Recently I stumbled upon a bit of an epiphany. The goal of financial independence and early retirement is not just about quitting work or hating your job. That part I already knew.
It’s also not about finally sleeping in on a Monday morning or sitting on your front porch all day pissed off and with a shotgun in your hand, Clint Eastwood-style. Nor is it about “escaping” real life or the idea of ditching conventional wisdom in pursuit of something better.
The goal of FI stems from the symptoms of our failure to complete our life’s circle.
Sound strange? It might, but stick with me. I can’t put my finger on when, but I discovered a truly profound feature of financial independence and early retirement – the “why” of early retirement. At least for me.
Completing our circle of life
To understand what I mean by “complete our life’s circle”, we need to think back to when we were children. That will be easier for some of us than for others, of course (that’s an “old joke” aimed at nobody in particular!).
As children, we were probably asked what we want to be when we grow up. At that point in our lives, curiosity reigned supreme. Everything was either new or new “enough” to be interesting. Through school, every year we got a new set of classes, new teachers, new classmates and perhaps new goals. We probably also wore a new set of clothing to replace those out-of-style rags we bummed around in last year. The passing of each year was almost another opportunity for us youngsters to reinvent ourselves.
Remember that normal looking kid who turned into a goth and started dressing in all black one year? Or that dude who somehow grew a stash over the summer? The kid who seemed to lose (or gain) 50 pounds? We all probably tried a new lifestyle more than we think and we did so because we humans enjoy variety. Adventure. Something fucking new.
Many of us joined clubs or played sports in the hope that maybe, just maybe, we will be good enough to make it big time, because why not…it could happen. You’re a kid. Might as well give it a shot.
Though many of us struggled through portions of our childhood, there was still an element of excitement. Every year we got smarter and wiser (at least in theory). We added new skills to our collection, made new friends, saw new things, learned new subjects. Most of us don’t appreciate it at the time, but very often our childhood is the most exciting part of our lives.
The world was intimidating, but also ripe for the taking. We could do virtually anything we want. In a word, we had choices.
As we grow older, the monotony of life begins to settle in. After college, we begin our careers in the workforce. While this new phase in our life generally does offer some degree of adventure, it generally fades quickly. Within a year or two, we are so ingrained in our jobs and robotically going through the motions of adult-living that excitement and adventure only seem to happen on vacation or over the weekend, but even then, it’s typically short lived and clouded with an invisible but very real sense of looming work…a return to our “normal lives”.
And let’s be honest – life very often lacks variety. From the moment we select our major, we are mapping out our entire career path for the rest of our lives. It is possible to completely switch careers to something entirely different later in life (or our major in college), but that tends to be the exception rather than the norm. Computer science degree holders rarely become professional photographers. Very few English literature majors discover the next biomedical breakthrough that can cure a cancer.
Truthfully, what does your company actually want out of you? They want you to do your job, your whole job and nothing but your job in exchange for a paycheck and maybe a yearly cost-of-living raise. That’s it. Same shit, day in and day out. Even if you enjoy what you do, the tedium of it all eventually gets to us.
It gets to me, anyway.
Very little of what most of us do is truly freeform creativity. If you work at an ad agency designing clever graphics depicting overly happy people eating or drinking consumables, you might think that you’ve found a loophole. After all, your work allows for “creativity”. But, it’s certainly not freeform creativity. There are restrictions and many of them. Your creativity must make money and fit within the bounds set by clients, managers or arbitrary rules. You can’t act like a kid and draw whatever the hell you want any longer.
Face it – after we “grow up”, very little of what we do is truly creative.
If you feel like your job isn’t fulfilling, it may not be due to choosing the wrong career. Like me, you are probably trapped in society’s pigeonhole of singularity (my term!). It doesn’t matter what career you chose. It is more fundamental than that. We do not have the same choices that we once had as children, and THAT may be the unfulfilling part of many careers. It is not about the choice you made. It’s about no longer having the choice!
In a very real way, life has the tendency to remove choices from our lives. It wants us to drive down a very narrow path, do some work, rest for a little while, then do more work. The same work.
Having a choice is the spice of life. My career has become the anti-spice.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Our answers to that question probably included lofty professions like an astronaut, a professional baseball player or hell, maybe even the President of the United States. It probably didn’t include marketing assistant, janitor or sitting and typing shit into a computer all day (hey, that’s me!).
In other words, we thought big thoughts. We expected good things to happen to us. We wanted to be the best, do the best, and leave our mark on society – things that most of us simply cannot do by spending more than half of our productive living years in an office. If you notice, the typical answers to that question have one thing in common: moving! Not many of us longed for a desk job when we were youngsters. Desk jobs aren’t exciting!
And it occurred to me that “what do you want to do when you grow up?” is a lot like asking what do you want to do when you retire (early).
Our answers are largely the same, this time focused on meaning rather than professions.
Ultimately, we still crave the same level of excitement we experienced going through grade school. Most of us enjoy trying our hand at new things like we once did as a child. Interested in watercolor painting? Try it! Want to get good at tennis? Why wait? Think you can become the next Beethoven? Seriously, the sky is the limit.
We come full circle when we give ourselves another opportunity to, well, experience.
Early retirement is about standing in the very same shoes that we stood in as children as we peered out into the world, completely overwhelmed by how much opportunity there was to make a serious impact, pursue our life passion and choose new and exciting things to try.
In other words, we want to complete the circle. We want to be kids again.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.