I absolutely loved working as an Electronics Engineer and could not have imagined getting to a point that would make me walk away from my voluntary 80+ hour weeks.  But my last job, which took me to Scotland on an Oil and Gas project, was the adventure of a lifetime.

But it also brought me to the brink of choice.  It was truly a million dollars worth of fun, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Before I start my story, you might be wondering.  What has this got to do with financial independence?  I mean it’s great to hear someone’s work story, but what is the takeaway?

For me, I was lucky that I had been saving and investing with my eye on early retirement.  I loved my work.  Walking out of my job and leaving this project was the last thing I pictured myself doing.

I never dreamed I would find myself uttering my Dad’s famous words “YESTERDAY WAS MY LAST DAY”.  Except I did.

I’ve discovered that my current self is often a bad planner for my future self.  You just never know how different experiences are going to change you, and you best be prepared.  FINANCIALLY PREPARED!

Trading my Cubicle for a Metal Shipping Container

Oh I LOVED working in a cubicle.  Right.  I’m sure many of you do too.

Ahhh, Scotland

That shipping container actually made me miss my cubicle.  Is that possible? And with crazy deadlines and long lists of items to test, it was 13 hours or more a day, 7 days a week.

During the time we tested in Scotland, that container got moved to three different work sites.  We’d step outside to head to the bathroom (I mean the “loo”) and suddenly realize we were in a different place than the last time.  It was like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz.

“Oh, you’re in Scotland? It must be beautiful!”

Sometimes We Got To Go Outside

I think it was beautiful out there (at least that’s what we heard from people at the pub).  But we hardly got to go outside.

Unless a mechanical problem happened up high.  Then we were “lucky” enough to get a little sunshine.  With the help of a crane 🙂

Looking For An Exit Strategy

It was a first of its kind design, an 11 story high tower built to be assembled atop an oil well on the ocean floor.  An ambitious attempt, it was backed by venture capitalists and sponsored by BP.  Yes the same BP,  famous for the worst oil spill in US history, and it was happening during the same time we were testing.  The parallels were not lost on any of us.

We were at a disadvantage because of being subcontractors.  It was not our project and if you had a complaint, this wasn’t our company.  Oh, but we never had any complaints, right?  Oh. My. Gosh!

I can’t tell you the number of times I booked my flight for 3 or 4 weeks of work there.  Arriving in the airport, I’d get a text from my buddy on site telling me all the equipment was broken bollacksed and we would be a captive audience waiting for something to be fixed before testing started up again.

I never made it back on my arranged flight.  It was always many more weeks before completing a test and heading home.  I tried so hard to have an exit strategy, and it became a joke each time I arrived.  Like I really thought I was going to leave.  Really?

It’s sort of like the way that people working towards financial independence end up with “One More Year Syndrome“.  Deadline creep.  We all fight against it.

Are These the Conditions You Feared?

But with all this stress came an unbelievable camaraderie.  And not just because of the job.

We lived together, shopped together, shared a car, and did our laundry together.  Our housing was not your standard hotel.

The “Cottage”

It was a “cottage”.  We laughed about that name.  In actuality, it was a horse barn from the 1800’s, converted into a 3 room apartment and resembled one of the places we rented in college.

When I found out the working and living conditions I would be sharing, it made me really nervous. I value my independence and thought I needed my space, especially from my coworkers after a long day.  I liked my privacy and as the only girl on the project, it was hard to imagine not just working in a guy’s world, but now living in it.

In his recent TED talk, Tim Ferriss addressed Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals.  I recognize my situation now, after the fact, as having this great lesson from Stoicism.

Did One Of You Guys Eat MY Crisps?

Oh, but at the time, I just wanted to cry.  I was way out of my comfort zone. It was possibly the furthest out of my comfort zone I’ve ever been, and that is saying a lot!

My first day on the job started with a safety meeting, and with nearly everyone mumbling in Scottish accents, it left me clueless.  After a really long day, five of us piled in the car to pick up our groceries, mostly different microwavable versions of what we started calling “Chicken DING”.

Before this experience, I feared this type of situation.  I thought I needed “my space”.  Particularly my own car.

Boy, was I wrong.  Once I got passed the initial shock and settled in, I found myself having the time of my life.

Hey, stop joking around and get back to work!

Political Incorrectness Was My Savior

How To Speak Scottish In One Beer Coaster

Who would think that cussing, rude jokes, and juvenile behavior would actually be the best working conditions ever.  EVER!

This is hard to explain. As the only woman on the job, it could have easily been a situation with men constantly apologizing for foul language, or worse, going quiet when I entered the room.  The environment was typically pretty “colorful”, let’s say.

On my very first day, a guy who knew me as pretty silly and easy-going, told a whopper of a sex joke in a gathering of several guys.

Not only did I not bat an eye, but I absolutely lost it in laughter.

Immediately, the vibe in the room changed.  Under “normal” working conditions, this sort of thing would get anyone a trip to HR.

No Caption Needed

But this project was truly like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.  With a smaller, tight-knit group, living and working so closely, this type of joking actually bonded us together.  And the jokes were side-splittingly funny.  Often I was in tears as I worked and it truly made the long hours fly by.

Overall, it was like becoming part of a family.  There was no privacy.  Nothing was off limits.  If you left your “biffers” too long in the washer/dryer, someone would announce it or wave them around.  Worse yet, once one of my coworkers went on a hilarious rant about it, picked up the phone to call the guy, and accidentally left a voice mail to the HEAD OF THE ENTIRE PROJECT!  Woops.  Realizing it too late, he called back and sheepishly mentioned he should just ignore that last messsage.  Yeah right!  The next morning at the safety meeting, the project head played the message to the entire gathering.

I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants — and if I did, it would be broadcast news, for certain!

A Friend in FI

FI is all about Palm Trees

Oddly, the start of one of my best friendships was forged with a conversation about money.

He was particularly frugal.  He’d grown up in the U.K. but followed his Dad first to Hong Kong and then living in Philippines.  He really hated to waste a morsel because of watching young kids on the streets begging for food.

That conversation got us going.  I confided in him that I was really close to retiring early and we joked that I was doing the job “as a hobby”.  As we talked more about money, we both realized that we shared the habit of saving most of our income and living pretty casually.  We started laughing and joking about the foolish ways of the typical spenders, who were slaves to their jobs.

He took onsite testing jobs like this as a contractor, working intensely and saving money.  Then he would do a mini-retirement, take a year off and travel the world.  Doing this long before some of the famous FIRE people, it was inspiring to me.

During his travels, he had gone to hospitals in Thailand, Philippines, Mexico and beyond.  His stories convinced me of how excellent the care was and how incredibly cheap.  Like the story I read recently from MrFr33’s experience in Chiang Mai, it opens your eyes to the possibilities for health care abroad.

A idea about health care made the possibility of early retirement one step closer.

And because of our financial discussions, he sent me the classic story of the Mexican Fisherman, which I had never read.  That key question kept haunting me as we worked long hours and I was away from my husband.

“Are You Already There?”

I Didn’t Want A Dime More

Long hours, crude jokes, no privacy, and working another continent away from my husband?

I LOVED IT!  I would never have left.

Whoa Nellie!! My Control System Pulled This Across the Yard

Even though it landed me in the emergency room at one point.  Diagnosis?  Stress.  Those docs are rocket scientists!

Seriously, two team members actually died during the project, both in their fifties and both of heart attacks.  Sadly, some of us literally didn’t come home.

And yet, I was still totally in.  My workaholic tendencies ramped up and I developed an addiction to the company Blackberry.  I answered emails from the USA at 2am.  I was devoted.

So what was the tipping point?  What happened?

Local Hero

The whole thing suddenly came to a halt and turned into a bureaucracy.

The company we contracted for was nearing bankruptcy and replaced their upper management with a new team.  Fearful of lawsuits, the entire operation nearly shutdown while we switched from doing actual engineering.  Back at the home office we had to spend all of our time going back and forth over paperwork.

My entire job became redlining documents.  Worse, the new leaders thought that those of us who were key players, like me, were to blame for things.  We were excluded from design and started being “order takers”.

Not me. That was it.  My last dime!

I took people by surprise.  They had no idea of my financial independence, and could not understand that I didn’t have or want another job.  I wanted that one.  And it was gone.  Nothing could measure up to the experience, so it was time to find that adventure somewhere else.  On my own.

The Shawshank Redemption

One postscript.  While at “the cottage”, the group of us watched the movie The Shawhank Redemption.  We felt like prisoners and loved the line “Andy Dufresne crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine.”  The parallels between our time in Scotland and the movie were uncanny.

When I broke free to FI, I used to tease my friends that I would hide a bag of money for them under that big oak tree on the north end of that certain hay field.

Recently I came across an awesome blog post from Bitches Get Riches that I highly recommend.  Check it out, especially if you love that movie and, like us, see that the message is all about our jobs and the prison we’ve made for ourselves.

My Zihuantanejo. Won’t You Join Me?

What about you?  Is your job a Million Dollars Worth of Fun?  Or have you already spent your “last dime”?

14 Comments

  1. Baby Boomer Super Saver

    I’m glad you had fun while it was fun, and then got out when it wasn’t, Susan! Sounds like a crazy time, but oh, the stress!

    p.s. – I loved The Shawshank Redemption, too!

    Reply
    • Susan

      Yes it was a crazy time, the best of times, the worst of times. The Shawshank is amazing, a true FI story. We all have to answer that question: “Can you make it on the OUTSIDE?” Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  2. Dave @ Accidental FIRE

    What a great story Susan! I’ve experienced situations similar to yours where you’re living in close quarters for a long period of time with a small group of folks and I agree – as long as the group is fun and of similar mindset (especially in sense of humor), then the camaraderie is awesome! You can really get tight-knit with folks in a short period of time and build lasting friendships.

    But good on you for pulling the lug when you did. All good things come to an end and it’s best to just recognize that and move on. And thanks for the Stoicism shout-out!

    Reply
    • Susan

      Thanks, Dave. Your Stoicism TShirt says it all really. Facing my fears and letting go into a totally different way of living was life-changing. Once you realize that you can not just adapt, but thrive, and laugh your head off in a crazy environment, you are more free to go and live anywhere, under unknown conditions. I had the money, and this gave me the guts. I’d love to read of your similar stories.

      Reply
  3. Abigail @ipickuppennies

    Alas, I don’t have a job that’s a million dollars of fun, but neither have I spent my last dime. I’m not in a position to be FI, though it’s certainly a goal I’ll shoot for. Due to life and health circumstances, I’m probably just getting too late a start. At any rate, my job is kind of crappy (customer support), but overall our customers are mainly nice and my boss is awesome. Hence I’m not in too much of a panic to get free of a cubicle. Especially since I work from home.

    Reply
    • Susan

      Life brings us tons of challenges, but health issues are really the hardest. Starting late is okay. Starting is the biggest thing. I worked from home for 7 years and loved it. But the adventure this one brought was worth the crazy life so far from home. Good to hear from you.

      Reply
  4. Mrs. Groovy

    It sounds almost as if you went to war and formed a bond with a special group of guys.

    It can be soul crushing to remain in a situation when the entire game changes and you no longer respect the mission. How terrific that you were in a position to get out!

    Reply
    • Susan

      Yes the bond was huge and I have to say that those Oil and Gas guys are rough but really amazing people. But so true about how it ended. Being in a good financial position was key. It’s one of the reasons I hope to spread this word. These changes happen when you least expect and can drain your enthusiasm and take your soul. I was ready to “cash out”!

      Reply
  5. freddy smidlap

    sounds like a great time, really. i wanted something like that when i was younger and before i was happily married. now a weekend away with some buddies feels like a long time. i can picture you getting along, though. i like to think there is a right way and wrong way to be in close quarters with mixed company. it reminds me of the 12 hour shift work i did for years. i ran into one woman while i was walking my dog the other day and it was like seeing family. you didn’t understand completely unless you were there humping it together.

    good for you for getting out. i can hear it now to the new leaders: “i just don’t need your bullsh1t.”

    Reply
    • Susan

      Close quarters with mixed company only works with the right mix of people and in this case, it was stellar. The toughest thing was trying to Skype to my husband at 5am (his 9pm) and he was so lonely. I think you have me pegged on my colorful resignation words. Actually, I saved those for the new management at the customer’s site. My own boss was a gem. He was just puzzled about my finances though, being one of those well-paid Joneses types.

      Reply
  6. Joe

    Thanks for sharing your great story. This is exactly why everyone should pursue FI. I also enjoyed my engineering career until I didn’t anymore. The corporate BS is a joy killer.
    I’m sorry to hear about your coworkers passing away. That tends to change your perspective quickly. A few of my coworkers passed away before I retired too.
    It’s great to hear that you’re enjoying early retirement. I love Shawshank Redemption too.

    Reply
    • Susan

      Yeah, one of my coworkers was found dead in the snow on the way back from the backroom. A day none of us will ever forget. And yet, even with that jarring event, I was still totally in because that job exercised my creativity and drive. But when it turned into pointless documentation for legal people…well you know. As they said in Shawshank, “Get busy living or get busy dying”. I can tell we share a similar path 🙂

      Reply
  7. Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    Wow what a great story. First, that one picture is freaking hilarious. I have a wicked sense of humor so it cracked me up. Second, I can’t believe people literally died on the job. I can see how that situation would bring people together but holy cow! What a dramatic ending to your career. But sometimes, as I say in my posts lately, you know when you know. Congrats!

    Reply
    • Susan

      That picture is hilarious and it was sort of a typical scene, in between lots of difficult problems to solve and things breaking. Having a really close friend die on the job was terrible. Shocking really. He was Scottish and spent every week there away from his wife and that made it even sadder. A great reminder of whether this is all worth it or not. But it was — like you say — until it wasn’t. I know that you especially get that right now. Thanks.

      Reply

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