Financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) are growing in popularity, but you don’t have to browse the comments sections of Forbes or Yahoo Finance long to find plenty of skeptics.
The FIRE critics represent many viewpoints. There are the well-intentioned risk-averse types, hesitant about the viability of supposedly “safe” withdrawal rates in today’s high-valuation environment. There are the traditional big-spender consumers, indignant about the viability of a low-spending lifestyle. And, of course, there are the ornery disbelievers, eager to pick apart the details of success stories and tell us all why it can’t be done.
Can you imagine? No more resumes, cover letters or worrying about who is looking at my LinkedIn profile.
But of all the negative reactions to early retirement, there’s one that I find to be just plain sad:
“Retire early? I don’t know what I would do with all that time without my job. I would be bored.”
I’ll give you a pass if you’re one of the lucky few whose job is your passion – that elusive “true calling” that gnaws at you any time you’re away. If you can’t imagine doing something else because you’re in love with what you do every day, great! Never retire from that.
But if you’re like most people, you probably aren’t jumping out of bed at 5 AM every day thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to start sitting in meetings and re-sizing text boxes in PowerPoint again!”
If the only thing separating you from boredom is a career you don’t really love, how dull are you?
Bringing possibilities back into my life
When I first stumbled upon the idea of financial independence and early retirement, I was feeling passionless about my work. It was consuming the majority of my life, including evenings and weekends. It was interrupting my social life. It was disturbing my sleep. Why was I doing this to myself?
Just a few years prior, I had been a wide-eyed student full of career possibilities. Maybe I’ll study business, I had thought. Or what about urban planning? Art and architecture are fascinating, too. Or maybe sociology? Hey, maybe I’ll just open a food truck instead.
This notion of work as self-identity seems to be correlated with age. The longer someone’s been in the workforce, the more likely he or she seems to be to depend on work for meaning, purpose, and something to do every day. Those open-minded days of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood – during which anything seemed to be possible – are long gone.
I missed having that array of possibilities for my life.
I had chosen one of them – a good choice, in spite of the negatives – but I felt myself going deeper and deeper down one path. Professionally speaking, the next 30 years of my life were more or less mapped out for me: Work in my industry for a few more years. Get a master’s degree in my field. Return to a more senior role. Work my way up the ladder. Eventually retire – maybe even “early,” at 55 or 60. Somewhere in there, try to take a few weeks of vacation time.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing that path. But for me, it was feeling less and less fulfilling with each passing year. In choosing one path, I felt myself giving up on a hundred other interests – a hundred unfulfilled dreams.
On one particularly unsatisfying work day, I took out a blank piece of paper and started writing frantically. What do I really want to do with my life?
Anything that came to mind, I wrote down. I didn’t try to categorize the ideas right away, though one idea often led to related ones, and I grouped them if it made sense.
In my prior profession, working with clients on strategic issues, we called this “concept mapping” or “mind mapping.” Some people like to start with big-picture concepts. Others like to start at a more granular level and then group ideas together. It doesn’t really matter how you do it; the point is just to get as many ideas down on paper as you can. Don’t stop to judge them; don’t take time to analyze or edit. Just keep adding ideas.
- What would I do with my life if I lost my job today?
- What would I do with my life if money were no object?
- What would I do with my life if I never had to work again?
Here is a digital version of what I ended up with – unedited except for a handful of side hustle ideas I’ve redacted for privacy:
Reflecting on my vision
Putting pen to paper was a cathartic exercise, and the sheer quantity of ideas was inspiring.
These are all the things I could do with my time if I didn’t have this full-time job, I thought. These are all the things I would do if I were financially independent.
A significant portion of them were travel-related, but there were plenty of ideas even if we stayed home: everything from learning a new musical instrument to growing a garden to training for a marathon. “Sleeping in” even got its own call-out – a respectable goal in and of itself.
Amusingly, a whole group of the ideas looked and sounded a lot like work. They might skew toward more flexible, entrepreneurial projects (somehow, “Get a 40 hour/week desk job” didn’t make it onto the page), but they’re what a lot of people would call “jobs.”
This was a revelation for me. My goal isn’t really to never work again. It’s just to work on my own terms. Financial independence doesn’t mean never earning any income again; it just means allocating my time based on personal interest rather than on financial incentives.
Some of these projects and activities are unlikely to ever produce an income. I’m fairly confident, for example, that my drawings and paintings will not be on display at your local art gallery any time soon. Others, though, might be profitable.
This is part of the reason I don’t like the connotations of the term “early retirement.” In addition to sounding ridiculous for someone still in his twenties, it’s not really reflective of my vision for the decades ahead. Though I don’t plan to spend 60 hours a week working for a corporate employer anymore, there are many projects I want to pursue – balanced, of course, with plenty of time for rest and relaxation. This “semi-retirement” seems like the best of both worlds.
(This is also part of the reason, by the way, that I don’t stress over keeping my withdrawal rate at or below exactly 4% every month. I expect that there will be times when my withdrawal rate is high, and others when it’s low or even negative.)
Using possibilities as inspiration
I kept that piece of paper on my desk for several years. I looked at it often, especially when I was in need of some inspiration to stay on track financially.
Looking back at it now, I’m thrilled to say that we’re actually living several of these dreams today. This year, we’re checking the boxes (at least partially) for road-tripping around the U.S., visiting many National Parks, and exploring Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the number that we’re not pursuing today is staggering, too. It’s going to be a while before I learn carpentry or how to play the piano. Even this relatively short list has more adventures than I could ever reasonably pursue, but that’s the point. It’s a list of possibilities, not a bucket list. There’s no pressure to do it all.
We spend a lot of energy in this community discussing the prospect of success or failure, but it’s almost always in the context of finances. Will we have to go back to work if the market collapses? Will our portfolios survive?
Rarely, though, do we discuss what “success” means for our lives. What is my purpose? How will I judge the success of this non-traditional life choice I’m making?
We gave up millions of dollars of future net worth by leaving our full-time jobs. How will we evaluate that trade-off?
Day-to-day happiness is the easiest gauge, of course. If I’m not happy, it will be time to make changes.
There’s plenty of research, though, suggesting that happiness isn’t everything. “Being happy is about feeling good,” Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic. “Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.”
With that in mind, I think it’s worth defining our purpose beyond just “I want to be happy every day.” What can we do that will bring us real, long-term fulfillment?
Toward the beginning of this year, our friends at Our Next Life did exactly that with their beautifully articulated three-part purpose. It inspired me to look back at my mess of ideas and to distill them down into a few major categories.
“What do I really want out of my life?”
Synthesizing and re-organizing them (and borrowing Our Next Life‘s lovely format) left me with this:
Adventure: I want to experience new places, cuisines, and cultures and be physically active every day.
Learning: I aspire to grow my knowledge and build new skills.
Community: I seek to make new friends and strengthen my relationships with my friends, my family, and my communities.
We’re just getting started with this “semi-retired” life, and I’ve hardly made a dent in my long list of potential activities. But as we wade deeper into this new lifestyle experiment, these are the criteria I’ll use to evaluate the activities we pursue – and whether this journey is on-track.