In mid-October, I returned to work after taking a 13-month mini-retirement. Having spent 2018’s waning weeks transitioning back into employment, the holidays present a perfect time to reflect on it all. They offer a natural marker in time, a recurring stake in the ground that helps me measure where I’ve been.
This time last year, I was four months into a mini-retirement. I still had nine months of this grand life experiment remaining in front of me. But as I go backwards in time to observe myself a year ago, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, one thing is certain:
I don’t have a shred of envy that I’m no longer there.
This isn’t to say the mini-retirement was a mistake or a failure, because it was just the opposite. The whole point was to give myself a year of growth and learning. The fact I’d never choose to revert to this previously dated version of myself is proof of both things happening.
But the ways I grew and the things I learned about myself were, in many ways, not what I expected. Of course they weren’t, it would be boring if they were.
As I look back on 2018 and my time away from work (which was a huge chunk of the year), it’s interesting to notice the shifts in my perspective that happened as a result. Here are the things that stand out in a big way as I reflect back on it all.
Keeping the walls of my headspace clean
The most valuable use of my time away from work (and perhaps in my entire life thus far) was time spent in therapy. I started going to therapy before leaving my job in 2017, but I decided to go much more frequently during my time away from work.
It wasn’t easy work and it certainly wasn’t always fun. It took a long time to start seeing dots connect. For awhile, it felt like I was just going and talking at someone for a 45 minutes. No rhyme or reason, no deeply hidden truths being unearthed from within me. It felt like a waste of time.
But as time has gone on and I’ve started making sense of things, I can tell you that the benefits are priceless.
Do you have a boundary-violating fake friend or co-worker from somewhere in your past that you still subconsciously harbor resentment towards? How about a quietly perpetual stream of consciousness that can be described as a never-ending tidal wave of tangled-up wires?
Therapy helped bring that all to the surface. It allowed me to scrub it clean and start to detangle as needed.
Now that I’m back at work, I’ve tangibly noticed that I am able to draw healthier mental boundaries. Contrast this with how it used to be, when a relatively trivial incident could set off what I’d liken to a paintball exploding inside my head. Splattering everywhere and leaving a mess to be cleaned up on evenings and weekends.
Simply put: I don’t carry as much weight (or paint?) around with me (or in my head) anymore. Of course there’s still stuff to be dealt with (that will never change). But there’s an increased awareness when things pop up, and I can manage them more effectively.
No envying my past self
I have a deeply conflicted relationship with things that are typically associated with a conventional life. That’s why I might come off as a curmudgeon from time to time, especially towards close friends and family. Don’t worry, I’ve been working it out in therapy (I told you there’s still stuff to be dealt with).
It’s also why the pursuit of financial independence became a guiding principle in my life from the second I discovered it.
The idea of a life free of the biggest indicator of a conventional life — a 9-5 job — was insanely attractive. I saw the chance to experiment with such a life (years before I thought it would be possible) as an early escape hatch. So I jumped for it.
I knew there would be obstacles to overcome, and I was ready to cut the chord and confront them. I knew about all the pitfalls of escaping from something rather than to something else. I told myself I was mentally prepared for the transition from structure to total lack of it.
But how could I be? It’s difficult to accurately assess something that’s so foreign. Life without a foundational structure such as a job? Pretty unprecedented and foreign to me, for sure.
There were many days spent in the weeds of realizing this and processing it. It wasn’t easy being there, but it was necessary. Just like with therapy, it took time to understand what I was going through in the moment. But the payoff of understanding it later is huge.
So when I go back in time and I’m invisibly hovering over my one-year-younger self while Ghost of Christmas Past looks on with me, I have no envious feelings. Glad I’m not that guy now, glad I’m not there now. But I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t go through the experience of being there at some point.
To get to a better place, I’m going to have to travel through some rough spots. And it’s nice knowing that I crossed through a few big ones during my mini-retirement.
Readjust rather than reinvent
Saving up enough money to permanently shed any dependence on a 9-5 job sounds pretty great. Achieving this goal can significantly enable a happier life, but a happier life is far from an automatic outcome.
When I set out on my mini-retirement, part of me aspired to never again return to a conventional job. While I didn’t plan to never work again, I thought I could sorta/maybe strike out on my own.
But as I already knew and naively disregarded, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the pond.
That’s not to say my aspirations will never come to fruition or that I’m a failure. But fulfilling work and happiness are much more nuanced than something that can simply be distilled into a magical, step-by-step formula.
Rather than something to be enjoyed, my old job was suffocating. I felt trapped, and the natural reaction to feeling trapped is an urgent desire to escape. So I paved a way out and took it, expecting to reinvent myself and my career in the process.
But the plot twist slowly revealed itself: I didn’t need to reinvent myself. I simply needed to readjust and realign. I was surprised to learn that my line of work hasn’t happened by accident; it aligns with my interests and natural strengths in a strangely symbiotic way.
Living in the weeds of my mini-retirement allowed me to better understand my strengths, so I could find a job that lined up with them well. And the understanding I’ve gained from therapy has helped me to stop mixing up my internal baggage with external things in my life, such as my job.
These two elements have combined to make my relationship with my work that much more healthy.
A life devoid of problems is no life at all
My urgency to achieve financial independence in the fastest way possible is no longer present, because I’ve lived on the other other side. It isn’t any easier. Some problems went away, but they were replaced by an entirely new level of problems.
Previously, my problems were anchored by the life I built around my job. When I stopped working, I had a much more existential set of problems: how was I to spend my time in a way that I enjoyed and found fulfilling? What would be my reason for getting out of bed in the morning?
Happiness and growth come from solving these sets of progressively higher-level problems, not from the outright abolishment of problems.
Life problems and video game bosses
Think of a video game: You wouldn’t quit after beating the boss in level one. You progress through the more difficult levels until you’ve beaten the game. And then what? Eventually you find a new game to beat.
Life’s problems are like video game bosses. When you master one level, a new level emerges to be conquered. Leveling up on our problems gives us satisfaction and fulfillment. Without problems to deal with, life wouldn’t be worth living.
In that sense, I like to think of those problems not as an obstacle to my happiness, but as an integral step towards it.
Balancing perspective on the personal development movement
Those aspirations I had when I quit my job? They were largely a by-product of our current phase in evolution, which has naturally targeted personal productivity and development as answers to the workplace soullessness of late-stage capitalism.
There is non-stop messaging around doing more, doing it better and faster, and looking damn good while doing it. It’s presumably the key to escaping all of life’s BS. The kicker is that gurus everywhere market it relentlessly.
I’ve been hooked on personal productivity and development material for at least a few years. It’s addicting because it sells us on the idea that we too can live an Instagram life. All we need to do is read one more book or take one more course.
It also tells us that the laptop lifestyle is bliss, similar to how we can easily (and mistakingly) put the financially independent life on a pedestal. And while there are merits to the laptop lifestyle, it comes with some serious tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs are often lost amidst the romantacization of it all.
I’m all for being more productive and always growing into a better version of myself. But the sheer volume of what’s out there to be consumed is insane, and the impact on our personal well-being can be catastrophic.
Too much of it can be detrimental, just as with anything — and as we see with widespread consumption of social media. There’s certainly benefits here, but they can be lost in the noise of self-doubt and comparison.
This is a demon I was fighting in the first half of my time away from work (it comes through a bit in my six-month reflection). Realizing this later helped me to let go of it, just a bit. Letting go allowed me to get clear on some other big things.
But let’s be honest, my conflicting relationship with perpetual personal productivity isn’t all neat and clean. And it’s far from a closed book.
Part of me wonders how differently I would have felt during my mini-retirement if it were full-fledged financial independence. During my time off, I knew I’d have to find paid work again. I hadn’t yet achieved a sustainable work-optional life, after all. Even if I had achieved it, though, my underlying anxiety about money would likely remain unchanged.
My issues would not and will not be resolved with more money, only with a better understanding of myself.
But in spite of this truth, my thoughts on financial independence are even more engrained and stronger now.
I wouldn’t have had the chance to take 13 months off work had financial independence never been on my radar. I wouldn’t have grown and learned in the ways I did. I wouldn’t be where I am now.
I see my upper middle class peers trapped in jobs and/or various life situations that are suffocating (not talking about the impoverished here). But the normal behavior of the upper middle class is to spend everything (if not more), and save only what happens to be left over (if anything).
By flipping this on its head — by paying attention to our money — we can drastically alter the course of our lives. That is the power financial independence put in my hands, and it’s why I feel so religiously about it.