Envisioning Life Without Work

Financial independence and early retirement are growing in popularity, but you don’t have to browse the comments sections of Forbes or Yahoo Finance long to find plenty of skeptics.

The FIRE critics represent many viewpoints. There are the well-intentioned risk-averse types, hesitant about the viability of supposedly “safe” withdrawal rates in today’s high-valuation environment. There are the traditional big-spender consumers, indignant about the viability of a low-spending lifestyle. And, of course, there are the ornery disbelievers, eager to pick apart the details of success stories and tell us all why it can’t be done.

But of all the negative reactions to early retirement, there’s one that I find to be just plain sad:

“Retire early? I don’t know what I would do with all that time without my job. I would be bored.”

I’ll give you a pass if you’re one of the lucky few whose job is your passion – that elusive “true calling” that gnaws at you any time you’re away. If you can’t imagine doing something else because you’re in love with what you do every day, great! Never retire from that.

But if you’re like most people, you probably aren’t jumping out of bed at 5 AM every day thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to start sitting in meetings and re-sizing text boxes in PowerPoint again!”

If the only thing separating you from boredom is a career you don’t really love, how dull are you?

Bringing possibilities back into my life

When I first stumbled upon the idea of financial independence and early retirement, I was feeling passionless about my work. It was consuming the majority of my life, including evenings and weekends. It was interrupting my social life. It was disturbing my sleep. Why was I doing this to myself?

Just a few years prior, I had been a wide-eyed student full of career possibilities. Maybe I’ll study business, I had thought. Or what about urban planning? Art and architecture are fascinating, too. Or maybe sociology? Hey, maybe I’ll just open a food truck instead.

This notion of work as self-identity seems to be correlated with age. The longer someone’s been in the workforce, the more likely he or she seems to be to depend on work for meaning, purpose, and something to do every day. Those open-minded days of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood – during which anything seemed to be possible – are long gone.

I missed having that array of possibilities for my life.

I had chosen one of them – a good choice, in spite of the negatives – but I felt myself going deeper and deeper down one path. Professionally speaking, the next 30 years of my life were more or less mapped out for me: Work in my industry for a few more years. Get a master’s degree in my field. Return to a more senior role. Work my way up the ladder. Eventually retire – maybe even “early,” at 55 or 60. Somewhere in there, try to take a few weeks of vacation time.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing that path. But for me, it was feeling less and less fulfilling with each passing year. In choosing one path, I felt myself giving up on a hundred other interests – a hundred unfulfilled dreams.

On one particularly unsatisfying work day, I took out a blank piece of paper and started writing frantically. What do I really want to do with my life?

Anything that came to mind, I wrote down. I didn’t try to categorize the ideas right away, though one idea often led to related ones, and I grouped them if it made sense.

In my prior profession, working with clients on strategic issues, we called this “concept mapping” or “mind mapping.” Some people like to start with big-picture concepts. Others like to start at a more granular level and then group ideas together. It doesn’t really matter how you do it; the point is just to get as many ideas down on paper as you can. Don’t stop to judge them; don’t take time to analyze or edit. Just keep adding ideas.

What would I do with my life if I lost my job today?

What would I do with my life if money were no object?

What would I do with my life if I never had to work again?

Here is a digital version of what I ended up with – unedited except for a handful of side hustle ideas I’ve redacted for privacy:

Envisioning-life-without-work-01

Reflecting on my vision

Putting pen to paper was a cathartic exercise, and the sheer quantity of ideas was inspiring.

These are all the things I could do with my time if I didn’t have this full-time job, I thought. These are all the things I would do if I were financially independent.

A significant portion of them were travel-related, but there were plenty of ideas even if we stayed home: everything from learning a new musical instrument to growing a garden to training for a marathon. “Sleeping in” even got its own call-out – a respectable goal in and of itself.

Amusingly, a whole group of the ideas looked and sounded a lot like work. They might skew toward more flexible, entrepreneurial projects (somehow, “Get a 40 hour/week desk job” didn’t make it onto the page), but they’re what a lot of people would call “jobs.”

This was a revelation for me. My goal isn’t really to never work again. It’s just to work on my own terms. Financial independence doesn’t mean never earning any income again; it just means allocating my time based on personal interest rather than on financial incentives.

Some of these projects and activities are unlikely to ever produce an income. I’m fairly confident, for example, that my drawings and paintings will not be on display at your local art gallery any time soon. Others, though, might be profitable.

This is part of the reason I don’t like the connotations of the term “early retirement.” In addition to sounding ridiculous for someone still in his twenties, it’s not really reflective of my vision for the decades ahead. Though I don’t plan to spend 60 hours a week working for a corporate employer anymore, there are many projects I want to pursue – balanced, of course, with plenty of time for rest and relaxation. This “semi-retirement” seems like the best of both worlds.

(This is also part of the reason, by the way, that I don’t stress over keeping my withdrawal rate at or below exactly 4% every month. I expect that there will be times when my withdrawal rate is high, and others when it’s low or even negative.)

Using possibilities as inspiration

I kept that piece of paper on my desk for several years. I looked at it often, especially when I was in need of some inspiration to stay on track financially.

Looking back at it now, I’m thrilled to say that we’re actually living several of these dreams today. This year, we’re checking the boxes (at least partially) for road-tripping around the U.S., visiting many National Parks, and exploring Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the number that we’re not pursuing today is staggering, too. It’s going to be a while before I learn carpentry or how to play the piano. Even this relatively short list has more adventures than I could ever reasonably pursue, but that’s the point. It’s a list of possibilities, not a bucket list. There’s no pressure to do it all.

Defining success

We spend a lot of energy in this community discussing the prospect of success or failure, but it’s almost always in the context of finances. Will we have to go back to work if the market collapses? Will our portfolios survive?

Rarely, though, do we discuss what “success” means for our lives. What is my purpose? How will I judge the success of this non-traditional life choice I’m making?

We gave up millions of dollars of future net worth by leaving our full-time jobs. How will we evaluate that trade-off?

Day-to-day happiness is the easiest gauge, of course. If I’m not happy, it will be time to make changes.

There’s plenty of research, though, suggesting that happiness isn’t everything. “Being happy is about feeling good,” Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic. “Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.”

With that in mind, I think it’s worth defining our purpose beyond just “I want to be happy every day.” What can we do that will bring us real, long-term fulfillment?

Toward the beginning of this year, our friends at Our Next Life did exactly that with their beautifully articulated three-part purpose. It inspired me to look back at my mess of ideas and to distill them down into a few major categories.

“What do I really want out of my life?”

Synthesizing and re-organizing them (and borrowing Our Next Life‘s lovely format) left me with this:

  • Adventure: I want to experience new places, cuisines, and cultures and be physically active every day.
  • Learning: I aspire to grow my knowledge and build new skills.
  • Community: I seek to make new friends and strengthen my relationships with my friends, my family, and my communities.

We’re just getting started with this “semi-retired” life, and I’ve hardly made a dent in my long list of potential activities. But as we wade deeper into this new lifestyle experiment, these are the criteria I’ll use to evaluate the activities we pursue – and whether this journey is on-track.

Have you ever outlined your goals for FIRE? Does your vision include anything that looks like “work”? We’re eager to hear your approach.

43 Comments

  1. I think it’s so important to look at different specifics that give purpose to life. I’m not totally on the road to FIRE because I really like being in my classroom. So work is still part of my financial independence plan. But being FI will allow me let my teaching evolve and take me different places (out of the classroom? on the road? on the web?) if that’s something I choose to pursue. Neat piece! Lots of good food for thought!

    • That’s a great example of how FIRE doesn’t necessarily preclude work when you love what you do. Hopefully it does bring you more flexibility in how you do it (and where?), though. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Love love love this . The synthesis is very useful. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. I’m starting to outline my FIRE plans (could be as early as next year!) and several of my ideas look a whole lot like work. First, I will continue my side business in the travel industry. I get very cheap/free travel, I can run the business from anywhere, and it requires very little of my time. So, I might as well continue it. Second, I want to get involved with aquaponics, urban farming, green energy, sustainable living, tiny houses*, etc. It’s kind of difficult because part of my list is at odds with the other part: one part needs the freedom to “grow wings” and not be tied down to any particular area, while the other part requires “growing roots” and sticking to one area.

    I made the mistake of tying myself down for the last ~10 years, so the first phase of FIRE will be the freedom to move around. Once I get tired of that, I can find a new place to settle down and work on the other part of my FIRE plans. Or perhaps I’ll never tire of moving around…

    * I noticed tiny houses are on your list of fun jobs! What type of job were you thinking?

    • That’s awesome about your travel side business, Travis. I’m curious to learn more about what specifically you’re doing! That’s the type of job I could see myself getting into in the future, if it were the right fit — something tourism or adventure travel-oriented.

      I hear you about different goals being at odds. I figure we will eventually want to slow down or stop traveling for a while, at which point I’ll start exploring more of the rooted-in-one-place goals. (Maybe not, though! We’ll see.)

      I can’t recall exactly what the tiny house idea was at the time I wrote the original list, but I love the movement. I could imagine running a hotel/Airbnb type thing with an ADU in the backyard, or maybe even several. We’ve checked out one of the tiny house “hotels” in Portland, and it seems like a nice little operation.

      • The side business is booking all inclusive resorts in Mexico through my websites. It used to be a huge cash cow with a few employees 10 years ago. Nowadays it is really unstable for a main source of income, but great for a side income. Last year I had a month where I only made $75 in commission and another month where I made over $8,000. Quite the roller coaster…

        Are you going to the Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs next month? I’m going to take a drive over there to check it out. Also, have you seen the Fireside Resort by Wheelhaus in the Jackson Hole area? Their places are a bit larger (400 sq.ft. range) and not on wheels, but they took over an RV park and put their own units in there. It would be interesting to do something similar in a different area (one that doesn’t get snow!). Sell half the units, keep the other half and rent them out through HomeAway, VRBO, Airbnb.

  4. Thanks for sharing your possibilities brainstorm with us. That is definitely motivating! I think we share some similar categories–we definitely hope to travel, volunteer, and always keep learning! We kinda have a “burbsteading” thing in the mix though, too. Not sure what exactly to call that but we’d like to combine it with community and service in the future.

  5. Good t read something like this again… I plan to make one while on a trip this week with my wife…
    And, the term Early retirement is not for me. It has too much of a negative connotation

    • I hope you’ll share! Always good to see others’ ideas for inspiration.

      I’m fine using the ER term with people who have gotten familiar with FIRE and understand the flexibility of the definition, but it comes across pretty negatively to those who haven’t.

  6. Love the mind map you created and how you synthesized it into the three major areas of focus! I haven’t done this yet – (just started the semi-retirement) but I plan to do something very similar in the near future. In looking at yours again, I am pretty content to say mine will very much mirror yours! And it makes a lot of sense! Thanks for sharing!

  7. So many “great minds” moments in here. 🙂 I’m flattered that you followed our cluster format (yay, consultant exercises!) to find the common themes in your big map — and thanks for the shout-out! Of course I love the stuff that you want to focus on — it doesn’t surprise me at all that it’s so similar to ours, given how much we have in common about our world view. The whole semi-retirement question has been on our minds in a big way (subject of today’s post, in fact), first because we realize that we’re never going to not work, it’s just (we hope) going to be on stuff that we want to do, instead of working for others. And second, because we’re starting to think we can protect our portfolio better if we don’t tap into it right away (plus, you know, I’m just generally going to freak out whenever the time comes to start seeing those numbers go the wrong direction). Blurg. It’s not quite as bad as the “what would I do without my job?”/”I’d be bored.” mindset, but I do get puzzled when I see FIRE bloggers talk about how they don’t know what they want to do after they leave their careers. My bigger problem is what do I not want to do. But I think if more people did a mind mapping exercise like yours, they really would come away more inspired and with more direction toward the purpose of pursuing FIRE in the first place!

    • Haha yes, our goals are so similar that I almost went Melania Trump on you and just copy/pasted the same clusters. I totally agree about the myriad options we have; there are so many things I’d love to spend time on, it’s hard to prioritize them! And I continue to fight the urge to travel more quickly or pursue more activities at once so that we’re checking more boxes. Many decades ahead, I’m reminding myself.

  8. This is really great – this is the type of post that gets and keeps me motivated, so thank you for taking the time to conceive of it, write it, proof it, and post it!

    Honestly, I don’t know WTF I want to do once I reach FI, but I sure as hell know I don’t want to trade my time for money any longer. Right now, the fact that I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with my time doesn’t matter all that much to me.

    I’m much more concerned with actually reaching financial independence; identifying ways to get there quicker. Once I get close to that point where I can leave my full time job for good, then I’ll probably start doing the mind mapping exercise to figure out how I’m going to spend my days.

    Today, If my time were my own and my needs were met I’d probably have slept in. Maybe I’d be at the park right now teaching my youngest how to ride his bike. Or maybe I’d be in a parking lot with my oldest, teaching him how to drive. Who knows, but whatever I’d be doing, it would be because I chose to do so.

    • Thanks for the kind comment, Ty! That day sounds pretty idyllic. Not sure if this describes you, but some people probably don’t need a long list of things to do to keep themselves entertained. My dad has been retired for a few years, for example, and he’s perfectly content hanging around the house, reading tons of books, and doing some yardwork every day. He’ll go two or three weeks at a time without even going into town! I, on the other hand, think I would lose my mind after just a few days of that; I need more novelty and structure and adventure — hence the brainstorming.

  9. Pia @ Mama Hustle

    July 18, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    We’re all drinking the same juice, apparently – I just posted about the “I’d be bored without a job” phenomenon.

    I’d be curious as to how old you were when you did your cluster exercise. Random, I know. But I’m kind of going through the same thing right now, and I’ve been writing through it as well. It’s comforting to think someone went through something similar and came out the other side 😉

    • Glad we’re on the same wavelength! I was probably 24 or 25. Had been working full-time long enough for the novelty factor to wear off and the vision of 30+ more years of the same grind to be pretty depressing.

  10. The massive list of what you would without your job is so cool to see and inspiring. I may have to make my own list too!

  11. I had lunch with a 30-something money wasting friend the other day. Our conversation strayed into how much I’ve saved and the first thing he said to me was, “yeah but what will you do with all that money.” It was a question no one has ever posed to me so bluntly.

    I assumed I would have enough money one day and just quit my job. But when faced with the question “yeah but what will you do?” I have to say I haven’t the slightest clue. We spend most of our young lives trying to get into the workforce and climb the corporate ladder that retirement does seem boring to some degree. What would life be with no boundaries?

    I think people resign themselves to the next 40 years of work and forget that there’s a world out there. What would I do, indeed. Sounds like I need to start writing some things down.

    • “I think people resign themselves to the next 40 years of work and forget that there’s a world out there.” Yes, totally. I’ve seen it so many times — people miserable in their jobs but with no courage or risk tolerance to explore their options. “Well, I’ve always been an accountant and controller, so I’ll keep doing that for another 20 years even though I hate it.”

      I’d love to see your list if you put one together!

  12. I love that your list is one of possibilities – not a bucket list or a to do list.

    My issue with the meaninglessness of work pertains to accomplishment – or lack of I should say. My job consists of streams of emails about useless things. No end, no accomplishments.

    We’re on the verge of retiring and we’ll be focusing on finding land and building a house. Other things I plan to do involve physical work or learning a skill. I’ll be learning to play the piano and helping Mr. G build his outdoor pizza oven and bake bread. .

    • That work environment sounds downright painful, Mrs. G. Whereas your retirement goals — even the smaller accomplishments — sound fun and fulfilling.

      Last summer, Daniel and I helped cater a wedding with a friend who’s into woodfire pizza-making. We were a bit over our heads given our complete lack of experience (always good to be incompetently preparing food in front of a giant hungry audience), but it ended up being really fun. I’m adding building a pizza oven to my list!

  13. YES! As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always arguing with my husband: “Let’s just go for it! If we quit now, we’ll enjoy ourselves for awhile and have the time to decide what we ACTUALLY want to do.” (Too risky). Mr. T is the “show me the numbers work forever before I walk out the door.” (Too conservative). Taking the leap is the hardest part and we’ll never know when is the “Right” time to do that or what that leap actually leads!

    • You’ll find the right balance, I’m sure! Would you ever consider having one of the two of you take a leap while the other kept working full-time? I could imagine that being a bit challenging for a relationship, but if you were both good with it, it could be an interesting experiment 🙂

      • I already only work part-time (10-20 hours/week) with the three kiddos, but I’ve told Mr. T I’m happy to keep my job… I already have location and time independence! (That’s why I’m so pro-leave your job! Then we can BOTH have location independence.) I think we’ll find a happy medium in the next few years.

        • Totally get that; location independence is only so helpful when one of you is still tied down. I’m sure you will 🙂

  14. I really like the Adventure, Learning, Community idea. Most of my post-FIRE (what I call) “transition” ideas fall into one of these three. Nothing on our list looks like work – I guess the nearest are those in what would fit in Community – beach cleans, helping to look after local rivers and streams, housesitting, helping others to set up organic farms and communities – that type of stuff.

    The beauty of FIRE is we’ll have all the time we need to focus on our Adventure, Learning and Community passions, which we currently need to cram into weekday evenings, weekends and annual holidays.

    Great post – thanks!

    • I really like all of those ideas, Paul. They’re borderline “work,” though not the types of activities you’d likely be able to do full-time (or would want to do full-time). Like you said, a lot of the appeal is in the community that comes with them. It’s so tough to fit many of these things in with a full-time job, especially adventure. I know some people who put in a ton of effort to make it happen (like getting out for a hike after work), but that’s still only really feasible for part of the year, at least where we are. Glad you enjoyed the post; thanks for taking the time to comment!

  15. The people who ask, “But what will you do?” are a mystery to me. Somehow they are the same people who are always pressed for time and complain that there aren’t enough hours in a day. When they ask that, I always say, “What WON’T I do?” I’m not all that adventurous but even I can come up with a long list of things I’d rather do than sit in a cube for 9 hours a day.

    I’m one of those people who like to try everything but rarely commit to anything so I figure ER is a great time to try various professions (e.g. barista) without worrying about the financial aspect. If I don’t like it, I’ll move on to something else or nothing at all. Now that’s living the dream 🙂

    • I completely relate, Kate. I love experimenting with a variety of hobbies, but I’ve rarely chosen one to pursue with a ton of discipline. In ER, there’s a lot of time to do that and no pressure to stick with something you’re not enjoying.

      I was a barista once. Aside from the 4 AM alarm clock, it was actually one of my favorite jobs! Drinking coffee, socializing with regulars before work… I thought it was pretty fun.

  16. Great article. I have never understood how anyone could be bored as I have never suffered from this ailment unless trapped in a car or airplane for extended periods of time. Although we all have different personalities. I would guess people that people who develop boredom without their job are likely heavily extroverted and just can’t find the stimulation without work. The more I study the FIRE community the more I’m convinced personality plays a huge roll.

    I’m currently reading ‘The Joy of Not Working’ by Zelinski. Some of the concepts you discuss above are similar. He has a whole chapter on boredom, worth reading.

    • That’s a good point, THP — if you get do ton of socializing at work, I can imagine that retired life might be a shock. I was working from home for years, though, so it’s been quite the opposite: a lot more social time now! I’ll check out that book; sounds like my kind of reading 😉

  17. I like the mind map. Good brainstorming strategy and a good way to help me clear my thoughts to figure out why I want to reach FIRE as well.

  18. Thanks for a thought provoking post. I am one of those people who love what they do.
    I semi retired a few years ago and now only work 2 days, 5 hours each day. I realize that ,after looking at your and ONL’s charts that I have only begun to explore the possibilities for “adventure’.
    Work is awesome but I can see that I have been slacking off in creating ‘awesome’ elsewhere.
    Thanks for the mind map thing I am going to get on it.I am definitely [inspired!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Madeline. I can relate; I think I’ve often used work as an excuse to not pursue other activities, hobbies, and adventures, even when I did have the spare time. Glad to hear you’re doing the mapping exercise!

  19. The adventure part really is great. Although the Community part can get tough b/c most people will be working while you are free. I’ve found a good balance as a result is to consult part-time.

    Sam

    • Thanks for commenting, Sam! Community is already presenting itself as the toughest one, especially when we’re traveling full-time. On the positive side, we’ve seen many friends we wouldn’t normally see… but one-off meetings aren’t the same as deeper local connections. We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on that category as our travels progress.

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