Financial independence and the freedom to choose…to work?

More than a year ago, I wrote an article titled “When can I retire?” That piece was largely about achieving financial independence (FI) – that is, when your assets can securely cover your anticipated expenses for the duration of your lifespan without reliance on your current employment income. That said, achieving FI does not mean you have to retire early (RE). It simply means you have the freedom to do so when you are ready. In other words, you have the option to retire. But that freedom gained from FI enables other options as well!

For the last few days I was visiting a college friend. We had a really great time doing all sorts of things, including going wine tasting as pictured here. Hanging out without other people around most of the time (weekday travel is the best, and a real benefit of me no longer keeping a “standard work schedule”) meant we got a lot of time to catch up and chat. Flying home earlier today, I realized his story was a worthwhile jumping off point for an article!

The freedom to pursue a new venture

Until about five years ago, my friend had a very successful career at a fast growing company. He was a business leader at a technology firm that was later acquired by a much larger company. At that point, given his many successes on that career journey, he could have stopped working entirely, just as many choose to do once they achieve financial independence. But he didn’t! In fact, he moved into another career entirely – in a totally different business and segment, at a company he’d helped to found five years prior.

Fast-forwarding to today, my friend is now the CEO of that company, one presently in its ninth year of operation. The business is growing well and he is still working full time. Wait, what? You read that right – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his decision! The freedom to spend your time how you wish might including taking the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, to follow your passion, and grow a business. Yes, that may include taking on another job after you leave your primary career. Many people choose this path and find it incredibly rewarding. Sounds great to me!

Is he happy? By all measures I have at my disposal, absolutely. My friend is at a great company, enjoying making products he believes in, working with a strong team of talented people. He and his family are living where they want, and he is no longer traveling the crazy hours + frequency at which he did when he was in his former career. Talking with him, it’s clear that sometimes he misses the positive parts of business travel – as well as aspects of his former career. I can certainly identify with all of that. I loved much about my career! But it’s also clear that he is super happy to be around his family a lot more, helping to raise his kids. I can identify with that too! But wait – wouldn’t he earn more money if he stayed in his former field? 100% yes. And I could say the same thing. But we don’t need to, and we both elected to walk away from our highest earning years to take a different path.

“Yes, there are (at least) two paths you can go by…”

Led Zeppelin certainly wasn’t writing about the then not-yet-named FIRE movement in “Stairway to Heaven”. But that lyric is an apt way to frame the point I want to make: to continue working or not is just one of the high level choices to be made once you achieve FI. The first option can itself take many forms: many continue to work in their existing job for some time, post-FI. It may be because they love the work, or want to keep at it for some period of time. I worked a year longer after hitting my own number. There were several reasons for that, including wanting to finish working on a project of which I was a team member. Other people might elect to stay in their job but reduce their hours or number of days working. Still others may choose to work in a new field entirely, or like my friend, start their own company!

As regular readers will know, I haven’t yet elected to start working in a new career, and I don’t think doing something full time is likely anytime soon – barring perhaps at a business I start myself. Outside of the one day a week I pour wine at a local tasting room, I don’t have “a job” right now. Rather, I have spent most of the first fifteen months since leaving my career exploring different areas of interest to me, learning new skills – like content creation via this blog and the Two Sides of FI YouTube channel, volunteering, and essentially “random walk”ing through a wealth of different things. I’ve also written about and filmed a YouTube episode about all the things I have learned so far after more than a year since I left my career. See those links for more details.

Any of these choices are “correct” so long as they resonate with you and are aligned with your earnest interests. I fully agree with something that my friend told me a few years ago when we discussed my plans to retire early: “People need to feel that they are contributing to something that they are passionate about. Make sure you know what that is.” He’s right! My passions don’t presently include working for someone else, and certainly not in my previous field, but perhaps that will change should the right role with great people comes up! Or if my wife and I elect to start a small business in an area we are passionate about (yes, yes, I know some of you really want me to start a brewery!). Who knows? In the moment, what feels right is exactly what I’m doing: exploring!

What are your plans? If you’re not on the FIRE path but you suddenly won a $10M lottery prize, would you stay in your job or would you do something else? I’d love to hear from you!

“When you’ve got so much to say it’s called gratitude”

When you are a content creator – writing a blog, producing videos, or sharing material of any kind online, you are by definition putting yourself out there for scrutiny. Neither this blog nor the YouTube channel I make with my friend, Eric, are runaway successes. But our content does receive thousands of views each month, and for that I am incredibly grateful. At this volume, we don’t receive mountains of feedback, but I am thankful for nearly all that does come in. It’s such a boost to learn that others value your material, and care enough to take their precious time to ask a question or share their thoughts. Of course like anything in life, it’s not all positive…

Occasionally, one receives truly awful feedback – nasty YouTube comments, spiteful podcast reviews (to which you can’t respond – thanks, Apple!), or hate email. This is rather different than constructive criticism or mere disagreement with a point you’ve made – both of which are wholly reasonable, and often worthy of a response. However, some of this feedback is obvious trolling and as such, is best ignored. But sometimes it’s hard to tell. We’ve received several comments on the same theme, which is essentially: “how dare you rich people complain about your ‘problems’ in early retirement while so many others truly suffer?” That emphasis is intentional as the word has come up a few times recently. It got me thinking – do I not come across as grateful for all that I have? Is it possible that my words are received by anyone as complaining about all the good fortune I have in my life?

I am profoundly grateful for all that I have

I’ve written about gratitude several times on this blog, and we’ve discussed it on the YouTube show as well. While indeed it did take a lot of hard work and perseverance to reach the place I presently find myself – one who “retired” early at 47, I’ve tried hard (and I like to believe, generally succeeded) to never take anything that I have for granted. I recognize fully that I am the sum total of my life’s experiences, which includes enormous amounts of positive influence and support from others along the way. I’ve spoken to this topic before, but perhaps in more of a high level manner. So on this morning’s walk, I decided I would be a bit more specific and call out some of the many things for which I am truly grateful. It is impossible for this list to be exhaustive, of course. Therefore, I’ll start off by apologizing in advance for all the unintentional omissions. Now, I’ll proceed in a semi-temporal order:

I am grateful…

  • for the advantages I have had simply by the very nature of my existence, over which I had no control. I am a Caucasian male who was born in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century. This has provided me benefits that I did not always fully appreciate but now think about often. That anyone can deny the leg up this provides is admittedly, astounding.
  • that while I was not born into wealth, I had a tremendous head start in life. I had two parents who cared for me, worked tirelessly to put a roof over my head in a safe neighborhood, and provided me with a good education, healthcare, clean water and nutritious food, and taught me the value of hard work and pursuing your dreams, whatever they were. They supported me fully until I was able to do so on my own as an adult.
  • for my extended family, who were a constant presence during my upbringing. I had + have many loving relatives, and was truly fortunate to know three grandparents and a great-grandparent into adulthood. I learned much from your examples and always appreciated the care you showed even if I didn’t say that out loud nearly often enough.
  • for the teachers who went the extra mile to ensure my education was both good and complete. Specifically, several of whom ensured I had access to advanced curricula and computers (not a given in my time) at an early age, and truly challenged me to learn at my level. To the teachers who inspired creativity, fostered true learning, curiosity and exploration, and helped my love of science bloom, I am forever thankful.
  • that my family bought me my first computer. The countless hours I spent as “an indoor kid” programming and learning absolutely provided a springboard for so many interests and skills built during those formative early years. I’m also thankful for my uncle who provided much in the way of instruction and fostered my love of computing.
  • to the people who helped develop my passion for scientific research, and provided me internship opportunities during high school, and later in college. Their patient mentorship and guidance was of immeasurable impact on my later success in my scientific career. Yes, I had to work hard too, but they took a chance on me and provided the opportunity needed.
  • that my (awful) high school guidance counselor told me not to apply to my university of choice, because “I wouldn’t get in”. I did get in, and while my degree program was indeed challenging, I would never trade my college experience for another. It was just one of many decisions made that produced the outcomes that have resulted in the enablement of my aspirations.
  • to those college fraternities who elected not to give me a bid, so that I kept looking for “my people”. I’m so lucky to have found my chapter and made the lifelong friends from our brotherhood that I did. I continue to count you among my very best friends. To all of you who dismiss fraternities, I’m sorry you missed out on what can be a great experience.
  • for my former colleagues in the volunteer ambulance squad and fire department, with whom I worked during summers in college. My worldview regarding the impermanence of life and the uncertainty of its duration was hugely informed by that experience. You also taught me much about compassion and care for others, known or unknown to you.
  • for my graduate school advisor and a number of my early workplace managers, for allowing me to chart my path, make mistakes safely, and who provided coaching and gentle course correction as needed along the way. The freedom and support they provided surely set me on the path to my career achievements. Without question, they helped make me both a competent and confident scientist.
  • that so many managers and companies took chances on me. While I was a hard worker and eventually came with a proven track record, there were many times where I sought opportunities for which “on paper” I was not qualified. Yet you believed in me and provided me the opportunity to grow and succeed so many times over the years.
  • to so many of my coworkers, employees of mine, and countless vendors and customers, who have positively impacted my life over my 23-year biotech career. From modeling positive behavior, to scientific and business education, coaching and mentoring, as well as providing me the opportunity to learn and grow in so many ways via our interactions – I can’t thank you enough.
  • for my dear friends, both long-term, more recent, and those who didn’t stick around for whatever reason. I have learned so much from you, and I am appreciative for the thousands upon thousands of memories we have made together. Life being what is, times were not all positive nor fun, but they shaped me into the person I am today. I am of course so thankful for the good times as well as your guidance and support. I never would have guessed I would remain close to so many of you 20-30+ years later.
  • that I am in very good health. Because I have been overweight most of my life, many/most people assume otherwise and often make it known that they do. Candidly, I enjoy watching doctors’ assumptions crumble when faced with the data. But I have (so far) shown ample evidence of winning the genetic lottery, and have experienced few health issues of note barring nasty allergies and asthma as a kid. Compared to many people my age, I’ve dodged a lot of bullets. I wish I could say it’s all been a result of eating healthily and staying active but it’s surely not the case. I’m so thankful for my health!
  • for the many amazing online communities that exist among the noise and chaos that is the internet. I’ve spent so much time over the past 30+ years with you. Specifically relating to FIRE, I have learned countless things of value from many of you via blogs, podcasts, Reddit, YouTube, Discord (hi guys!), and yes, occasionally Facebook, just to name a few. There truly are some wonderful people out there, and I only hope I have / am giving back in proportion to all the positive things I have received along the way – that’s my goal!
  • that my brilliant daughter came into my world. I don’t talk much about her online out of respect for her privacy, but I have learned so much about life during our time together. I’m so thankful for the perspective you bring each day, and for the positive contributions you make to others and to our world. I’m so excited to see all that is still yet to come for you!
  • most of all for my amazing wife – my constant companion, brilliant mother, travel buddy, all around remarkable person, and my very best friend. I am truly a better human due to your influence and constant encouragement. Your endless support – in so many ways – of me and my career path was an absolute enabler of where we find ourselves today after twenty years together. Here’s to all that is still yet to come for us!

In summary, I’m so thankful that the amalgamation of the above, along with everything I’ve neglected to include, made me who I am. The path I charted through life so far, including my career, led me to my success. Yes, that outcome was certainly not handed to me. True, I had to work hard, make difficult choices, and take a number of chances. The combination of all of this is how I was able to achieve the success I have realized, and be fortunate to live the life I do with the people I love. I take none of this for granted. I can freely state that I have no real problems nor complaints. I am very fortunate, and I am truly thankful for all that I have.

Finally, I’m also forever grateful that anyone is with me on this journey and takes the time to read what I’ve written or view our videos. I sincerely hope that you find value in it and that you feel your time is well spent. Please don’t hesitate to share feedback about how it can be made better and more useful for you. Mahalo ?

title credit: “Gratitude”, by Beastie Boys (1992)

image credit: Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Retirement: The dreaded “R word” and a potential alternative term

A topic I’ve danced around since the very first post on this blog is whether I consider myself to be retired. Many will note that I tend to use quotation marks when I write about early “retirement”. And Two Sides of FI, the YouTube channel which has become an increasingly important part of my life, doesn’t even acknowledge the “RE” part of “FIRE” – at least in name. I’ve also mentioned on that show that when I meet new people who ask what I do, I most often respond that I’m a consultant. Why is this topic so tricky? Let’s dig in!

What does the word retired actually mean?

“withdrawn from one’s position or occupation having concluded one’s working or professional career”

-Merriam Webster

In my mind, if we’re talking about the biotech career I chose and worked in for more than 23 years, then I suppose that definition is largely correct. I say largely because I still occasionally take brief consulting calls for which I am paid. So that work is certainly adjacent to my former career. But even outside of that, I haven’t ceased “working”. As I wrote about recently, I’m also working one day a week at a winery tasting room. I also used to volunteer one day a week at our local vaccination clinic, and am about to start another volunteer opportunity elsewhere. Are those things work, or does working require pay?

So, the definition above – and several others I consulted, don’t really help me gain any clarity. I did stop working in my chosen career and have no plans of going back. I feel reasonably confident about that though am also honest that it’s only been 15 months since I left my job. Things could change, even if I don’t foresee it. That said, I’m current working part time and have no hesitation in speculating that I may well do other things down the road that earn money, whether in my own business or for others, that qualify as work. I love the idea of creating a small business, in fact. So am I retired?

Retirement and societal expectations

From the many (often uncomfortable) conversations I’ve had to date, there’s clearly an element of work tenure i.e. years of duration that plays into people’s expectations of when you “can” retire. In the US, unless prevented by illness or injury, or they hit the lottery, most people work until age 60-65 – and many even longer than that. This is for a variety of reasons, though most often out of sheer necessity (i.e. to pay the bills or to maintain employer-provided health insurance) or love of their job. If you cease to work sooner – at least in a standard full time role, this can be met with a variety of responses, many of which are rather negative or even hostile. This side of FIRE admittedly sucks.

On the increasingly rare occasions where I’ve used the “R-word” with people of a variety of ages, I’ve received a broad range of responses:

But you’re so young! (thanks, but no)

What will you do with your time? Sit around and do nothing?

Surely you’re just taking a break and will go back.

Are you sure you don’t just hate working?

and my all time favorite: Must be nice

We talked a lot about these responses on a popular episode of Two Sides of FI and several other shows. I get it. FIRE and the concept of intentional early retirement isn’t terribly common. Leaving the workplace prior to age 50, as I did, is quite rare – less than 1% of Americans retire before this age, according to many sources I’ve seen. So I completely understand that it’s still an unusual concept for many people. However, some of those same people then go on to overtly state or at least suggest that doing so is “wrong” or at least “not normal”. The former is unfairly judgmental to say the least, with the latter being closer to factual. It’s certainly not common, but does that make it abnormal?

I propose we consider an alternative, using a very familiar concept

Maybe the issue is the very word itself. As my wife Lorri stated recently, retirement is a loaded word with lots of expectations. Why should it be a bad thing for someone to choose a path outside of the most common one? Is it simply yet another opportunity for our brains to fall back on the logical fallacy of appeal to tradition? If one is meeting all their obligations and doing their best to continue to grow as a human and contribute to society – what’s wrong with taking a different course via early retirement? Maybe it’s time we rephrase things entirely…

I hosted a lovely couple in the tasting room last week during a quiet time – so they had my complete attention. I would estimate that they were in their late 50s to mid-60s. I learned that the husband retired from his career eleven years ago and the wife is retiring next year. The man’s wife described his transition from his law enforcement career to his current state, one filled with charitable work and yes – plenty of leisure time, as graduation: “Eleven years ago he graduated from his career to where he is today”. I understood and embraced her meaning from the get-go though it was the first time I’d considered it. He was very fulfilled by and enjoyed his former career. But he had other things he wanted to do! So he graduated to the next phase of his life. That sure sounded familiar to me!

How is graduation used most commonly? Outside of the strict definition of the conferral of degrees or certifications, it describes a transition from one stage to another: finishing high school and moving on to college, or perhaps finishing vocational school and undertaking your first paid job. It follows logically to me that irrespective of your age, exiting your chosen profession to move on to “whatever comes next” is similarly a graduation. Perhaps we can remove the weight and seemingly finality associated with the term “retirement” and look at it for what it is: yet another of many transitions we undergo in life. In that way, age (a proxy for years worked) can be removed from the equation and the whole matter viewed more objectively.

I find that idea rather appealing. What do you think?

image credit: Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash