The pre-emptive work nostalgia I’ve been feeling in our last year of work before early retirement has forced me to admit something to myself that I haven’t wanted to acknowledge for a long time now: I love my job.
That was hard to see last year, when I was working my face off and traveling almost constantly, just because I had no breathing room to realize it. Saying no more this year has made all the difference, and given me that perspective on why I feel so grateful to have gotten to spend my career doing what I do. There’s so much of it I’m awesome at, I feel good about the overall impact I make in the organization and with my clients, I love so many of the people I’m privileged to work for and with, it makes me feel relevant, and I will miss big pieces of it. I’m even realizing that I will miss all the travel, just not the 3:30 AM wake-up calls.
So… does that mean I’m hesitating about walking away from this job I love in a few short months?
Not one bit. Because I believe this fervently:
You can love your career and still want to retire early.
It’s definitely true for me, and there are a bunch of reasons why it could be true for anyone else. Let’s talk about why that is, and why walking away from something you enjoy isn’t as crazy as it might seem.
As humans, we are bad at taking the long view of things. We overestimate the importance of recent history, especially our own recent history, and base a lot of our assumptions about what’s “right” on those overestimations.
“Careers,” for example. Careers are a super recent phenomenon for virtually all workers, dating back less than a century. A hundred years ago, a third of all Americans still lived on farms, women rarely worked outside the home (and couldn’t vote), and most of the workers who weren’t self-employed on the farm worked in manufacturing or others goods-producing industries in an hourly capacity. It’s only in the last half century at most that we see a shift toward the types of jobs that would constitute a “career” as we define that word today.
And yet, the notion of a career is extremely powerful in our minds. It seems foolish or even crazy to give up a successful one. It seems especially crazy to give up one that we might go so far as to say we love. But there’s no reason to get so attached to careers if we already have what they provide us with first and foremost — financial security — except that society tells us we’re supposed to. (And those of us pursuing early retirement already know that doing something because society says so is a lousy reason.)
Going back to Maslow’s (simplified) hierarchy, our needs in life are pretty straightforward:
The only things we really need work or a career to provide for us are safety and physiological needs — the things like food, shelter and security that only money can buy. Work can provide belonging, it can provide self-esteem, and for the lucky few, it might also provide some self-actualization. But it doesn’t have to — we can get those things elsewhere. And if we save our money instead of spending it all, we don’t even need work to provide the basics for us for all that long.
Saying Goodbye to a Job or Career You Love
It’s hard to give up anything we love. It sucked hard when I had to give up gluten forever. I bawled my eyes out when my family sold our Chevy Citation when I was in kindergarten, because, um, change is hard? And if we’re talking real moments of loss — grandparents, friends, pets — those are almost too hard to talk about. (Though if you ever need to hire someone who you can be assured will cry at a funeral, I’ll be available starting in January. All major credit cards accepted.)
The difference between losing people and willingly giving up a career is that those people leave behind a void that we can never fill (and I will fight you if you assert the same isn’t true for beloved pets). It’s true loss. If your career is your one calling in life, that may also be true for you when you retire, but that’s not the case for most of us.
Most of us can be happy doing a number of different things, exploring different interests and developing different parts of ourselves. We don’t need careers to serve that purpose for us.
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Why You’re Not Crazy If You’re Retiring Early from a Job or Career You Love
Though some of them may not be obvious, especially to those who’d purport to tell us what they’d do in our situations, there are still plenty of legit reasons why you could still want to walk away from your career, even if you love it. Here are a few:
Anyone who tells you you’re crazy is probably just jealous — I don’t like accusing others of being jealous, because we really can’t know anyone else’s thoughts or feelings. But there is plenty of research to tell us that most people do not love their jobs or careers. At most, a third of people love their jobs, but that’s old data from before the financial crisis. More recent data show only 13 percent of people like going to work. So if you do love your job — even if you don’t like going to work every day (hi!) — you’re already in the lucky minority. So the much larger majority of workers already have reason to be envious of you. And now you want to leave that job you love to do something else? Well you’re just looking a gift horse in the mouth! That reasoning might be sound, but it’s their reasoning, not yours. And you don’t have to make your decisions based on what will make other people feel good.
Our lives have several seasons — The reason I brought up the recency of careers in the first place is because we’ve quickly evolved to the notion that the career season of life should be our longest. Well guess what? There’s no evolutionary or historically-grounded reason that must be true, and we can think instead of our careers as one regular-sized season of life. Just like schooling is a season, and like the many things we do in early retirement and “traditional retirement” will be different seasons. What’s actually crazy is working a career forever when you feel like you’re “supposed to,” when that entire notion is only a few generations old.
Even a job you love could be keeping you from achieving self-actualization — Even a job that makes your heart sing, and which either fills you with purpose or lets you fulfill yours, is still only focused on one small slice of your full self. Letting go of that job might be what you need to find a fuller sense of self-actualization, or to pivot from focusing on one aspect of self-actualization to another.
It gives someone else a chance — This one is underrated but hugely important. If you love your job, chances are good that someone else would love it, too. And maybe even that there is someone waiting patiently right now to have their chance. What if, instead of thinking of work as a lifetime appointment, we thought of it as something we took our turn at and then let the next person have their turn?
You can still use those same skills if you wish to — If you love that you are a mentor at work, there are a million ways you can mentor in your community. If you love problem solving, there are endless ways you can do that, too. Whatever it is you feel good at in your job, it’s all replicable in your post-career life.
You might not always love that job — My wish for everyone who loves what they do is that they may always love it, and that the work loves them back. But there’s a chance that won’t be true for a lot of people. Expectations around work and productivity have sped up dramatically in the last 30 years, and there’s no reason to think that trend will abate. Employers will continue to be pressured by shareholders, funders and taxpayers to do more with less, and that will mean more pressure on everyone drawing a paycheck. A job with enjoyable work can get hard to love quickly if the work culture or work conditions are unsustainable. Far better to have a shorter, more positive career and then move on then to be forced to stay in a job well beyond when the enjoyment ceases because of increased pressure and belt tightening.
Why Else Might You Leave a Great Job?
Let us know — what are your reasons for leaving a great career, whether you love it or not? Any other reasons why a person in a wonderful job they enjoy might still want to walk away? Disagree with any of the reasons I listed here? Let’s chat about all if it in the comments!