How to hold down any job


The more you earn, the easier it should be to get your savings rate over 50%.  But well paid jobs often involve stress, competition and long hours.

The key is then to find ways to make it more enjoyable (or at least more bearable) for the period needed to earn your freedom.

Like pretty much everything in life that is rewarding, this means improving your Inner Game.  And learning a few new tricks.

I didn’t always handle my stressful job well.  But I held it down long enough to learn a few tips worth sharing to help anyone working their way to freedom. So here goes.

1. Accept reality

In a bookshop, I once skim read a book called something like How to be CEO. I didn’t buy it but I took one lesson from it which was that the author (who’d been a CEO of a large American company) realised that, even as CEO, the company owned him.

Not for ever.  But, whilst he was CEO, he answered to The Man. He had made peace with that notion and resolved to work hard…until he chose to do something else.

I used the same approach. Like a prostitute with a heart of gold and 3 kids to support, I knew that my best bet was to accept reality, work hard and play the hand I’d been dealt.  But I kept escape in mind.

2. Subtraction

If you have a demanding job, you will be deluged with information and people pestering you.

We only have a certain amount of time and processing capacity. So treat these as scarce resources.  This means subtracting things from your life (rather than always adding more). So cut shit out of your life (e.g. TV News, timewasters, social media, shopping, junk mail, advertising).

Your brain is like your baby daughter.  She’s capable of wonderful things but she needs love, care and rest…and to be firmly protected from predators.

Would you feed your baby daughter Alabama Fried Rodent and plonk her down in front of a horror film (TV news) interspersed with adverts?  No.

So why would you treat yourself that way?

3. The five chimps

Zoologists can predict the health of a chimpanzee by observing the behaviour of the 5 chimps around them.

The same applies to humans.  You are the average of the 5 people around you.  In The Prison Camp, some of the other prisoners are overly competitive. Some are negative, having given up on escaping. So be careful who you surround yourself with.

Life is much easier if you can chat with sane people on the same wavelength.  If you work in an “up or out” hot house environment, these people may get harder to find the longer you stay in The Prison Camp.

The most powerful thing you can do is get a mentor who is a bit older / more senior than you. If you can’t find good people at work, find other ways to bring sane positive influences into your life. Reading this blog is a good first step. 😉

4. Live as naturally as possible

Sitting at a desk in a glass box under fluorescent lights all day is unnatural. My offices reminded me a bit of battery chicken farms.  It’s better for us to live free range.

Humans spent most of the last 100,000 years working hard some of the time (e.g. the mammoth hunt) and then lounging around chatting in times of plenty. We were outside most of the time, got plenty of sunshine when it was light, got plenty of sleep when it was dark and ate a low carb diet of natural food.

It would be more convenient for The Prison Camp if we were robots.  Robots work constantly, never get bored and don’t need much personal development. The Prison Camp doesn’t always make it easy but, within the constraints of employment, you can choose to live as naturally as possible.

5. Cultivate relationships

Some people are naturals at this.  I was not.  I started out with a horror of the idea of “networking” with its connotations of golf, smarminess and office politics.

But it’s not enough just to work hard.  The skills that get you promoted at junior levels are very different from the skills you need as you get more senior. You can be the best technician in the world but you need to reach out and develop relationships and alliances at work, at competitors and at clients.

This is often the first thing that gets dropped when people get busy.  But its how you plant the seeds that may feed you in the future.  Remember the 4 quadrants of importance vs urgency as adapted from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.Priorities

6. Focus on what you can control

When I worked at a big accountancy firm, there were ridiculous internal propaganda exercises with titles like “Project Rocket”. The purpose was a) to give management something to do and b) to exhort the inmates to work harder.

The young Escape Artist naïvely used to take that shit seriously. I asked some of the longer serving high performing members of the team about this.  They told me they ignored it and just focussed on doing the best client work they could.

In a corporate environment you have to find ways to avoid pointless activity. I had an “Ignore until shouted at” folder where I put anything that wasn’t productive.

Judge your day by what you produce  (e.g. your email outbox), not by the shit that arrives (e.g. your inbox). My inbox would get bombarded with messages from people panicking, bureaucracy and general spam.  I couldn’t always control that, but I could always control my response.

7. Get paid properly

When in a boring meeting, I would sometimes console myself by remembering what I’d been paid to sit there. There is not much point in spending your life in The Prison Camp if you’re not getting paid properly.

Its easy to get hung up on notions of fairness and status. In the Prison Camp, these are generally irrelevant distractions.  Remember: the labour market is a market. A few years ago, I saw a fascinating documentary that showed some plumbers in London earning over £250,000 a year, much more than most office workers. One of the traps of The Prison Camp is confusing white collar status with how much you are actually taking home.

Know what the market price is for your skills and effort and how your pay compares to peers inside and outside your firm. This should include knowing what interim contractors get paid (you might be surprised).

Once you have this information and know how to negotiate, it may be time to go and see your current boss (or some prospective new bosses) about a pay rise.

8. Get comfortable with uncertainty

When you are junior at work, you are shielded from the reality that uncertainty is constant and no one has everything under control.

The higher you get up the chain, the more you realise the people at the top are making it up as they go along. This is not a criticism, it’s just recognising reality.  The scary thing about the 2008/09 financial crisis was that the CEOs of banks, finance ministers and central bankers had no clue how bad the crisis might get.

The more senior you are, the more you have to get comfortable with uncertainty.  Successful people still feel nerves but they learn to operate despite uncertainty.

9. Blow off steam

The Escape Artist was not always enlightened during his time in The Prison Camp and was sometimes (ahem)…known to get frustrated and lose his temper.

For me, the best prevention and cure was exercise. I don’t mean wishy washy jogging, I mean getting deep into the red zone. What The Escape Artist may have lacked in natural sporting talent, he made up for in enthusiasm and masochism.

One alternative is to blow off steam with alcohol. There’s a big difference between celebrating completion of a project by getting good and drunk (which I think is healthy every so often) with drinking habitually to numb the pain in your soul (not so healthy).

10. Become an idea machine

If you commute, here is a productive way to spend the journey. Get a sheet of paper and a pen.   Split your life into broad categories and divide the paper accordingly. For example 4 quadrants such as 1) Work 2) Health & Fitness 3) Spending 4) Family and friends. Whatever makes sense for you. Then come up with 10 new ideas and write these in the relevant quadrant.

Exercise your creativity muscle and develop the habit of generating new ideas. The successful people I knew at work found a way to capture their ideas and follow up on the good ones.  So get a whiteboard on the wall in your office and carry a notepad around with you.

11. Find some meaning

It’s possible to find purpose and meaning even in the worst circumstances.  And let’s be honest, working in an office is not the worst of circumstances.

The author of Man’s Search for Meaning was a Jewish psychologist and prisoner in Auschwitz.  He noticed that the prisoners that survived the labour camp the longest were those that found some meaning in life, no matter how bad the conditions.

I managed to find meaning in my work in different ways. First, I always remembered that my job was paying for the food that fed my children. Second, I managed to find ways to link what I was doing to some social good.  If you work in the City, this may require some mental flexibility.

12. Cultivate resilience

Some readers may remember the Japanese TV game show Endurance. A typical episode involved contestants clinging onto a wall whilst sadists threw hot soggy noodles at them in an attempt to knock them off.   The winner was the last contestant clinging to the wall.

The Prison Camp works on similar principles. The people that get promoted are the ones still standing after long hours, travel, sleep deprivation and general nonsense.

Stoicism can help you here.  Stoicism is an operating system where you seek out challenge and use it to get stronger. Stoicism comes from people that held down the most demanding jobs in the ancient world.  You can read how Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, dealt with his job as CEO of The World in the book Meditations.

One of the ways I managed to hold down a stressful job was to do things that were harder than an office job.  Like getting up early to run to the office in the dark in February. Or cycling up big mountains. These things seemed hard to me. As did the idea of changing a nappy before we had children.

But we can all get better at dealing with shit.

Image credit: Flickr


  1. Michael · · Reply

    This was very good, and as a 32 year old in what sounds like a similar type position, remarkably close to the bone!

  2. FI Warrior · · Reply

    Funny article man, nice one, all true too. Takes me back to memories of life at the UK branch of Busywork Ltd., the best corporate I ever worked for:

    Pointless meetings counting the moles on my arm. Or jabbing it with a pin every time I found myself sliding into the comfortable numbness that led to that embarrassing lurch back to a vertical position when you’re jolted awake by a subtle change in the ubiquitous, hypnotic, monotonous voice-overs.

    Looking at slides blurred with stats on improvements in efficiency of things that didn’t even need to be done. A useful clue as to whether a person’s job is for real is when you don’t understand from the job title what they actually do all day.

    Faking being on phone calls when walking past the top br(ass) in the corridors to avoid entrapment in conversations that were a cure for insomnia, because they had the charisma of a cardboard box, but without the usefulness.

    Watching non-executive Directors who differed from a supermarket trolley both by being able to fit in more free food and booze and for not being capable of having a mind of their own.

    Various professionals talking slowly in words of as few syllables as possible to tradespeople because they didn’t wear suits and have a degree(s) while not realising, as you say, that some of those trades paid the same or more than the busywork options in comparison.

    The best part was knowing you were being paid for doing something pointless, in your own small way, you could feel like royalty for the while it lasted. 🙂

  3. BL Private · · Reply

    Love the video. We show it to all (very few so far….) the newcomers at our firm.

  4. Rowan · · Reply

    Timely. I appreciate the item concerning doing things harder than your office job. In fact, it should be at the top of the list. Challenging yourself allows you to grow whereas you might be stunted at the office as you wait for those last few years to pass. You may not be heading for a promotion and perhaps content to sit in those meetings and keep quiet and awake for the next few years. Goals outside of work keep the focus on living your life instead of just waiting for time to pass.

    1. Thank you for the comment….I agree that I could have put resilience at the top…I put it at the bottom because I wanted to finish with the most important takeaway (plus the comedy video!).

  5. Thanks for that. That was one of your best. I’ll keep dragging the baskets of dirt down the escape tunnel, with a new perspective, after reading that.

  6. I like that thought that even being a CEO you understand that company owns you. Of course! In this case you are the leading but still chain in your company.

  7. Travis · · Reply

    The Prison Camp bureaucracy is real! If you keep your head down and just act like a good team player, you can make all the money you need in a few years time with 60% + savings rate.

  8. Ah stocism. Maybe that’s why I am avoiding home, where I will get too much into the comfort zone. I need a bit of new change every now and then to keep me on my toes.

  9. Underscored · · Reply

    Thank you so much. Comes at a perfect time for me!

  10. A very spot on and appropiate article.

    Keep the escape in mind… I really really love it!

    Get comfortable with uncertainty

    I took action recently and decide to jump in pool of uncertain things, for the experience and challenge

  11. […] you how to act, what to think, and how to promote your own ideas and expertise in the workplace. Holding down a job is a crucial element to this – and you should be prepared to put in the hours in lowly positions […]

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