Copper Handcuffs

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The idea of the Golden Handcuffs isn't something new. It's a pretty simple idea -- when you get a really good job, it's hard to quit because of the pay, benefits, office, or all the other things wrapped into the day-to-day that make it relatively better than other options. People like to use it in examples of miserable investment bankers or Wall Street analysts incapable of leaving their jobs -- despite totally hating them -- because the pay and benefits are so good. You also see this with employees of tech companies bent on starting their own startups. They look back fifteen years down the line and shake their heads for not quitting and trying something because now they are beholden to the company to pay their mortgage -- despite being extremely successful by traditional standards.

These people aren't always miserable out of a lack of self-knowledge -- it's not necessarily that they thought they would love the jobs and then, only after working them for some time, realized they actually hate waking up in the morning. They thought they'd be able to quit after a few years of saving up money and paying off student debt only to discover that quitting such a "good job" turns out to be really, really hard.

But the handcuffs don't have to be golden. You don't have to be working as a cog at a prestigious firm on Wall Street or at a tech giant at Silicon Valley to feel yourself trapped by security.

I was giving a talk recently about the future of work and the nature of entrepreneurship to a group of high school seniors. During the talk, I mention the Golden Handcuffs and tell a few stories about people I personally know who exemplify somebody trapped by them. I urge the students to be extremely cognizant of two things: first, we're really bad at knowing what we'll want in the future; second, going from wealthy to not-so-wealthy is a lot harder than the inverse.

A student in the audience asked me how people get out of the Golden Handcuffs situations. I tried my best to answer it, noting how hard it must be. The teacher at the back of the room piped up midway through, "You don't put yourself in them in the first place. Thirteen years into teaching at [high school I was speaking at] and you'll never be able to get out!"

Some students chuckled, but the tone in his voice made it clear that he wasn't joking by using himself as an example.

Here we have a relatively young (younger than 40) teacher at a middle class high school making it clear that he is staying where he is because of the paycheck and the benefits, despite clearly wanting to do something else with his life.

And he's not the only one.

I know people who keep with jobs at nonprofits that offer mediocre benefits and a paltry salary for the security it offers. I know people who keep with jobs in law or medicine not because of some huge salary that you hear of in those fields, but because quitting would mean they'd have to go find their own insurance or a way to pay the mortgage for a few months.

These are far from Golden Handcuffs, they're more like Copper Handcuffs, and they're just as good at keeping people doing things they don't like doing as the Golden Handcuffs. There are millions of people who wake up every day to go work a mediocre job they hate but feel that they can't quit because of the salary and benefits. They're not being kept there by stock options with a billion dollar company or the opportunity to do sales trips in Bali. They're kept there because of a salary and because of their past-self's poor ability to judge the future.

As for my advice to the student? Live well below your means, develop a healthy relationship with debt (No, a house isn't an automatic investment. Buy a used car. Get a credit card when you turn 18 and use it for a sandwich every month.), and understand that the easiest time to take risks isn't when you have years of experience under your belt but it is actually now when you have fewest commitments.

(credit to Isaac Morehouse for the idea of "copper" vs "golden" handcuffs)

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at

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