We’re here today with a topic that we think about from time to time, and it only starts with an example from the friendly skies. We promise it relates back to early retirement. :-)
This may come as a surprise, given how much I fly (34 flights on the year as of today), but I’m actually afraid of flying. Or I was afraid of flying, and now I’m mostly okay with it. I also happen to love flying and always have, but the question of how you can love and fear something at the same time is one we’ll save for another day. And I was never the kind of afraid that kept me from flying or made it necessary to medicate myself to get through it. I was just keenly aware of every bump and patch of turbulence, and always got a bit of an adrenaline boost at that moment following the initial ascent when the engines shift to lower power, thinking that the engines were failing and we must be about to plummet. Once or twice, I’m sure I gasped audibly or even grabbed the arm of the unknown passenger next to me when things got bumpy.
But a few years ago, when I was traveling for work, but not nearly as much as now, I made up my mind: I’m not going to be afraid anymore.
That’s a lovely proclamation and all, but for something so totally emotional and not rational in the least, a rational proclamation is worth a whole lot of nothing.
But I knew something about myself: I am most afraid of what I don’t understand. If I’m afraid of flying, something that is considered to be one of our safest forms of transportation by any measure, then it is clearly because I didn’t understand everything that is going on when I’m in the air. I decided it was time to learn.
(Sidebar: Mr. ONL and I are afraid of opposite things: I fear the things that are out of our control, and he doesn’t waste time worrying about that stuff. But he fears the things that we can control, while I am possibly overconfident that anything within our control is completely manageable. Feel free to psychoanalyze us.) ;-)
Taking action to reduce fear
I started by reading a book, Cockpit Confidential, which is pretty much a manual for people like me – nerds who want lots of detail, and are a little scared of flying. It’s written by a pilot, and explains literally everything, like that turbulence never takes a plane down, lift is an irrefutable law of physics and not something capricious, and planes are built to glide (you’re not just going to fall out of the sky, even if the engines completely fail). The book explains what’s happening when the plane is bouncing around in the sky, what the wing flaps are doing at different stages of flight and why they make that sound. It was everything I needed to know.
In that same period, United was offering a feature that they’ve since done away with – which I miss – where they let passengers listen in on the pilots’ communications with air traffic control. I had often listened in on this, but didn’t understand much, other than that US Airways flights went by the call sign “Cactus ” and the waypoints the planes use for navigation have names like “jarhead.” Mostly I liked listening to know that the pilots were on top of things – that if we hit an extended patch of rough air, they were working to find a smoother altitude, or that if I saw a big storm ahead, they were trying to get rerouted around it. (Dumb, I know. But it helps a fearful flyer to know, at the very least, that the pilots haven’t fallen asleep.)
Putting together what I learned in that book with what I experienced via listening in on the pilots’ ATC chatter, I quickly felt like I understood flying. That made some magic happen: I was no longer afraid. Every once in a while, if something truly out of the ordinary happens, I might get anxious for a second, but it’s usually short-lived. I now feel like I know what’s going on with all those noises, I know not to worry about turbulence, and the whole experience is a lot more peaceful generally. (Also helpful: Treating all of the mishaps as hilarious. Like a comedy of errors. That is a whole lot better than letting yourself get frustrated over things you can’t control or change!)
What all of this has to do with early retirement
Early retirement has a lot of sources of fear built in, just like flying. Just a few of the fears that any of us might have about it include:
- Uncertainty about what the stock market will do over time
- Worry that your money may not last long enough
- Concern about the ability to ride out natural disasters, health emergencies or other major expenditures
- Anxiety that you may not be able to find another well-paying job after a long resume gap, if you find you need the money
It’s easy to let any one of those concerns — or about a gajillion others — paralyze you and keep you from actually achieving your dreams of retiring early. Or even if you keep moving forward to your goal, that fear can keep you up at night or contribute unhealthy stress to your life.
But if you’re at all like me, and your natural inclination is to fear the unknown, there’s actually a pretty easy remedy: Learn all you can.
So that’s what I do: act like a sponge and soak up that information. I try hard to understand the underlying, fundamental principles. To understand history, but also understand what’s likely to happen in the future. It applies to everything that might at first seem scary, but is especially true of the subjects we tackle here in PF land. For example, understanding inflation risk helped me finally stop being a weenie investor who only wanted to invest in my savings account or bonds. Understanding the general principles of stock investing and economic cycles helped me stop worrying that we could lose all of the money we have invested in the markets. And learning that I could put in place lots and lots of contingency plans helped me let go of the fear around paying out for an emergency or disaster.
For anyone already reading PF blogs, that advice is certainly overly simplistic. The point is not to tell you what to go learn about right now, but to illustrate examples that might speak to fears you have that can be overcome through understanding. Sometimes we might not even realize that we’re afraid of something. We might just avoid thinking about it, or acting on it. The thought of it might make us angry, or sad or frustrated. But if we can recognize that what we’re feeling is fear — something that’s probably easier to do while suspended at 38,000 feet than it is on the ground — then we can take action to reverse it.
Have you overcome any fears by learning all about that subject? Specifically, has learning about any key financial concepts changed your approach to your plans? And has anyone had the opposite experience: you learned a whole bunch but ultimately the fear stuck around? We’d love to hear all of it!
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