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Climbing the corporate ladder sucks

I spent a good part of my life obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder. And for what? Because I was programmed to do it. I had sacrificed everything in the name of obsession.

When Michael Kanellos--CNET News editor-at-large--asked me to do this blog, he said, among other things, "people spend their whole lives bitching about work and yet we never read about it."

"Well, yeah, that's true, but I want to write about dysfunctional executives and companies," I complained. "You know, I want to write about train wrecks."

"Sure, you can do that too," he said, the way an adult appeases a whining child. "But I'm telling you, focusing on career and management will be cool. You know the topic, you can be funny about it, and people care about it, yet mainstream media pays almost no attention to it."

As I sat there, pondering the apparent wisdom of his idea, Michael delivered his coup de grace: "Climbing the ladder sucks and everyone is obsessed with it, yet few speak out on it."

Wow, I thought, ain't that the truth. Perceptive guy, that Kanellos.

I had certainly spent a good part of my life obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder, almost lost my marriage over it. And for what? For the money? For the pats on the back? For the knowledge that I'd done something with my life that makes a difference?

I don't know about you, and I never wanted to admit this, but I don't think I did it for any of those reasons. I think I did it because I was programmed to do it. My dad grew up in the Depression and thought he was doing the right thing--drilling into me that nothing was more important than a successful career.

And like a good little soldier, I went at it so hard and for so long that it wasn't until I was 46 that I stopped, took a breath, and realized what was happening. I'd spent exactly half my life working and my life had become about work. I had sacrificed everything in the name of obsession.

Actually, I can't even take credit for that fateful pause that changed my life. Two people close to me were very ill, at the time, and that caused me to ponder mortality for the first time. I guess that was all it took, because I wasted no time striking out on my own. I wish I could say I never looked back, but that wouldn't be true. Sure, I think about jumping back into "the life" when opportunities arise, but so far, I've stayed the course.

Now I consult and write, and there's time left over to garden and cook. I work as hard as I ever did, but on my terms. The money's not what it used to be, but hell, I get to smell the roses (for real, I grow roses), and pay attention to what's going on around me and in me (I know that sounds weird, but try it sometime) for a change. It was a little scary at first, way out of my comfort zone, but now I wouldn't change it for anything.

What do I miss the most? The people, the camaraderie, and the respect of position and title (yes, I really am that shallow). Almost forgot--and the money.

What don't I miss? Getting up early, commuting, 3 million miles of air travel, company politics, and meetings.

What's the biggest unforeseen problem? Well, since I work at home, I've invaded my wife's space. Having me around so much really drives her crazy. Also, personal space and boundaries aren't what they used to be. People see me working by the pool--OK, sometimes floating in the pool--and assume I'm screwing off. Well, I'm not, so get off my back!

And the biggest unforeseen benefit is, well, time. Time to try again. Time to do things differently. Time to be young again, to be scared again, to test my limits again. Time to spend on those I love, including me. It's the only thing you can never get back.