Why retire early? What does that even mean?

photo of a snowy mountain top and trees

While I’ve touched on the topic of why to retire early before, I haven’t devoted an entire post to it until now. This week I decided the time was right for two reasons: First, as part of of an upcoming episode of the Two Sides of FI project, I was reviewing my own FIRE path and specifically why I elected to work towards that goal – even before I knew a catchy name for it. Second, unfortunately several people in my life recently found themselves in tragic or otherwise difficult situations that arose suddenly and without warning. Those people’s lives will be forever changed by what they are now dealing with. No amount of planning could have prevented these things nor prepared them for them. What do these two concepts have in common? Plenty.

FIRE = FI + RE

Let’s get some terminology out of the way. The so-called “FIRE movement” has a bit of an identity crisis. That is, many people on the FIRE path prefer to separate the two elements: Financial Independence (FI) and Retire Early (RE). This is for a variety of reasons, though primarily centered on the concept that one does not necessarily (or immediately) require the other. In other words, you may achieve financial independence – the time when you could retire early, but electing to do so is an independent decision. This makes perfect sense. Achieving FI is merely a number: the point at which your assets will allow you to fully meet all of your projected expenses for the duration of your lifetime. For most people this means building a financial portfolio that enables them to “live off their investments”. But of course you can achieve this milestone, have a well-deserved glass of champagne, and then continue working in your career for as many years as you choose. Maybe you will even “Retire Normal” at a more typical retirement age of 65 or older?

However, many people like me are perfectly fine with the “FIRE” label. In my case, it is because like many I equate the “RE” to leaving my chosen career early. I worked for a series of biotech companies over 23 years and stopped about a year after hitting my FI number. It has now been nine months since I left that career and I have no intention of going back. Therefore, I “retired” from it. That said, I’m also only 47 years old. Like many people who’ve achieved FI, I will absolutely “do” more things – and I don’t just mean exploring hobbies and other interests. I think there’s a high probability that I will start up a small business of some kind that may spring from one of my existing interests or perhaps something entirely new. But wait – is that still “retirement”? I’m not interested in debating semantics. This is precisely why I often put the word in quotation marks! The important point is that since FI, I don’t “have to” work, and anything I do choose to undertake doesn’t have to be full-time. Maybe it’s even something I can step away from for months at a time while my family is off on an adventure, living abroad? That sounds pretty different from a “job” to me!

But why? You hated your job, right?

Why retire early? To be clear, I did not hate my job! In fact, I loved many things about my chosen career, despite the fact that in many respects I stumbled into it. Rather, my desire to retire early comes down to putting a very high value on gaining the freedom to spend my time as I wish. Why is that so important to me and to others on the FIRE path? I’ve heard lots of reasons, but for me it’s simple: My lifetime is finite and unknowable in duration. While I’m fortunate to be a very healthy individual, that tends to be the case until you suddenly aren’t. There are many things utterly out of your control, such as accidents. None of us knows how many healthy and able-bodied years we will have in this life – same goes for our loved ones, good friends, and everyone about whom we care. And since I believe this lifetime is the only one I’ll get, I want to maximize how those years are spent and have the freedom to do the things I want to do when I want to do them. If you’re thinking that COVID-19 has only steeled my feelings about this idea, you’re 100% right.

Coming back to work – when you’re employed by a company, priorities, timelines, etc. are established and controlled by someone else. You may oversee a large organization and have a lot of ownership and freedom in how you operate – that was the case for me for many years of my career. But everyone has a boss in the end and even the most flexible job puts many constraints on your life: business hours, weeks of vacation allotted, traveling away from family, expectations around email/phone availability – just to name a few. As a result, the majority of your waking hours – often including weekends, are largely spent in the service of your employer. By definition, the time available for “everything else” is rather limited.

Freeing your time creates the space needed for everything else

Since leaving my career, I’m now in nearly complete control of my time. As a result, post-FIRE, no two weeks have been the same. Some have largely involved education – taking Udemy courses on iOS development, as one example. Others have been full of chores, including getting our new house and the landscaping up to snuff. I’m now volunteering once a week at our local COVID vaccination clinic. Yesterday, I spent half the day with an oscilloscope probing the various circuits in my semi-functional digital piano. A few days before that, I was on a family ski trip looking up at the beautiful mountain shown in the photo at the top of this post. That was a last-minute outing that my wife, Lorri booked for us. That wouldn’t have been possible while I was working, since of course such trips were limited to vacations planned well in advance. And even then I’d still have been checking email and taking calls for work – largely early mornings before my family woke up so I’d stay out of trouble with them! That’s just a simple example of the degree of freedom that is important to Lorri and me. Post-COVID we may well take off an entire summer to travel – or even longer once our daughter is in college. Who knows? The options are limitless.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s my belief that simply creating this space will enable other fun and exciting things to follow. At least for myself, I only had so many “spare cycles” of processing power remaining after long days of work to explore and daydream. I suspect many of you can identify with that degree of fatigue. It’s why Netflix is so popular! Sure, I came up with ideas about vacations I wanted to take, and spent a few hours here and there on hobbies of interest. I did make time for the things I was excited about. But that’s a very different thing from being able to spend as much time as you want thoroughly exploring ideas, brainstorming, and testing out different things that could grow into larger pursuits. Only now by having this time, where I can truly wander about without consequence, trying and failing at many things, can I fully undertake this pursuit. I’ve learned a lot about myself already through this process, and am excited about where it might take me and my family!

That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone

All that said, while many judge those who follow the FIRE path, I don’t think negatively about anyone who doesn’t feel the same way I do. This goal is the farthest thing from interesting to some people with whom I’ve discussed it – and that’s perfectly fine! I’ve met many who choose (even once financially independent) to stay with their chosen career until mandatory retirement age or some other set schedule. They are perfectly fulfilled by that choice and I think that’s great. It’s just not the path that I have chosen and since my family supports me in this aim, here we are!

In the end we all have to make the many choices that define our lives. As I’ve written before, if you’re reading this post on a smartphone or a computer, you are among the most fortunate of our species on the planet. Whatever choices you elect to make in life, be true to yourself and to the things you hold most important and dear. Spend your years in the ways that make you happiest and feel most fulfilled. Irrespective of you specific goals, I wish you all the best for overwhelming success in what you hope to achieve!

Adapting is the name of the game

For the first time, I’m writing this post in the WordPress mobile app instead of on my laptop; primarily because I am a bit late in writing due to the Thanksgiving holiday, but also because I wanted to try it out. I’m actually doing this while riding (not driving!) in a car with my family, which also means that my writing environment is quite different than my usual practice. Needless to say, I’m having to make quite a few adaptations to how I normally write!

A surprising number of adaptations are required when you leave the workplace. Many of these are desired and unsurprising changes – no more morning alarm clocks, for example. Others are a bit different, particularly those that are emotional in nature, and this is on my mind this week – largely because I was reflecting on what Thanksgiving was like this year, with the necessary adaptations most of us had to make.

The workplace is pretty social for most of us

One thing I realized pretty quickly after leaving my job was the social vacuum that this created. Even if you don’t work with people you consider close friends as I was fortunate to do, there is a lot of socialization at work: chatting in the lunchroom, small talk before meetings, or just catching up with your cubicle mate during the day. I came up with a pretty long list of these things in only a few minutes of brainstorming.

Leaving all that behind is a pretty big change – doubly so when you leave the workplace during a pandemic. My last few months of work were Mar – Jun 2020, so almost entirely remote. We all agree that Zoom meetings are no substitute for in-person interaction. But they are actually pretty good, and still provide a mechanism to connect with people in real-time. When I no longer had work meetings to fill my day, that easy path to socialize with colleagues even remotely, fell away as well. It really started to get to me after about a month after I left my job.

What to do? I’ve made a few adaptations that I’m finding help address this gap. These include joining regular Zoom “happy hours” online, including one with former work colleagues. These are great and I realize many people have done the same. I’ve also expanded my social media network to include former work colleagues. It’s great to see what they are doing and to interact with them online. It’s generally not real-time but it still fills a need. Lastly, once conditions re: COVID improve, I hope to meet up with some of these people in person. This period certainly has helped me realize how much I valued the time I had with them.

The workplace is an important source of positive validation

Like many, my work was a great source of personal pride and fulfillment. I was fortunate to be most recently employed at a company doing incredibly positive work to advance human health, and that felt great. I had thought a lot about what it would be like to leave that behind, so I was fairly prepared for it to go away. What I didn’t realize is that we fulfill so many other emotional needs at work, including receiving positive validation.

What do I mean by positive validation? I’m referring to the various forms of supportive feedback you receive from your manager, peers, customers, direct reports, etc. in response to the work you’ve done. I suspect we all differ in how important and impactful this is. But it’s my experience as a longtime manager that we all have a very real emotional need to feel that our work is valued and appreciated by others. When I left the workplace behind, so went that source of positive validation as well.

For certain, I didn’t anticipate this gap at all. I doubt many people would! How did I realize it? About two months after retiring, I was feeling frustrated that my family wasn’t appreciating my cooking, projects around the house, and things like that. Sometimes no one seemed to notice my efforts and it really bothered me! After thinking on this and talking to my wife, Lorri, I realized what it was. Don’t be mistaken- my career was not full of coddling, praise for each and everything task accomplished, or anything like that. But I worked in influential roles and endeavored to impart large, positive impact by my efforts – and these were noticed, often praised, and sometimes held up as examples for others. That didn’t happen anymore, which was a big change. Quite honestly, I was feeling pretty bad about that loss.

Do I have a sure solution for this? Not really. But now I understand the change and how it’s made me feel, and that’s very positive itself. So I’m learning how to adapt to that difference from how things were in the past. My family is being very supportive as well. Importantly, I’m re-learning how to allow a personal sense of fulfillment be just as important if not more so, than validation I receive from others. It’s a work in progress!

Roll with the punches!

I’ve mentioned it before – the one thing certain about retirement is how many changes result from leaving the workplace. That’s where most of us spent the majority of our waking hours, right? What I’ve learned in the past five months is that the changes keep coming. Much of this comes in the form of how you feel – your emotions, in other words. It’s important to give yourself the time to reflect on this. The surprises will continue to pop up but in processing those emotions, you will learn much and emerge stronger.

Make no mistake- I don’t question in any way my decision to FIRE. I love the freedom it has afforded me, and I remain very excited to have this opportunity. I’m enjoying pursuing many passions, most of which I never devoted sufficient time to in the past. It’s already been such a rewarding change for me and I believe for my family as well. It’s great spending much more time with them. But it’s also true that I’ve learned a lot about myself, and that includes understanding my own motivation and emotional needs much better.

For sure, the changes will continue to come! I will surely write more on this topic as i have found it hugely helpful to my processing of these emotions. My sincere hope is that this may aid some of you in your own lives as well.

Image credit: “Thanksgiving background with fried chicken, pumpkin, leaves, cutlery and medical mask” bywuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0