Updated on 10.13.07

Dealing With Professional Exhaustion In A Financially Sensible Way

Trent Hamm

Sometime in the last month, one of my friends quit his job as an actuary for a large insurance company. He’s single, has a Ph. D. in mathematics, and no debt at all. He quit for one reason and one reason alone. I’ll let him tell it to you:

I got tired of going home every night mentally exhausted and sitting in front of the TV playing Xbox. It’s what I did almost every night, without a weekend. I made a lot of money but I had no life to do anything at all. My job ate all of my energy.

What’s he doing now? He took a night shift at a local factory where he’s driving a forklift. Half of his time, he just sits on the forklift waiting for a new load to pick, and so he’s started reading a lot of the classics. He makes $11 an hour, far, far less than he was making as an actuary, but good enough for him to live on especially considering he banked almost all of his income from his actuarial work.

You know what? I applaud him. I think it was a brilliant move for his life and an excellent response to what I call professional exhaustion.

Here’s why I think it was a good move.

First, before he quit, he became debt free. He paid off his car, all of his student loans, and his townhouse. He funneled almost 60% of his income over his handful of years as an actuary into becoming debt free, so now he owns his residence, his automobile, and his education.

Second, he made an effort to always live far below his income level. The only item I saw him splurge on in the last few years was an XBox 360, which he buys a new game for roughly once a month. With his job switch, he claims he probably won’t buy a new game for a very long while, as now he has the energy and freedom to pursue other things … which leads to the third reason.

Third, his job was killing him. He was constantly stressed out and burnt out on everything. He had some severe stomach issues, looked like death warmed over most of the time, and also looked completely exhausted, too. His job was literally eating him alive – and no matter how much you’re getting paid, no job is worth that.

Finally, he has a lot of energy, intelligence, and value that can be used more productively elsewhere. He has a seemingly unstoppable amount of energy now, and he’s directing it into starting a business that he’s passionate about during the day, using some of his saved money to seed the work. Plus, he’s also looking at running for a few local political offices.

Yes, he may have watched his salary get reduced by (at least) 70% and he may have also lost some benefits, but his life is much happier now and that, my friends, is the key to life.

So what can you do if you find yourself professionally exhausted?

First, start living seriously frugal. Driving a Lexus to the steak house and drowning your sorrows in a fistful of $20 drinks isn’t going to cut it if you want to be free. Start making your own food and stop spending money frivolously. Minimize every bill you have.

Next, pay off all of your debts. Once you get in the routine of living frugally, it will be much easier to pay off your debts as you’ll have a surfeit of money. Channel all of it into debt elimination.

Then, build up an emergency fund. After all your debts are gone, save up a few months’ worth of living expenses in a savings account so that when you quit, it’s not disastrous.

While you’re saving, figure out what you actually want to be doing. What drives your passion? I have a friend who works as an auto mechanic, for example. He also happens to be one of the most intelligent and driven people I’ve ever met, and he’s on the verge of opening up his own shop. He spends almost all of his time at the shop, but he’s crackling with energy and happiness each time I see him. Why? He’s found what he loves. Spend some time finding what you love, then go for it. Even if it means starting off as an auto mechanic at a local car repair shop.

Remember, your life is not your job. Your job is just a way to pay for your life.

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  1. A wise coworker once told me, “Work to live. Not live to work.” Of course, she told me this before she quit her job and moved to pursue her dreams. Thankfully, she was also my mentor, and I learned a lot from her both career and life wise. I commend your friend. He wasn’t stuck in the rat race and couldn’t afford to quit and take a lower paid more enjoyable job. Kudos to him!

  2. working towards FCAS says:

    This post hits home for me. I am doing actuarial work and studying to retake an exam I failed last sitting. I have two questions about your friend. Was he doing consulting? Was he still in the process of taking actuarial exams?

  3. Mrs. Micah says:

    “Your job is just a way to pay for your life.”

    Succinct. Ideally, your job would also be doing something you love, so it seems less like just paying for the free time. But not in many cases. Best wishes to your friend on his exciting new path.

  4. Jeremy says:

    What’s wrong with coming home and playing Xbox every night? ;)

  5. Eric says:

    To me, finding a job you love is essential. If your job is killing you, then you need to find a new job. Maybe even a whole new career path. Luckily for me, I love my current job.

    It sounds like your friend did the right thing, and now he has a “transitional” job while he pursues something he loves. Sounds like he did it the right way too. That’s a smart guy with some real guts. A radical change like that can’t be easy.

  6. Right on the money. In other words get your act together and start living your life.

    Sometimes easier said than done but if you truly desire a happier life you will find a way. Just like your friend did. Kudos to him and you for an encouraging post.

  7. Awesome! Although I love my job, this is very inspiring.

  8. Colin says:

    This is timely. I’ve been going through roughly the same scenario (expect without the big bucks and the Xbox). I will be moving back to the UK as soon as I get my last debts paid off (probably three months) and trying to find part-time and freelance work to support me while I build up a tutoring business.

    This is just the post I needed to reassure me I’m doing the right thing :o)

  9. guinness416 says:

    While in an ideal world we would all be paid gobs of money to pursue our hobbies, in reality a few years at the coalface in a well-paid profession can set you up for life (assuming you don’t throw money away). Your friend may have detested his job, but it’s put him in an enviable lifestyle position. While I’m not ready to quit yet, certainly the time I’ve spent in a high-expectations profession has given me options and opportunities too. But having a husband and hobbies means I’ve never fallen into the zombified leisure time habit either, thank gawd.

  10. That is the essence of my desire to get out of debt- so i don’t HAVE to do something to pay the bills. It’s not about being debt free so you can pile up money (not a bad side effect though), but so you have some choices and control again. Your friend is a very wise man. I hope to reach that point in my life some day.

  11. Andrew Stevens says:

    I assume your friend was an actuarial student (or perhaps a consulting actuary). I can’t imagine anyone quitting a non-consulting actuarial job because of stress. The actuarial exam process, however, is extremely stressful and difficult even for people who have a PhD in mathematics. Actuarial students get paid well and the exam raises are fantastic, but the Fellowship exams in particular are exceedingly difficult (pass rates are about 40% even after the weeding out process of the preliminary exams which have pass rates even lower).

  12. Wylie says:

    The real reason he is cutting out buying a new 360 game each month?

    Halo 3 came out and it is all he needs!

    Just kidding. But if he wants to play in between reading classics, my handle is jouissance.


  13. plonkee says:

    Funnily enough a few of my friends are actuaries in different fields. If I was guessing I’d say that you’re friend was an insurance actuary, given that Des Moines is an insurance town. Anyway, all my friends really enjoy their jobs but they are well suited to the career. There’s a lot to be said for not picking a job based on the money.

  14. Andrew Stevens says:

    The usual rap against actuarial work isn’t that it’s stressful (other than the exams), but that it’s boring. I suppose that it would be for many people, though I don’t meet all that many people who work in jobs I think are a whole lot more exciting.

    That’s why I’m guessing it was the exam process that burned him out. (I’d actually be curious to know which exam, but I don’t expect Trent to know or to tell us if he did.)

  15. Penny Nickel says:

    Great post– “Your job is just a way to pay for your life,” indeed.

    And I bet we’ll be talking more about this kind of thing as we get further into Your Money or Your Life…

  16. Smart Man says:

    The smartest thing your friend did was to stay single. No women. No kids. That saves a lot of dollars. Divorce and child support together are the biggest dampers on wealth in today’s matriarchy.

    Men: Stay single. Stay free.

  17. infix says:

    Just curious: why would your friend even bother with the $11/hour forklift job? Compared to his previous salary it’s a pittance and it’s probably not even worth doing given that he saved up a lot of money as an actuary. Why not do a bit of actuarial consulting on the side and make 5X to 10X that $11/hour? Or if he’s totally burned out on actuarial work, why not work on running for those political offices fulltime?

  18. Louise says:

    I quit my job and moved from one state to another 7 years ago and it was the best thing I ever did. I was stuck in a rut, so I downsized by moving from the inner city to a regional area still within commuting distance of two large cities. This freed up capital to invest and travel and gave me time to re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life. I started a small business and now work part time, live only a mile from the beach and go swimming nearly every day.

    I can see the common sense of your friend taking the $11 an hour job. It stops him eating into his savings which can then be used for future investments as well as giving him breathing space.

  19. Deila says:

    Great. Yet another job taken from someone with less education by someone who was ‘bored’ with making a TON of money.

    ‘No life’ was created by himself by going home every night to play X-Box instead of socializing, having friends, having a girlfriend, etc.

    Now his idea of a good workday is to sit on his butt and READ.
    And getting paid for it.

    Why not just stick out his current job, in his current situation, stash all that income away again, then RETIRE after 5 years? Sounds more plausible to me.

  20. vh says:

    hmm. This story is sooo not complete. A Ph.D. in math will get you a nice academic job right out of grad school; a few years in the Real World will have search committees falling all over themselves to hire you. Now I will say that unless you have duck feathers that allow a great deal of nonsense to slide off, academia may not be for you…but if you can put up with the BS, it’s a good gig with adequate pay (especially if you start out with some savings) and excellent benefits.

    I taught at my university for 10 years & then moved into a better-paid quasi-administrative position. Teaching is very hard work (if you do it right), but you get a three-month break in the summer and, at schools on the semester system, a month-long winter break. The present job, though it has a 12-month contract, entails about as much actual work as your pal is doing as a part-time forklift operator-cum-book reader. While many faculty here are frustrated with the university’s administration (which is probably no worse than corporate management), few hate the job enough to quit.

    Possibly your friend should visit a doctor for a full checkup?

  21. dong says:

    I’m not sure it’s a given that PhD will land you an academic job that you want. I work with plenty of very bright PhDs, and the academic route was something they had to give up because it was so competitive. That said PhD in math can land you a lot of great jobs in many industries. However the greater issue, sometime it’s not about having a “great” job. You can can have “great” job with great hours, and still feel the life being sucked out of you. I applaud people who plan, quit, and reassess…

  22. Bill says:

    Why not consulting, or another white-collar job?

    The longer he plays around on the loading dock, the harder it is to get back into that world should he suddenly have a need to earn more money (think medical expenses, especially long-term care for a parent)

  23. Siena says:

    Seems like what your friend needed a sabbatical from his job, but starting a new business also takes a lot of time and is a mental juggle. Is the business in his field or is he looking to change his field of work? Also, with a phD, did he consider teaching? Could he have cut back hours with his old job? Or found a less stressful job with a different company? A friend of mine has the same job but switched companies and it has made all the difference.

    Either way, hope your friend succeeds with his new business venture.

  24. Jasmine says:

    I think this post/story also brings up a good point, don’t wait until you are so burned out and frazzled at your job that you need to quit working completly for awhile or enter another lower salary range. That is of course, okay to do if you have the means and are debt-free. But by making the decision earlier when you are not completly stressed and only radical change will do, you are empowering yourself more. There’s time to look for a less demanding job in a similar field, start a side business while receiving benefits thru ones employer, etc.
    Or decide to make a career shift into another arena. But I doubt your friend wants to drive a forklift for the rest of his life considering his educational background. That’s alot of talent that’s not being put to use..

    Sometimes, drastic measures are necessary, and it does sound like this is a good time for your friend to re-evaluate his priorities and relax. Perhaps a remote vacation would really help to remember all of the exciting, wonderful things there are to do/explore in life that keep things interesting!

  25. This post came at a perfect timing! I’ve been frustrated by the lack of development and growth at my job. It got to the point where I wasn’t getting any sleep and I had to drag myself out of bed each morning. I’ve decided if I don’t get a job offer from the company I interviewed I’m going to work 4 out of the 5 days or even less and take up another temp or retail job with commission to supplement my income.

  26. undercoveractuary says:

    Wow, I’m shocked because this has basically been a fantasy of mine for the last couple of years.

    I’m an actuary still struggling through exams. I suck at my job– I’m in consulting– but I am not nearly so free and unsaddled as your friend.

    I am engaged, with a wedding pending early next spring, that my fiance and myself are paying for. We have been saving, and must continue to do so, for the next six months to have it. We have a savings account, too, for a house, but we are currently renting. I also have a (relatively) new car with two and half years left on the loan. No other debt, though.

    My worst problem is not that I dislike my job and that it demoralizes me every day with my inability to keep up with my smarter, more motivated peers, but that I have no idea what else I’d rather do. If I could just choose something– anything, it doesn’t matter what– and know that I’d be satisfied doing that, I could work towards it.

    As it stands, I am stuck in a position knowing that I’d have to take a huge paycut to do anything else– not to mention ditch the years of my precious single life invested in those stupid exams– and that I’d regret doing that at this stage in my life unless I knew that my personal satisfaction would be greatly increased.

  27. Andrew Stevens says:

    Undercoveractuary, I must say I feel for you. Trying to get through exams while working for a consulting company must be really tough. Don’t feel bad about your difficulty coping. Milton Friedman gave up his dream of being an actuary because he couldn’t cut the exams; later on, he won the Nobel Prize in economics. The North American actuarial exam process is the hardest professional credentialing process on the planet.

    Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for what you ought to be doing with your life. The simple fact is that most people never get to where you want to be. Only a tiny fraction of people who have ever lived on this earth have had the luxury of dreaming about doing something they’d find satisfying for a living, nevertheless actually doing it.

    As for having wasted those years, as any economist will tell you, “sunk costs are sunk.” Don’t throw good years after bad if you’re truly miserable.

  28. undercoveractuary says:

    Thanks for your supportive advice, Andrew Stevens.

    I agree 100% with your point about how extraordinarily lucky it is that I, as a middle-class well-educated American, have the ability to choose how I want to make a living.

    That has also added to my deep ambivalence on this choice: how could I throw away such a good paycheck, in field that is consistently ranked as one of the best, when more than a few (non-actuary) friends and family members would love to trade places with me?

    Life was a lot easier in college when I knew what I had to do: go to the classes that were required for my degree, ace them, get a degree. Not to mention, my deeply competitive personality loved being at the top of the class. I find it harder now, as a strictly middle-of-the-road actuarial student and analyst, to be satisfied with my own accomplishments (or lack thereof).

  29. Andrew Stevens says:

    Money isn’t everything and it won’t make you happy. Don’t get me wrong; lack of money can make you miserable. What I would suggest is thinking very hard about how much you’d like the job if you could divorce the exam process from it. If you think you’d still hate it, then I’d suggest looking for a different decent-paying career (though probably not as much as you’re making now). If you think you’d like it once the exams are over, then I’d suggest trying to stick out the exams, as long as you can honestly see yourself getting through them in a limited period of time. When I was going to college full-time, I also worked full-time in order to avoid taking on too much debt. This was extremely stressful and difficult, but the payoff was well worth it. However, I always had the end goal in sight and I always knew it was temporary. That made it much easier.

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