The Golden Handcuffs: Trapped in a Job that Pays Too Well to Leave It

I was recently contacted by a LifeReboot reader who described the concept of “Golden Handcuffs.” Roger was trapped in a job that he didn’t enjoy, but he was making so much money at that job he felt like he had no choice but to stay there.

I imagine that many of us can relate to Roger’s situation. Sometimes you’re in a bad spot and the “what if” questions stop you from making any changes about it. You imagine that it’s too late to start over. You think it would be dumb to come this far only to throw it all away. You’re afraid that you’ll never rise to this level again if you tried something else and failed at it.

Roger’s success story might encourage you to try anyway. From his email:

Shaun, what you’re doing is worthwhile and I applaud you for your work and courage.

In regards to my story, I just followed my feelings. I had worked in various IT roles (support, engineering, security) and was making very good money doing so — but I was inherently unhappy once I stopped learning new things. I had earned multiple different vendor certifications through self-study while working (CCNP, CCSE, MCSE, MCNE, A+, etc.) and with each I progressed to more “prestigious” roles. After meeting each goal I found myself once again bored and unhappy. As you wrote, I was simply trading time for money.

A co-worker and I discussed our feelings at length regarding this phenomenon which we referred to as “The Golden Handcuffs” – making so much money at a job, you simply can’t leave it.

Before getting into IT, my co-worker had been a series 7 stockbroker at Charles Schwab making $100K+, but he had found himself in a similar predicament – trading time for money. He told me that while working at Charles Schwab he found himself envious of the support techs, because despite making less than half of his pay, their job was more appealing to him than being a broker. He bought a Novell study guide, obtained his CNA certification and began to apply for $30K IT jobs. The one he happened to get was working with me.

While sitting at my desk one day, stressed by some arbitrary deadline, I stared out of my cubicle and through the window. I saw a maintenance man blowing leaves off the sidewalk in the rain and thought to myself how much I would like to trade jobs with him. That’s when I recognized how miserable I was, and I made the decision to do something about it…

I had always been interested in law enforcement, but I had no idea how to go about becoming a police officer. I did, however, have a neighbor who was a police officer so I went to him and inquired about the process. As I found out, North Carolina has a standardized curriculum that is delivered at community colleges throughout the state – some of which even offered it at night!

I continued working and attended the academy in the evenings for the next nine months. I had no social life, but somehow managed to meet my wife during that time and we were married about a year later.

I joined the police force as a reserve officer (same uniform, authority, jurisdiction, etc. – but unpaid and you make your own schedule) and continued to work in IT. I had changed companies in an attempt to find happiness while maintaining my income level, but it was a lost cause. I loved being a police officer and was volunteering an average of around 30 hours per week at the PD on top of my 40 hours working to pay the bills.

I discussed changing careers with my wife and my father, neither of which liked the idea; they both wanted me to continue working in IT and believed that I should just “play cop” on the weekends. And so it went… I continued to toil away for a few more years. Things only got worse. I finally had enough and knew what I had to do.

I spoke to the Chief and asked for a full-time position, which he happily offered me. I went to my boss the next morning and turned in my 2-week notice. I went to my wife that evening and told her about what I had done. She was unhappy to say the least, and I thought that my decision may cost me my marriage, but thankfully it didn’t.

I started full-time at the police department four years ago, and have never regretted my decision.

What I like most about Roger’s story is that he describes it as “following his feelings.” Although it may have taken some time to recognize the need for change, get educated, and move to a different career — he was enthusiastic about the new life he was creating, and he was therefore unstoppable.

What’s interesting about the notion of “Golden Handcuffs” is that it doesn’t have to be a good-paying job that’s trapping you. It might even be a job that pays you poorly, but the simple fact that you receive a steady paycheck prevents you from taking action towards the life you want to be living. I’m certain that many of us believe we must continue to work in our “trap jobs” because we feel like we must — not because we want to.

As Roger implied, acknowledgment is only the first step of the reinvention process. When he looked out the window and felt jealous of the maintenance man working in the rain, it triggered a series of changes that led him to his current, more fulfilling life. Even if you know that you’re unhappy, and you know that you need to make some changes, ask yourself whether or not you’re actively working towards your life goals. If you’re not, then you really don’t want them.

Roger, you are an inspiration to all of us who want to be working a job that pleases the mind, body, and soul. I’m grateful for your success story, and wish you the very best in your new life. Thanks so much for sharing!

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One Response to “The Golden Handcuffs: Trapped in a Job that Pays Too Well to Leave It”

#1 heatherK on 29, Aug, 2011 at 11:37 am

I’d like to suggest the book “Renaissance Soul” for those who both a) have a lot of different interests and don’t know where to start and b) who think that it’s too late to start over.

Part of what it says is that it’s never too late to start over, that it’s O.K. that your values and interests change over time, and it’s O.K. to do things for a season then move on to something else.

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