I don’t know what went through your head, but when I was growing up, dreaming of my future adult life, money never crossed my mind. Abstractly I knew I would have some amount of money that would let me make my own purchasing decisions, but mostly my child brain just thought of that as being able to go to McDonald’s more than once a month. When I dreamed of the professions I might go into, their earnings potential never occurred to me, even for a moment.
But that burning question was always there: What do I want to be when I grow up?
I don’t know if you thought about money as a kid, but I do know you asked yourself that question, maybe often.
Fast forward a few decades, and I know very few people who are doing as adults what they imagined as kids they’d be doing. And even surprisingly few who are doing what they went to college for. There are plenty of people — including Mark and me — who just sort of fell into our careers and kept going, and never actually made an affirmative choice to do some job that calls to us. We happened to get lucky and find accidental careers that have suited us and been fulfilling on a lot of levels, but neither of us would describe that work as a calling.
Now, though, everything changes. In just under three weeks, when we pull that ripcord, we get the incredible privilege of focusing in a big way on that question: What do we want to be when we grow up?
And really, isn’t that what financial independence is all about?
This is a conversation I’ve had a few dozen times now over the past six weeks:
Tanja: So have you heard our news?
Person: Yeah! Wow! That’s amazing. So what are you going to do?
Tanja: Travel a lot, spend more time outdoors actually enjoying the place where we live instead of traveling all the time for work, write more, read more. And figure out what we want to be when we grow up.
I might be imagining it, but sometimes the look I get from folks is a little suspicious, or worried or confused until I get to that last part. But as soon as I say we want to figure out The Big Question, people understand. Because don’t we all want to find what we feel called to do, whether or not it resembles “work” in any way?
Almost none of the people I admire most worked a traditional career path. One of my greatest heroes, Julia Child, was constrained by social norms of the day that said married women mostly didn’t work, especially when hopping around the globe with a Foreign Service husband. And she didn’t even learn to cook until her 40s. She found her true passion by being bored in strange places, and having the time to dabble in different hobbies until she found the thing that grabbed ahold of her and wouldn’t let go. Would she have gotten that chance to explore if she’d worked a 9-5 job in one place for 40 years?
Don’t Fear Boredom — Embrace It
It’s not the most appealing way to put it, but we’re eager to be bored in strange places. Boredom is what forces us to look around and get creative. Boredom is what requires us to think differently. I don’t actually think we’re going to be bored very often, because we’re curious people whose list of interests overfloweth, but we need to stop talking about the possibility of being bored in early retirement as automatically a bad thing.
For many of history’s greatest thinkers, boredom was the greatest gift. There’s even a growing school of thought that kids must be allowed to be bored when they’re growing up, so that they learn how to think creatively.
So the next time someone asks me, “But won’t you get bored?” My answer will be: “I hope so!”
A Broader Definition of “Be”
Another interesting trend lately has been the major uptick in comments and emails from folks who are concerned about us, and worry that we’ll regret no longer being “productive members of society.” Which is striking for two reasons:
1. The assumption that we’re never going to do anything ever again that looks like work just doesn’t make much sense (and shows that they can’t actually have read much of this blog), and
2. The idea that being a “productive member of society” can only happen by working full-time for someone else is a notion we all need to kick to the curb right now.
(There’s also a heavy dose of retirement police thinking in there, too, that “retirement” means you are confined to a rocking chair or a beach chair permanently. Even though you’d never accuse a 70-year-old working on a part-time second act of being “not really retired.” But that’s all not even worth going into, because it’s not new or interesting.)
This, to me, signals that these folks — out of good intentions, no doubt — are thinking far too small. On a basic level, they are confusing “do” and “be.”
If you meet a stranger, and they ask, “What do you do?” what they really mean is, “How do you earn a living and pay the mortgage?” If you were to answer, “I geek out over space and aviation, write a blog, spend as much time as I can in the mountains, and am on the constant search for the best gluten free products out there,” you’d certainly get a weird look back in return. (I, erm, don’t know this from experience or anything.) Or if you answered, “I’m passionate about equality and improving things for the planet and those less fortunate than me, and am absolutely bonkers for the the Sierra,” they’d probably walk away thinking, “Oh yeah, you’re bonkers alright.”
We’re trained to answer the question with what we do for work, and the fact that most conversations with new acquaintances start this way is no accident. It is how our society is wired to think, which is to define our contribution solely in terms of our traditional employment productivity, even though history is littered with examples of people whose contributions were completely outside of “normal” work. The example that gets trotted out most often is that Einstein developed his theory of relatively while working at the patent office, but there are scores of others. And that’s not even the point.
The point is that “do” is a limiting frame, but “be” is limitless. The real question — What do you want to be when you grow up? — purposely uses “be,” not “do.” It’s not solely about a narrow definition of work, with no other possibility of contributing meaningfully to society. It’s about finding your calling or your passion or your many passions — or whatever else “be” means to you.
I think a lot about outdoor athletes, given our interests and where we live. And people like Alex Honnold, Lynn Hill, Conrad Anker, Kit Deslauriers, Apa Sherpa, or Junko Tabei — all accomplished climbers in different forms — have contributed almost nothing to posterity if we think only in terms of economic output. But they’ve contributed enormous sums if we think bigger, and see how they’ve proved that things we thought were impossible are possible after all, or we look at how many people around the world they’ve inspired. That stuff matters. That’s about being something, not just doing something.
And with financial independence, we can be whatever we want, and not stay confined to just doing something.
And the real question is, which of these would you rather answer? What do you do? or What do you want to be?
I’ll take “be” over “do” any day.
So What Will We Be? What Will You Be?
When I’m writing updates on the blog a year or five or 10 from now, what will I say we’re doing? I have no idea, and that’s exactly how we want it. We might have plenty of things mapped out in detail (mostly on the financial contingency side), but we have relatively little planned for next year. And that’s not going to change. Staying as unscheduled as possible is essential in our minds to having time and space to explore the thoughts that arise for us, and to notice what we feel tugging at us. So we’ll see where all of that leads, and keep reporting back.
As for you, time to discuss all of this. ;-) How do you think about “be” vs. “do”? (Or do you think of things that way at all?) Do you already know what you want to be when you grow up/retire early? Or are you like us, and eager to find out? Any ideas you have for how you’ll go about finding out, or just plan to stay as unstructured as possible in your post-FI life? We always love to hear from you and to chat in the comments, so let’s dive in!
Categories: we've learned