What is a Golden Albatross?

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How many Golden Albatrosses are out there?

A Golden Albatross is a metaphor, and like all good metaphors, it begins with a story.

I recently got back in touch with a friend of mine with whom I had only sporadic communications with over the last decade.  This friend of mine is the opposite of me in all the good ways one can think of: kind, full of empathy, and passionate about life.  However, we are alike in many ways too.  As late adolescents and young adults, we both felt a calling to do something greater with our lives and chose a life of service.  This friend chose to serve with humanitarian organizations centered on the idea of aiding the neediest and most vulnerable around the world.  I chose to serve in the US military with the idea of protecting those like my friend.  By the time we lost touch, we were well into our service-oriented careers with few regrets.

Fast forward a decade and my friend and I discovered we had a few more things in common.  For one, we were terribly disillusioned with our chosen callings and professions.  Maybe it was inevitable that the scales of naivety would fall from our eyes at some point, dimming our fire to serve to nothing more than a faint glow.  Yet, I found it a bit ironic that we reached those conclusions at almost the exact same time in our lives; especially considering how different and unconnected our lives had become over the intervening years.  As we emailed and messaged each other about the events that led us to this point, we also discovered we had one other painful similarity in our stories — we both felt trapped by the tantalizing defined benefit pension connected to 20 years of service with our organizations.

For those of you who have read my Grumpus Maximus vs. The Golden Albatross post, I am not going to repeat the details.  For those of you who haven’t read it, do so and you will understand the mental and emotional turmoil I put myself through while determining if I could make it to 20 years in order to earn my defined benefits package.  For my friend, who has yet to make the decision, it turns out the anguish and pain associated with the decision is 1000 times worse.

My friend experienced some bad stuff.  I am talking about “Me Too” type of bad stuff that some people never recover from.  Honestly, I didn’t know what to say when my friend told me.  However, when my friend mentioned the feeling of being trapped by the pension, I immediately latched on to it as a way to help since I had just been through a similar experience.

As I started to help my friend get smart on financial issues, Financial Independence (FI), and the idea of creating a financial plan; we started throwing around the term “Golden Handcuffs” in reference to feeling trapped by our pension — which we thought was the correct historical term.  When my friend encouraged me to start a blog; I naturally decided to call the blog “Golden Handcuffs” in dedication to people like us.  That is until I Googled the term and found out (according to the almighty Wikipedia) that Golden Handcuffs:

refers to financial allurements and benefits that have the objective to encourage highly compensated employees to remain within a company or organization instead of moving from company to company (or organization to organization)“.

The key term is “highly compensated employee“, or in other words a business executive — which isn’t me or my friend.

So I had this situation which my friend and I were in, and I was looking for the appropriate metaphor to describe it.  I did some research and it turns out there was no metaphor to describe the desire to leave your current job, while feeling trapped by the need to hit your pension point first.  Maybe back in the day when everyone had pensions, it was just called “Life” or “Reality”.  Not so much these days though when hardly anyone has a pension.

Undeterred I started to crank out draft blog posts, and let the metaphor issue rest.  Financially speaking I had plenty to say and was in no hurry to address the issue.  That was until I wrote the post that would become Grumpus Maximus vs. The Golden Albatross.  At that point, I had to come to grips with the need for a metaphor; as it proved central to my entire reason for starting the blog.

I started with the premise that the term had to include “Golden” as a reference to the rewards represented by the pension.  Much like Golden Handcuffs though, the reward felt backhanded since it was trapping us.  Given the disillusionment that developed over our careers and callings, something which we previously felt so positive about, I started to think of metaphors associated with something once good turning bad.  Then I remembered the words of my favorite space captain, Mal Reynolds, from the movie Serenity

Wait. What?  You don’t know Serenity. The space movie that came out the same year as Star Wars Episode III, which no one went to see, but was 1 million times better than Episode III.  You know with the guy from the TV show Castle.  Yes, that guy.

In the movie, Mal Reynolds (Castle) is facing off with the bad guy (Academy Award winner Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the bad guy tells Mal that the girl Mal is trying to protect is “an Albatross”.  Mal corrects the bad guy by saying, “The way I remember it is that the Albatross was a sign of good luck until some idiot killed it.  Yes … I read a poem, try not to faint.”  Great scene.

Of course, the reference to the poem as we all know (from our Iron Maiden phase in life) is Rime of the Ancient Mariner (not their best song).  Mal had it right though. The Albatross was good luck until the Mariner shot it with an arrow, bringing bad luck.  To atone to the fates/gods/spirits of the sea, his shipmates punished the Mariner by hanging the dead Albatross round his neck.  Thus the term “Albatross around the neck”.

Albatross chicks

               Our young budding careers in Albatross form

And then the metaphor crystallized in my mind.  Our careers, once so bright and meaningful, now hung round our necks like the dead Albatross.  But if we could suffer through the “punishment” (i.e. the last few years until pension point), that Albatross would turn golden through the pension. The ultimate silver lining in our storm cloud (Damn it! I could have used that metaphor instead…but then the last part of this story would not be so good).

Thus, the “Golden Albatross” was born … in my mind at least.  Of course, I checked Google again. There I was with images of immortality in my head for inventing a new metaphor only to find the number one return for Golden Albatross was a … sexual position as defined in Urban Dictionary  (Damn you internet gods, why must you mock me?).   I could not believe it.   Mrs. Grumpus and I like our “three minutes of ecstasy several times a month”, but the Urban Dictionary definition is over the top.

Undeterred I scrolled further down the list of returns and noticed this link: The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” was a golden albatross.  Excitedly I read the story and found this line buried within:

“For a pair of musicians who had been making music … for the last five years as The Rembrandts, being known as the band associated with the Friends theme ended up being a “golden albatross,” as Solem put it.”

Damn right!  In fact, I think it is safe to say that Friends proved a Golden Albatross for everyone involved.   Name one quality TV show or movie role that anyone from Friends has done since.  David Schwimmer was by far the worst actor in Band of Brothers.  Jennifer Aniston in Office Space?  Maybe …. but was that before or after Friends ended?

So now you know the story behind the Golden Albatross.  I could stop it there, save one last thought as it relates to my friend and my previous post, Grumpus Maximus vs. The Golden Albatross.  Yes, being in a Golden Albatross situation sucks.  For some people it sucks so bad that the calculus is they either stay to the detriment of their health (or life), or they punch out.  No job, however good the pension, is worth someone’s physical/mental health or life.  That may be my friend’s position, we will see.

If that is you as well, I highly encourage you to take some time off and get some help. If that help cannot resolve the issue, make a plan to get out of that job alive, and execute your plan.  There are resources on this site, and links to other sites, that can help you do that.  The key is planning.

For those of us who decide for whatever reason to stay, the challenge is to make that decision worth it.  These days few pensions provide enough to retire and never work again, at least at the low end of the pay scale.  Yet, your pension in combination with some planning, saving, and investing; makes never “working” a real job again much more realistic.  My intent with this blog is to show you how I figured it out, so you can too.  I might show you some other things I figured out as well, we will see how far we get.

Finally, in many ways, this blog is about turning the tables on a good situation gone bad, and making it good again.  Or at least good enough.  We either own the situation or it owns us.  I intend to own my Golden Albatross and use it to maximum effect in order to improve my life and that of Grumpus Familias.  I also intend to help my friend figure out the same.  Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to help you too.

With that in mind, I ask you to what end will you put your Golden Albatross to work? Read on and let me know.  Good luck!