Everybody knew Kent wasn’t going to last long. He had been hired as sports editor of a small daily newspaper — and he was a disaster from the beginning.
I watched it all happen because I was managing editor of a small weekly in the same company. I had friends in the daily paper’s newsroom who were telling me everything as it happened. In his first week on the job, he and a local high school football coach were talking privately about a star player for an opposing team who had been injured in a shooting a couple of years before. A bullet had been left in his head after the shooting because it was too close to his brain. It was a miracle that he had returned to play football.
Kent and the coach were talking about the player and were jokingly referring to him as “Bullet Brain” in their private conversation, but Kent didn’t have the judgment to know this wasn’t something to be made public, so he quoted the coach — in a story that ran in the paper — calling the opposing player “Bullet Brain.”
He wasn’t fired, but he clearly wasn’t going to work out.
After he had been there a few days — maybe a few weeks — everybody came back from lunch one day and noticed that Kent had left a note taped to his terminal. He had gone to lunch — and the note explained that he wasn’t ever coming back.
From that time on, the code phrase at that newspaper for quitting was “going to lunch.” We all joked about doing what Kent had done. At different times, we all wanted to. (I was promoted to be Kent’s replacement, but that’s another story.)
Everybody needs enough money set aside that he can “go to lunch” one day and never come back. At some point, everybody needs to quit.
Everybody ought to have “I quit” money — or “going to lunch” money, in our old terms. You need to have enough money set aside — at least six months of living expenses — that when you really feel the need, you can say “I quit” to wherever you’re working. (More than six months would be even better.)
If you don’t have a cushion of at least that much, you’re going to feel trapped when you inevitably realize you need to leave a job — and you’re probably going to step into a less-than-ideal situation instead, just out of desperation. Or worse, you’ll stay where you know you shouldn’t be.
When I worked in politics, I had the freedom to “fire” my clients any time I decided they were more trouble than they were worth. Why? Because I had plenty of money. I could get rid of any client and I still had plenty of other work. And even if I had dumped every client in one day, I had enough money laying around to survive for several years without income.
Today, I don’t have that freedom. If I decided I couldn’t take another day or week at my job, I would have to grit my teeth and find alternative income before walking out. Even though I have a great relationship with the owner of my company, there’s a lot less freedom when you feel you can’t leave. And I find that constricting — all because I don’t have “I quit” money. I can’t “go to lunch” if I need to.
A job can be like a jail for many of us. I know from long experience that I ultimately need to work for myself, for reasons that are too complicated to get into here. Last winter, I had decided I was leaving my company this past summer — to pursue filmmaking instead — but the pandemic hit and changed the economics of everything. So I’m still there.
Having money set aside is like having a “get out of jail free” card. You don’t necessarily have to use it, but knowing it’s there gives you the confidence and peace to know that you don’t have to put up with something which makes you miserable.
I can live on far less today than I could 10 years ago. The money I need to pay for six months of living expenses is chicken feed by my old standards. If I had understood how important it was to always have such cash available, I would have made different decisions 10 or 15 years ago. I would have enough money today to give myself that option.
We’re about to embark on an expansion at my company that could let me make even more than I used to make in politics. If that works out, I’m not going to spend it. I’m going to stay in my cheap little house and drive my cheap little car — and I’m going to set aside enough money to live on.
I need enough money set aside that when I need to leave something — a job, a partnership, any situation — money will never be a consideration.
The day will come when I need to “go to lunch” and not come back. You need to be prepared for such a situation in your own life, too.