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It’s helpful in life to know yourself — what motivates you, what makes you crazy, what really moves you. We’re still learning things about ourselves all the time, often because we make an effort to ask ourselves the tough questions and really pay attention to the answers.
But — speaking just for me on this one, not for Mr. ONL — something that I have known for a long time and that is no surprise to anyone who knows me is that I am a gold star seeker. I like to know that I’m doing well, preferably exceptionally well. It’s evident in the earliest home videos of me as a two-year-old. I’ve settled down on the competitiveness with age, but I can’t seem to drop the drive for some sort of recognition. It’s definitely not my favorite thing about myself.
We could try to psychoanalyze me and ask why someone who is otherwise confident and self-assured is such a fan of external validation (because, you know, internal validation is so much more evolved), but I won’t waste your time with that. And I won’t make the joke about how it’s weird that I want all the gold stars since I’m not even a Millennial — except, whoops, I already did. Bottom line: I’m 36, and this is probably a trait about me that’s here to stay. (Can you relate? Just me? Anyone? Bueller?)
So far in life, I’ve gotten a steady stream of gold stars from the usual avenues: school and work. As in literal gold stars stuck to poster board in school (is that still a thing?), followed by good grades and awards for awesomely hip things like math competitions (#nerdforlife), and then a continuous string of promotions and other recognition over my 15 working years. I’d wager a guess that most people on the FIRE path are pretty similar in that regard. You don’t game the system and engineer your life around an ambitious goal like early retirement without being at least a bit of a goal-oriented smartypants.
Envisioning the Star-Less Future
But now we’re facing a very different prospect: a life with no school and no work. And that life sounds exciting and perfect in every single way, except one: There will no longer be natural avenues for gold stars. No more promotions, no more awards. While that might suit the less ambitious Mr. ONL just fine, it concerns me a little.
And, in case you’re curious, the irony is not lost on me that I’m talking about ambition and leaving my career in the same breath. It’s a slightly unsettling combo to be a naturally ambitious person and also be sure to the core that I’m ready to bid adieu to my career. But we humans are complex beings, and it’s possible to feel multiple conflicting feelings at once. So there you go.
Replace the Gold Stars or Let Them Go?
The central question to me is the same one we’ve asked ourselves when we’ve pondered other big adjustments that will come when we retire, like how will we replace the social interaction of work? It’s essentially this question:
We’ve been getting this good thing (friends, gold stars, etc.) from work, and now work is going away. Should we find another way to get this good thing, or find a way to stop needing this good thing?
In the friends question, the answer is easy. Of course we aren’t going to try to find a way to not need friends. So instead it’s finding more ways to see our current friends and branching out to make new friends who are available during the middle of the workday, which we’ll have free very soon. But friends may well be easier to come by than gold stars, at least in retirement!
I suspect it will need to be a little of both: continuing to evolve to need fewer pats on the head while replacing some of those avenues for attaining gold stars.
Replacing a Few of Them
At 36, I’m not quite a fully baked cake, but I think if I’ve carried a trait through my whole life and still have it, it’s probably sticking with me. Denying that fact would just lead to misery down the road, so I’m already thinking about ways to get some gold stars in the future, even without being employed, though all in noncompetitive ways.
Pursue creative outlets — I’ve talked about how I don’t want to make my creativity pay the bills for us, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put creative products out into the world. Pursuing a wide range of creative outlets in retirement will provide an opportunity to get feedback from people, which — if it’s good — definitely counts as gold stars.
Keep blogging — I feel like we’re getting showered with gold stars every day here, thanks to the continued involvement of all of you who read, comment and interact with us on Twitter. We definitely plan to keep this up!
Get more involved locally — We’re already on the boards of some local nonprofits, and feel like we’re doing some good there. But after we have more time, we’ll get more involved, and then there will be lots of opportunities for wins of all kinds — in dollars raised, open space preserved, etc.
Redefine gold stars to include gratitude — This is a biggie. Gold stars have meant promotions, awards and public recognition up to this point, but that’s not the only definition. Thinking about this more broadly, I can choose to interpret anything I want as a gold star, including simple things like thank yous from people. I’m going to consciously work to see any expression of gratitude as a gold star, in any context.
Evolving Beyond Stars
I see it as a super positive thing that I’ve become less competitive with age, since that feeling of competition can definitely get toxic. But that trend overall tells me that I can keep moving gradually away from needing gold stars. After all, once we’ve achieved early retirement, I’ll kind of be carrying around the biggest and best gold star (at least to me) around with me for the rest of my life. If only I could wear it on my belly like a CareBear! But even without that star being outwardly visible, I do think it will feel pretty darn spectacular to know every day that I was part of a duo who achieved this massive life goal. I bet it will take a long time for that feeling to fade.
What’s Your Equivalent of Gold Stars?
There’s something for all of us that work provides that we’ll miss when it’s gone. For Mr. ONL, it’s the feeling of being a provider. For others it might be the chance to be a leader, or to be forced to learn new skills often. What will you struggle to replace after you’re no longer working? Or for those who are already retired, what has surprised you that you miss about work? Let’s chat in the comments!
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