T-minus 100 days to lift-off.
We have exactly 100 work days to go until our early retirement. The last 100 days we plan to be full-time, salaried employees. Ever. (Forever. Forever? Forever Ever. Forever Ever? Yes.)
The last 100 days of conference calls and 4 am alarm clocks rousing us to dash off to catch a plane. The last 100 days of steady paychecks and generous benefits. The last 100 days of clients and coworkers, of time entry and expense reports. The last 100 days of important-sounding titles, of assistants, of hierarchy. The last 100 days of energizing brainstorms, late night fire drills, frantic weekend texts. The last 100 days of the most intense, meaningful work neither of us ever set out to do but are so proud we fell into. The last 100 days of our first life.
It’s a big freaking deal. And despite ticking off milestones left and right these last few years — financial independence, check. paid-off house, check. magic number, check. — this countdown feels different. But let’s rewind.
The Reality Disconnect
Here’s a thing you may have noticed lately:
I write a post proclaiming, “It’s really happening!”
Then I write another post saying, “None of this feels real.”
Then, “Ohmygod, $#!@’s getting real.”
Then, “I wonder when this will actually feel real.”
(Throw in a “big numbers don’t feel real” post for good measure.)
We’ve been having a bit of a reality problem.
Despite having planned for early retirement for years and having long dreamed of getting to this point in the journey, there hadn’t been a moment when we could palpably feel things go from abstract to real. If anything, things have felt more abstract as the numbers have gotten bigger and the health care unknowns have multiplied. We knew things should be feeling real, we could tell ourselves intellectually that they were, but it never translated to feeling it.
For months, as we’ve been inching closer to our end date, the rational knowledge of the countdown has been spurring us into action. I’ve had more medical appointments in the last month than perhaps any other non-urgently-sick person in the history of the world. (I’m exaggerating, a little. Turns out, if you say to doctors, “I’m quitting my job at the end of the year and don’t know what my insurance situation will be after that,” they become surprisingly eager to get you whatever tests or referrals you need.)
So we’ve been dutifully checking things off of our pre-retirement to do list, but mostly the way I imagine robots would: completing tasks because we’ve been told we have to by a certain deadline, but without the ability to feel the urgency or emotion behind them. For much of this year, the year-end deadline might as well have been arbitrary for all the real emotional weight it carried.
That was true. Until now.
In the last month, our knowledge of the countdown has gone from abstractly true to truly true. Suddenly it’s all palpable.
We have finally processed reality. And it’s really, really, really real.
When the Future and the Present Collide
Humans are bad at focusing on the present. We are future-oriented by nature. And those of us chasing a giant goal like financial independence or early retirement program ourselves to be even more future-focused. While most people are thinking about what they could do next month or maybe next year, we’re thinking years or even decades down the road. We’re the champions of future thinking.
Which is great until the thing you’re actually supposed to focus on is right here, only days away instead of years. When the future you’ve been planning for is suddenly right in front of your face.
When everything is in the future, nothing is real. Tomorrow never actually arrives, after all, as every bar that posts a “free beer tomorrow” sign reminds us.
So having to shift abruptly from focusing on the distant, abstract future to the very real present is not as easy as we would have thought.
Summertime, and the Quitting Is(n’t) Easy
I’m pretty sure every human on the planet has let some fantasy play out in their mind about quitting a job or leaving some situation they’d rather not be in. Aspiring early retirees do not have the corner on that market. For the first few years of our early retirement journey, I would write resignation letters in my head, most often while commuting to and from the airport. I bet I wrote a few dozen imaginary letters, full of grace and magnanimity, or maybe just pomposity dressed up as something more virtuous. But for all that “practice,” it was still fantasy.
Fantasizing about something is easy. Actually doing the thing is much harder.
We aren’t retiring early because we hate our jobs. We actually love them. Not every minute, of course, because work is work, and every job, no matter how important, involves some stuff that’s frustrating or feels like a waste of time, or just takes up too much of our time. Those things being true don’t make a job something you must retire from, they make it worth the paycheck. Why would someone ever pay you to do something you love every minute of? That’s called a hobby, or vacation. Not a job.
We’re retiring early because we see our lives as a series of chapters, and we’re ready to close this one and move on to the next. But we’ll always cherish this chapter, and probably look back on it as one of our favorites — the one where the most action happened, the most conflict and resolution, the most memorable characters, the biggest feelings.
We’ve been imagining closing that chapter for years, but now that the time is quickly arriving to do the thing and not just imagine it, it feels so much different from what we expected.
It feels sad.
When I think about giving notice, something I’ve now assigned to an actual date, I feel the tears start to well up. It’s like the dread I’d feel if I knew I had to break up with someone I still loved and genuinely wanted to be happy, knowing that my assurances that it’s not you, it’s me, would ring hollow. That my hopes for them to go off and live their best life without me holding them back would come off as self-serving and faux-gracious. Because it really is me, and they really are great, and I really have nothing but gratitude and admiration. I’m just afraid they won’t hear that, because who feels that way but then leaves anyway?
So many things have surprised us in this journey that we really shouldn’t be surprised anymore. I’d always expected to feel jubilant at this point in the process, but I don’t, because I have to do this big hard thing I don’t want to do but want to have done. I want to be retired, I’d just rather skip the last few steps necessary to make that the reality. Mr. ONL feels the same way.
We’re not sad to stop working, but we’re sad to quit.
The End of the Double Life
Though we’re 99 percent resolved that we’re going to give notice at slightly different times, by early October — just over two months away — we’ll both have bucked ourselves up to have the hard conversations, we’ll have had them, and we’ll be on the other side, for better or for worse. My guesses about what I’d feel when have often been wrong, but I’m going to wager this guess anyway: that’s when the jubilation will kick in.
Because this whole double life we’ve been leading for years now has taken its toll. Remembering who knows or doesn’t know what, being careful not to share our real news when people ask us what’s going on, being super diligent not to let our blog world and real world touch — all of this takes mental energy.
Remembering to check to see if I’m wearing this dress in any of my real life social media pics before posting this, and taking off my engagement ring before snapping, lest anyone recognize it. That kind of thinking is normally reserved for criminals, or spies, neither of which describes us. (Sorry if that’s a disappointment.) ;-)
If nothing else, giving notice will feel like a relief. We can stop carrying around this heavy, intricate lie that this blog has only compounded. We can dig up that telltale heart at last, and show it to everyone, and apologize for keeping it a secret if we have to, but at least have the paranoia of being found out disappear.
And then we can focus solely on the excitement that we do still feel now, just tempered by the reality of what still has to happen before we begin the next chapter.
Being Present in the Present
I think it’s important right now to let ourselves feel the full range of feelings that are coming up, and, because I write this blog, to share them with you.
It would be easy to just spout our excitement and focus on only one strand of what’s going on right now, because having an early retirement blog obliges us to be early retirement cheerleaders, and we’re getting to the best part. Or given the many human cognitive biases that serve to reinforce our belief in the rightness of our own choices, we could reassure ourselves that we feel nothing but joy and elation, getting so close to the goal we’ve put so much energy toward achieving.
But instead, we’re going to try our best these last few months to feel all the things honestly. To stay focused on the present, not only the quickly approaching future. To be mindful observers of whatever comes our way.
If that means mourning the end of our careers, then we’ll mourn. If it means panicking that we have too much to do before we lose our paychecks and health insurance, then we’ll freak out a little. If our giving notice turns into a non-event, then we’ll lick our wounds and ice our bruised egos. We don’t have to reduce our messy, complicated, human feelings to singular, positive concepts just to tell a good story.
We know the pure joy is in there, too, but it’s okay if we don’t feel it for a while. It will only make it that much sweeter when it comes.
What’s Surprising In Your Journey?
The journey to financial independence and early retirement is a long one, with many twists and turns along the way. Have you encountered anything surprising lately? Any feelings coming up that you didn’t expect? Anybody else think you might be sad to quit, even if you’ll be glad to retire? For those who’ve already retired, were there any unexpected feelings that came up along the way for you? Does the relief and jubilation come quickly after giving notice? (Please say it does!) ;-) Share your thoughts and let’s discuss in the comments!
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