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Taking the Plunge

by Charlie Hudson


Not everyone who walks away from corporate financial security does so with a vertical drop into seventy feet of turquoise water.  Nor is it the sort of decision one should make while languidly sipping rum drinks as steel drums plink rhythmic tunes. It can, however, be a successful transition woven from dreams and pragmatic trade-offs. If you are at a stage in your life when a sense of fulfillment eludes you, let me share a few tips to consider.

My husband, Hugh, and I developed a plan several years ago to pursue a second career as trainers in adult seminars when we retired from the military. It would be a good match with our strong background in topics such as leadership, team-building and goal-setting. At that point, our logical calculations did not include emerging passions that would eventually outweigh potential salaries.

Not long after we agreed on the plan, we were transferred to Hawaii where Hugh took the opportunity to re-certify as a recreational scuba diver and I became enamored of this extraordinary hobby.  Hugh subsequently pushed forward to become a Dive Master, a basic building block on the professional recreational diving pyramid. We were probably drinking a cold beer rather than a rum concoction when he broached the subject of continuing on to attain scuba instructor level after he retired.  Hmmm, intense work and very low pay. Hardly the formula we envisioned, although as I experienced new underwater delights with each dive, I began to understand his desire. After all, we would only be on a seminar circuit for part of the year and he could play around with scuba in between. 

Fast forward a few months to my fortieth birthday. Hugh came home and dropped a Writer’s Digest magazineon the coffee table. The cover story about “Beginning to write when you’re forty”, described most of the excuses I’d been using. 

“It’s time you do this,” he said with a smile. Sure, starving writer and scuba bum – what a pair we would make.

Two years passed as we approached and retreated from the thought of breaking with our original, fairly traditional plan. In that timeframe, I retired and then hired on with a services and consulting firm when my first novel proved to be a tax write-off rather than profitable. I was waiting on the adult seminar idea until Hugh hung up his green uniform. We’d had enough work-related separations during our military career and I didn’t want to “road warrior” by myself. Scuba was a great sport that we based our vacations around, but for crying out loud, the pay is abysmal unless you own the dive shop. He’d be working for beer money and I certainly wasn’t appearing on any bestseller lists.

Despite my warning in the opening paragraph, our first serious maybe-we-can-do-this discussion occurred during a trip to St Croix. The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands boasts fabulous diving and excellent beach bars. We were lulled less by the sound of rustling palm fronds and more by a growing awareness that neither of us needed to tie our self-worth to the size of respective paychecks. There were other measures of success we could use. From a bottom dollar perspective, we had only one child to see through college and parents who weren’t likely to require monetary assistance. All right, the bull market of the 1990s swelling our mutual funds did have an impact. A tantalizing million dollar mark seemed to be reachable.

Even though the Bear began marauding Wall Street shrinking our hoped-for seven-digit portfolio, we turned the corner of what-if and entered the place of here’s how.  We spent hours talking about what we genuinely wanted and were willing to trade off in order to be able to decline corporate offers. Dual military pensions were admittedly cornerstones of our plan combined with a long term investment strategy. 

Discipline in keeping debt ratio low was another key component even though realistic expectations of where we could afford to live was perhaps the major consideration. The desire for an executive, waterfront house in the Florida Keys with a custom boat tied to a private dock was replaced with a less pricey pool home in South Florida where we still had easy access to superb dive sites.

After agreeing about trade-offs, we started on high dollar items we would purchase during our remaining peak earning time; replacing one of the vehicles and so forth. Reduced monthly cash flow would be an issue and we met with our financial advisor to map out future liquidations and what investments we would retain.

Family and friends were mixed between those who applauded and those who urged caution.  “If you spend just five years doing corporate work, think how much better you’ll be poised”,was the basic refrain. True, but we could quickly point to people we knew where the five years became six, seven or more as thoughts of leaving faded. We did delay for two years and that was as far we cared to stretch the timeline. The market recovered somewhat, my 401K grew and we tied up loose financial ends. We were ready to take the literal and figurative plunge.

So it came to be that my husband traded his Colonel’s silver eagle insignia for a red and white dive flag symbol and a ponytail replaced his military haircut. 

“I had a great pair of students today,” he said after the first session of one dive class.  “A man and his grandson from Ohio.  He’s giving it to his grandson as a birthday present and they’re both really enthusiastic.”

On another day he guides divers on the USS Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot old navy vessel that was sunk as an artificial reef, or points out a 100-plus pound Goliath Grouper languidly swimming along Snappers Ledge. 

“I’m sorry you couldn’t be with us,” he said one evening when he arrived home. “A manatee came into the dock area when we were cleaning up. He must have stayed about five minutes while we gave him water from the hose.” This, by the way, was the same week a pair of dolphins had “surfed the wake” of the boat on the way to the dive sites. 

With nearly thirty-four miles of coral reef and protected marine sanctuary areas, each day can bring surprises. There are no guarantees that something spectacular will happen, yet for a diver, the sensation of virtually flying underwater combined with face-to-face encounters of colorful creatures, sea fans and sponges is thrilling even if you don’t see a stingray or other large animals. The enchanting underwater realm can be appreciated when poking into crevices for tiny shrimp and hovering above a rock outcropping covered by hundreds of juvenile fish. My husband much prefers genuine sharks to numerous corporate ones he knew. Granted, he’s not driving the latest model luxury sports utility vehicle on his twenty-five minute commute where he watches egrets perch in mangroves. On the other hand, his work attire is swim trunks, tee shirt and sandals instead of suits and wingtips.

Since the Florida Keys is a world-class dive destination, he’s taught students from Canada, South America, and Europe, as well as all regions of the United States.  Naturally there are rough days on the water and occasional obnoxious customers, but as most scuba professionals say with a grin, “Hey, it beats the hell out of office work.”

There would have been nothing wrong with a second career as corporate trainers.  We would have enjoyed it and been paid well. Did turning away from that mean we gave up certain things like a top-of-the-line home theater system?  Yes.  Did we move in what we viewed as an even better direction? Oh, yes. Do we regret our choice? Not for a minute.    

In the end, trade-offs that we made were simply a matter of scale. We live in a smaller, yet lovely home with a perfectly serviceable 32-inch television and I cheerfully deposit slender royalty checks into an account that was previously plump with Fortune-500 earnings. My husband spends eight to twelve hours with a scuba class and receives less in salary than we used to pay for dinner at an upscale restaurant.  The reward, however, is sharing his enthusiasm when he describes introducing another novice diver to underwater wonders. Our prize is a daily depth of satisfaction that we only fleetingly achieved in lucrative former jobs where there was always another crisis to attend to and job-related politics to contend with. 

While you may accidentally stumble into an ideal job that you weren’t aware was what you always wanted is possible, so is winning a multi-million dollar lottery. Being willing to acknowledge a passion, however, is something people are often reluctant to do.  I admit that defining, articulating and sharing a dream, or dreams, doesn’t come easily.  There are many reasons to say, “Oh, I/we couldn’t really…..”      

Perhaps instead of that response, you could sit for a while in a pleasant place and allow your dream, or dreams, to surface. Look objectively at how to transform it into an achievable goal with a series of practical steps. Do you have a birthday or anniversary on the horizon? What a great occasion to explore a longing that could, with realistic planning, reveal a road that is navigable even if it isn’t completely smooth or paved with gold.