productive.

I know you all, whoever out there actually reads this blog, are tired of my ongoing drama regarding my career. It’s just that this all comes back to the key question of how much money really matters in my life. I mean, I have somehow gotten to this point where with bonus I can make nearly $160,000 per year. I’m not going to actually get all of my bonus (especially given my current track record) but even if I make $140,000 this year that’s a heck of a lot. It’s not as crazy a lot as it sounds compared to cost of living in the Bay Area, but it’s getting me to the point where I can actually afford to live a reasonable life here. If I’m making $140k today, give or take, in 5 years there is no reason I couldn’t make $170k or more. That’s the direction my career, if you take me out of it for a minute, is headed.

So the rational part of me is thinking — if I can just get to $170k per year — and then $180k and $190k and $200k — how long do I need to do that and save before I can feel financially free? I do like to spend money (god set me lose in a Sephora and I’ll walk away with a tiny bag filled with hundreds of dollars of who knows what) but I also am pretty good at saving. I’m on track to have $50k a year saved again, if not more with interest, and I am living quite a good life without too many splurges. It just seems remarkably silly to say — you know what, I’m not happy and I want to be doing something super creative, so I’m going to go back to making $50k a year or less and dip into my savings in order to be happy.

If I can save $50k a year it will only take 4 more years until I have $500k in the bank (unless the stock market crashes in which case – f*ck.) $500k is not enough for financial freedom but it is the first major step in that journey. But once I’m at $500k, would I be able to walk away from my career then? I’ll want to hit a million before I can do that, and if I actually can get to a million that means I’ve managed to find myself in a job that pays extremely well. That would be harder to leave, even if I’ve hit my goals.

Part of me knows what I have to do. I’d like to study UX design, I’d like to work for a company that values user experience and great design, and I’d like to work my way up as a designer for my 30s and early 40s and then become a well-paid, well-respected consultant. Ok, so that’s easier said than done. It’s much easier, sort of, to just stay in this role I’m in now and figure out how to do it well enough. I need to be an actress and play another part. Play this Type A, highly organized, effective, aggressive, get it done type of character who is everything I’ll never be. That’s who will thrive in my current career. So I know who I have to be. I’ve just never been the best actress.

As X-Men teaches us, every moment is a choice, and even though the short-term results of that choice may be scary, in the long run it can definitely work out for the better. Make the right choice, not the easy choice, and you won’t be sorry.

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