Like many college graduates, when I entered the workforce and settled in I was left with this deep fundamental question of “What’s Next?”. My whole young adult life had been dominated by “what’s next?”. When you’re in middle school, it’s high school. High school, it’s college. College it’s your career in the ‘real world’. I was always focused ignoring the now, and preparing for the later.
When you settle into your career though, you hit this wall. “What’s next” is 40 years of working for someone else. Sometimes loving your job, someday hating it. I had lived my life looking forward to the next thing, and all of a sudden there was nothing to really prepare for. There’s this horrifying existential dread when you realize that there’s nothing more ahead in life except a long trudge to retirement.
From that dark existential dread, the philosophy of Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) comes in to fill the void. When I first stumbled upon the financial independence community, it was a completely belief shaking experience. I was floored - I’m sure I read online articles for the entire weekend. Here was my “what’s next” - I didn’t have to be like everyone else, I could retire early in my mid 30’s! I loved the experience of completely flipping my notions of how life worked, and the simple mathematics of how saving 50% of my income would get me to retirement within my 30s.
As someone who had never thought much about religion, retirement became my version of heaven. I would fantasize about all the things I would do - travel the world, organize all my things, play a bunch of video games, garden, learn how to Kitesurf. Maybe I’d even start a business! All the things I was depriving myself of, I would be able to binge and enjoy in retirement. It would be amazing - all I had to do was grind for the next 10-15 years, and save most of the money I earned. I considered this easy, I had always been frugal - and now I had all of this money coming in from my career that I didn’t know what to do with anyway. Spreadsheets and budgeting was my version of church - every year I would gleefully do my financial forecasting, reaffirming my beliefs in my coming retirement as my net worth slowly moved upwards. I was addicted to browsing the FIRE subreddits and various blogs. Every day or two I’d check my Personal Capital net worth and get a little hit of dopamine.
Philosophies can be addicted, and I was trapped. Thankfully, my partner is the one who got me out of it. Over the course of a couple years, I convinced her of the math and she jumped on board and got quite interested in the topic. However us discussing long term plans got me to start questioning things. She travelled a lot and had great experiences in her early 20’s when I did smaller vacations - why was I depriving myself of those experiences to avoid spending money? This kind of questioning lead me to read a couple books - first Man’s Search for Meaning, and later the book Die With Zero.
Mans Search for Meaning made me understand that what I lacked was purpose in my life. This lack of purpose I had just filled with the FIRE movement, kicking the can down the road another 15 years. When your life’s philosophy is “I’m going to ignore the big questions and work really hard for 15 years, then figure out my life’s purpose in my mid 30’s” you know you’re seriously screwed. Anyone who has been on the FIRE subreddit long enough will have seen this - various people who achieved financial independence and entered into depression upon retirement. They’d be delaying finding purpose in life for so long, when their retirement came they were completely unprepared to begin the process of finding meaning in life.
Reading Die With Zero was a similar turning point in my life as was joining the FIRE movement. The short summary of the book - money is worth more when you are younger, as you are physically capable of doing more things. Give a 18 year old 10k dollars for travel, and they can make amazing memories that last a lifetime. Give a 70 year old 10k for travel, and they probably won’t use it since travel isn’t fun anymore. Our money is worth more when we are younger, and saving too much for when you are older is just stupid.
I was so focused on creating a new “What’s Next”, so I could continue avoiding the pain of finding my purpose in life. Purpose being the day to day experiences and goals that would make my life fulfilling. I’m not guaranteed to life to 35 - why was I waiting for retirement? And focusing on work so much in my 20’s meant I was letting good friends drift away. By the time I was in my mid 30’s, I wouldn’t have a support network to do any of those things I dreamed of doing.
So where I’ve ended is that Financial Independence is largely a trap - it’s a way for those of us who haven’t found their life’s purpose to keep delaying. The problem is - your 20’s and 30’s is a magical time. You only get one shot at life, and it shouldn’t be wasted. Your working life isn’t a marathon to get through as fast as possible - it should be fulfilling in itself, and something to be enjoyed while it lasts.
For me - I’m incredibly lucky. I’ve recently started a new job with a group of amazing people that makes me happy, working on scaling solar and battery technology to make it possible to transition off fossil fuels. I have a small part to play, but I’ve found my purpose in helping the world to transition to a sustainable energy system. Finding my purpose during my day job has helped me to stop trying to try to be “productive” after work. In the last 6 months I’ve been reaching out to friends and reconnecting with people more than I have in the last 7 years. I no longer feel like spending time with others is wasted - I’ve finally broken free of the need to be always working on something.
My approach to investing is changing as well - as they say, past performance does not predict future returns. But that’s a post for another time.
There are some parts of FIRE that I’ll keep - I still keep saving a large percentage of my income, but my views on why have changed. I spend more on my health now, getting a nutritionist, a personal trainer, and soon house cleaners. If there’s an expensive vacation that I have time and energy for - I’m going. My money is here to help me to achieve my goals and be a happy person. I’m not here in life to create a high net worth and then die. Maybe I use the money I’m saving to retire early, or maybe I use it to buy a nice house on a lake somewhere. We’ll see.
I encourage everyone in the FIRE movement to do some confronting of their inner emotions. Start talking to your friends, family and partners and do some soul searching. It’s hard and uncomfortable, but it’s how we live the best versions of our lives - and we need to live the best version of our lives today, because there is only one today.