Power is the ability to control your own life


This is the story of Ralph, taken from the book Why Men Are The Way They Are by Warren Farrell. 

Ralph’s story may not be normal – he was an unusually high earning lawyer – but it is representative.

You can think of this as a parable about the trap of becoming overly focussed on status and spending. The dangers of sleep-walking through life. And the dangers of “One More Year” syndrome.

The Escape Artist

Ralph was a 41 year old man in a men’s group.  He was married, the father of 2 children.  He had been in the group for 3 months and had hardly said a word.

One evening he looked up and said:

I think I’d like to speak up tonight.  I’m afraid I only joined this group because my wife forced me to. She got involved in the women’s movement and started changing (she called it “growing”).

About 3 months ago she said: “Ralph, I’m tired of having to choose between a relationship with you and a relationship with myself”. Pretty fancy rhetoric I thought.  Then she added: “There’s a men’s group meeting next Tuesday. Why don’t you get involved?”

Well, I kind of laughed her off.  But a week later she started again. “The group’s meeting next Tuesday.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing some changing in 3 months, that’s the end.”

The end! For the sake of a men’s group? I asked.

“Its symbolic Ralph” she said.

So I figured I’d join this symbol and see what you fags were talking about! But the problem was, you didn’t fit my image and I began identifying with some of the things you were saying.  Well anyway, last night Ginny reminded me the 3 months were up tomorrow. So I think I’d like to speak up tonight.

We laughed at Ralph’s motivation, but encouraged him to continue.

Well, what struck me was how each of you chose different careers, but you all worried about succeeding. Even you Jim – even though you’re unemployed and have a laid back facade. That started me thinking about my career. 

All my life I wanted to play pro baseball.  When I was in high school, I was pretty hot stuff. My uncle scouted me and said: “Ralph, you’re good. Damn good.  And you might make it to the pros if you really work at it. But only the best make good money. If you really want to be good to yourself, get a good job – one you can depend on for life”. I was surprised when my folks agreed with him.  Especially Dad. Maybe that turned the tide for me. 

Ralph hesitated, as if he were piecing something together.

Anyway, I was proud of myself for making the transition like a man.  I’d always liked reading and learning, but just hadn’t focussed much on it.  But I figured just for a couple of years, I’d play the system. I borrowed friends old term papers, looked at old exams, focussed on the exam questions that came up repeatedly.  I never cheated. I just figured I’d play the system for a couple of years, raise my grades to get into college then I could really learn and do what I wanted after that.

I decided on law school – but to become a social work lawyer, so I could make a real contribution to people who most needed it.  But about my second or third year of law school when my colleagues saw I was taking what they called “missionary law” seriously, they explained that if I really wanted to be effective as a social-work lawyer, I’d better get some experience first in the hard-knocks, reality-based field of corporate law rather than ease into the namby-pamby area of social work law right away – if I didn’t I wouldn’t get the respect to be effective. Frankly, that made sense.

So I joined a top corporate law firm in New York.  I knew I could work there for a couple of years and then do what I really wanted with my life after that.

After a couple of years in the firm, I was doing well.  But the whole atmosphere of the corporate legal community made it clear that if I dropped out after 2 years it would be seen as a sign that I just couldn’t hack the pressure.  If I continued for just a couple more years and became a junior partner (marked with potential) then I could really do what I wanted with my life after that.

Well it took me seven years – with politics and everything – to get junior partnership.  But I got it. By that time I had lost some of the desire to be a social work lawyer – it was considered a clear step backward.  In other ways I maintained that ideal – it seemed more meaningful than kowtowing to rich money.  But I also knew the switch would mean forfeiting a lot of income. My wife Ginny and I had just bought a new home – which we pretty much had to with 2 kids – and I knew they’d be going to college…Ginny’s income was only part-time now and she was aching to travel a bit.

By that time, I also realized that while junior partners had potential, the people with the real clout in the legal community were the senior partners. I figured I had a pretty big investment in the corporate law area now – if I just stuck it out for a couple more years, I could get a senior partnership, get a little money saved for the kid’s education and travel and then I could really do with my life what I wanted …

It took me 8 more years to get the senior partnership. I can remember my boss calling me into the office and saying: “Ralph we’re offering you a senior partnership”. I acted real calm but my heart was jumping in anticipation of telling Ginny.  I told Ginny I had a surprise to tell her when I got home. I made reservations in her favourite restaurant, bought some roses and her favourite champagne.

I came home early so we’d have time to sip it together. Ginny said: “What is it Ralph?”.  I said I got the senior partnership! She said: “Oh fine, that’s great” but there was a distance in her eyes. A superficial enthusiasm, you know what I mean? 

We nodded.

So I said: What do you mean fine? I’ve been working since the day we met to get this promotion for us and you say Oh fine!

Ginny replied: “Every time you get a promotion Ralph, you spend less time with me. I guess I wish you’d have more time for me. More time to love me.”

Why do you think I’ve been working my ass off all these years if it isn’t to show you how much I love you? I said.

Ginny said: “Ralph, that’s not what I mean by love. Just look at the kids, Ralph.”

Well, I did look at the kids. Randy is 17. And Ralph Jr is 15. Randy just got admitted to college a thousand miles from here. Each year I keep promising myself that next year I’ll really get to know who they are. But next year he’ll be in college. And I don’t even know who he is. And I don’t know whether I’m his dad or his piggy bank. 

I don’t know where to start with Randy but a few weeks ago I tried to change things with Ralph Jr. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind turning off the TV so we could talk.  He was a little reluctant but eventually started telling me some of what was happening at school.  He told me about some of his activities and I spotted a couple of areas where I thought his values were going to hurt him. So I told him. We got into a big argument.  He said I was lecturing him…spying on him.

We’ve hardly talked since.  I can see what I did wrong but I’m afraid if I try again, he’ll be afraid to say much now and we’ll just sit there awkwardly. And if he mentions those values, what do I say?  I want to be honest but I don’t want to lecture. I don’t even know where to begin.

Ralph withdrew from the group. He had struck so many chords, it took us more than 10 minutes to notice that he was fighting back tears. Finally one of the other men picked up on it and asked: Ralph is there anything else you’re holding back?

Ralph said there wasn’t but his assurance rang false. We prodded.

I guess maybe I am holding something back…I feel like I spent 40 years of my life working as hard as I can to become somebody I don’t even like.   

Even as I heard it, the ways it was threatening to be true in my own life flashed through my mind.  Ralph continued:

I was mentioning some of my doubts to a few of my associates at work. They listened attentively for a couple of minutes then one made a joke and another excused himself. Finally I mentioned this men’s group – which I never should have done – and they laughed me out of the office. I’ve been the butt of their jokes ever since.

Suddenly I realised. Ginny has a whole network of lady friends she can talk with about all this. yet the men I’ve worked with for 17 years, 60 hours a week, hardly know me. Nor do they want to.

Ralph withdrew again. But this time he seemed to be taking in what he had just said as if he were putting his life together as he was speaking.  Then his face grew sad, fighting back the tears again.

I guess I could handle all this but I think for all practical purposes I’ve lost Ginny in the process.  And maybe I could handle that too.  But the only other people I love in this world are Randy and Ralph Jr. And when I’m really honest with myself – I mean really honest – I think I’ve lost them too.

We started to interrupt, but Ralph stopped us, tears silently escaping his eyes.

What really gets me angry is that I did everything I was supposed to do for 40 years, did it better than almost any other man I know and I lost everyone I love in the process, including myself.  The more I did to stand out, the more I became the same. Just one more carbon copy. Oh, I got to a high level, okay. A high level mediocre.

In some ways, I feel I could handle all that too.  But look at me – paid more than any two of you guys put together, supposedly one of the top decision-makers in the country and when it comes to my own home, my own life, I don’t even know how to begin.

Ralph cried. For the first time in 22 years.

The memory of Ralph stayed with me almost every day of my life. After that session, I started looking at my life and Ralph’s differently. I had always assumed power meant having status and income, influence and external rewards. Ralph had all of them. Yet up close he didn’t seem very powerful. I started asking whether power meant, rather, the ability to control my own life.

Most men feel much less powerful than Ralph. Ralph is a “winner” among men – and women.  Compared to him, millions of men are losers…if we define power in traditional terms – the ability to gain external rewards.

Yet if we define power as the ability to control one’s own life, Ralph probably had less power than anyone in the group.  Ralph had given up the ability to control his own life by spending his life doing what he was programmed to do. Most of us were questioning at least some of the things we were programmed to do.

Ralph had lost real power by trying to gain the appearance of power. He was a leader. But he was following a program for leaders….therefore he was really a follower.  He had reached a high level but had done so by adapting to his boss and his boss’s boss. He was, as he put it, a “high level mediocre”.

financial independence

Ralph’s story is not a tale of financial independence. It’s a warning of the dangers of status seeking and lifestyle inflation.

Ralph could have pursued an alternative career in family law, social work or baseball. Those options might have meant a lower cost lifestyle.  But not deprivation.

Or Ralph could have done the corporate law thing, maxed out his saving rate and pursued rapid financial independence.

Money is not a magic wand that cures all problems.  But, by saving hard, Ralph could have got to financial independence before 41, with the option to walk away from work and focus on repairing his relationships (and his own emotional wellbeing). It might still have been painful, but he would’ve had something amazing to show for his years in The Prison Camp.

The moral of the story is not that there’s one single “correct” way to live. But some ways are wrong. Ralph’s story illustrates the problem with blindly following the programming of your money blueprint and living your life on other people’s terms.

Power is the ability to control your own life.

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  1. I feel like I spent 40 years of my life working as hard as I can to become somebody I don’t even like

    To me, this seems to be the most important part. Ralph worked hard following the corporate law path, and years later he realised it is not the path for him. But at the beginning and in the process it seemed a good path, only at the end did Ralph realise it was not.

    In the Reddit FI community, a mantra that is often repeated is: “Build the life you want, then save for it”. But what if you are unsure of the life you want, so you choose one, spend time building it and then saving for it, and later realise it is not the life you want?

    I believe this is one of the most convincing arguments for pursuing financial independence. If you are not certain about what you want in life, then while you are living and trying to find out what you want it is worth working towards financial independence. If you achieve FI and later find out your life is not how you want it to be, then you are in a strong position to change this. You have the power that TEA is talking about in this post.

    This is not a universal solution. I sometimes see people who talk about wanting to do things while young that cannot be done later; for example one Reddit user wanted to live for a while as a ski bum before starting their career. But in these cases you either become aware of wanting to do such things while you’re still young (and so you go ahead and do them), or you find this out later (and then it is too late anyway).

    Therefore I consider this post a great argument in favour of the “If in doubt, pursue FI” mentality.

    1. Agree 100%
      I call FI life insurance if things change or you want them to change you have the money to cover it.

  2. If you think about your other posts, you need a happy medium between working your ass off for financial success and saving your ass off for financial success. Time waits for no man – blink and its gone. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you will never enjoy the finish line…

    I frequently blog about how I am doing this for my kids and my wife first, but they need a father and a husband before they need an iShares global tracker…

  3. Urban F. I · · Reply

    Thank you, your post couldn’t of come at a better time

  4. Spaniard · · Reply

    This one is right on the feels…I’ve had a similar internal dialogue about this and how I should have started building the life you want as soon as you start your career, (or even earlier?). Oh well, you know what they say about the best time to plant a tree and the second best.

  5. I feel like I spent 40 years of my life working as hard as I can to become somebody I don’t even like.

    So many people get locked on a goal with blinders on and their head down that they don’t come up till years later. And when they do, it isn’t always pretty. The lure of money, power, and status is enormous, and often produces really bad results.

  6. fpldata · · Reply

    Very powerful piece – perhaps a good example of enjoying the little things in life, for they are often the big things 😉

  7. David Andrews · · Reply

    I’ve always had a frugal lifestyle and never been massively motivated in my work / career as I never really knew what I wanted to do. I rather fell into IT after graduating with a Business Studies degreee in 1994. I was made redundant in 2014 about 2 months before my son was born. That enabled me to have a year at home with him which was the most emotionally rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I then felt that I should be working so I got another IT job that enabled me to get my son to nursery and back each day. I’ve been doing that for about 3 years and my son will be starting school in September. The choice I now have is to either get a child minder to look after my son before and after school or request slightly shorter working hours as I’d at least like to collect my son from school each day. I’m pretty set on requesting shorter hours but my manger is “very passionate about his work” and takes a dim view of anybody who is “just doing the job”. My caring responsibilites have caused me to get mediocre performance reviews and scowls when I advise that I’m not willing to work extra hours. I’m Luckily my spreadsheet indicates I could just quit but I’m not sure if I should.

  8. SurreyBoy · · Reply

    Every now and then you write a piece that just makes me want to climb into the PC, shake your hand and say that is exactly what happened to me. My story has a lot of similarities to Ralph. Sitting there with plenty of money (to be honest), lovely family and feeling like a complete stranger in my own home. Twenty years spent grinding it out in corporate Britain and becoming something that would have been unrecognisable to my younger self.

    As the shrink told me, im on my journey, but connecting with family and friends is so important. To any Ralphs out there just remember its never too late to change and you will be amazed at how people respond positively.

    Then comes the regret at the lost years. Don’t bother with that. Live for today whilst planning sensibly for the future. Nourish yourself with human contact. Get freedom by investing.
    Excellent piece – inspirational.

    1. Thank you. Anyone who would like to shake my hand is advised not to climb into their PC (I’m not in there) but instead come to the next FI London meet up.

      1. I love it, that cracked me up.

  9. Great post, and like many other readers, this resonates with me a lot. Taking money out of the equation for a moment, dwell on the pointlessness of being a servant to other people all your life. Spending years locked in an office with generally the same people, having your days filled up with the requests of your boss. I reached a stage where I just couldn’t stomach one single day more of that. Too few people realize how achievable is it to earn a living on your own terms these days – they are still following that indoctrinated blueprint for money and employment that they have grown up with, and sadly failed to notice how the world has changed. This is all very thought provoking stuff, because it takes a lot of mental strength to realise – and remain committed to that realisation – that power is in the ability to control your life. That belief is challenged every time the neighbour gets a new car or they land a new and seemingly glamorous job. We are all sheep, after all and we like to be led, so you need a lot of resilience to wander off from the pack…

  10. I feel sorry for Ralph, at the end of the day he is a Lemming….

    But I think it’s society and the world we live in that made him that way, no doubt his friends and family initially supported him and pushed him into that role.

    However, I think in 2018 it’s getting more and more acceptable to do things your own way. Despite all the criticism they get, the millennials have shaken up the world and made it easier to do things differently.

  11. Whenever I speak of my plans (FIRE next March) to people, most cannot understand the whole point of this exact sentiment. I had dinner with someone who knows my plans and they said ‘don’t you think you could stick it out for another 3 maybe 4 more years’. I left scratching my head as they 1) don’t know how much I have and 2) don’t know how much I spend, so 3) how on earth could they assess the correct time period to carry on working for. Obviously the sentiment is really – just don’t do it.

    Reading this made me immediately pick up the phone and call my oldest friend, who now lives in Singapore so we don’t speak often enough.

  12. FI Warrior · · Reply

    Initially I thought I did it worse, I got that realisation in a mid-life crisis, but I never even achieved the big money. Maybe that makes it easier, because there’s no status incentive to carry on grinding out the rest of your life for, if you’re not even financially doing that well. I suspect that I’m like most people who’re somehow jolted out of auto-sheep mode by some traumatic event in life that forces them to (really) think for themselves. Suddenly seeing you have ‘no clothes’, you’re mediocre, your work is pointless, you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, don’t even know yourself and are unwelcome in your own home. Further horror comes if you try to talk to others who don’t yet know it’s all not real, they quickly assume you’ve ‘lost it’ and melt out of your life as fast as bullsh*t in the rain, terrified that your SAD (sanity achievement disorder) could be contagious.

    I’d like to say that it was because I was smart or had exceptional mental strength, but it was just mundane; I woke up one day and knew I couldn’t do the whole charade any more, but nothing could be worse, so fk it all. Everything has a price of course and if you don’t have a lot of money saved up by the time you mentally break for the border, it’s most likely to be ostracism. Although it doesn’t change my decision, it still doesn’t feel good when people (close enough to you in you life to not be able to discard) are unable to accept you for what you are, even if you ask them for nothing but tolerance. This is human nature though, so all we can do is be grateful that you can choose your friends, something you can’t take for granted when for most people you’re trapped in a workplace with a random selection of strangers for the best part of your life. I can only speak for myself because I don’t know how anyone else really feels, but freedom is the most addictive gift in life and on this planet, when you’ve tasted the real thing, it’s only natural to value it above all else.

  13. […] Power Is The Ability To Control Your Own Life by The Escape Artist: In this post, The Escape Artist tells us a story from the book Why Men Are The Way They Are. He describes it as a “parable about the trap of becoming overly focussed on status and spending. The dangers of sleep-walking through life. And the dangers of “One More Year” syndrome.” This is not your standard FIRE blog post, but I really enjoyed it. […]

  14. A sad and reflective read.

    Everyone can probably identify with Ralph at some point in their life. Sadly, the light bulb moment arrives too late for some.

    Everyone decision we make in life has a real trade-off. The post is yet another reminder about the importance of balance in life.

    One thing I do daily is write down 5 things I am most grateful for. Without fail, “family and friends” always ranks in that top 5. Simple exercises like this are usually an indication of where some of life’s focus should be.

  15. lolkin · · Reply

    I love this post. It reminds me why I escaped banking, why I stopped beating myself up about having zero interest in climbing the corporate ladder and why I regularly downshift in my ‘career’. It also reminds me how urgent my alignment with my purpose is – I keep using bills and mortgage as an excuse but I really need to start doing what I want to do.

  16. @FitFunemployed · · Reply

    I’ve not read the book – do we know what Ralph did next?

  17. You know what…I can’t really find fault with what Ralph did. If he had wanted to, he probably would have made the moves he thought were appropriate.

    I do wonder if part of his emotion wasn’t dealing with an unsupportive spouse. They guy busts ass for more than a decade to get a promotion and she’s not on board with it, then she threatens to leave him if he doesn’t go to an effeminate mens group that he has no interest in doing?

    I would have kicked her to the curb then and be done with it.

  18. steveark · · Reply

    His job and his being a lousy husband and father are two unrelated things. You can be a great husband and father with or without a fulfilling job and in fact many people who are totally in love with their work are the absolute worst parents and spouses because they give everything for that exciting job and don’t have anything left for family. Being a good parent and spouse is a choice that stands alone and reveals what your true values are, having a good job you enjoy on top of that is a real plus, I know, I did, but it isn’t a necessity to doing your part to have a great family.

  19. I have to agree with steveark. You can succeed in your career and be a good spouse/parent just as easily as you can fail at your career and be a terrible spouse/parent. It reminds me of the book “How will you measure your life” where the author Christensen points to Enron’s downfall as just a bunch of little choices that ended up into a massive scam. The people started out fine, with good expectations and goals. But they, and Ralph, failed to look up from the career every so often to see who they were becoming.

    I don’t necessarily agree that Ralph’s approach is wrong – because he’s not dead yet. The story’s not over. He knows what he’s done wrong and seems to have the motivation and tools to fix it.

  20. Hi,

    What’s over cannot be undone. Focus on the present and future in which one will have control over. This is much more practical and realistic.


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