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?)!