Money! End of post.
Though I’ve written 275+ posts here on early retirement, and tried to think about it from every possible angle, we don’t remotely consider ourselves to be experts on early retirement. How could we be? We haven’t done it yet! I might be an expert at making guesses about early retirement, but that’s a pretty dubious claim to fame.
However, what we do know a thing or two about — having spent years doing it and now rounding the final curve — is the pursuit of early retirement. And given that we technically achieved the bare minimum level of financial independence a year and a half ago or so and continue to achieve new levels of it with each passing paycheck, we definitely know the ups and downs of that journey.
The anticipation. The dreams. The thrill of ticking off milestones. The impatience. The unexpected side effects. The flip-flopping. The urge to overthink and overplan. The urge to say “To hell with it!” and just quit already. The epiphanies along the way. All of it.
Each of us has a unique journey, and there’s no one way to do things or one emotional arc to it all. Everyone’s pursuit of financial independence proceeds at a different pace, involves different inputs and outputs, and drives toward a different vision. Just as it should be.
But I’ve concluded that one ingredient (aside from money, duh) is most important of all when it comes to achieving the big goal.
Some people approach financial independence as an escape. Some as a game, or a life hack. Some as a methodical, mathematical journey. Or as a more emotional and mindset-focused one (hi!). Or any combination of those or other approaches.
But among everyone I’ve met or heard from via email among those who’ve achieved it (not counting those unicorns who become FI all at once through a windfall), one thing stands out as the common factor:
They are all brimming with excitement for life.
Of course achieving financial independence is itself exciting, even though we didn’t actually realize when we’d technically crossed that line. But I don’t for a second believe that FI created that excitement for anyone, including us. Momentary excitement, sure. But not lasting, sustained excitement.
FI is just a number. It’s a dollar more than not being FI, and crossing that threshold didn’t make us any happier or better people. The laws of gravity still apply to us. We still have bad days. We still behave like jerks occasionally.
But most days, we’re stoked to think about all life has to offer. We’re filled with gratitude at all the cool stuff we get to experience. We’re immersed in our child-like wonder at the possibilities we get to explore. Every bit of that was true before we because FI, and we think it’s a been a big part — maybe the biggest part — of what has propelled us here.
Achieving Financial Independence Takes a Long Time — Sustaining That Takes Excitement
It’s always worth remembering that this journey takes a long time. Sometimes it feels like it takes for freaking ever. That’s why pacing ourselves is so important.
We’re big believers that you have to know what you’re working toward to stay motivated over that long journey, or it eventually feels like sacrifice and drudgery for nothing. The well-trod idea of retiring to something, not from something.
Because this is so much more involved and long-term than a marathon, or the Iditarod, or any other human-scale race cliche we could throw in here. It’s much more like The Odyssey, or like the journey to wherever the ship is going in 2001, before Hal takes over. (Okay, bad example. But not entirely related to why we don’t especially want tiny computers gradually taking over our house.)
But if we don’t want to feel trapped on the ship, er, journey, then it sure helps a lot to be thrilled about where we’re headed, or even just generally excited for no good reason other than it’s a great way to be.
The Best Excitement: For Something, Not Against Something
Most of us can’t wait to not have to go to work every day. That is utterly normal. But that idea alone isn’t enough to sustain true, deep excitement for the years it takes to achieve a huge goal like financial independence. Just like my belief that we should be focused on presence, not absence — thinking about what we want to add to life, not just subtract from it — our excitement should be for something, not against something.
Some people are just naturally excited. (Hi again.) Some people less so. (That fits Mr. ONL. Or maybe he just seems less excited or excitable by contrast.) Most of us are somewhere in between. But if we can stoke some of that excitement in ourselves, it’s so much easier to sustain than just a general sense of not wanting to have to go to work anymore, or not wanting to have to fill-in-the-blank.
Excitement Doesn’t Have to Be Specific
The good news for those who don’t have that new vision all mapped out yet is that excitement doesn’t have to be for this totally specific, well-articulated vision of your future life that may or may not ever actually happen as you imagine it.
Excitement is a state of mind.
Most of us are born with it, and find tons to be excited about as kids, because there’s so much awesome stuff to explore in the world, heck, even in our own backyards. But for some, life beats some of that excitement out of us. It reminds us that things are rarely as easy as they seem, that fairness isn’t baked in anywhere, that bad things can happen to good people. Or maybe it just reminds us that there’s a big portion of life that we just have to get through, to survive.
Sometimes we might just hit a tough chapter of life that gets us down. Like much of last year, when things were especially tough at work, and I wasn’t sure I could make it through this last year of our plan. (My personal proof that loss of excitement makes it harder to reach the big goal.)
It’s normal for excitement to wane. But we can bring it back.
Just as we can choose to be happy in any given moment, or more stressed than necessary — choosing our mindset works with both the positive and the negative — we can also choose to be excited.
Pick whichever word you like: excited, stoked, thrilled, energized, inspired, fired up. The word itself doesn’t matter, but the mindset does. Because this whole range of thinking is really about how we see the world, focusing on the possibility and promise instead of all the reasons we might not be successful.
Fostering the Excitement Mindset
Having spent my life as a chronically excited person, I know this to be true: There are plenty of times when being this way is deeply uncool. I have always embodied the spirit of zero chill. Excitement sometimes means showing we care when it’s not cool to care, it’s being curious and asking questions when it’s not cool to show interest. Some of this we just have to get over, and stop giving a flip about what others think, something many of us anti-expectations FIers are especially well suited for.
And for those who don’t have that same natural well of excitement to draw from, there’s no reason you can’t start to build up your own reservoir. By dedicating time to daydreaming, and forcing yourself to think about the wild range of possibilities that are out there for people not constrained by full-time work (and banning thinking about all the reasons those dreams may not come true, at least while you’re in daydreaming mode). By starting each day with an intention to focus on something look forward to or are grateful for. By giving yourself permission to be uncool, asking more questions, dreaming bigger dreams, caring deeply. By taking a step back, when you’re too stuck in thinking about what’s right in front of you, and looking at the big picture.
Excitement Can Manifest in Unexpected and Amazing Ways
Like a lot of aspiring early retirees, in the middle years of our journey, we definitely let ourselves get caught in the trap that I think most of us experience at some point: we were so focused on our end goal that we let that made us get resentful of our current life. Most of that resentment was about work, of course, and we started using hyperbolic words like “soul sucking” far too often, seeing the demands of work — something everyone ever born on the planet has had to do, one way or another — as unreasonable and too onerous. (Poor us!)
And if you’re in that place now, I get it. We’ve been there. But having gotten to the other side of that phase, I can also say: it’s no way to be. Resenting work every day is a crappy way to try to get through life, and it’s not good for your own sanity nor for the quality of your work. (Which also means you’re robbing future you of the opportunity to look back on your career proudly.)
We got past it by just making up our minds that we wouldn’t complain about work any more. And it has worked, like crazy well. Not complaining doesn’t mean we can’t ever be frustrated or vent about some nutty thing that happened. But we don’t let ourselves complain about the fact that we have to work, or that we work where we do, or that it’s hard. And the amazing thing is: by making that rule for ourselves, we find that we truly have far less we even want to complain about. Complaining is self-perpetuating. The more we do it, the more we see to complain about, which leads to more complaint. It’s like “you are what you eat.” You are what you complain about.
But by banishing that whole way of thinking, we created more space for excitement to fill our lives, and the borderline shocking and totally unexpected benefit of that has been feeling more excited about work itself. Some of that is no doubt knowing that don’t have long to go, but we started to feel more of that work excitement almost immediately after banishing complaining, when we still had more than two years of work left.
To be able to go from a negative view of work (“poor us!”) to an excited view of work (“how cool is it that we get to do this work?!”) in short order felt like a borderline miracle, and has absolutely helped propel us forward on our journey, rather than making every day feel like a drudgerous struggle to keep going.
Simply by eliminating a big barrier to excitement — that negative, self-perpetuating mindset — we created more space for it, and the excitement itself took care of the rest.
Let’s Talk Excitement!
What are you excited about long term — and also TODAY? Do you have any good tricks for getting yourself back to a state of excitement when a less stoked mindset starts to kick in? Any exercises you’ve found especially helpful to creating more excitement in your life, like setting an intention, focusing on gratitude, or anything else? Or just any recent milestones you are feeling thrilled about and want the community here to give you a big high five? You know what to do — share in the comments!
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