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Understanding Reduces Fear // Lessons from the Sky

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
  • Etc.

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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39 replies »

  1. I am a learn-as-I-go kind of person myself. Though I don’t necessarily like to jump in head-first without ANY background information, I’m also not a person who needs to feel like I know as much as possible before I choose to do something. I’ve found that, even in situations that I don’t know a whole lot about, things just tend to go right, and that’s because I have a good attitude about life in general and *expect* things to go right.

    That said, it is very, very natural to fear the unknown. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to that as well in many areas of my life. The more we know, the more comfortable we become. I guess that for me, I have learned over the years that I DON’T learn by reading books. I learn by doing. By experiencing. By trying.

    We just spent almost $80 on an Airstream and truck, and we haven’t exactly been diving through books trying to be experts before we jump in. Instead, we’re going to learn from our mistakes. The more we DO, the more we learn.

    And you brought up an excellent point about learning *too much*. I’ve found myself in that situation a lot in life, where if I had just “up-and-done-it” from the beginning, things would have been okay. But, I insisted on learning as much as I could, but that winded up getting me unnecessarily nervous or anxious, and I ultimately either didn’t follow through or changed up my plans.

    Sometimes, too much information isn’t a good thing. :)

    • You make a hugely important point, Steve! The WAY we learn is just as important as the learning itself, and it’s great that you know that you prefer to learn experientially. And yes, learning too much can be paralyzing as well, so finding the right balance for ourselves is key. I’m a bit behind on blogs this week, so you may have already posted on this, but I’m excited to see more of your Airstream!!

  2. Even though I also love flying, I still feel a little anxious before a flight. Not from a sense of fear the plane will crash, just a general anxiousness probably related to airport madness, TSA – blech, people that have never dealt with TSA or security lines at airports – double blech, and just schedules. Once I’m on the plane that all goes away, so it must be all the anxiousness around that pre-flight madness.

    You know, since you seem to like flying, even though you’re anxious, you should look into flight lessons. :) Seriously, it could be fun, and yeah it can be expensive, but a little Cessna and per hr rates for enough lessons to solo wouldn’t be that expensive. I got a surprise flight lesson back when I was 13, and got about 8 more before the divorce and things went all pear shaped. That was at a small local airport and the lessons were $35 or $50/hr, so super affordable back then. It could be fun even if it isn’t the most frugal thing to do. I even got to take off and land it that first lesson, I meant he instructor told me what to do, but he didn’t touch anything. It was awesome!

    Finance tie-in, you’ve probably read about my concerns on “will the money run out, are we setting ourselves up to be paupers, what if our calc’s are wrong?!” Eventually, I learned enough to realize, that’s just wasted brain energy I could be spending on worrying about important things like, “where can I squeeze in some time to fish? I wonder if I could adapt AC/DC’s Thunderstruck to banjo (working on it!)? Why can I find time to run, but not time to do “real exercise?” Haha, you know important stuff. :)

    • Have you done TSA Precheck, or Global Entry? SO worth the $100 for five years. Totally reduces that preflight stress, and makes the whole security experience less undignified. And I don’t think I’m quite ready for flight lessons — I know a little bit too much on the stats for small aircraft crashes. :-) But I’m sure it was fun! And YES, I’ve read all of your concerns! And you’re so right that that worry is just a waste of valuable brain space! Great way to put it. :-)

      • When I was flying more for my last company, I thought about it, but now that I only fly maybe 1-2 times a year if that, I haven’t justified that cost yet.
        I just plan to get there early enough to get through security and have a cold beer and people watch instead. :) That’s always good for some decompression.

  3. I like this… it’s definitely something that puts things in perspective. I’m someone who likes to over-analyze everything so I can definitely relate.

    Although I’m still a handful of years from giving my notice at work, I get this. I’ve run the numbers several different ways and feel that I should be just fine, but I still have that nervousness. Am I missing something? What will I do once I leave from there? But really it probably just boils down to a fear of the unknown… something I’ll just need to understand and overcome. This will probably come with time and also learning even more about the FIRE realm.

    Thanks for the therapy session, Dr. ONL!!! This was helpful!

    — Jim

    • You’ve definitely got a fellow over-analyzer here. :-) So sometimes it’s possible to learn TOO MUCH, and it’s good to cut it off. But if something is truly making me fearful, I generally know that it must be something I don’t understand. And yeah, I can understand the “am I missing something?” Q. That’s why blogs are so great — lots of examples to learn from, to make sure we’ve checked every box! And that will be $100 for the therapy session. Hahahaha. :-)

  4. I had an incredibly similar experience as you did regarding flying, except instead of a book I spoke to many pilots and plane experts. And it really did give me comfort to know that a plane can take much more than a little turbulence to take it down. Like, MUCH more. It’s like the NBC slogan…”the more you know…”

    • Great move! Pilots are the best source of reassurance, I think! And yeah, to know how much more even a commercial plane can handle makes me feel tons better too!

  5. Great analogy leading into retirement finances! Even 18 months into early retirement, some of those finance fears still rear their heads, especially when we have a year start like this one. And yes, I sat down with the numbers and my Financial Advisor (who knows I get irrationally fearful…he’s known me for 25 years) and we went through everything again. Knowledge. Yes, it helps. But sometimes the irrational wins in the short term.

    • Thanks, Pat! How fantastic that you have a financial advisor who knows you and gets your fears — that is a real gift. And of course there’s no denying the power of irrational fear — sometimes it does win out. But understanding the concepts sure can help!

  6. Great story. I am still a novice when it comes to personal finance. I know that our first priority is to pay off debt, so that has been my focus. However, you are correct that knowledge can be so reassuring. The more that I learn, the more confident I am that we are headed in the right direction.

    I read a lot about babies and childbirth before having Goofball. I think it may have made me more anxious about all of the crazy things that can happen. On the otherhand . . . I knew about all of the possibilities, so it made me more prepared and ultimately thankful that everything went so smoothly.

    • That’s so fantastic that you feel more confident about your finances as you learn more! And same goes for having your first child — I’m sure I’d find that stuff a little anxiety-provoking, too, but I’d always rather know the full range of possibilities. Then I can process them and be prepared, instead of facing down the unknown, which is much worse!

  7. Love your analogy. That book sounds like something I got to read. I don’t fly as much as you do but have had a few super “bumpy” experience.

    One time I was flying back to Vancouver from Japan, our flight was delayed due to “mechanical malfunction” of the plane. Once we started flying, it was super bumpy where they suspended the service a couple of times. It was so bumpy that the flight attendant announced on the PA that “it’s safe and the plane is OK.” Kinda hilarious in a way because the poor translation. :)

    • It always makes me think of the Shakespeare line “the lady doth protest too much” when they feel the need to tell you that everything is okay — like everything is clearly NOT okay. :-) But yeah, bumps aren’t anything to worry about, despite how alarming they might feel! I now believe that solidly, thanks to that super informative book!

  8. Nice link that you make here.

    The worst experience so far with a flight: The plane taxies to the runway, picks up a lot of speed and then goes full in the breaks. Take off aborted. Back at the gate, they announce a technical problem. Some 45 minutes later is is all repaired. We actually saw the crew working on the plane. Turned out to be a small detector that was broken down. It signaled a door was open where it was closed… a fine in the end.

    Reducing fear by learning and reading: That is how I now feel comfortable having 66pct of our assets in the stock market. This is how I got comfortable with trading options. Read, read, read and understand.

    • Oh my gosh! That’s one thing I’ve never experienced — an aborted takeoff. I’m sure that was jarring, to say the least! And yes — read, read, read, and read some more! :-)

  9. I can see why it would be necessity to become comfortable with flights considering the amount of flights your career has required.

    It makes me think of how much I hate the “behavioral questions” in job interviews. My answer to avoid those is to save a crapload of money so that I don’t have to sit through another one, but at some point, I won’t have the current job opportunity and I assume that I will have to work again, so I am going to have to suck it up and make myself comfortable with the stupid behavioral questions. :-D

    Not too dissimilar from the cold in your mountain home…pay through the roof on gas or suck it up. Sucking it up is probably often the right answer, even if we may be stubborn and tell ourselves we wouldn’t do X, Y or Z from our current viewpoint in life. :)

    BTW, have I noticed that you have transitioned a bit away from your dual-gender (genderless?) point of view? ;-)

    • What are behavioral questions? Not sure I’m familiar with those in a job interview context! And haha, true — it’s mostly me (Ms. ONL) writing, so I’m embracing that more! But Mr. ONL is a big force in the whole thing, and will write more once we quit, so it’s not absolute. :-)

  10. Interesting analogy. I’m similar – I try to learn my way out of fear, but I think sometimes that stops me from actually taking action as I secretly like the research and analysis stage. I like the idea of trusting your future self, whatever happens they will work out what to do, if anything.
    Glad to know your fear hasn’t stopped you from travel, especially with all that leisure travel you have planned in ER!

    • It IS easy to get stuck in the research phase, and that’s a whole different issue. :-) I’m so thankful that I’m good at being decisive, but yeah, if you know you tend to get stuck in the learning/analysis, it’s important to recognize that so you can counter that tendency. And yeah, I’m glad I got over the fear of flying too! Given that I do it almost every week, it would be so much unnecessary stress in my life!

  11. They say “ignorance is bliss” but I would say that “knowledge is empowering”. With respect to personal finance, I’ve been planning for FIRE since I started working. I’m always amazed at how relatively uninformed friends of mine are with personal finance, even though we’ve all been working for 25 years.

    • Yes, exactly! And I know what you mean on the finance front — I am always shocked by how little people know. But then last night I was with a colleague who actually knew all about index funds — I was so surprised, in a good way!

      • I was talking to a friend who could not figure out why his managed mutual funds was trailing the S&P 500 by so much over the last 25 years. Turns out he has a 2% management fee – over 25 years he lost 50% of its growth.

      • 2 percent is huge! That breakdown that we showed a few weeks ago showed that even 1% equated to like a $5M difference over our lifetimes on just a half million balance in a 401k. I assume you’ve since set that friend straight. :-)

  12. ONL, I used to be deathly afraid of flying. In fact, I did everything in my power to avoid planes for of the first 2 decades of my life. I suppose I had good reason to fear flying – when I was just 7 years old, I lost an uncle and 2 cousins in a jet crash. Nevertheless, that fear almost kept me back from experiencing some of the greatest travel experiences of my life.

    I think the trick to overcoming fear, is starring it in the face. I finally got the courage to rationalize my “odds” of crashing and clawed my way into a seat. I had white knuckles and sweaty palms throughout, but I was already committed. Over the years I kept forcing myself and after a few dozen flights, I eventually stopped being afraid. Someday, I hope to even take a flight lesson. :)

    Like you said, this process is no different for any other area in life… including finances. I now operate with the belief that life’s greatest treasures are just around the corner of fear.

    • WOW — What an amazing story. I’m so impressed that you conquered your fear after being so scarred by a tragedy in the family. Big high fives to you! And what a beautiful way to put it: life’s greatest treasures are just around the corner of fear. :-)

  13. Well, I’ve definitely felt less fear about my loans since the day when I decided to gather my courage and look at the actual balance. It was about a year ago, come to think of it. Turns out that a known number is much less scary than an unknown one.

    I would say though that the majority of my fears in my life in general involve things that are within my control. More specifically, most of my fears have to do with the possibility that I will eff something up (or have already effed something up). Like, I’m one of those people who returns to the house to check the stove even though she KNOWS that she already checked it, because spending five minutes going back and checking the stove again is preferable to spending the entire rest of the day in a state of mild panic wondering if there’s a teeny-tiny chance I may have burned my house down.

    You’ve flown 34 times this year?? You mean, like in 2016????

    Have you read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande? I didn’t think this book was as good as some of his other writing, but the concept is really interesting. He talks about how airline pilots and construction workers have checklists for everything they do, and they follow the checklists religiously even if they’ve flown a plane a million times before or built a million buildings, and this is why it’s so rare for planes to crash due to pilot error, or for buildings to randomly collapse. (His point is that surgeons need to also follow checklists, because doctors make tons of mistakes that could be avoided.)

    • It sounds like you might want to investigate some of the home automation tools that are out there, for your own peace of mind! I do sometimes wonder if I locked the car, closed the garage, etc., but that’s when I’m glad we live in a small place where there’s unlikely to be any consequence of leaving things unsecured… except that one time a bear got into our garage and raided our chest freezer (yes, really — it did not like vegan ice cream, btw). :-) And yeah, 34 flights so far in 2016. I’m used to it, so it’s not as crazy as it seems, and I even wonder if I’ll miss it when we quit.

      I haven’t read that Gawande book, though I’ve read some of his others. And yeah, I’m all about checklists for my own stuff that I’ve done a thousand times, so it seems like a sound argument that doctors should have them! I’m sure glad the pilots flying my planes do!

  14. This is definitely true about me and the stock market. I used to be very intimidated by the market and investing in general. The more I educated myself and did a little bit of trading, which I started in a simulator, the more comfortable I felt. Sure, I’ve made mistakes and lost money, but I learned from it each time. Now, I’m probably way on the other end of the spectrum and take on more risk than many would be comfortable with.

    • I have a little trouble believing that you were ever seriously intimidated, only because you’re such a pro now! But what a cool story, to know where you started and where you are now, generating so much passive income! Kudos, friend! :-)

  15. I can relate to this. I don’t fear volatility / investing in the market, but sometimes I worry so much about not having “enough” (now, in the future, when some unknown terrible scenario in my mind plays out…) that it makes saving / investing feel the opposite of empowering. And I don’t like feeling that way!

    Perhaps I need a therapist more than financial knowledge ;)

    • I think what you need is a multi-layered contingency plan. :-) That is what helps me sleep at night. Like knowing that we could sell our house and live in a smaller house or an RV. Or that we could pull money out of our 401ks if things truly got terrible. Your contingencies will be unique to your situation, of course, but whenever I feel that “enough” panic, I try to think up another possible backup plan, and it truly helps me!