How To Retire At 30
By Brad Kearns
My first real job after college graduation was as a lowly staff auditor for the world’s largest accounting firm. Ten years later, I was retired. Not as a big shot CPA, but as a professional triathlete. What was it like to trade security, salary, and a business suit for a bathing suit? Well, when I went fast, it was great. I got to travel around the world and stay in beautiful resorts for free. There was substantial prize money and notoriety for winning races. Companies actually paid me to use their cool stuff. I could scoff at my miserable peers, slaving away for corporate America, making less money in a month than I made in 1 hour and 50 minutes of doing something I loved while people cheered.
Of course that was when I went fast. Sometimes I went slow. Or got disqualified from a eight hour race (that I won by 15 minutes) for running a stop sign. Or broke a pedal while leading another race. Or got sick, tired, or injured and had to watch someone else win. After nine years of piling up memories like those I realized it was time to hang it up. Of course it wasn’t that easy. I had to have the concept of the “R” word beaten into my head from all sides for me to take notice and do something about it.
Looking back, it's hard to blame myself. Winning is intoxicating; the confidence and sense of well-being I got from reaching the top of my profession clouded my view of reality. But gazing into the mirror and accepting my own athletic mortality was perhaps a more valuable lesson than anything I learned when I was victorious. When I was finally able to embrace the end of my career, I felt as ready for the real world as anyone who had slaved in it for the entire ten years I was avoiding it.
The second level of sell that kept me swimming, pedaling and running for ten years was my brief exposure to the real world after college graduation. Call me strange, but as a kid I dreamt of becoming a professional quarterback, not a Certified Public Accountant. The quarterback dream lasted until I was 12, when I got my first crack at tackle football. My 77-pound frame got crushed repeatedly in practice and rarely saw game time. My NFL dreams were soon replaced by delusions of running in the Olympics.
However deluded, I still hadn’t found anything to replace the power and allure of the career goal I’d had in some form since age seven. I decided to get my CPA, then go to law school, bribing the dream out of my consciousness with big bucks. What was I thinking? By the time I got my college diploma I had no idea. I decided to shun the CPA scene, especially after not impressing the on-campus recruiters enough to get a single job offer. I think it was those darn first impressions. I didn’t see the need to wear the strongly recommended business suit just for an interview; I’ll buy a suit after you hire me buddy!
So I sold frozen yogurt machines. More accurately, I drove for three months in heat, smog and traffic all over the Los Angeles basin trying to sell a frozen soft serve non-dairy dessert called Yodolo and the accompanying machine. Even though this was the ‘80's - the heyday of frozen yogurt - I didn’t sell a single unit. Motivation flagging, my boss set up a meeting with a star associate of his who was averaging 2.3 Yodolo sales a week. After a brilliant and inspiring pep talk, he then explained that his 2.3 sales per week at a thousand bucks a pop were barely enough to live on, due to the high cost of “babes and blow, man; the money’s gone before you know it.”
Soon after the pep talk, I bought a suit, crawled back to the accounting firms with my tail between my legs and secured the auditor position in downtown Los Angeles. I knew I was in trouble on the first day. Orientation was so boring that I could barely keep my eyes open; my fellow recruits were taking copious notes on riveting subjects like the firm’s retirement plan. Retirement plan....No, don’t go gently into that good night! I raged by getting serious with my triathlon training, waking at 5 AM to run before work and then swimming after work. As I pondered my future in gridlock traffic for two hours every day, my fantasy of a professional triathlon career appeared less and less ludicrous.
Intoxicated by 8 AM from freeway carbon monoxide, I spent workdays performing legendary tasks like photo copying for eight straight hours, double-checking a computer printout of bank account balances for 20 hours (somebody’s got to do it, he’s an auditor), and running errands for my superiors. I think the only reason that I had to wear a suit instead of a cap and overalls was that they were billing my time out at $65 per hour.
The last straw came on a Friday evening of Valentines Day. My two female superiors and I were working like crazy to finish a two-week audit job at a bank. My girlfriend arranged for a delivery of balloons to the bank, an event that distressed my bosses on seemingly too many levels. Highly motivated by sympathy, I brought them a small Valentine’s gift after lunch. One of them said, “Thanks, but bear in mind that this will have no affect whatsoever on your P-66 (employee evaluation).” The two Chips-On-Their-Shoulders and I finally finished around 9 PM. Dinner plans with my girlfriend were shot when the Chips ordered me to drop off a dozen file boxes at the firm’s downtown offices. The Chips rushed out and I was left , in the pouring rain, to stuff every inch of my car with these boxes.
The six-mile trip took 45 minutes. Our firm’s temporary parking garage was a quarter-mile away from our new offices. Each trip along the outdoor walkway to the office building left me and the cardboard boxes drenched. On my final trip, the dolly hit a bump and the boxes and contents went flying all over the puddle-filled sidewalk. Cramming everything into what was left of the rain-soaked, tattered boxes, I headed straight for the office of one of the Chips, dumped the soaking boxes and headed back out into the rain.
Monday I called my boss to give him two-weeks notice. He couldn’t schedule me for a week and a half, so when the meeting came I announced: “I’m quitting Friday.” “Friday the uh, fourth of April?” “No, Friday.”
Eight months later, as a struggling, unknown rookie pro, I upset #1-ranked duathlete (Kenny Souza) and #1 ranked triathlete in the world (Scott Molina) in the same race for my first pro victory. That and other highlights surpassed anything I had ever imagined. So did the financial, physical and emotional hardships I endured over the course of my career. Dreams may not always end up as you want them to, but that isn't the point. What’s important is to chase them with all your might.
November 1986 Desert Princess World Championship Duathlon Series race #1: No clothes, no sponsors, no competition on this particular day...