Five years ago I left my New York law firm job for an in-house position at a tech company. I accepted a 50% pay cut to make the change, and although the reduction in pay was hard to get comfortable with at the time, now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that leaving the firm and taking a lower salary was one of the best decisions of my life.
Here’s what I learned after I cut my pay in half.
Making Less Improved My Life
You know what they say about time being more valuable than money? It’s an understatement.
While I was in New York, I worked 60-80 hour weeks and had hardly any time for myself. The evenings, nights, and weekends were reserved for work, and work always came first. I had no hobbies besides coming home at 1 or 2 AM and downing a bottle of wine so I could calm down enough to sleep.
A typical Monday ended at 12-1 AM, which ruined any shot at catching up on rest for the remainder of the week. I was unhealthy. The stress of the job and sitting for over 12 hours a day did a real number on me. I was weak and experienced chest pain on a regular basis. It was with me on the way to work, at the office, and at night when I was up against a deadline.
Fast forward to my life after I took the 50% pay cut and joined my tech company. Immediately after switching jobs, I was making half, but I had more than twice the free time. With the shortened work hours, my stress level dropped, and my chest pain vanished. I began to consider developing hobbies. I actually began to do things outside of work, and, over time, I realized that my previous lifestyle had been unsustainable.
Why had I been giving up all of my time in exchange for money? What was the point if I hardly ever did anything I enjoyed? The new freedom and improved work-life balance was worth much more than the pay I’d left behind.
Let me put this into perspective. I enjoy tennis, both watching it and playing.
Now that I’m at a job with some work-life balance, I play 2-4 times a week when the weather cooperates, and I watch a few matches or at least the highlights of just about every professional tennis event.
In my 4 years in New York, I did not play tennis one single time. Not once in 4 years. I didn’t have time. I couldn’t get away from work.
Not only did I not play at all in 4 years, but I didn’t watch a single event on TV, or attend the US Open (held just an hour or so away from where I lived in Manhattan) once in that 4 year stretch.
Maybe I would have gotten better about this over time, but given the way I was going and the momentum that was building, I doubt it. When the inertia builds up, it’s hard to change, and had I not consciously veered from the path I was on, I’m convinced I would have blinked and woken up 5-10 years later in the same place (at a different law firm perhaps, but with the same lifestyle and having neglected to take real care of myself in a number of ways, including by enjoying time outside of work).
By granting me more time, my new lifestyle increased the overall quality of my life. I didn’t feel the pay difference at all, because when I’d been in New York I’d never had the chance to enjoy the money anyway.
Time is more important than money, and the older you get, the more valuable time becomes relative to money.
I want to emphasize that you should be careful about putting off enjoying your life until some later date, after you’ve earned x or y or z amount of cash. By then it might be too late to extract the same kind of enjoyment from your time as you could have before.
You may judge the trade-off to be worth it when you’re young, and that’s completely up to you, but be sure to understand what you’re giving up and for how long. If you’re deferring fun, have a plan for when you will truly allow yourself to enjoy life, and include in that plan some regular relaxation time.
Don’t push all the joy into the future. It’s not the surest bet to make, because life is unpredictable, and you need to make time for yourself in the present.
Even Good Change Is Hard
In the years that followed my exit, I witnessed a number of my law school friends and former colleagues struggle with the decision to leave a law firm job that was making them miserable and unhealthy.
I offered some of these people a position at my tech company, and although my work situation was what they’d always said they wanted, they were unwilling to make the move. Some have since then made a change, but many are still at firms, still talking about how they want to leave while passing up numerous opportunities to do so.
It’s hard to leave the devil you know, even if you’d like to in concept. Even if you’re in a bad situation, it’s your bad situation and you’ve grown accustomed to it. You know what to expect.
Similarly, it’s hard to leave a high-paying job, because the pay provides positive reinforcement and security, even if you have a nagging feeling that your life is slipping away or that you’d like to do something else for work.
It was hard for me to leave. There was uncertainty in quitting the law firm, and there were high-powered naysayers in my life telling me I was making a mistake.
But there were also exciting possibilities within the uncertainty, and supportive friends and family members who understood that I needed a change.
Making a positive change in your life may feel challenging when you’re leaving the conventional path and parting with a lifestyle you know, but this change may be just what you need. And living through and triumphing over the discomfort associated with the change will make you stronger.
“Normal” is a Relative Term
I chose the above picture for this post because in many ways the New York law firm lifestyle seems to belong to an alternate dimension. What’s normal there is far from it just about anywhere else.
My definition of normal while I was at the firm needed a reality check. In hindsight and based on my current understanding of the word “normal,” working nights and weekends and letting my hobbies die off wasn’t normal. Tolerating my previous work culture also wasn’t normal.
Now I realize how important boundaries are, although I still struggle with putting them in place and keeping them firm. But I’m much better than I used to be, and closer to a healthier “normal.”
I mention this because your understanding of what is normal may need to be reviewed. Although some people in New York may be experiencing a lifestyle that is balanced and right-side-up with respect to priorities, my normal was inverted, per the above picture. I was living to work.
Now, although work is still a large part of my life because I love what I do, it doesn’t consume my life. I enjoy downtime and sports, which help energize me for my job.
There’s a sweet spot of work and play, and I haven’t mastered it, but I’m much closer than I used to be.
Please kick off the discussion in the comments below. I look forward to reading about your experiences and your thoughts on optimizing work-life balance!