The many learnings from year one of early “retirement”

ONE YEAR since I left my job? Wow. Particularly given the odd pace of “pandemic time”, I find it hard to believe I’m already at this point. But here I am! Looking back at the countdown calendar that formerly hung on my office wall confirms it. On an afternoon exactly one year ago today, I handed in my employee badge and drove out of the company parking lot, almost certainly bringing my 23-year biotech career to an end. A few weeks later my family moved out of the Bay Area to the Central Coast of California. I wrote my first blog post here several weeks later. Now after twelve months and 43 posts, it’s time for another in my series of milestone articles. Will it be my last? Who knows!

After a year I still generally avoid the term “retirement” or I place it in quotes as I’ve done here. At 47 years old, I still think it unlikely that I’m completely done with all things that could be termed “work”. It is true that I leveraged reaching financial independence to step away from the only career I’ve had – and still have no intentions of going back. But it’s also entirely possible that one of the many ideas I’m exploring could turn into gainful revenue generation. Again, who knows? That flexibility is exactly what I was targeting with my FIRE journey. That said, I can’t imagine myself schedule-bound to an office job at someone else’s company. ? It seems more likely with each day that this will continue to be the case.

I have approached this article differently than my earlier milestone posts. Instead of my usual (rambling) long-form, I will briefly summarize some of they key lessons I have learned and observations I’ve made. That seemed a better method to share a broad range of information without a really long article. I’m hopeful that this bite-sized approach will work out well and perhaps will provoke questions that would be fun to expand upon! So without further ado and in no particular order…

  • It can be very difficult to resist the temptation to fill all your time with “stuff”. Our careers train us in this way and it takes active effort to get comfortable with anything else. But I think that having truly “free time” is vital to allow the creative process to happen!
  • Like any big changes, leaving your career behind is an emotional roller coaster with many highs and lows. You can’t truly prepare for that, short of just being cognizant that the mental churn will happen and is completely normal. It’s really important to reflect on what you’re feeling. Journaling or blogging can help!
  • Talking openly with your partner & family is really important. Sharing the emotions you’re feeling helps everyone. After all, they are going through this huge change with you! Keeping it in will only create tension that helps nothing. Ask them how things are going now that you’re around so much more and see if anything needs to be adjusted.
  • If your identity is tightly wrapped up in your former job as is common, it will be a substantial change when this is removed. Thinking about your purpose and what defines you and is important now, is really useful. What is your next phase of life going to be about?
  • Don’t fear trying things and setting them down. This is the very heart of having the freedom to choose how to spend your time. If like me you have many interests, it’s perfectly OK to try them out only to decide “that’s enough for now” or “I don’t actually want to do this”.
  • Related to the above – it’s important not to pressure yourself to find “the next thing to do”. At least in my case, this created stress in the first few months. Financial independence means that additional income – while nice, is not required. Your time is better spent exploring, from which may spring that next great idea! But don’t rush into anything hastily.
  • It can be really tricky talking about FIRE and early retirement – particularly with people you’re meeting for the first time. I often refer to my increasingly rare consulting gigs as my “job”. Yes, it’s a cop-out, but it works before I get to know someone well. It’s worth thinking through how you will handle this in advance. You’ll get lots of practice, I promise you.
  • The things you miss about the workplace may surprise you. Giving some thought to this before you depart may help you identify other ways to satisfy those needs – but it won’t be perfect. Again, this is just part of the emotional roller coaster that will surely come.
  • Many workplace friendships are just that, and they won’t all persist after your shared work life is no longer there. COVID + moving certainly didn’t help in my case as visiting people wasn’t an option and Zoom meet-ups are only so effective. But I am convinced that many relationships at work are very much tied to the workplace itself. This is perfectly OK!
  • On a related point, it’s easy to under-appreciate how much socialization occurs at work. What will you do during those weekday “working hours” while your friends are busy? Finding appropriate avenues to engage with others is still really important. Clubs, civic groups, volunteering, and other means to find like-minded people is important – particularly if you relocate in retirement, as I did. Pouring wine at a tasting room one day a week is proving to be fun for me and plenty social!
  • Lots of people make bucket lists of big and small things they intend to do once they retire. I have found since leaving the workplace that I continue to generate ideas of things I might like to do. I keep these out of sight in an “idea funnel” that I revisit from time to time. It’s fun to see how my thoughts change about prioritization; there’s also no pressure to feel like it is a “to do list” that I must achieve. This subtle difference feels really good to me.
  • Building skills and “making” things are really effective ways of continuing to challenge yourself, to keep learning, and also to feel productive. They are also great mechanisms to unearth potential business opportunities or at least new hobbies and avenues of personal entertainment. Knocking procrastinated chores off your to-do list only lasts so long!
  • Just because someone is willing to pay (a lot) for your expertise doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to take on. I’m grateful to have been presented many consulting opportunities over the last year. While tempting, I’ve had to be really careful about not over-committing at the peril of being unable to do all the other things I want to do! Be sure to choose wisely.
  • The freedom gained via FIRE has proven to be well worth it! I love being able to choose how to spend my time. I can’t count how many times I’ve woken up with zero plans and at the end of the day realized what a fun day I had, just taking things as they come. My wife is much more spontaneous than me and I’m finally starting to understand the joy in this.
  • On a similar point, I’m really excited to finally get the chance to test out our interest in longer term travel. This summer we’ll take a five-week trip to visit family and friends. Wow! Like most Americans, we’ve never been away more than two weeks on vacation. It’s a little scary, but almost entirely in a good way!
  • There is no “right way” to do this. From talking to others, whether in FIRE or traditional age, retirement is definitely individual. We each have our goals, our interests, and our individual preferences. I think many of the points herein apply broadly. But you will each need to determine what is important to you and how you will spend this next phase of your life.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. I remain incredibly grateful to be in the position I am, something I reflect upon often. It is my earnest hope that in sharing my experiences I can assist others in their own journeys. Decisions relating to retirement are among the biggest we make in our adult lives. There are many paths to arrive at that goal and so many decisions to be taken along the way. And yet as has been well documented, few people feel well informed on the topic by the time they are deciding when and how to retire – or worse when others have decided that timing for them. I aspire to change that however I can.

Above all, I wish you all the best in your own journeys! If there are any questions that this post has prompted or areas in which you’d like me to dig in further, please comment below or on social media. I’ve learned much from the interactions I’ve had with readers and some of my favorite posts have comes from conversations with you. I just want more of them!

If you’re not yet following my Two Sides of FI YouTube channel (or the audio podcast version: Apple, Spotify, or search your provider of choice!), please consider it! My co-host, Eric, does a really great job of challenging me and asks thought-provoking, and sometimes difficult questions that I’m not always willing to put to myself. And I think you’ll find his perspective as one approaching FI incredibly valuable. Mahalo! ?

On the origin of ideas – reflecting on what I’ve learned

a man's head with a maze inside it with a lightbulb at the center

In my regular milestones posts and in other pieces on this blog, I’ve written about the various lessons I have learned and observations made since leaving the workplace. The latest of these is the realization that recently, a number of new ideas have been emerging from the recesses of my brain. I’ve found this to be particularly so in the course of exploring new hobbies and experiences. What is the genesis of these ideas and how does that apply to my search for “what to do next”? Read on to learn more! I believe you will learn that you can apply similar strategies in your own life.

You can’t rush the creative process

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Two Sides of FI project or the ChooseFI livestream event, you already know something about my good friend, Eric. I’ve know the guy for 35 years at this point, so we talk really candidly. In one of our recent conversations, we spoke about the origin of ideas for new endeavors or business opportunities. The context of this was my frustration with figuring out “what to do next”. I took a lot from that chat, including the idea that you often need to explore a variety of things before the “great idea” emerges. In other words, only by taking the time needed to try out a number of interests, hobbies, and concepts, you create the opportunity for that truly great idea to emerge. He relayed this concept using his own experiences with starting up his architecture practice and his very successful YouTube channel.

I understood what he meant as it reminded me of my own experiences working in the lab as a scientist. Sometimes you had to try (and fail) with a number of different avenues before inspiration came to go in a (sometimes totally) different direction to resolve the question at hand. So it made sense on the surface but I hadn’t yet had a similar experience when it came to what to do next in this new phase of my life. While I had been thoroughly enjoying spending my time how I saw fit, I hadn’t yet found my great idea. Eric reminded me that this was totally OK! His own experience had taught him well that you can’t rush the creative process. Sometimes you need to try a variety of things, digesting what you’ve learned, and only then will the idea emerge.

What he said was of course totally reasonable! Admittedly, I’m a rather impatient person. Talking with him, I realized how much pressure I’d been putting on myself to figure out “what to do next”. When you think about it, that’s both silly and counterproductive! Unlike in my deadline-driven work life, where priorities were set by others, I am in blue skies territory here. There is no pressure to produce something or to achieve a specific goal, and certainly no deadline. My wife, Lorri has also been great about pointing this out to me regularly. Maybe it’s just my natural inclination, or simply a reaction to all the questions I get from friends and former colleagues? No matter the origin, the good news is that I’m learning. I realize that ideas cannot be forced and there is no pressure to do so. Ideas come on their own schedule and that’s just fine! So what are some ways I’ve found that help yield new ideas?

Generating new ideas requires a variety of mechanisms

One of the realizations I’ve had is that at least for me, ideas originate from a variety of sources – and often from a combination of the same. I’ve determined that there are three primary sources of late that are facilitating idea generation. Described simply, these are thinking, doing, and sharing. That all sounds pretty obvious of course, so what do I mean?

“Thinking” is the most obvious, I suppose. Simply taking the time to ruminate is certainly a wise approach to generate and explore ideas. I’ve always been someone that spends a lot of time in thought. But a very big difference that I’ve noticed in recent months is when and how I think. Without my former work schedule, my daily calendar has ample opportunity for concerted thought – not just handfuls of stolen minutes here and there. I’ve found that rather than getting right out of bed and starting my day each morning, I now tend to lie there 20-30 minutes just quietly thinking about an assortment of things. In addition, I’ve noticed that I’m taking more concerted effort to think without distraction. Particularly for creative and more abstract endeavors – I’ve definitely found this with app development, uninterrupted thought is vital. I’ve now realized how insufficient the time I gave to this task was while I was still working. I suspect I could have been much more productive had I been better about blocking time for thought, vs. checking off more tasks on that day’s to-do list.

“Doing” is something I’ve addressed often on this blog. Since leaving my career, I’m spending at least several hours each day pursuing my passions – in recent months this largely means iOS app development. I’ve realized a few things in the course of this pursuit that have made my “doing” much more productive. First, in treating this more seriously than merely a hobby ( as I’d done in the past), I’ve advanced in my abilities more quickly – not too surprising. I have also been good about pushing myself to work through problems, rather than set them aside because I had other things to do. Admittedly at times this has meant I’ve gotten behind on tasks around the house. It’s been well worth it though! Taking another piece of advice from Eric, I’ve realized I need to really prioritize my “making” vs. “managing” time. Most importantly, being more intentional in my doing has been a tremendous source of new ideas. I’m finding a greater ability to think creatively than I had been earlier on in learning these new skills. Several times I’ve even woken up with a new idea on how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with the day prior – or for a new app!

Lastly, I’ve learned a lot from “sharing”. Historically I’ve not been one to air my ideas on potential new pursuits with others without really thinking through them first – if at all. At least some of that was surely due to a fear of vulnerability. But what I now find is that I’m much more willing to discuss these ideas with Lorri, good friends like Eric, or even on social media with people I don’t know well, if at all. Unlike with my “old job”, there is no pressure relating to perception, or expectations based on my job level, etc. This openness has proven really productive for me. Sometimes it has helped me refine an existing idea. Other times, this dialogue has yielded a totally new idea. In fact, just this morning I woke up with a new business concept as a result of a conversation I had last night at Zoom Happy Hour with my college friends! Perhaps you’ll get to hear more about that before too long? ?

Wrapping things up

Idea generation is a vital part of many things, including the search for one’s next opportunity. While I know there is no pressure to do so on a given schedule – if at all, I am excited by the concept of coming up with something fun, interesting, and fulfilling. This might originate directly from one of the areas I’m already exploring, or be something totally different. In any case, I feel like I’m now arming myself with far better tools to generate those ideas.

If there’s one truth about retiring from the only career you’ve known, it’s that it produces an opportunity like no other to learn about yourself. It’s been a fascinating eight month journey so far, and I remain thankful to have this experience. No matter what comes next for me, I am sure it will teach me even more valuable lessons. Onward we go!

P.S. -For those who picked up on the title’s nod to Charles Darwin’s master work, bravo! If you haven’t read On The Origin of Species, I’d highly recommend it! There’s even a picture book version, apparently. How cool is that?

image credit: “Find the idea” by khalid Albaih is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received

old rotary telephone

Always take the call.

-a former manager of mine


Today I found myself thinking about guidance I received over the course of my career. I quickly thought of one that has really stuck with me and which I’d like to share. I heard this gem about ten years ago from my then-boss, an executive at a start up company. Quite honestly, I can’t even recall the context under which it was spoken – but that doesn’t matter. The core concept is simple: make sure you pick up the phone, read that email, or have that conversation. About what? That surprise inquiry wondering about your interest in a potential role change, opportunity at a new company, etc. Whether it’s from a former manager, past colleague, or perhaps someone you don’t even know – don’t dismiss it without at least a little detective work. You never know what opportunity might be waiting around the corner!

Yet another cold call from a recruiter

Let’s set the Way Back Machine (remember Mr. Peabody?) to August 25, 2014. I was in a good job, working with fun and talented people, at a company I’d helped grow from a scrappy start-up to a real industry player over the past five years. I knew it was time to start thinking about what might come next for me, but admittedly hadn’t yet done so. Besides, I was busy, I had a great boss from whom I learned much, my role had changed in recent months, and I was enjoying the challenges that came with that. That morning I received yet another recruiter inquiry on LinkedIn, which I read as was my usual practice. It began:

There was a bit more information in the next two paragraphs but not much. It was clearly a cold call based on LinkedIn screening. I replied that I wasn’t presently looking for work, and asked for a few details. Even if the job wasn’t for me I could always refer somebody else for it, right? I learned the company name and a little more about the role. Now I had a choice: accept his offer for a call to learn more or simply pass on the opportunity because on the surface it didn’t seem very interesting? I decided on the former.

Taking the (first and second) call

I took the call and candidly, it was pretty typical recruiter stuff. The guy went over some of the material he’d sent and asked some questions about my background. Based on that, he recommended I speak with the head of the recruiting firm, as that individual was much more familiar with the hiring company. Wait – another call? I was busy after all, and I wasn’t yet very interested in this role. The company seemed to be doing well, but it operated in a technology area not half as “sexy” to me as what I’d been doing for most of my career. I worried it might be a step backwards, potentially boring by comparison, and not somewhere where I could keep learning. He implored me to take the call as he was sure I’d be interested in the posting. Based on his passion, I agreed.

The call with the VP of the recruiting firm was good. He was able to share a lot more details and had some insightful commentary on the business and the executive team. This was really helpful in assessing the potential fit for me, despite my reservations about the attractiveness of the technology area. He was a good salesperson though, and he kept me on the line, wanting to hear more. Once the conversation had run its course he asked about setting up some interviews. Reading my very real hesitation he said: “OK how about just one meeting? I think you’d like the COO (who turned out to be the hiring manager) and I can set up time with him. I know you’ll want to hear more after that”. His confidence definitely piqued my interest, so again I agreed.

Hook, line, and sinker

OK so I once again “took the call” – or meeting in person, this time. Long story, short: it went really well. The COO and I hit it off immediately. The hour in which we talked simply flew by. He shared openly about the company as well as what this role would be about. This guy took the time to answer all of my questions, and spent great effort to ensure I understood why I’d had the wrong read on the opportunity. By the end of that hour, I knew the role could be a good fit, and I could contribute a lot as well as build my own skills further. Quite honestly, my head was chock-full of ideas about the potential of taking it on.

The recruiter magically knew when I was back on the road headed home, as my phone rang minutes after I left. He was pleased that the meeting went as he’d predicted, and I agreed to a slate of interviews with the rest of the leadership team within a few weeks. Those interviews also went well, I got really excited about the job and the company, and they offered me the role. I accepted the job, put in my notice, and I started at the new position by December. I ended up working there for five and a half years, in three different roles.

In conclusion

It’s hard for me to contemplate missing out on those years of exciting and fulfilling work, great friendships, and all the great knowledge I gained. In fact it turned out to be one of my favorite jobs, and it all started by “taking the call”. Do I mean that you need respond to every email or call, and accept every interview request? Of course not. But be wary of dismissing these inquiries without appropriate consideration. I’d suggest the bar is even lower when they come from people whom you know and trust. They’ve likely really thought through the potential fit based on firsthand knowledge of you. Therefore, you should ensure you do the appropriate level of diligence before taking a decision.

Is there only “one best path” for each of us, and should we fear making “the wrong decision”? For me, the answer to both of these is a hard no. That said, reviewing my own career yields numerous examples – I’ve only shared the most recent one here – where “taking the call” has led me to an exciting, productive, and fulfilling unexpected career change. I wholeheartedly endorse that you do the same as well, and embrace the potential for change. Who knows where it might take you?

image credit: “Telephone” by plenty.r. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0