gearing up

Replicate What You’re Great At in Early Retirement

Here’s a thought that’s totally obvious once you think about it:

It feels great to be good at things.

We tend to talk about getting good at things to make us successful, which in turn earns us more money, but we talk less about the pure joy of feeling good at something and getting to engage those skills.

Chances are excellent that there’s something you do as a part of your work that you’re good at, something that brings you a measure of joy. And when you retire early, you might lose the outlet for exercising that skill and getting those warm fuzzy feelings back in return. Depending on how much joy doing that thing brings you, and how often you do it at work, losing that outlet could mean losing a significant source of pleasure in your life, even if that pleasure doesn’t always feel obvious when it’s brought down by all the negatives of working.

Today we’re talking all about finding your greatest sources of joy that come from what you’re good at, and keeping that joy in your life well past your working career. // Replicate What You're Great At in Early Retirement // identify what brings you joy at work and bring that into your early retirement plan!

My Work Joy

In my case, if you listened to the Mad Fientist podcast, you might have concluded that I’m not a bad talker. Which might help explain why I travel so much for work — lots and lots of presentations, which play to my strengths. Staying on top of all my work while traveling? I’m far less good at that, and will be happy to see that part of my world disappear. (Other things I don’t excel at and won’t miss: having to multitask, doing the hard sell, keeping my inbox at a manageable level.) But presenting and moderating discussions? That’s definitely something I’ll miss in a big way.

But I didn’t used to see it this way, even though I knew that presenting was my biggest strength. I just saw it as part of “work” writ large, and I knew that work was something I wanted to contain within a medium-sized chapter of life, rather than have it be the title of the book.

Maybe it’s been the nostalgic lens that knowing we’re on our way out has placed over my work, or maybe it’s our determination not to complain about work anymore, but sometime in the last year, it finally struck me: Hey, I actually love this part of my work and will completely miss it! 

Psst. As usual, Maggie and I are having similar thoughts

Recognizing What You’re Great At

You might already know exactly what you’re best at at work, what feels great while you’re doing it even if the rest of your work day feels blah. Or you might even think that there’s literally nothing at work that brings you joy.

If you’re in the latter camp, it’s worth exploring if that’s really true, or if the general bad feelings you have at work are coloring your perception of the whole experience and blinding you to the joy that’s right below the surface.

So let’s do an exercise to sort out all of the stuff of work and hone in on the thing(s) that just feel awesome to do, or could feel awesome to do when separated from a pure work context.

Note that this is different from things that stoke our egos or make us feel valued or important. Those things are equally crucial to recognize and replicate in retirement in some way, but today we’re strictly talking about the joyful stuff.

Step 1: Write down everything you do as a part of your job.

You can make a list, write each task on a post-it note, or map things out on a page, whatever you prefer. But take some time and be thorough. Capture not just the things you do every day, but the things you do occasionally, the things that have given you the best memories, and the tasks that have felt fun but haven’t felt like “work.” If you’ve done several different jobs, write down the things you’ve done in past jobs that you no longer do.

Step 2: Cross out the things that are clearly negative.

There are some things in every job that we just clearly dislike. Doing timesheets? Neither of us will ever miss those. Same goes for doing expense reports, sharing revenue projections, sitting on long conference calls and navigating client drama. Whatever your equivalent is, cross all those things out right away.

Step 3: Consider the rest in a non-work context.

Here’s where we’ll use a little imagination. Take a moment or two to consider each task and ask yourself whether you’d enjoy doing that thing if you could do it devoid of whatever negatives you feel about your work. An example for me could be building PowerPoints. I associate that task now with having to crank something out quickly, or doing it collaboratively in a way that takes longer than it should because everyone has to offer their two cents. I think of clients critiquing the product, and of having to make edits I don’t always agree with. And all of that stuff feels negative, like something I won’t miss. But if I think about the task itself, without all that baggage attached, I actually love everything about building PowerPoints. I love creating something that’s clean and readable, and that encapsulates ideas as succinctly and elegantly as possible. (Bet you didn’t think “succinct” was in my skill set. Ha!) I love the design aspects of it, and you already know I love delivering the actual presentation. That’s just one example, but go through this exercise for yourself and figure out which tasks or aspects of your job you really enjoy. Discard the ones that you still don’t like or feel neutral about, and keep the list of tasks that rise to the level of positive.

Step 4: Rank the tasks.

With the set of tasks remaining after you’ve discarded all the negative and uninspiring ones, rank them in order of how much joy they give you, thinking about them in the devoid-of-baggage sense, not contextualized in your current work situation. Hang on to the top few, and discard the rest.

Step 5: Identify which tasks you’re good or great at.

Chances are good at this point that you have a narrowed down list of aspects of your work that you’re pretty good at. This is not rocket science: most of us tend to dislike tasks we’re bad at, and enjoy doing the things we feel good at. Focus now on honing in on the remaining tasks that you feel awesome at. You know you’re one of the best in your company at doing that thing, or you’re the go-to when a question about it comes up. It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, and you don’t have to feel like you’re an all-time great at it, though if you do feel great at it, then you know you need that skill in your life post-retirement. That final list of one or a few things is your “must replicate” list.

Avoid Subtracting the Joy in Early Retirement

You may not have needed that exercise at all if you know what brings you joy in your work. Or you might look ahead to what others farther along their career paths are doing and think, “I don’t get to do that thing yet, but I’m pretty sure I would be awesome at it.”

Whether your “must replicate” task or list comes from innate knowledge, a gut sense of what you’d love to be doing or from going through the exercise doesn’t matter, but what does matter is recognizing that not doing that thing in some way in retirement could feel like a major loss.

Life minus work could equal a smaller life!

Just as subtracting work from our lives without adding other things in could result in a smaller life, subtracting work joy from our lives without replicating it in some way means a less joyful life. So let’s get replicating!

Replicate the Joyful Tasks

Next comes the most fun part: brainstorming how best to use your awesome powers in your second act. You know that old line, “If you do work you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”? That line smacks of privilege, of course, because it’s simply not possible for everyone to do work they love, but we already know that we’re a privileged bunch for getting to pursue early retirement to begin with. So the goal is to follow that joy and use the source of it to help us shape our next lives.

Free yourself to think outside the standard work boxes — we’re doing this from a place of not necessarily needing to earn money from it, after all — and consider:

How could I use this skill in ways that are totally different from how I use them now? 

What would an ideal project look like that lets me use the skill I’m great at while avoiding all the stuff about work that I don’t like at all? 

How could I use my awesomeness in a way that aligns with my purpose

How does this task that brings me joy line up with my life dreams, and could there be a way to combine them?

What’s the coolest thing I could imagine getting paid to do? 

Those are thought-starter questions, and where you take them depends entirely on the nature of the thing(s) that bring you joy, as well as what you imagine your early retirement to be like. But don’t limit yourself. Think outside the box. Think big. Make everything a possibility.

Our Replication Plan

We can’t share all the details yet, but we have a crazy idea in the works for our second act that involves the best of what I’m good at with the best of what Mr. ONL is good at. And we can’t wait to share more about that later this year!

What Brings You Joy at Work?

Any revelations from the exercise? Or have a gut sense of what you’re awesome at in your work? What muscles do you know you need to continue to flex in early retirement? Any kick-ass plans for post-retirement projects that will let you use those skills and bask in the warm fuzzies? Let’s all share in the comments!



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64 replies »

  1. I’ve noticed a trend the last 18 months or so. I’m really good at talking to people and making connections. Meeting everyone and knowing everyone is just something I do naturally. I love getting to go out on the floor and talk to people as I start their meetings.

    Likewise with blogging. I like to chat with FI people. FinCon was like heaven with so many awesome people to meet and talk to. I have yet to figure out how to parlay this into something in retirement, though.

    • I bet there are tons of applications for your social butterfly-ness, and they don’t all have to be paid. You could host parties, or mentor teens or college students, or chair volunteer committees, or do coaching to help introverts thrive in an extrovert world, or, you know, actual good ideas. ;-)

    • Your strengths are my weaknesses. I gaze in wonder (though not in a creepy way) at people like you and wonder how in the world you do what you do.

  2. I was thinking about this after reading Maggie’s recent post ( We tend to focus on the negative, especially when it comes to work, which leads us to brush off or ignore the positive. I really like your exercise for redirecting our focus and figuring out what to pull forward with us rather than leave behind and lose.

    • Yes! Thank you for this reminder… I meant to link to Maggie’s post! As usual, she and I are having similar thoughts. :-) And it was a pretty huge realization for me that not all work should be lumped into the same “I don’t want to do this anymore” bucket, so I thought I’d share!

  3. We’re excited about your replication plan, if it’s the one I’m thinking of! There are plenty of things I loved about my jobs: intense problem-solving, building cohesive and succinct presentations (like you said, not the actual PowerPoint-making, but the refining of the story-telling that comes with it), presenting and persuading clients, and mentoring teammates. I’ve managed to keep some of those things in my life through my side hustle activity, but I’d love to eventually find a way to tie those things I like into the content about which I’m most passionate right now: personal finance and travel. Hmm… good food for thought.

    • Well now I’m curious what you’re thinking of! Haha. I swear I didn’t write this to make people guess. ;-) And it feels totally doable to combine your passions with your strengths — you’re skilled in things that many people and organizations need and are interested in!

  4. I like the idea of replicating what you like into your life post retirement. In my case its improving processes via changes to tweak efficiency. I like seeing the difference tweaks make. I already apply this in my life quite a bit, I’m always making little tweaks to how I do tasks around the house or even how I manage things like money. Most of the things you see in work are replicatable beyond the 3 cubicle walls if your creative.

    • Those are good ones, and not a surprise at all given your blog! :-) And I totally agree — just about anything you can do at work you can do out of work, if you’re focused on making it happen!

  5. Spot on. In my case, I generally enjoyed what I did, but not within the confines of a full-time job. I’ve officially joined the Rockstar Finance team with J$ and I’m doing a lot of the same things that I did before, only for a cause that I believe in rather than for a company. It’s the best of both words, and we are building something amazing over there.

    I’m trying to put the pieces together about what your replication plan might entail. At first, I thought perhaps a podcast, but for some reason you guys don’t seem like podcast types of people. Maybe a consulting business with personal finance and blogging? That seems more likely, but even that still feels too…I don’t know, work-like for you guys.

    Yeah, I’m clueless.

    • I swear I didn’t put that hint out there to inspire guessing about our future project! Hahaha. ;-) I love that you’re working on the RF team. So much awesome stuff happening over there, and your voice is such a central part of the forums!

  6. Great post, and I think about this alot. I was out skiing Breckenridge and Keystone last weekend with a friend who is FI and just bought a condo in Dillon because he wanted to buy a rental place in a location he wants to retire at. It made me think about what I want in “retirement.” And I responded to him that I’m trying to build a company I want to retire in. My view of retirement isn’t just to relax and travel. I am a creator, and artist, and a meaning and purpose seeker. I want to build a company that allows me to be able to create the best things about my life. I’ll retire there happy, and to me, it doesn’t matter how much money I’ll make while I am there. Thanks.

  7. Love this! I’m in that camp that doesn’t really look at early retirement as a dream only because there are so many parts of my job that I adore.

  8. Great post, ONL.

    I find that working on projects to be more fulfilling than having to present and talk to other people about what I do. That means when I retire, I’ll probably work on more DIY projects and stuff like that. :)

  9. You know I had to chime in. Unless it’s not completely obvious, “JOY” is my favorite word. I make sure I find it and share it every day. And yes, even in my work day, there are moments where I find Joy. I find Joy in writing. I get lost in the Joy of reading and re-reading and revising something I’ve written over and over until I’m satisfied. I love the power of the perfectly chosen word or phrasing that clearly conveys meaning, emotion, etc. I find Joy working with people in teams to achieve a value greater than the sum of our individual inputs. I find Joy in continuous improvement. I find Joy in learning. I find Joy in all things planning and calculating… FIRE included. My second favorite word is Hope. I Hope someday (when I have a bit more free time on my hands), whether paid or volunteering, that I can help folks with these skills and share my Joy.

  10. “Step 1: Write down everything you do as a part of your job.”

    Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

    Sorry, but this is the first thing I thought of since, well, it’s not very far from the truth…

  11. I have so many ideas!! I love teaching and working with kids (and adults). I ran some awesome science camps for middle school kids years ago (think Harry Potter/Chemistry). It would be great run some kind of enrichment community education courses for young kids – and maybe even adults. I wouldn’t want to do it full-time in a school – but to run a series of classes at a library or community center could be a plan. Or maybe a week-long summer camp. I also have some ideas for a few books and e-courses. There is no way I’ll be bored in early retirement ;)

    • Um, can I do your summer camp?! (Serious idea: summer camp for grown-ups. I would pay good money for that.) I have NO DOUBT that you’ll never be bored, but I’d encourage you to focus not only on the stuff that’s best for the community (which is how I know you’re wired) but also the stuff that makes you feel awesome. ;-)

  12. Having listened to your podcast on Mad Fientist and following your blog for some time now…I think your future’s so bright that you may need a welder’s shield. :) You are indeed well spoken in both a written and verbal way. You are extremely humble despite your many successes. Your “story”, once completely unveiled,will open even more doors to you. I believe a “women’s perspective” in the FIRE space still remains an untapped market despite many fabulous folks such as Paula Pant-Suit, Farnoosh Torabi and the young upstarts…Fiery Millennial, that crazy good Firecracker gal ( Millennial Revolution I believe ) and others I’m no doubt omitting. Continued best wishes…looking forward to following along.

    • Aww, thanks Jon! I definitely don’t think I “speak for” women here, but I am glad to contribute another female voice to the FI space. Thanks so much for the nice note and well wishes! :-)

  13. Can’t wait till you can reveal your full plans!

    For me, I love mentoring and meeting new people, collaborating in small groups, teaching, solving problems, creation, and destruction (For context, this is usually getting rid of old awful systems that don’t work and birthing new ones, but still — [insert evil laugh here]).

    Blogging is definitely something that brings me joy and a sense of accomplishment. I’m thinking of possibly tutoring and/or creating random apps more in retirement as well. :D

    • I suspect you might have a clue of what we have in mind. ;-) And I love destruction, too, so totally understand! :::returns evil cackle::: And yeah, it goes without saying that we share your intention of continuing to blog for the foreseeable future!

  14. I’m a great advocate and enjoy fighting for the underdog, being a voice for people who can’t help themselves. While I haven’t chosen a specific cause yet, there will be no shortage of options post-FIRE.

    • I think your orientation to fight for the little guy comes through loud and clear! And I love that. So few people can look beyond themselves to conceive of helping others, so thank goodness there are people like you in the world!

  15. Ever since you mentioned you had a post FI thing in mind, i was curious. I am even more now!

    What i like best at work is to help understand a business problem and translate this into a working solution. Then, i love to make this happen.
    My thoughts post FI is to work local with smaller companies that want to do a project that is too big for them. My role could be the coordination of all parts. Not the highest dayly rates, yet, they would not be needed at all…

    • I’ll be sharing our plan in no time! ;-) I think many of us FI types have that in common: a love of identifying problems and finding solutions. And I love your post FI plan! That’s a lot like what we want to do in coaching local nonprofits — they can’t necessarily afford the companies we work for now, but if we can bring those skills to cheaper (or free) work, that will feel great.

  16. I definitely love blogging, and never realized how many warm fuzzies writing brought, because I don’t do much of it in the context of my work. At work, I really enjoy teaching (which is a good thing, since I’m a teacher!) and making projects/presentations, like you mentioned. No wonder I was the yearbook editor in HS! How many fun possibilities that opens up for the future–volunteering for the Yearbook in a local HS, perhaps?

    • Oh, I LOVE the volunteering with school clubs idea! I hadn’t ever thought of that. And I love that you’ve discovered blogging and are getting lots of joy from writing! I can’t imagine not writing, but I love when people discover that joy, no matter where they are in life. So yay!

  17. This is a cool thought exercise. There’s one part I struggle with: I’m in the lucky position of working for a company where I really appreciate the greater mission, so sometimes it’s difficult to pull out my particular task from the broader context of what we’re accomplishing as an organization. Even the mundane / dumb meetings take on some meaning when considering the big picture.

    I’m not saying I want to work forever, but I also realize that once I leave, much of the satisfaction I get from my work will leave as well, and I’ll probably need a new mission of some kind …

    Thanks for this, very thought provoking! –R

    • Thanks! I definitely understand the challenge you’re facing, and I think you can go based on when you feel you really shine, not just what feels meaningful. Does that help? ;-)

  18. great exercise! and it can be used in many contexts. What do you want to do in your next career, next position at work, next hobby, and in retirement. I’ve used the idea of trying to do more of what i enjoy at work by volunteering for those types of assignments. Telling the people around me that, ‘i like to do this’ let me do ‘this’ i will help you do ‘this’….’this’ being the thing i like, if you didn’t get that. ha.

    Can’t wait to hear more.

    • It’s great that you’re already in the habit of recognizing the things you’re good at and feel good doing… that will for sure make it easier into retirement and keep doing some of those things in some form!

  19. Such a beautiful uplifting article! Even if I’m nowhere near retirement it’s so beautiful to find these types of articles. Thanks!

  20. My FI plans include teaching yoga. I’m good at teaching, which is why park ranger or pouring at a winery sound like fun. I’d get to continue to teach and share knowledge. We’ll see how the future actually unfolds. I have found too much planning has the universe throw something else my way.

    • Have you taught yoga before or do you teach it now? It can be a tough way to earn money, from everything I’ve heard. If you love it, then that’s a different kind of “payment,” but it seems like it’s a tiny minority of teachers who make anything approaching a real income doing it. But that said, I love the idea of finding a way to put your teaching skills to use, whatever that looks like!

  21. Ohhh…. Nice thought provoking post there. I realized I like a LOT of what I do at work. Beyond the exciting parts of predicting where oil will be in the ground and drilling a 7″ hole 2 miles into the earth to prove if you’re right or not. That’s pretty exciting stuff when a $7 million well has your name on it.

    Beyond that, i’m good at putting the right people together to get stuff done; boiling something complex down to its essence to easily explain it; be able to not get emotionally involved/reactive with difficult co-workers; be diplomatic but firm with difficult co-workers (I’m a people person damnit! lol). I think I could be a good mediator post-geology career, and maybe that would fit into my schedule as well. Something to look into anyway.

    I also love teaching whether it’s engineers, new geo’s, interns, older geo’s, anybody even if it’s just talking investments, finance stuff, or you know actually geology and petroleum related things. I want to continue that in some way, not the least by volunteering for stuff at the kids schools. I think that ould be fun, but right now it’s not worth using vacation for that. Until then, I’ll jsut keep teching people at work about whatever I can. :)

    • Will you please teach me how not to get emotionally reactive with difficult coworkers and clients?!?! (Not kidding.) ;-) And it is no surprise that you’re interesting in teaching post-career, knowing what I know about you! (Soon to be more! Yay!) Bummer you probably can’t go out and drill new test wells in retirement — that sounds exciting! ;-)

  22. Speaking + Skiing = No Idea :) Looking forward to hearing more about the big plans!

    Everything I’m doing now I want to continue doing, so I think I’ll keep replicating that. But I have some other passions I’ve recently dusted off that I’m excited about, too. Life is good.

    • Ooh, I can’t wait to hear what your dusted-off passions are! And what an awesome thing to be able to say, that you enjoy everything you’re doing now!

  23. My joy includes making my lgbt family feel safe in my office. They come to me with some really intense problems and ask for my help fixing them. Watching them relax into feeling safe is a really incredible feeling. Since my FIRE plans include continuing my small business on a less than FT scale, I think I can replicate this. I would like to pay help to do the parts of the work I don’t like. A part time assistant to handle the business sounds like a wonderful, eventual expense.

    • I always love hearing about your work, because I think what you’re doing for people is so important and beneficial! So I think your semi-retirement plan sounds ideal, both to keep fulfilling what you love about it, and to keep contributing your goodness to the world!

  24. I’m late to this post and comment threat, but can I make a request? Can you pleeeeeease consider doing your own podcast once you retire? After listening to your guest spot on the MadFientist podcast, I completely agree that speaking is a major talent of yours. And it’s been a brewing frustration of mine that the personal finance/FIRE podcast universe is so heavily male-dominated. (If you know of great female-led ones, please let me know! I’ve only found a couple and haven’t really taken to them.) Maybe you are already thinking about this, but I personally would be thrilled to listen to you talk about this stuff on a frequent basis, and I’m guessing lots of other folks would agree with me!

  25. I dunno, I quit work to get away from all that and re-engage my time and I don’t miss it at all. Work was all about doing, my life now is about being. I don’t want to re-engage my doing. It gets in the way, and I especially don’t want more work.