The benefits of staying off the corporate ladder
The first time I came even close to having a clue about my 'career' was when I felt 'called' into the ministry. But even then it was just a vague idea - pastor, missionary, music director. It could have been any of those. After marriage and my first child priorities shifted to just paying the bills. I left college and started working. I could type a bit faster than ninety words per minute, so I started doing clerical work, then advanced to word processing. That definitely paid the bills for many years.
I was once fired from a job where I was trying to basically be an executive secretary. I truly sucked at that. But the man firing me said I seemed more interested in the computer/software end of things and that if he had an opening in that area he would have kept me. It was a light-bulb moment. As soon as I could I transitioned to tech support, then desktop support. I've been doing that ever since.
For most of my I.T. career I have been an hourly employee. I've had many opportunities to apply for positions that were salaried: Sys Admin, team lead, etc. I declined to apply, because I could not justify the tradeoffs. Sure, more money! Prestige! Upwards mobility! But I have always viewed my job as a means to an end. It pays the bills and provides benefits, but it never gave me a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. I always understood that I was a maintenance worker. I was facilitating everyone else's jobs, keeping the cogs greased and the wheels rolling. I was never in danger of being awarded a Nobel Prize for anything, or landing an interview in a major magazine. So my search for significance was always outside of work. For most of my life I sought this through church.
Once I was no longer in church I spent a fair amount of time exploring various adventure sports and hobbies: swing dancing, rock climbing, motorcycles, storm-chasing, genealogy, cigars and pipes, wine-making, antique reselling. I also began work on a memoir, more of a writing exercise than a serious attempt. Later, when we began making serious efforts toward retiring early, I explored multiple means of making money 'online' - drop-shipping, ad and affiliate revenue from traffic, etc.
Most of my co-workers had little time for such pursuits. I watched them give an extra 10-20 hours to our employers, often for some weak form of compensation that could rarely be used. If you can't get your job done in a 40-hour work week, how can you afford to take vacation, much less any form of 'comp day' you might be given? Soon they maxed out the allowable comp and vacation days. I knew that I would lose much of my time for things I truly enjoyed if I were to be promoted. So I stayed in desktop support, and I'm glad I did.
In the end, we're both leaving work with pensions and social security, small 401k's and a decent savings account. Just by living minimally and keeping expenses low we were able to save additional money back even while living in one of the more expensive cities in Texas, even on just one salary. I never had an impressive title or made big decisions yet I think we're going to be ok. I hope I live to 100, because it may take me that long to catch up on all of my unfinished projects - writing, genealogy, travel photos, blog, etc. I may be technically retiring early, but it doesn't really feel like its early enough.