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How To Know When You’re Done Paying Your Dues

June 22, 2011

Charles Scharf, the former head of JP Morgan Chase’s largest division, recently left his post in a major management shake up within one of the financial industry’s most stable management teams. After two decades heading up the retail financial services, Mr. Scharf said the headaches of running the bank’s largest division was getting too much to bear.

“You get to a point in life where you have to enjoy what you do when you come in every day,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I wasn’t enjoying it.”

Well, good for him. Even though this eyebrow-raising move most certainly takes him out of the running for CEO successor.

“I feel great about it,” Mr. Scharf told the New York Times. “It gives me time to think and do other things.”


I tried to picture Mr. Scharf at the precise moment when he reached that breaking point: He’s hurling a stack of foreclosure documents across the board room at the dozens of prowling lawyers who have been hounding his every move. “I’ve had it with you people!” he cries, storming out of the office building.

All right, it was probably a bit more calculated and nuanced than that. But, dear career-minded friends, we all understand the reality of doing something you hate for a period of time in order to serve a greater purpose down the road.

It’s called “paying your dues.”

The long hours, constant fire-fighting, tedious grunt work, putting up with a lousy boss or high-maintenance employees – these should be just steps along the way to get you someplace better.

But definitely not the end game.

Back in the day when I was an aspiring young man clawing my way up the corporate ladder, I used to complain about hating my job. Then a very wise and sensible woman (um, my wife) put it to me like this: “Well, what did you expect?”

And then, “Anything worthwhile is going to be hard.”

One of my first professional jobs was a 100% commissioned gig selling management consulting services. I ate what I killed. I hated the direct cold-calling and the rejection and the literally gut-wrenching anxiety associated with the insecurity of commission. But I did it anyway.

Every morning when I woke up for work, I had – what’s a nice way to say this? – gastro intestinal issues. (Hello, body? It’s me, Stress!) But I knew it was going to be an invaluable experience and would help me to get the next job I wanted. And the next one after that. This is where I learned the value of gritting my teeth and just showing up every day. It toughened me up. It taught me to think on my feet.

I stuck it out for three years, and became the top performer in the company. When I simply couldn’t take it any more, I moved on to a much, much, much better situation, and my gastrointestinal issue miraculously went away.

In many ways, that tough job launched my career.

Wherever you are in your career, you are there because of the choices you made along the way:

  • To stick it out, or quit.
  • To get a degree, or skip over the education.
  • To take a risk, or play it safe.
  • To do something you dislike for a greater purpose, or to stay comfortable.
  • To stick with a job you hate – even though it offers no better prospects – or to move on.

Like Mr. Scharf says, if you don’t like what you do every day, there comes a point in life when it’s simply not worth it anymore.

But when is that point?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 7:48 am

    I’m one who actually thinks there’s no time like the present to do what you want to do, what you’re called to do, and what has you working to your strengths. Sure, there are parts of every job that is a grind. But, you don’t ever have to be miserable. Love what you do is a great philosophy–whether you’re just starting out in a young career, or more seasoned and staring retirement in the face, wondering if you can make it one more year for the payoff. It’s true that you can learn a lot working through the grunt times, but I don’t think life is supposed to be miserable, either. We don’t know how long our stories on this Earth will last, and so we owe it to God to honor Him with our choices every day–and that includes our choices for work. Does the highest paycheck or rung on the corporate ladder really matter? What are we chasing after? I hear way too many people be miserable in their jobs and without a specific plan (complete with position goal and time frame), they become stuck and miserable becomes their life.

    Good points about *paying your dues* and lots to think about with considerations to weigh.

    • June 23, 2011 5:10 am

      Amy, I agree that there’s no point in being miserable without having a specific plan for what you want in life. The point here, though, is that the other side of the coin is people who are unwilling to do anything that requires discomfort, fear, or stretching, and they end up avoiding the “hard work” that is required for getting where it is you want to go. I am a little hesitant about just pursuing what you love, because it doesn’t take into account the realities of economics, career development and long-term planning.

      I think we would both intersect around the idea of pursuing your strengths without fear. How’s that sounds?

  2. June 22, 2011 10:24 am

    Well said Brad.

    My favorite part of your post “I’ve had it with you people – he cries!” I wonder if there were actual tears?
    Or, were they held in?
    Was the stress pushed down into the stomach to be expelled in the form of a shallow belch?
    Or did the stress stay close to the heart, raising heart rate and blood pressure?

    The person who can push the stress down to the stomach is likely stronger by nature. Yet the smarter bull simply cries to defeat the other bull – particularly in front of the team.

    Let the tears run when no one’s having any fun.

    • June 23, 2011 5:15 am

      I was going to use the phrase, “he cries out”, but the prose didn’t work because I used “out” again three words later. It’s interesting how you picked up on that. I probably need to take a writing class.

      PS I also took out a line that said, “I learned how to be afraid without letting anyone know it.” Yes, I think the stress went down to the stomach, and no one knew.

  3. June 22, 2011 1:32 pm

    I am laughing at your gastro intestinal issues! Mine ended when I went into business for myself. Most people find owning your own business creates them!

    I actual believe we can sustain work that we are not crazy about, live through some stress, and even learn from the experience. The deal breaker for me is when the corporate values or ethics don’t match up with the personal.

    Then you have conflict at work because of your beliefs and more conflict outside of work because you are still working there. As long as values don’t completely clash, I think timing is different by individual.

    Thanks for sharing the validation of Charles Scharf – that sometimes it’s not worth it anymore!

    • June 23, 2011 5:17 am

      Yes, having that conflict with values can be quite stressful. I have dealt with that a couple of times, but it has been more around an individual situation, rather than the entire organization.

      I think I would be a wreck if I started my own business.

  4. June 22, 2011 4:56 pm

    I like your wife’s question. “What did you expect?”. I think that what a person expects has got to be reviewed. Also, what does a person want to give up in order to have something else? What is most important in ones life today?

    • June 23, 2011 5:20 am

      Nance, as usual, you get right to the heart of the issue. It is important to map out those expectations, especially in a marriage – to both understand what the expectations are for life, work, church, money, having kids, raising kids, where to live, etc etc.

      My wonderful wife is very wise.

      • June 23, 2011 11:58 am

        yes, very wise. much wiser than i.

  5. June 24, 2011 10:04 am

    This is something I have to continually remind myself of. The temptation I face is that the grass is always greener on the other side – specifically, it’s easy to imagine that another endeavor would give me limitless and easy success. The one I’m in always seems like hard work.
    I’ve taken the approach that I just need to be faithful and obedient. It’s a challenge to discern that for sure, but it’s easier to deal with obstacles on the faithful path than it is the “easy” path.

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