Baffling Office Conversations: A Motorcycle Accident

As someone who has not yet pulled the trigger on early retirement (for a number of reasons, but that’s another post), I get the benefit of going to an office everyday. An office is a weird, singular place for a number of reasons. As an adult, where else could you spend so much of your time and energy yet have so little control of said time and energy? Where else could you dedicate so much of yourself to someone like the ubiquitous “shareholder”, yet never feel like you really met the customer’s needs (or even met the customer)?

On the positive side, where can you (when managed effectively), spend so much time with a group of people (dare I say “team”) so energized that they spend a majority of waking (and some non-waking) hours devoted to singular goals? Where else can you find devoted, driven, intelligent people and spend all your time tackling some of the world’s toughest problems? Finally, how else would you meet so many diverse people, people whom you would never have met or associated with otherwise?

Amazingly, all of this, good and bad, is possible in an office.

Yes, it’s quite amazing “what people will do for a paycheck”, how they can come together through a myriad of personal circumstances and core values. While many of us do these things because we need a paycheck, you and I know there’s another option, an option where a paycheck is not a need – and we’re working to get there as quickly as possible. However, in the meantime, you may as well take advantage of meeting all these different people. After all, socializing with others is a requisite part of happiness.

Professional Socializing

As professionals, we all do our best to leave our personal lives at home so that when we are at work, we are simple productive cogs. This is what the company wants because it makes us better, more effective human “resources”. And this is what we, the employees, want because we expect better remuneration for the improved performance. (This is what our managers want because this makes us easier to manage.)

These efforts are so effective that, despite all the time spent with them, you might literally know nothing about these people outside of their name, a few job skills and what projects they’re working on. When I first graduated college, I was a bit shocked by the change in colleagues’ behavior. I watched relaxed, happy-go-lucky slackers transform into veritable workaholic war-machines. Over time this shock diffused away, and I eventually reached my own state of equilibrium: Aside from a few friends, I knew very little about my coworkers and most of them knew knew very little about me. This seems to be the status quo for many offices, and, as mentioned before, is due to people’s own focus for showing up to the office. Generally, people trying to get ahead will focus on developing themselves and their projects, and people not trying ahead will try to focus on their projects so they can leave and get home to their families.

Because of all the laser focus on work, I find I’m surprised when some bit of personal information does leak out. “Oh, you have three kids?” “Oh, you’re an engineer now but worked your way through undergrad as a nurse?” “Oh, you were a “hot shot” forest-firefighter/olympic trial marathoner/world long-drive contest winner?” These are all real-life examples from my office. When I started, my first mentor had actually won golf’s long-drive contest and taken the winnings to start a scholarship at his alma mater. I had a coworker who competed in the 2000 US Olympic Marathon Trials and is still sponsored by a major running shoe brand. I have also known a half-dozen coworkers who seemed very dedicated to the company until one day they disappeared to take positions at family businesses. Amazingly, you would never think anything of someone until he disappeared one day because he had reached the level of experience required by his father to be deemed worthy to move into the family real estate/restaurant chain/shipping brokerage business.

Every “coworker surprise” serves as a reminder that, even though we spend more waking hours around each other than literally everyone else in our lives, we don’t truly know each other and also, may not share many core values. In other words, the office presents a great opportunity to get slapped in the face with some alternative life perspective!

A Recent Slap in the Face

Just this week, one of my coworkers took off for a long weekend and showed up five days later on a walker (frugal bonus: borrowed from his grandmother!). Apparently, his first day out of the office, he had managed to wreck his motorcycle into a cement mixer. Aside from losing a distal phalange on his dominant hand (which got crushed in between his collapsed handlebars) and tearing open a bunch of soft tissue on his knee (hence the walker), he had made it through unscathed. Somehow, he had not fractured anything and had no cognitive damage (wear your helmets, people!).

Of course, topics of conversation around the office focused on his health initially; however, over time his narrative turned to lawyers and civil court proceedings. Meanwhile, coworkers began to discuss how they might respond to similar financial shocks. Because we work at the same company and have the same medical insurance, we could have specific discussions about out-of-pocket medical costs. As with many employers, our company subsidizes this benefit so that we essentially end up with premiums and deductibles about half what is available on public exchanges. Combining the low cost of care with the fact that everyone is employed and receiving a paycheck should make the cost of any medical emergency very manageable. Incredibly, I was slapped in the face when many of my coworkers reacted to the out-of-pocket costs with alarm. Despite the tax incentives, almost none of my coworkers utilize our FSA, and many admitted it would be difficult finding $3,000 to cover medical expenses. Usually, the admission came in the form of “$3,000? That’s so much! Where do they expect my family to find that?!”

Face Punches

The first time someone responded with incredulity, I actually tried a couple of direct MMM-style face punches of my own. I boldly suggested that a couple thousand bucks was a small amount for anyone with over a year at our at our company. After all, our deductibles were set at the levels they were to make the costs affordable for us employees. Needless to say, that was a disaster.

Thankfully, that first person was a close acquaintance and knew me well enough to know that I was really just trying to help. As a fellow engineer, he and I quickly put on our critical thinking hats and went to work root-cause-analyzing why he thought saving a medical deductible was so insurmountable. What we uncovered was not a lack of capacity or capability but choice. Yes, he could save the money, but that might require him to spend less somewhere else. As we talked through several of his choices: luxury rental apartment, brand new luxury car, huge alcohol bill, full-time maid service, he began to admit that yes, while he could cut cut back on some of those things, he would not because it would impact his quality of life. I had several other conversations with other coworkers, and every time, we would reach similar conclusions. Yes, there were obvious luxuries in their lives, but these luxuries were “must-haves”. There could be no wiggle-room in their budget for silly things like saving because that might mean spending less on luxuries and thereby reducing quality of life.

 Somewhere over the course of these conversations, I started to realize a few things about my coworkers and myself. About my coworkers, I realized that although some of them didn’t realize what choices they were making, many of them actually did realize their luxury purchases were a choice. They approach these decisions with extremely short time horizons in mind and tend to equate “cost of living” with “quality of life”. Given this approach, saving and earning small bits of interest have very little appeal. More importantly, because they are not currently experiencing emergency, the longer-term risk of emergency and the need for an “emergency fund” (or some other financial plan of response) has no bearing on purchase decisions.

 A Different Relationship with Money

Hopefully, if you’re reading this blog, you have a somewhat different relationship with money and your personal finances. For you expert financial folks, just take this as a validation of how great you’re doing and why you’re doing it in the first place! To you I say, “Godspeed!” If you ever have the opportunity to mentor someone else, then by all means. FI is not a race and you will be richer for sharing the experience.

If you don’t, have this relationship, don’t worry, it’s never to late to start! Building a better relationship with your finances, takes time and it will never stop! Even for the experts, there’s always something that can be improved upon. This blog is here to help build that relationship and make it as fluid and effortless as possible, so that it becomes second nature. As you’re reading through, if you ever have any specific questions, feel free to contact me. Additionally, there are tons of great articles and an incredible conversation on the web. I recommend starting with the blogs on my links page to get you started. And if you don’t already, please please please start building an emergency fund!

2 thoughts on “Baffling Office Conversations: A Motorcycle Accident”

  1. I liked your description of the positives of being in an office: a large group of driven people working on solving hard problems, etc.

    I’ve also noticed the phenomenon you noted about not knowing much of your coworkers lives. When I worked in a smaller academic setting, we were a pretty tight knit group who would hang out for fun and also work hard on solving difficult problems and enjoyed each others company. In the larger corporate setting, I don’t really even think about my coworkers as existing outside the office, and they the same to me I’m sure. Very odd.

  2. Not only do those differences occur, but those different groups of people would probably prefer those cultures.

    I actually notice that same trend by function within the company: the more highly specialized scientists and technologists seem to demand more collegial culture. They plan more happy hours and socializing outside of work. They spend more time collaborating at work.

    The staff engineer departments do almost none of this, and really, seem to demand or have interest for none of it.

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