Validation isn’t the goal but it sure feels good

When my friend, Eric, and I set out to develop our Two Sides of FI channel on YouTube, I wasn’t sure what to expect – in so many ways. Eric is a very experienced YouTuber, and his business channel has nearly 900K subscribers. On the other hand, I had no experience in content creation. So I have certainly leaned heavily on him on this journey in quite a few ways given his expertise, and I’m thankful for all his help along the way. One thing Eric has been consistent about is the value in keeping true to our “why” – that is, the reasons we were undertaking this project and what we hoped to gain from it. I’m more convinced than ever that this is the best guidance for anyone undertaking similar work.

Starting out on our YouTube journey

How did this project get started? If memory serves me right, we’d already been having conversations about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) for a year or so. Eric had discovered the FIRE path through conversations with me, after which he dove in head-first. During one of those chats, he raised the idea of us doing a YouTube channel together, to capture and share the kinds of conversations we were already having. That would be great for us of course, but we earnestly hoped others would find value in it too. We didn’t see any channels like ours out there, so this seemed to be a good opportunity.

We certainly didn’t set out on this project as a business venture in which we hoped to earn lots of money. Sure, we know that once we crossed YouTube’s magical threshold (currently: 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours), our channel would be eligible for monetization via advertisements. But this was definitely a “nice to have”, and if it got to the point where a bit of ad revenue would pay for our podcast / website hosting and other associated fees, that would be great.

Rather, our goal was first and foremost, education. That is, sharing what we had learned: our mistakes, our successes, and our many (many) questions we still had about all things personal finance, retirement, etc. We do not claim to know everything, but with our pre-FIRE + post-FIRE perspectives, we thought we would offer valuable information and opinions. In the best case, this content would help other FIRE aspirants be better informed, hopefully avoiding some of our missteps, and be better equipped to ask great questions and take good decisions for themselves. Personally, I also hoped this would include building a community around our channel, one with whom we could engage and from whom we and others could learn.

Finding and engaging with an audience

I knew full well that putting yourself out there on a forum like YouTube means that you are open to feedback of all kinds: some earnest and thoughtful, while others would be negative or even downright nasty (don’t feed the trolls!). I’d been through this before both personally, and in the workplace where I’d played an active role in company social media. But I still hoped that this one-to-many video (and podcast) format would lead to productive 1:1 engagement.

Why? I guess it’s for a few reasons. First, that kind of interaction is fascinating to me. People are interesting and all of us are unique despite our many similarities. I truly love learning about the lives of others. Next, it can be very gratifying. Getting the feedback that someone else values the work you’re doing, and finds merit in it such that they take some of their precious time to connect with you, is really powerful. And lastly, it’s validating. Positive engagement is a measure that your time is being well spent, and that you are having the impact you desired.

Slow and steady wins the race

Given the time it takes to build an audience and for the almighty and mysterious YouTube algorithm to figure out to whom it should best serve your videos, I knew this wouldn’t be fast. And Eric has always been really honest about that with me, in efforts to temper my expectations. While he has made it super clear that our channel had actually grown fairly quickly relatively speaking, it felt rather slow until just a few weeks ago. We generally received few comments or likes, and our subscription rate seemed to be just “ok” to me.

Please don’t be mistaken – personally, I felt really great about what Eric and I were doing. I’ve always looked forward to our weekly filming calls, as I get so much out of our conversations. I also love how much I’ve learned about podcast production, video editing, and all the backend work required to run a YouTube channel. I’ve grown a ton since Eric has pushed me to improve my skills! And many times I have earnestly said that I’d still be making these videos with him even if we didn’t have any audience at all. I’ve truly enjoyed it and found the work personally very rewarding. This is the most important thing I’ve done since leaving the workplace, and I value this project tremendously.

Surprise!

And then over the last few weeks, things started to change. As one who watches the metrics more than I should – despite Eric’s clear and consistent guidance not to, I saw something different one day. Just like he and others had told me would happen, one of our recent videos started getting a lot more views than usual – a trend that then extended to all our episodes, and from there the ball really got rolling. All the metrics started climbing: views, likes, subscribers – and for me very importantly, viewer comments. As I write this we now have nearly 6,000 subscribers and 200K views. Small potatoes in the grand scheme, but pretty exciting for our little channel!

Suddenly, we were getting hundreds of comments. It’s been such a pleasure reading (nearly) all of them and responding. It’s so gratifying seeing what content resonates with viewers along with the questions our episodes raise. In addition, we get to learn from the experience of those who view our content and then share their own stories. This was exactly what I was hoping for – and it seemingly came from out of nowhere. Sure, we’ve had to ban a few trolls as well, but that comes with the territory. But this experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Importantly, I know there’s no guarantee this trend will continue. In fact, I fully expect this crazy pace of growth to slow down. But in all honesty, it doesn’t matter one bit. We’ve got a great thing going, have started to build a strong community, and that feels really good. Eric and I have a ton of future show ideas (and are getting many more from our audience!) in addition to those we’ve already put out or have recorded but not yet aired. And I feel better than ever about the return I’m getting on the time we spend together working on this show.

Looking ahead and reflecting

What comes next for the channel? I have no idea. Eric and I talk often about other things we can bring to bear, modifications of what we’re doing now, and so on. Above all, it’s going to be fun, no doubt. And this work has already inspired an idea for at least one solo project for me. If nothing else, our experience to date reminds me that change is certain and it comes when you least expect it. Today I watched an outtakes clip from a recent episode where we talked about making this show. It’s super interesting for me to see what I was thinking about then. Much hasn’t changed over a few months, but some definitely has.

One of my favorite things about this project is we don’t need to do it. It’s not an assigned work project with deadlines nor will it be part of any future performance review. Put simply, Eric and I make Two Sides of FI because we love it. And it’s a decent amount of work – particularly for him, as he’s still running his business and bears the burden of nearly all of the video editing, which is the real heavy lifting of the channel.

We are proud of what we are doing with this project and that is the ultimate validation. As Eric and I recently discussed, it feels really great to produce this show. We are so thankful that others value it too, and are humbled by their kind words. Thank you all for your support and engagement to help make what we are doing even better. We appreciate you all tremendously.

Here’s to whatever comes next!

“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

FIRE is rarely, if ever, a solo journey

a picture of the author and his wife at Chichen Itza

Much of what I’ve written about to date on this blog has admittedly been rather self-focused. I’ve largely discussed the solo aspects of the FIRE journey: my career, the path I undertook to achieve my goals, and how it has felt to take these steps and process the emotions associated with the same. I have written about the impact of this path on my family, but not in extensive detail. This week I found myself thinking about how I was overdue to dig into this a bit more. If there is one thing that has been reinforced by time spent on the Two Sides of FI project, it’s that FIRE is not a solitary process. Most of us have a partner, close family, or others in our lives taking part in and being impacted by this journey.

My greatest FIRE mentor of all

The amazing person in this vacation photo with me (sporting my pre-FIRE hair!) is my wife, Lorri. We’ve been together for around twenty years as I write this. She is my greatest ally, closest friend, and the best person I have had the good fortune to meet. There is no question just how much my life is improved and enriched by having her in it. As I think about all the years we’ve spent together, I must also acknowledge that Lorri is among the most important mentors I have had in my life. I’ve written about the importance of mentors before, but largely in reference to my career or during college. We all must surely acknowledge how much we learn from our partners and spouses. But how does that pertain to FIRE? Very much so in my case.

In a recent conversation on my YouTube channel, we talked about how Lorri greatly influenced and enabled my FIRE path. Very early on, she gave a strong and supportive voice to what I had already been thinking – that I did not want to stay in my chosen biotech career until traditional retirement age. We both craved the freedom to spend our time as we wished: seeing the world, learning and experiencing all it had to offer, and doing so together, free of schedules set by the workplace and our bosses. Lorri helped normalize this idea to me, and together we formulated our plans and set out on this journey.

I have learned much from many FIRE blogs, YouTube channels, and from working with financial advisors. But in the end the most valuable and impactful input has been from Lorri. She has an unfailing ability to maintain perspective, and direct my focus to the things that are truly most important. It’s so easy to get hung up on the mechanical aspects of financial independence – the numbers, modeling, and other “busywork”. Rather, my wife has always ensured we spend enough time on what really matters: our family, our aspirations, and on the big picture. As someone wired for getting lost in the minutiae and in managing the many tasks involved, I can’t overstate how important this has been to our journey of financial independence and early retirement.

Before and afterwards, you’re in it together

Whether we are talking about pre- or post-FIRE life, the decisions made and steps taken impact our loved ones as much or more than they do ourselves. My own chosen career path and “leveling up strategy” to achieve FIRE, often meant long hours at work, substantial travel, several relocations, and frequently work interference in our personal lives. This meant sacrifices all around, including many made by Lorri. Yes, it was tough for both of us to be apart, particularly on longer work trips. But it was assuredly even harder for her, dealing with all the things back home, alone. I didn’t always appreciate or acknowledge that as often as I should have, and I feel pretty guilty about that. However, even when times were most challenging – when our daughter was very young, for example, my wife had a remarkable way of being supportive and keeping us focused on our goals. To set the record straight, there’s no question that Lorri had just as big a role as I did in enabling our success!

In the ten months since I took the huge step of leaving my career of 23 years, I have experienced a series of emotions. Documenting and processing these has truly been the biggest benefit I have experienced from writing this blog. However, it’s important to acknowledge that these changes do not only affect me! Lorri has been dealing with me in new ways – and for many more waking hours in any given week – than ever before. True, the isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified this situation. But even without those added challenges, this would still be a big change. Yet, Lorri has been incredibly supportive the whole way. She’s so great about getting me to talk about what I’m feeling, and pushing me to get out and take a hike together, or to plan a small family trip. I’m really thankful for that nudge and I know I don’t express that often enough.

Once recommendation I would share is to ensure you check in with your partner and your family along the way. I’ve gotten valuable feedback I might not have received otherwise, simply by asking questions about how things are going. Particularly in my initial months after leaving the workplace, I didn’t do a good job of this. I was definitely keeping my feelings bottled up rather than talking openly with Lorri or others about them. As you can imagine, sometimes this led to negative and frustrating outcomes. Realizing the benefit from talking more openly – something very much facilitated by my wife, I’m now better about this. Make no mistake, I remain overwhelmingly positive about my decision to continue on the FIRE path! But I’ve also learned that it’s easy to underestimate the impact of such large changes. Given that these also affect your family, it’s vital that you work together to both enjoy all the great things as well as manage the challenges as they come.

It takes a village, after all

All of this is not to say that any of us should expect our spouse or partner to be the sole outlet for helping manage challenges we experience, or to be the provider of all solutions. That’s a lot to ask! As close to perfect as she may be in my eyes, Lorri is not the only person from whom I receive the benefit of support. I have found tremendous value in talking with a few close friends and family. While we may all be on different journeys, there is surely something to learn from the path each of us is following. Admittedly I’m someone that doesn’t ask for help very often. But if you spend your time – virtually or otherwise, with the right people, they’ll make sure you get the support you need.

When I started working on Two Sides of FI with my longtime friend, Eric, I knew it was going to be a lot of fun – and if we did it right, informative for our viewers. What I didn’t realize was how impactful it was going to be for me, personally. Tackling the topics we have covered in our episodes to date (three released and a fourth about to go out as I write this!) has been of immeasurable help to me in managing this transition. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about producing a YouTube channel and podcast, it is that the editing process requires you to repeatedly review footage. This repetition, combined with Eric’s insightful questioning, forces me to spend a lot of time thinking about the exchanges we’ve had. After a fast-paced career where I feel like I was alway racing from one thing to the next without stopping to reflect, I’m now forced to slow down, focus, and think more deliberately. I think this is a hugely positive change for me. I recognize that blogging or YouTube may not be the right outlet for everyone. But even journaling, or simply confiding in a good friend, is a vitally useful way to process the many emotions experienced on our path through life.

Money topics, including FIRE, can be difficult to discuss for many of us. And not everyone will understand your decision to seek financial independence or to retire early – that’s a whole topic unto itself. It’s for this reason that I think online communities and social media can be so useful. I’ve received tremendous value from interacting on Reddit, forums, and more recently on a FIRE-themed Discord server. These forums can provide a very useful mechanism to seek advice, learn from others’ experiences, and talk with other like-minded people. This is online after all, so caveat emptor! Not all sites are as useful, there is always a certain noise level, and sometimes “group think” can be an issue. It is also vital to remember that not all information out there is 100% accurate. But in aggregate, I have gotten much benefit from the time I have spent with these communities, and recommend them as a valuable source of information on your financial independence journey.

Whether you are on the FIRE path or not, I believe there is something of value in what I’ve written here for each of us. None of us travels our path through life alone, and humans largely are not solitary creatures. Seek support in the comfort and guidance supplied by those closest to you. Don’t forget to acknowledge them either! It’s all too easy to get caught up in whatever we are feeling in a given moment. It’s vital that we remember the partnerships we have in family and friends. It is a shared journey and we need to support each other. I wish you all well and for the fullest success in achieving your goals!