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Paying mental rent.

by James Needham

5 min read

At Untangld, we work a lot with founders alongside a host of others who wish they were. All are brilliant at their craft, but some are happier than others.

Our team have partnered with over 100 clients since the pandemic began (and as a co-founder myself) I’ve become aware of a post-COVID aftershock of educated, corporate go-getters leading unfulfilled lives.

Bouncing between well-paid jobs, full of zest, before being politely hollowed out within the first two years. Rinse and repeat.

Often saddled with a chunky rent or mortgage and an equally ambitious partner – it’s a life of infinite possibilities that somehow feels more captive than captivating.

Inevitably, they bump up against glass ceilings, toxic positivity, or talented assholes.

Sometimes it’s a slower demise pocked by a thousand LT meetings that rob them of their most finite resources: time, energy and above all passion for working at the shrine of something they genuinely care about.

They are driven professionals leading passionless lives, that through repeated choices or happenstance, continually find their way into jobs or organizations that take more from them than they get back.

Henry David Thoreau brilliantly bottled this pathos:

Indeed, 72% of employed Australians have felt unhappy at work over the past year, According to YouGov’s 2022 Workplace Happiness Survey, with 1 in 4 currently looking for a new job.

The report also found that 43% of working-age Australians say their expectations towards workplace happiness are now higher since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Sometimes it takes a lockdown to realise there’s a prison.

Crossing the bridge.

When we’ve habitually sat down to the same work for so many years, how do we stand up to live?

For most of us, it becomes a false trade-off between “taking a risk” on something we are passionate about or signing up for another year of corporate lobotomy.

Or as Publicly Enemy spat it:

Paying mental rent to corporate presidents.

We work for 40+ years but how many of us ever flip the script, even for a brief moment to see if there’s something on the other side?

What if you took 12 months of a 40-year career to try your hand at something? Safe in the knowledge you could return to your old grindstone if you had to.

12 months.

That’s 2.5% of your entire working life. Is the greater risk inertia?  Or a gradual slide into unhappy obsolescence?

The easy out is the risk to your quality of life…the car, the mortgage, the school fees, the $5 lattes.

We are conditioned for continuity. To preserve our reputations and our pay-checks and for some, the timing is never right.

The idea that (for some) you might downsize your life, make a few adjustments and share the load with your partner to seek a higher calling feels like a bridge too far.

Conversely, the point of getting rich used to be the privilege of more leisure time, but now the richest people in the world work 80+ hours weeks. 

The tension between money and our finite time in life is deep, and knowing the end goal is arguably the most important question to ask. How much is enough? Money today vs long-term sacrifice for the promise of a big payday. Time is precious and money means different things to each of us so being laser sharp on what drives you is everything.

Creating urgency.

If you knew how long you had to live, how would that change your choices?

Few of us ever pause to ponder this, it’s easier to live and die appropriately without the messy risk of change. So says the poet Robert Frost:

This deep need for external validation is not always our making. So many of the decisions we make are hard-wired in our upbringing.

Obama noted we spend our lives living up to our parent’s expectations or fixing their mistakes. Forever in service of the past that stops us from embracing a new kind of present, one in which we are filling our cup rather than feigning engagement in back-to-back zooms.

Most of us have the power to change our circumstances but become victims of the status quo. We seek the antidote to average but go looking for it in the same hallways.

We must first acknowledge the frameworks that forged us and then create a sense of urgency to help remould them.

Hate something, change something.

If belief is the DeLorean of our dreams, then we need to build the road to get us there.

First, plan your move. Give yourself 6-months of prep and another six of runway once you resign. That might mean making adjustments to create financial space or looking at an alternative income stream that doesn’t take up all your time. 

Get inspired. Listen to podcasts. Victories. Near misses. Cautionary tales. Be comfortable with all outcomes.

Seek a mentor. Not a friend but someone who will give you the warts and all truth. Take them for lunch. Ask them questions. Listen more than you talk. Write it down. Embody it.

Fight your demons. See a life coach. You can’t age out of the workforce if you move at the speed of change and the younger you are, usually the more freedom is your friend in uncertain times.

Embrace ambiguity. See the cliff’s edge as a welcome, energizing plunge into the abyss. Know deep down you would find your way back if you needed to. 

Find your tribe. Ask yourself if this is a lone wolf move or if there are others that complement your skill set. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Give yourself mental outs. Be comfortable with taking a pay cut. Relinquishing your title. Handing in your lanyard. Tell people you’re exploring something new and watch their eyes light up. 

Accept it will get tough. This is not for everyone or there’d be a lot more of us out there riding the roller coaster. Eating leftovers. Waiting for the phone to ring. Calling in favours from friends.

But there’s magic in the sacrifice you’ve made that means the worst day working for yourself beats the best day working for someone else. Every time. 

Maybe it’s time to stop paying mental rent and start building equity in yourself. 

A measure of happiness.

Finally, our era’s glorification of entrepreneurship and the hype around ‘following your passion’ needs a moment of reflection. The risk and reward equation genuinely isn’t for everyone and real meaning may live elsewhere, like working for a social cause (read: someone else) that creates more balance, meaning and happiness in life.

Our bodies, minds and spirits are all on loan and when the landlord comes knocking, make sure you paid rent to the right master.

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James Needham

→ Over 20 years experience across APAC and the UK helping redefine some of the world’s most iconic and effective brands, and leading complex research and segmentation projects from Budget Direct, Big4, Crime Stoppers, RACV and CommBank.

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