Two days ago, my phone buzzed with a trending post on Reddit. The post detailed someone who had achieved FIRE (financial independence and retire early), but says he is ready to go back to work. “The past year has been horrible for me,” he writes, “The lack of socialization, need to get out of the house, and even impulsive urges such as drinking at home has taken their toll on me.” I scrolled through the responses that can be summarized in a few points:
- No matter what age you retire, you will have to face the challenge of getting social interaction outside of work.
- If you get your identity from work you will have to cultivate a new identity in retirement.
- When you retire, you are getting back 8 (or more) hours every day that you now need to fill. Do you have a plan to fill them?
The top response resonated with me:
“It seems like you built your financial independence but didn’t build a personal independence. You are essentially dependent on your work to feel fulfilled, to have a social life.” -u/cookieraid
I asked Mr. Mechanic what he thought, and he replied that depending on work to feel fulfilled is his “biggest barrier to FIRE,” which piqued my interest.
Although I have been interested in financial independence for the last few years, Mr. Mechanic is on a drastically different timeline than me. Mr. Mechanic is currently studying to be Dr. Mechanic. He still has to finish medical school, then an internship year, then residency before he becomes a fully-fledged doctor, which is an insane investment not just in terms of money but also in time. He will be getting out of school and starting to work around the same time I plan to be able to retire.
Why Retire Early?
The Journal of Business Ethics proposes that while society values being ‘money-rich and time-poor,’ ultimately happiness stems from just the opposite. There is a cap on how much wealth will make you happy, so time affluence is the key to having a happier, more productive society.
The article quotes de Graaf (2003), which states that time poverty can “impinge on people’s happiness by lowering physical health, civic engagement, and family involvement.” Similarly, Kasser and Brown (2003) reported that work hours were negatively correlated with life satisfaction. So what happens when you become financially independent and consider retiring early? That will be great, right? What are the chances we will end up like the man on a forum complaining that early retirement is horrible?
How to Feel Fulfilled
In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (affiliate link), Daniel Pink identifies the three core components to motivation: Autonomy, or the ability to be self-driven; Mastery, or the desire to continually improve; and Purpose, the idea that what we produce is transcendent or serves something meaningful beyond ourselves. If these elements are fulfilled by your job now, that is marvelous. However, if your value is constantly dependent on performance reviews it distracts from the authentic you– an individuality that is built on interests, social ties, and self-sufficiency.
We cannot always count on our jobs to be there for us. Hopefully Mr. Mechanic will find fulfilling work as a doctor, but not everyone will find a job they will enjoy every day for the next forty years. I hope financial independence will let us shape our life so Mr. Mechanic can work for a less lucrative but more meaningful program, and I can work on whatever motivates me. While it is an enviable that you may love what you do, it is a risk to assume that that will always be the case. In the journey to financial independence, it is crucial (as the top commenter pointed out) that we also develop personal independence, detaching our self-worth from our jobs.
Autonomy means taking the reins of our own life. We get out of bed for ourselves rather than for our alarm clanging that it is time to head to the office. Take on a project where you can call the shots. Whatever project you take on, let it be because you find it exciting and interesting.
It doesn’t matter if you are terrible at a skill at first. Pick up woodworking. Start knitting a sweater for next winter. Schedule time in the day to pick up the guitar and record yourself once a week. Over time you will see yourself improve. I hated golf the first 5 years I played, but when I started getting good the game completely changed for me. It does not surprise me that many people pick up golf in retirement. It is something you can keep practicing over and over and slowly see the number on the scorecard decrease. There is definitely satisfaction in slow mastery.
Do you have a mission? In my first internship I helped identify problems with hospital equipment; my work directly helped hospitals around the country draw blood more effectively for donations. My second job was much less rewarding; I helped write software so that dealerships could sell cars. Can you guess which job I preferred? Now I try to find work that I find engaging outside of work, whether that means volunteering or speaking at local events for Women Who Code and more locally, Chicktech. I also write this blog in my spare time which has its own purpose: I want to help others realize that there are other options than working 9 to 5 for life, and I want to help others take mastery of their money.
Identity and Work
In every stage of our lives we define ourselves by the work that we do. However, if we look to our work for fulfillment, we will find that our worth is tied up in performance, net worth, and how many times we answer, “How are you?” with “Busy!”
The Journal of Consumer Research says that the focus on money-rich and time-poor is “driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.” We chirrup that we are busy because it makes us feel accomplished and wanted. We know internally that being busy does not actually increase our happiness, yet we still cling to it because it proves our perceived value to society.
While empirical research suggests that having more time promotes well-being, the patterns we develop during our working life significantly impact how we shape our retirement. Many people find that without work they are left with a void of self, an abyss of time. Free time is tinged with guilt, as if taking time for your life puts productivity on pause. How can we find fulfillment outside of our job, so that we develop an identity that is not conditional on our employment?
One thing we can do is recognize that we have been conditioned to value busyness and wealth accumulation this way. “Research on happiness shows that the desire to earn more income is driven by a belief that it will allow for less work and more leisure time,” (Kahneman et al. 2006). We work harder in order to eventually work less, but find ourselves in an uphill battle because the focus is not on fulfillment. Most people earn more income and end up spending it on things rather than time. Craft your own answers to the introductory questions meant to understand more about who you are. Here are what I want mine to be when I retire:
What do you want to be when you grow up? Time-rich.
What are you majoring in? Whichever book is on my bedside table.
What do you do? Today I went road biking, worked on the melody of a new song, and wrote 10 pages for a book I’m in the middle of writing.
Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life (affiliate link), writes, “we are more authentic when we’re at leisure than when we’re on the job. We’re doing what we want, when we want, and we’re motivated, not by the usual external payoffs that make us batty, but by internal goals — fun, learning, challenge, joy, the experience itself […]” Essentially, you are not what you do.
If you were to stop working right now, do you have projects, whether through volunteering, after-work activities, or side-hustles that would satisfy your internal drive? What do you find fun, challenging, and engaging? Please share in the comments below!