Much of any financial independence early retirement blog will (rightfully) spend a great deal of time covering early retirement. The best authors will cover their plans in great, technical detail, running tons of sensitivities and stress tests (“what if the market this?”, “what if healthcare that?”). They will also diary their emotions and daily trials, sharing what it takes to really make the jump on a personal level. After retirement, some bloggers may even continue writing, providing updates and sharing their ongoing personal growth. If you read these blogs (and you’re here reading Easy Does It FI), then you probably agree that early retirement is an amazing accomplishment. Hopefully, you’re interested in applying these lessons and early retiring yourself.
While I fully intend to blog about all the dirty details of my own journey toward early retirement, today I want to talk about something broader, something that really must govern the whole approach toward successful early retirement. I want to share a little bit about what early retirement is and what it isn’t.
There is a simple truth of early retirement, and it is something you must consider as you plan for your own early retirement. You can observe its effects in how other early retiree bloggers discuss their own stories. It is a key reason why, for every different early retiree, there’s a different post-retirement path. As part of their successful early retirement, these bloggers have discovered that special truth… and have successfully built their early retirement lives upon it. So, what is this truth? Quite simply:
Early retirement is a goal, not a purpose.
Goal- the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result
Purpose-the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists
While early retirement is an amazing achievement, it is actually a very simple action. It can be summed up in one sentence: cover life’s expenses with money you already have (or money earned by money you already have). If you stop needing a constant flow of external income, like paychecks, sales revenue, or ad revenue, then you can consider yourself early retired. Because it is merely an action, a “what”, then it should be apparent that early retirement is a goal. It is a “what” without a “why”.
While early retirement really is simple, it is still an amazing achievement. It requires no small amount of luck and skill. If bloggers are any indication, you have to be a fairly exceptional person to even desire early retirement. Combine its difficulty with a mainstream culture which teaches that success and happiness depends on defining and fulfilling goals, and it becomes very easy to lose the true importance of early retirement.
Instead of realizing that life is about meaning and purpose, we can get lost in the chase of the goal. We can believe that the goal, on its own, is enough. To chase early retirement for its own sake, however, would miss the greater point.
Goals are easy to find. Purpose is harder. Focus on purpose.
If goals are the “what” we do with our lives, then purpose is the “why”. Find your why.
Purpose is Identity
Have you ever paid attention to how people introduce themselves? When you introduce yourself to others, do you share an identity or a task? Are you a professional/tradesperson/entrepreneur/student or do you merely work in an office/spend all day at a jobsite/chase funding/go to school?
In the first example, you have an identity. You are a specific person. That is you, and you have purpose. In the second case, you go through the motions, you are merely acting, merely participating.
Are you a doctor or are you a mother/father? Are you an engineer or are you tinkerer? whether you realize it or not, those key features are how you define yourself.
My Own Examples
Here are a few people from my own life. My father-in-law introduces himself as a “man of history”. He works as a land professional, has survived cancer, climbed mountains, and (at least in recent memory) never set foot in historical archives, yet for him, his identity idols claim to be “men of history”. Therefore, he identifies himself similarly.
My mom teaches elementary school and has a special education degree. She loves helping those with special needs and has the extreme patience for anyone. If ever anyone had the right to call themselves a teacher, she is that person.
In my case, I live in Houston but am not a Houstonian. I have completed triathlons and marathons, but there is so much more to me. That’s why I am not an endurance athlete, but I am FI.
A Great Example from the Recently Retired
I was recently reminded of the key differences between goal and purpose, and their importance to early retirement, by the ONLs’ recent summary of giving notice at their jobs. This husband-wife power couple have been executing a transition plan that even the most successful retirees could appreciate. The most recent step in that transition plan was for both Mr. and Mrs. ONL to finally give notice and resign their leadership positions at leading firms.
Most striking was the conversation between Mr. ONL and his boss. In resigning, Mr. ONL mentioned early retirement and going passive with his family’s income.* This admission elicited surprise and concern (and probably brief jealousy) from his boss. In only describing a goal for his boss, Mr. ONL may have failed to communicate the true point of his decision to resign. That point is right in the name of his blog: for him and his wife to pursue purpose in their “next life”.
I have no doubt that the ONL’s will fully leverage their newfound freedom to pursue purpose, to smartly balance meaningful work with many wonderful days in the mountains. It is fairly easy to see the ONL’s have great passion and purpose. It is easy to see how resigning senior management positions and formally “early retiring” aligns with their purpose. However, in reading the boss’s response about feeling “ambivalent” and “let down”, I could see a great example of someone responding to a goal rather than a purpose.
Lessons for You
Mr. ONL’s example is a great reminder of how important it is to not lose sight of the reality that early retirement is a goal and not a purpose. While not everyone shares the same goals, everyone can appreciate the need for purpose. Even if you can successfully make the numbers work, the retirement that comes after quitting is really about life purpose. What is important? What principles will guide you? Early retirement will really make you evaluate what to do with your life. It will give you the power to answers these questions on your own. These answers might be truly difficult because there are no right answers, only answers right for you
If your life already has a strong sense of purpose, and you know exactly what that purpose is, I applaud you. Continue to define and pursue goals that conform to that purpose. After many years you will find yourself more fulfilled and happy than you ever believed possible.
If your purpose draws you to the idea of early retirement, then keep reading. Engaging in the community, learning about FI from the bloggers will aide you in your goal. Once you eventually reach the retirement goal, the newfound freedom in your life will allow you to even more closely align your goals to your purpose.
If, however, you (like me) find it more difficult to define your purpose and identity, the freedom of early retirement can expose these weaknesses. Without clearly defined purpose, it will be difficult to take the final steps and transition to a true early retirement. There will not be a clear direction for life after retirement, and you may actually find it very difficult to actually retire once you reach your magic numbers. If you do eventually quit, you might actually end up like some regular retirees, sitting at home, on the couch, because you find your main purpose was your job.
Successful early retirees realize that, while they are chasing certain 2%-3%-4% withdrawal numbers, what they are truly chasing is purpose. The reason why every early retiree lives their retirement differently is that each person finds purpose in their own way. Some seek personal enrichment, focusing on travel, new experiences, and new knowledge. Some find purpose in building and creating (and learning more with every project). If you aren’t sure of your purpose, you can be sure that early retirement will ask that question when it does finally come knocking.
* “Go Pa$$ive” bumper stickers available Winter 2018.