This comes to us from a Riverside Green reader who would like to remain anonymous — JB
I am an industrial salesman. I sell metal. My company is a “boutique” outlet for specialty alloys and steels, and heavily involved in aerospace and oil & gas. Because of our niche position in the market, it is embarrassingly lucrative. In the last four months of 2017, I brought home more money than my father ever received annually throughout his 43 years of blue collar labor. I was 27. Those four months were spent in an air-conditioned office, a luxury that Dad did not know until very late in his career. I am deeply ashamed of this, and do not know how to reconcile it with my previously held notions about success.
That’s not to say it’s easy – quite the contrary. At any point in the day, I’m juggling incoming quote requests, managing processing PO’s (things like heat-treating and machining), grooming export orders to ensure they aren’t shipped held up in customs, et cetera. Hours are long, and vacations are either nonexistent or frequently interrupted by the need to manage a hot order. Most of the actual “selling” happens in the form of cold-calling – browsing the internet to learn who makes what, and pinpointing who the high value targets are. Depending on where and when I’m calling, I’ll adopt multiple accents throughout the day. The Deep South appreciates a familiar drawl punctuated with small talk about SEC football and Trump praise, while the East Coast prefers you get to the damn point as quickly as possible. The Midwest prefers to be spoken to like polite children. There’s a theatrical element to it that I can’t help but appreciate.
The pay structure of my employer is simple: low base, 12% of profit. Here’s a phone, here’s a computer and an email address with a corporate suffix, and here’s several million dollars of inventory to sell. Go at it. There is very little managerial oversight, and they do not care what you say or do (or wear or smoke) if your numbers look good. We can chase any market we want, price our inventory at whatever margin we see fit, and each salesperson generally conducts himself as his own small business. Friedman would have loved it.
The majority of the sales team did not attend college. They are all conservative white males and most drive half-ton trucks or SUV’s. Five have multiple DUI strikes and still drink tallboys on the drive home. The top salesmen in my office regularly make $200,000 – 250,000 a year when the market’s humming, and maybe 10-20% less than that if we’re in a slump. Turnover is incredibly low for a sales office; most of the staff has been there for a decade or more, and the atmosphere is devoid of the hypercompetitive venom that permeates places like car dealerships or recruitment firms. Not a single salesperson brought home less than a hundred Gs last year. These men are vulgar and uncouth, but I like them and I respect the hustle.
Six years ago, I obtained a political science degree at a well-regarded state university because it seemed to be as good of an option as anything else. The hard sciences were off the table; my math skills were lacking because of a regrettable decision to cheat in every math course from 8th grade to college-concurrent AP. It was a joke of a degree, and I learned nothing. Graduation happened on time (and with pretty good grades). I started a company with a buddy, lost all my money, and resigned myself to meager office gigs – it seems that hiring managers are skeptical of two year gaps containing nothing but self-employment. I found my current gig, and my life changed dramatically. $25k in credit card debt disappeared in 8 months. I now own fast motorcycles and nice watches and Ohlins shocks. I do not fear the first of the month.
With all that said, it takes more than cash to silence a screaming inferiority complex. I am miserable with, and embarrassed by, who I am. One side of my family is comprised of nothing but doctors and lawyers, and I’m phobically terrified of discussing my low-brow career at family gatherings. The other side is made up of hard-working mechanics and small businessmen, and despite efforts to hide my good fortune, their resentment is palpable. In terms of mental acuity, the past two years of my life have been like a prolonged excerpt from the final chapters of Flowers for Algernon. My college friends have pursued advanced degrees in fields like politics and law. Discussions in our group chat have veered towards topics that require me to frantically search Wikipedia just to keep up with the concepts. I can feel my wit and tact slipping away.
Yet all of these things are intangible, while the money in my checking account is real. The numbers don’t make sense for going back to school – even enrolling in one of the bullshit “coding farms” doesn’t offer an ROI that would make it worth a career change. A full-time effort like law school would redeem me in the eyes of my family, but it’s off the table; it would require a massive investment of both cash and lost earning potential that would never be recovered in the oversaturated legal services market. Any further education beyond what I have now would be a fool’s errand, financially. The so-called “golden handcuffs” are a real thing.
I am aware that the paragraphs I’ve written here could be linked as Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky result for “narcissistic millennial entitlement search query.” I am aware that I’m incredibly fortunate that my biggest problem is “makes too much money to be a lawyer.” Nevertheless, I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the morning, and I need to do something about it. The clock’s ticking, and as they say: if you don’t do something great by 30, you probably never will. So what say you, Readers? Should I come to terms with what I am, or should I burn it all to chase an ever-receding horizon?