the process

On Potential, and Not Reaching Ours

few things in our lives have ever excited us as much as the early retirement that we’re eagerly planning for. maybe new love. the fleeting moments of a powder day. the elation and relief of finishing a marathon. that moment before jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. but all of those moments of excitement are fleeting. none have sustained us through long-term discipline and planning the way the promise of early retirement has.

but we also feel something that not many people talk about: the ways in which we’re letting ourselves down by retiring early. because it’s true — on some level, by taking the escape hatch from our careers, we’re not reaching our potential.

this isn’t a discussion of good or bad. this isn’t a commentary on what it means for anyone else to retire early. we’ve already said, and we truly believe, that we’re going to get more useful to society in retirement. and the greater societal question is beside the point. this isn’t about “what happens if everyone decides to retire early?” it’s never going to happen anyway, so it’s a purely academic debate. it’s like people who ask us, when they find out we’re not having kids, who we expect to pay taxes to maintain the roads and pay for health care when we’re old. uh, other kids? us not having kids isn’t causing the whole world to stop procreating. plus, geez, it’s not like not having kids means we’re suddenly going to stop paying all taxes and become mooches on society. (we actually pay more taxes while we’re working, because we don’t get dependent exemptions or child care credits.) for all we know, we’re doing society a service by retiring early, because we’re freeing up well paid jobs for people who want and need them, and expecting to pay our own way through life.

this feeling about our potential isn’t about society, though. it’s about us. how will we feel when we look back, 20 years from now, and reflect on the choices we’ve made? one definition of growing up is accepting disappointment. disappointment that we never became astronauts, that we’ll never be president. disappointment that we didn’t grow up to look like supermodels, or to be pro athletes. disappointment that adulthood isn’t what we thought it would be. disappointment that we didn’t appreciate childhood enough when we were children.

will we look back and be disappointed that we didn’t achieve more in our careers?

it would be one thing if we weren’t achievers by nature. one of us is an achiever for sure, and the other is a super achiever. we’re both smart, we think outside the box, we’re natural leaders. we’d achieved a lot in our careers at young ages. and here we are, wanting to trade all of that in for a campervan and a life of dirtbaggery.

those of us working toward financial independence have voiced something that most people living in this era feel on some level, but maybe haven’t articulated: that there is something hollow and meaningless about work today. collectively, we’ve lost touch with work that really matters. work with our hands, hearts and minds together. work that helps real people. work that truly benefits mankind or the planet. work that fills us up, not just financially, but spiritually. that’s why, even though we feel so fortunate to have had long careers with great companies owned by good human beings, we want out.

but what if we could have helped change things by sticking around? what if we could have helped more people by staying dedicated to our careers? what about our dreams of becoming a doctor, a physicist, a ceo, an activist? of curing cancer? of figuring out cold fusion? should we give up on those dreams, just because society has made work so unfulfilling? shouldn’t we try to make change instead of making haste to get out?

life is about choices, and accepting that we can’t have it all. we’ve made the choice that freedom is what’s most important to us, especially since we aren’t guaranteed a lot of high quality years ahead of us. by making that choice, we’re excluding other choices, like the chance to dedicate ourselves to an important cause where we really could make a difference. sure, we can still make a difference in our local community, and will always be socially conscious, engaged people. but we don’t pretend that that’s the same thing as devoting our lives to something meaningful and bigger than ourselves. we’re making the choice to devote our lives to something exactly as big as ourselves.

will that choice ultimately lead to disappointment? obviously we don’t think so, or we would be making a different choice. but we do wonder. we’re heartened by tales sent back from the front lines of early retirement, by those who’ve already pulled the ripcord. we’re happy to hear that none of them regret it, and they get happier and happier every year. but early retirement is so new an idea that there aren’t many 80-year-olds who’ve done it who we can ask whether they regret giving up on their careers. their answers would only mean so much to us anyway, since everyone is different. everyone wants something different out of life. we just hope we’re making the right choice for ours.

do you ever wonder about this? worry that you’re wasting your potential? or have you made peace with the idea, and have some advice to offer? we’re all ears (eyes?)!

Don't miss a thing! Sign up for the eNewsletter.

Subscribe to get extra content 3 or 4 times a year, with tons of behind-the-scenes info that never appears on the blog.

No spam ever. Unsubscribe any time. Powered by ConvertKit

29 replies »

  1. I’m not one to think about “what ifs” because that just seems too depressing in such a short life… I have thought about it, but I know I’ll be happier looking back on the memories of spending more time with friends and family. Building things with my hands. Exploring. Traveling. Being an entrepreneur. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a great plan to making the US greener :)

    • That seems like a healthy, positive perspective. It’s great too that you know yourself well and know what you’ll be glad to look back on!

  2. Worry to waste your full potential…? Is that really the case? maybe because you call it early retirement! What if you call it financial independence and have the choice to work on things you truly like and appreciate.
    The full potential that your boss sees in you, is the potential you have to move forward his career and the company you work for.
    The full potential that your friends and family see is probably how much quality time you can spend with them and how you can move forward their lives.
    The full potential a husband sees in his wife id how happy they can be together. That depends on the goals they have…be the richest, most famous on the cemetery? (just putting it black and white). Or having a lot of great moments to share, every day.

    My peace of mind: I will have the freedom to do what makes me happy!

    • This is a great perspective, thinking about “potential” differently. And you’re completely right that the other side of how society sees our potential is how happy and free we’re able to be. Maybe being able to escape the rat race early is the BEST way to fulfill our potential.

  3. I do worry that I’m wasting my potential. I’m wasting it as long as I continue to practice law. I wish I’d envisioned early retirement sooner. I can’t get there soon enough.

  4. Don’t second guess yourself. There are no mistakes. You are — always — exactly where you need to be. It’s part of the process.

    • Thanks for that. 😊 So true. We are questioners by nature, which is good in that it led us to this path, but also makes us ponder the less helpful questions.

  5. I would have to think all of your years of achievement and contributions in the work force have already led to positive change! Regardless of feeling a sense of hollowness in work, each employee allows for the company to propel forward in one way or another. The fact that you were hired serves as a reflection of the employer/hiring manager viewing potential to provide to their company, inevitably allowing change for the better! I would feel no shame or disappointment in early retirement, because a sense of new energy will allow for even better change in more places than just one!

    • Thanks, Alyssa! We have for sure contributed in big ways at work, and it feels good knowing that. And we plan to keep contributing to the world til the very end. 😊

  6. The thing about early retirement is that you always have the option of converting it to an extended vacation if it is not what you really want. Society has created a set of norms to measure success, but they are not what everyone seeks. I think you will find that more people are jealous that you have the courage to travel your own path and not settle for what is expected of you.

    • We fully expect the jealousy to be true — only because we know WE would be jealous if we met others who retired young! We’re 100% ok defying society’s expectations, so it’s funny that this potential question keeps coming up for us.

  7. This is an interesting post an I’ve had similar thoughts before. I sure just being the type of person who would seek an early retirement, you’ll find great and possibly unexpected ways to contribute back to society. I know I have so many ideas for small businesses and hobbies that I just don’t have any time to pursue now.

    Plus, I don’t think you’ll ever regret the freedom you’ll have in a few years… you can do and be anything that you want.

    • Glad it’s not just us! Ultimately, we value happiness and freedom more than anything else, but when you’ve heard your whole life that you have this huge potential, it does feel a little weird to wonder if you’re throwing it away. Because the truth is that we don’t plan to work a lot in early retirement (isn’t that the point?), and that will limit what we can contribute. But you’re completely right — hard to imagine we’ll ever regret freedom!

  8. I have definitely made peace with the idea. Perhaps in the past I would have been a little more concerned about whether my “potential” was truly being utilized in an early retirement lifestyle, but honestly, using my potential is not my priority. I know that sounds strange to say, and probably even stranger to read, but it’s not.

    Being happy is my priority.

    And my wife and I are planning the life that we believe will make us happy. If it does, that’s great – we’ll keep doing it. And there will be opportunities along the way to get involved with things that you never even knew existed before retirement. You might find that you’re able to use your potential for bigger and better things once your life isn’t consumed by a full time job and you’re able to get out there and see a lot more of the world.

    But if it doesn’t work for us, then we will try something else. As far as we are concerned, life is a process, not some road towards perfection. If we get it right the first time, great. If we don’t, we change course and try something else.

    In the end, we aren’t worried a bit, because lifestyles are always flexible enough to be changed into something that truly makes us happy, every step of the way.

    • Being happy is our priority as well, and it’s hard to imagine that will ever look back and regret giving ourselves the flexibility to figure out exactly what makes us happy. It’s just one of those things that has been so drilled into us, this idea of our potential, that we can’t help but wonder!

  9. I’m with unconfirmed bachelorette. Work is preventing me from living to my full potential, and also making me sick (sedentary lifestyle).

    Can’t believe someone said something so rude to you about not having kids. This world is so over populated already, you are doing humanity a service by not contributing to that. So thanks! The other kids are happy to pay for the roads. :)

  10. I feel like I won’t be reaching my full potential if I stay in my career. I’d like to think that I have more to offer society than what I do at work. And while there aren’t many 80 year olds who have retired early, I have a good feeling that retiring early would not be a regret!

    • That’s a great perspective, and the other side of the coin — careers are holding too many of us back from self-actualization! We’re with you — unlikely that we’ll regret retiring early — but we still like to ask these tough questions. :-)

  11. I feel like at this point in my life I have made a 5 year approach to ER and I’m all in. I considered the question you proposed on a selfish aspect asking myself could I be a millionaire and buy a sports team, CEO of company, etc and I chose to value freedom and the adventure of ER more than those things. While ER is not a guarantee, the probability and numbers are higher for me to reach this than say own the Chicago Cubs or CEO of Goldman Sachs, plus based on the time spent for such “high status” positions, I could be 63 and realize that this venture is unreachable in my lifetime. I like the article and the thought process behind it. Nice work!

    • Thanks! It’s funny how we each interpret potential differently — thinking about status in some cases, or contribution to the world in others. At least we all are on the same page about ER! (At least here.) 😉

  12. Love this one too. I didn’t make the saying up but no one ever says they wished they had worked more on their deathbed. Let’s keep this movement rolling and get to the tipping point to make big changes.