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!

Leveling up your career and your income – a key strategy!

episode thumbnail from YouTube channel, Two Sides of FI

All but the newest readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for the “Two Sides of FI” YouTube project on which I’ve been working lately. We now have two episodes available for viewing. Our most recent installation, “Two Careers, Two Paths to Financial Independence“, is really picking up steam in terms of views – it’s very exciting! Cutting our conversations down to ~30 minute episodes means we often end up with great content left on the editing room floor. That’s why movies have Deleted Scenes and Director’s Cuts, right? But how does this relate to telling you how to level up your career?

This episode concerned our career paths, which between my creative partner Eric and I, differed quite a bit. In my case, I undertook a strategy he termed “leveling up” my career. In my mind, it is really just working smartly (not merely harder!) to grow my income and my assets in order to achieve my goal of financial independence and early “retirement”. Since I couldn’t dive into all the details on the YouTube video, I’d like to share more about that with you here. Irrespective of your own path – FIRE or otherwise, I believe you will find something of use. If you haven’t yet watched the episode, I think you’ll find it good background to the rest of this post below:

You must establish and maintain a strong personal brand

This section won’t read like an obvious strategy to level up your career and income, and isn’t something we talked about in the video. Yet I believe this is the right starting place. Above all, you simply must work hard and do high quality work. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet I think you’d agree that many of your coworkers miss the mark on this. Most industries – biotech was mine – are rather “small worlds” when it comes down to it. As such your reputation will always precede you, particularly in today’s connected world. Trust me, it’s easy to find out what kind of worker an applicant is via LinkedIn contacts you both share – most people do this homework, I assure you. I always strived to do high quality work, to be known as one willing to work hard to achieve the goals, and to be someone people could rely upon. As I result, I have gotten jobs that I wasn’t a strong candidate for on paper largely on the basis of my reputation. I bet some of you have as well. I got hired to build and run a customer support organization without ever having done so before. Hell, I’ve hired a couple of you because I knew what kind of talent you had, irrespective of whether you ticked all the boxes on a job description! This. happens. every. day. Make sure you’re on the right side of that equation in your own careers.

One strategy in establishing my brand was to find ways to be known; to “put myself out there”, and volunteer for opportunities that arose. I also asked for meetings with management where appropriate to propose new ideas or even role changes for myself. I saw needs and I formulated ways to improve things, or add capabilities I felt were absent. In the best case, they’ll agree with you – and voilá: You just created a new opportunity for yourself! Early in my career, I turned a lab role into a bioinformatics position for myself, gaining a nice office and support for coursework I wanted to take to advance my skills – just by making the case to my boss. That role didn’t even exist before I proposed it!

Is there risk associated with this approach? You are likely creating more work for yourself, for starters. In addition, management may well disagree with your proposal and that won’t feel very good, particularly if you’ve put a lot of work/thought into it. But if they’re good leaders, they’ll respect your initiative and will be that much more likely to consider you for a future opportunity. If they judge you negatively or there are repercussions for your proposal, I would recommend looking for a new job. Don’t ever work with people who don’t value initiative or respect people who (reasonably) challenge the status quo!

“I figured out what annoys me about you. You’re not the most likable person at this company, but you are among the most liked. You get along with everyone and that makes me crazy…How do you do that?”

Those are the words that a particularly cantankerous colleague confronted me with one day at work. For the record, I am not liked by everyone. Frankly, I have firsthand knowledge that I annoy the crap out of some people. But it is true that I have always recognized that working well with others is a path to success. You never know when you will need help with something, right? When it comes time to recruit team members, don’t you want to be someone people want to work with? I’ve always tried to find ways to connect with people and to gain their respect – even if they don’t “like” or agree with me. I try to listen well and understand perspectives that differ from mine. I attempt to defuse conflict into productive discussion where possible, and work towards solutions. Again, this sounds obvious, but give some thought to how poorly some people do this. Make no mistake: you won’t – and don’t need to be friends with all your colleagues. That’s not the aim here. But strengthening your diplomacy skills is a key element of building leadership muscle.

Broadening your skills is essential for advancement

In many fields, it is easier and faster to advance in salary and title/level by changing companies as opposed to staying within a given company. While I do recommend and did practice this approach, truly leveling up your career takes more than that. One of the most impactful things I did was leave my familiar playground of science / R&D to take a product management role at the same company. The VP of R&D thought I was crazy to pursue this role and tried to talk me out of it. At that point, I’d spent the entirety of my then 12-year career as a scientist or R&D leader. He didn’t understand why I’d leave that path and “throw away my career” (his words) to join Marketing! I knew it was the right move. Sure, I could continue to ascend in R&D management and lead bigger teams. But for new and larger opportunities to open to me, I had to broaden my abilities – and here was a safe way to do it! I already had a good reputation at this company (see the first section above) and knew the technology well. That meant they’d be willing to take a chance with me in a first-time role; not so easy for an external candidate. I could always go back to R&D anyhow, right?

That role turned out to be an absolute game changer for me, and is a clear pivot point halfway through my career. In one of many small decisions that yielded big impacts, it was a simple lunchtime conversation with friends that inspired the courage for me to talk with the head of Marketing about the job. Learning product management filled in huge gaps in my knowledge, including many aspects of business and operations. I didn’t spend the money nor the time to earn an MBA (though having the company pay for this can be a good strategy), instead learning much of essential parts of that curriculum through on the job training! Through this role and ones that followed, I gained the breadth of experience to make me a viable candidate for senior management jobs that would come later.

This is just one example of how you must stretch yourself and leave your comfort zone to truly grow. I’ll be honest, there were some wholly uncomfortable times in that job. My peers in regional marketing had a lot more experience than I did. And as I was part of global marketing, our teams relied on each other for a variety of things. At times they took advantage of my inexperience, or even threw me under the bus when they had business downturns. But I wouldn’t change any of it! Through these challenging times, I grew tremendously. As part of that, I took advantage of a strong mentor from whom I could learn much. The skills I gained through working with him were of huge benefit then and later on, and opened new opportunities to me. They also taught me a lot about product development, project management, and so many other areas to which I wasn’t being exposed in my former R&D life.

Big gains come from aggressively pursuing and creating opportunities

By now you are hopefully understanding that a central element of my career leveling up strategy was a willingness to seek out work that would help me grow. Equally important to my aims of financial independence was increasing my responsibility level and therefore my income. To do this full, I feel you must be comfortable embracing change and be willing to take risks! Paraphrasing a comment in the video, I was rarely risk averse about work, because I’ve always felt that things would turn out well in the end so long as I worked hard and built up a good reputation. If a new role or company turned out not to be all I’d expected, I was willing to move on. Nothing is permanent and you can recover from temporary setbacks. I don’t mean to say I was unequivocally optimistic! I weighed the risks, considered my options, and went for things that I felt fit my aims.

I left what I would term “sure things” twice in my career, departing good roles at stable, respected, well-performing companies, to join start-ups. I could have spent the entirety of my career at either, as many people do. The benefits were great and they really took care of their employees. They were also admittedly kind of boring and I felt, pretty limited or at least programmatic in terms of career progression. In one of these companies, I was honored to be presented with a path through their talent management program, and the leadership roles for which I’d be eligible. I chose to leave that behind to join a scrappy startup down the road. Not only did that move eventually produce some nice income from stock options, I leveled up my skills hugely in the next five years there, along with my salary and title. Yes, I had to take a big risk to make this happen! In fact, that was my third start-up and the first that actually succeeded in any commercial sense. So it’s not like I had a lot of confidence it would pay off financially. But I was sure that I would learn a ton as I had from the others, and I could likely level up my salary and titles quickly as the company grew. This all came to pass! In my experience, start-ups are a great environment for learning, given the pace and there often being too few hands to get the work done.

Chasing opportunities isn’t all upside. At times, they can mean taking difficult decisions – moving away from family and friends, for example. I was once at a management offsite meeting when news emerged that a company leader was moving to a new role. My boss asked me: “Are you interested in his old job? If so, you should move quickly and throw your hat in the ring.” Did I want that? I really liked my current job and my team. Any hesitation soon passed. In a moment of clarity I realized I had an opportunity to negotiate something big. I was based in Connecticut at the time – far from a biotech mecca, and wanted to get to California eventually. Job opportunities were (and still are) so much more numerous there. It is also a highly competitive market! If I could get the company to move me there, it would be a big step in my leveling up strategy. I ducked out from cocktail hour to call my wife Lorri, who was supportive. We agreed it would be difficult to move away from so many people we cared about, but we knew we could always move back. So I told my boss plainly (after another martini for courage), “I’ll do it but I want X title, Y salary, and a paid move to CA”. He said he’d back me, and without hesitation walked over to the President of the corporation. He came back a few minutes later and told me they would go for it! Just like that, it was decided.

Seizing this opportunity by acting promptly and decisively – just as in other moments in my career, would allow me to level up my career, enabling so many things for my family as a result. Taking this position led me to the last few role changes in my career, along with big steps up in responsibility and my compensation. It absolutely accelerated my aims to retire early not to mention set my family on to the next exciting chapter in our lives. Admittedly it’s kind of crazy to me when I review these things in hindsight. Such a small moment in time, when managed properly, can lead to truly big things down the road! Why was I confident in being so bold? Quite honestly, I felt that I had little to lose. What’s the worst that could have happened? They’d say no, right? My hope is that in sharing this story and the other anecdotes with you, it might inspire some exciting change of your own. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

Introducing: Two Sides of FI!

Two Sides of FI logo

As I referenced in my last post, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the day where I could discuss the project that my good friend Eric and I have been working on. That day is finally here! I’m happy to share a short trailer for our new YouTube channel, Two Sides of FI.

Trailer for the Two Sides of FI YouTube channel

It’s now been about two months since Eric and I started working in earnest on this endeavor, based on an idea we came up with last fall. If you saw my earlier post about the Choose FI livestream, you’ll remember Eric. We’ve known each other since middle school – nearly 35 years at this point, and it’s our belief that this will enable us to be super candid with each other, and by extension our viewers. Our stated goal is that this will yield conversations that go beyond the commonly discussed FIRE advice – others cover that content well already. Rather, we believe that this approach, coupled with our different life paths and our respective journeys to achieve FI, will be something unique. As you’ll learn, Eric is several years away from FI, and I left the workplace last June.

While this is only a trailer, I’m hopeful that the video coupled with this post helps to project our intentions. We’ll be posting full episodes in the coming weeks, and look forward to sharing those with you. In the meantime, thank you for watching this brief introduction! My apologies for the lower fidelity AV in some of my footage – that’s on me. We’ve worked that out now, and you’ll see the improvements in segments of this trailer. The keen-eyed will also note that you can readily track our timeline by my ever-changing hair. ?

If you’d like to ensure you’re notified of any new Two Sides of FI episodes, please consider hitting the “Subscribe” button on our YouTube Channel page; also found next to the description box beneath the video itself. Eric and I welcome any feedback on topics you’d like to see us cover on the channel. Please feel free to leave comments on this post or in the comments section on the YouTube video. Thanks!