About four years ago, I was in somewhat of a rut and had been doing lots of soul-searching. I was unsure about my career and questioning my overall level of fulfillment in life. Through this process of soul-searching, I happened upon a growing online subculture revolving around the ideas of early retirement and financial independence.
Around this time, a relatively new blog called Mr. Money Mustache was gaining popularity. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Money Mustache is written by a man named Pete who saved up enough money to permanently quit his job at the age of 30.
Through his blog, Pete eschews against-the-grain lifestyle philosophies through a quasi-character satirical voice (think: Stephen Colbert from his days on The Colbert Report). Even if the voice he writes through can be satirical, the ideas and philosophies he puts forth are 100 percent honest and genuine.
Pete was dissatisfied with the shackles of his career, while making astute observations about the habits of rampant consumption and waste that has become societal norm. After retiring from his job, he started the blog to share how he achieved a level of freedom that seems so unattainable. The freedom achieved, it turns out, is actually much more attainable than many are willing to even try and comprehend.
Posts such as this one made an immediate impact on my life. Quickly, I started to realize that I could intentionally build my own freedom. I began implementing an aggressive savings plan and started questioning the things in my life that I was willing to pay for.
I had a tangible goal to work towards, which suddenly brought a new level of fulfillment into my life.
Throughout this process, though, one thing has persistently bothered me. My timeline to freedom is vastly condensed, but it is still measured in years (about eight years, given my current situation). That is a lot of time to intentionally allocate towards doing work that doesn’t completely fulfill or satisfy me. Attaching myself to an income while detaching myself from the work that brings in the income is a recipe for disaster.
Once I manage to hit a target savings amount, what am I going to do to ensure I am truly happy? Am I suddenly going to shed the anxiety and discomfort that I currently attribute to my job/career?
The more I understand myself and anxiety, the more I know that anxiety is just part of life. Anxiety is a part of being human, and it won’t ever disappear from my life.
In many ways, anxiety pushes me to achieve my highest accomplishments. It just makes me somewhat miserable at points along the way.
It can be easy to falsely attribute a human condition (such as anxiety) entirely to one thing (like the stress and burnout of a job). Then, the next logical step is to minimize or remove that thing from life.
At the beginning of my journey, the problem was tied to my personal insecurities, anxieties, and managing the stress that comes with a job.
But the problem has shifted.
More and more, my problem is spending my days doing work that doesn’t live up to my potential and talents.
The problem is spending my days doing someone else’s work, and doing it within the confines of a bureaucratic structure that is inherently inefficient and wasteful (working for any big company has these challenges). The problem is spending my days working in an environment that suppresses creativity, transparency, and honesty. The problem is feeling like I can make an impact on the world without doing it as part of someone else’s agenda.
In short: I have no problem with doing work, I have a problem with not doing my most meaningful work.
Compromising Risk Aversion
The idea of financial independence has altered the trajectory of my life. It has introduced me to a network of like-minded people. It has helped me create meaning out of life in a way that I never knew existed.
But it is important to define what that independence means at an individual level, and to take ownership of it. If this is not done with intent, the idea of financial independence can impose a dangerous flaw.
The flaw I see, and have experienced personally, is neglecting the present opportunities in favor of a future goal. The flaw is becoming risk averse to a fault, but a life devoid of risk is a life not fully lived.
Everyone has heard the cliche sayings of people on their deathbed. They wish they spent more time with loved ones, and they wish they followed their dreams and ambitions instead of slogging away for someone else.
They wish they had taken more risks.
Fortunately, the path towards financial independence includes attractive alternate routes. Once you are firmly on the path and the savings start to accumulate, options which would have been unthinkable in a conventional middle-class lifestyle start to present themselves.
This is the sweet spot where a healthy attitude towards risk can pay dividends in spades.
Blinded By the Future
I trust my ability to take a calculated risk and succeed. I trust my ability because of how far I’ve been able to come to this point. It takes strong analytical skills, and an ability to practically plan for the future. These are two huge components in successfully taking a calculated risk.
On the flip side, holding onto risk aversion is a way of letting the future blind you. In the process, you lose sight of yourself. By the time that final savings target is finally met, you might be completely jaded and lost.
It is important to continually shift upwards (see what I did there?), always growing to understand yourself better, gaining a firmer grasp on the intertwined factors that contribute to a sense of well-being in life. No dollar amount is going to solve that equation for you.
The Fulfillment vs. Money Spectrum
It took roughly two years for me to ramp up my financial independence plan, optimizing my finances and learning to come to grips with what I really wanted in life. It was almost a game, and a game that lead to a significant amount of fulfillment. Every day, many of my thoughts would go towards this pursuit. It made me happy when I woke up in the morning. I was no longer just a cog in the machine without an escape route.
Let’s look at two ends of a hypothetical spectrum. One end of the spectrum is being broke in pursuit of meaningful work (i.e. starving artist), the other is making money a top priority while placing an ignorant disregard on personal happiness (i.e., corporate middle manager).
Falling somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is ideal. I feel as if I’ve moved closer and closer to achieving that balance.
Below is a list of the stages I progressed through (at a high level) when I discovered financial independence. Currently, I find myself at step 4, preparing to address an entirely different level of my wellbeing.
- Identify a problem
- Optimize your life to minimize it
- Feel fulfilled, motivated, and confident
- Move on to the next problem
In essence, having a goal to work towards in and of itself presents fulfillment. Chris Guillebeau’s Happiness of Pursuit is about this exact subject.
Life is cyclical. I don’t know which challenges will present themselves tomorrow, and I don’t know what will bring me the most excitement and fulfillment five years from now.
What I do know is that I can set myself up to handle future challenges. I can put myself in a position where I can freely explore and pursue the things that bring me excitement and fulfillment. But I can only do that if I allow myself the space and opportunity to do so, which is why preparing to take calculated risks is so important for me.
I’ve seen a pattern develop – even those who proclaim financial independence and freedom from the confines of a conventional career don’t just go on to do nothing. In fact, they go on to do their best work.
The very motivation to question life, and seek out radical ways to rebel against the norm, is indicative of a driven, inquisitive, and motivated personality. Punching the clock one last day and going on to a life of leisure is not what most are after, at least, not in this space.
I believe that taking a leap much earlier than some magic number would grant can be an optimal strategy for a happy life. I’m not saying it’s for everyone, and there are fellow bloggers who would probably cringe at this idea. We all have different circumstances and situations motivating our behaviors.
I leave you with a quote from one of my mentors:
Responsibility can be a trap, if you let it. There’s a lot to see out there, kid.