Okay, quick show of hands: Who reading this is (or was) completely amazing at your job? Good at all aspects of it, even the annoying ones? The kind of person more junior colleagues look up to, and more senior people fight over? The kind of talent where everyone who encounters you thinks, “Wow, that person is going somewhere!”?
No, seriously, this is not a rhetorical question. This is an actual question I’d really like an answer to. (Please answer in the comments!)
Because I can’t believe that everyone pursuing some form of escape from work — whether it’s full early retirement or just saving enough to be able to quit if a job is making you you crazy — hasn’t at some point had this thought:
Do I just want this because I’m bad at working?
We have this thought all the time.
I doubt anyone we work with would say we’re bad at working. We’ve both been on a pretty fast track promotion-wise, and have many clients who refer new work our way — so the signs tell us we’re doing a lot right.
But we’re certainly not SERIOUSLY AWESOME at our jobs. There are aspects we feel genuinely bad at. We procrastinate (any other two procrastinator households out there?), we try to get out of annoying tasks, we don’t always deliver tough feedback in the best way (or at all), and sometimes we feel so stretched that we don’t deliver our best thinking or work (though we have stopped complaining, which helps a ton).
This isn’t just impostor syndrome, either — I happen to have a pretty high view of what I’m capable of (those gold stars, man!), and while Mr. ONL is on the more modest end of the spectrum, he knows what he’s good at.
On some level, we suspect that we are simply incompatible with work, at least the current ever-speeding, ever-more-demanding postmodern incarnation of work. And yes, I completely know how bratty, entitled and privileged that sounds — and is. The only defense I’d offer is that we’ve never expected anyone to help us quit our jobs — we’ve done the work ourselves of saving the money we need to make our exits. (Though we’ve had plenty of help getting into the position of being able to save aggressively.)
But all of this still has us asking the question: even though we know our why, even though we have plenty that we want to retire to, are we fundamentally doing this because we are kinda bad at work?
And if we were seriously awesome at work — good at all aspects of it, and possessing the right attitude and commitment — would early retirement even be on our radar?
Early retirement as this community defines it — retirement in one’s 30s or 40s or even sometimes 20s — is incredibly hard to study, because we’re still the exceedingly rare and magical unicorns of the population as a whole. Data out there on “early” retirement tends to define it as sometime in one’s 50s — still a wonderful achievement, but quite different in terms of life stage and the planning behind it than retiring a decade or two earlier.
So we can’t go out and do a survey of early retirees to ask, “Hey, were you a total rock star at your job, or did you mostly do what you had to do to collect your paycheck, make people happy and not much more?”
Which is too bad, because I am dying to know that answer. No doubt you can be very, very good at your job and still want to retire early. You can be widely admired in your career and still want to retire early. You can bring a high level of skill and commitment to your work and still want to retire early.
But can you be SERIOUSLY AWESOME at your job and still want to retire early?
Attitude Trumps Skills
I have met a lot of early retirees and aspirants since starting this blog, and it is enormously clear to me that as a whole, we are a smart bunch. I can only imagine that that translates into us being highly skilled at work. We know we are.
But while I wonder if people who are amazing at all aspects of their job would ever pursue early retirement, I also doubt that many of us are pursuing it specifically because we believe we lack skills.
To us at least, this feels less like a question of the tangible — skills — and more like a question of the intangible: the attitude we bring to our work.
My ambition is an oft-discussed topic here, so I won’t rehash that. And Mr. ONL, while not equally striving in his tendencies, is a person of high integrity who believes it’s his imperative to deliver his best work to his employer and clients. So here we are: two smart people with strong skills who want to do well in our work for various reasons. Why on Earth do we want to retire early? It’s attitude all the way, grouped into a few themes:
Commitment — We’re total oddities to be Gen Xers who have spent nearly our entire careers with single employers, so we’re perhaps more committed to our companies and work than others. But we’re committed within boundaries: we strive to do our best work as much as possible, to make our clients happy, and to help make our companies successful. But even as long as we’ve been in our jobs, we don’t see ourselves in that bucket of who “the company” is. We see those who run the companies as being the beneficiaries, and have never pictured ourselves being in that group. I imagine that more committed people would see their work as benefiting a company they hope to one day lead or own or replicate in their own start-up.
Vision Beyond Work — We have known some incredible people whose work is world-changing, and those people likely can’t imagine not working. Can you imagine Steve Jobs not working? Malcolm Gladwell? Anna Wintour? Some people are totally okay being defined by their work, and that most often also means being consumed by it. There’s an aspect of being defined by our work that we feel now and don’t resist, but we’ve never wanted that to be the most important thing about our lives. Most of our mountain town friends don’t even really know what we do, because we’re happy not talking about it. If we had a vision for how we could change the world at work, it seems implausible that we’d be so eager to walk away.
Day-to-Day Attitude — I can’t say it has never happened, but I can’t remember a day in which I’ve woken up and bounded out of bed thinking, “Hooray! I get to go to work today!” That’s been true across every job I’ve ever had, so I don’t think it’s a position-specific attitude. Mr. ONL would say the same. And we get the Sunday Blues hard. No matter how much we love a project or value our employers, on every single workday we would rather be not working.
The Missing Data
Maybe one day we can do a real survey of early retirees and ask this and so many other questions. But for now, I’m basing this question on our sample size of two.
Even if 100 of you weigh in, that’s still a teensy sample size if we’re aiming for statistical significance. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t weigh in (please do! I bet we’re all curious!), but that the answer to this question is to some degree unknowable.
And maybe the reason I’m even posing this question — other than to see if we’re the only ones who wonder about whether our desire to retire early is driven by feeling bad at parts of our work — is because I fervently hope that those shining stars out there don’t get the early retirement seed planted in their minds.
We desperately need innovators, researchers, visionaries. And sure, those of us who reach financial independence or retire early may still do cool, innovative work in our second acts, but the type of innovation and vision the world needs isn’t the kind achieved by dabblers or part-time entrepreneurs.
We need those people who can’t imagine themselves anywhere but at work. We need the scientists willing to spend decades studying a subject before they have that break-through. We need those people so focused on solving a problem that it keeps them up at night.
Those of us pursuing early retirement don’t need to be those people — but let’s also not encourage them to join us.
What Do YOU Think?
I bet you guys have theories. And maybe some personal refutations. Anyone want to raise your hand to proclaim, “Yes! I am all kinds of amazing and I still want to retire early!”? Or conversely, anyone want to echo our sentiment that if we were seriously awesome at our jobs, we wouldn’t be on this path? The floor is yours!
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our bimonthly newsletter with tons of top secret info we'll never share here on the blog. It's like a whole extra post or two a month!