I remember back in the days before my life was ruled by work, when I could hear about some activity or club or place you could visit, and think, “Yeah! I wanna do that!” And then I could spend hours doing that thing, maybe for weeks or months on end, and it would never occur to me that maybe people get paid for doing it.
Like, I know I’m a dork, but editing the school paper and taking photos for yearbook seemed fun. Not like work at all. Interning at my local public radio station felt like something I should be paying for, not the other way around, because it felt so freaking cool. Ditto for being an assistant counselor at sleepaway camp, and teaching preteens about the great outdoors.
I know my experience was not universal, and lots of people did not have the freedom of that kind of time in high school (my dad valued education above everything and made clear that my job was school, and all the things that go along with that), so having those years when money wasn’t a ruling force in my life is something I’ll always be grateful for.
Because those years taught me an important lesson:
There are things you would never choose to do, things you’d choose to do if paid enough, things you’d happily do for pay, and things you’d happily do for free.
Most of us live our adult lives in those middle two zones: the things we do by choice because we get paid to, and – if we’re lucky – things we get paid to do but are happy to do under those circumstances.
That fourth zone, though – things we’d happily do for free – are typically the domain of the young and the old, or at least the lucky ones among them. The ones who don’t need to be breadwinners for a family or themselves, or at least not anymore.
And when I think about the things I’d happily do for free, I always think back to high school, and those days when I could take something on merely because it seemed fun, interesting or both. Not because it paid well. Not because it was a “good opportunity.” Not because it might lead to something bigger or better. Just because there was some voice inside of me that said, “Hell yes.”
All of which is nothing new to folks who retired early or are aspiring to do so. That’s exactly why most of us go through the years of focused saving, to be able to eliminate the things in life that we only do because we’re getting paid for it. To get back to the tasks that feel essential to our souls.
But let’s talk about work.
Related post: Our Big Epiphany: We Will Earn Money in Retirement
Deciding When to Work in Early Retirement
When we first envisioned our early retirement, we wanted the exact opposite of the life we were living at the time, which was stressful and consumed by work. The opposite of that was no work. So that’s what we strove for.
But as we got closer to our end date, we realized that we couldn’t actually imagine a life with no work. Not because we lack imagination, but because there’s some work that we actually like. And we realized we’d been asking the wrong question.
Instead of asking, “How can we eliminate work from our lives?” we needed to be asking, “How can we do only the work we’d happily do for free and eliminate all the rest?”
Which is like mentally going back to my teenage years. When I didn’t have to worry about keeping a roof over my head (because my dad paid the mortgage then, and now our house is paid off). When I didn’t have to worry about career advancement (that was yet to come then, and now it’s in our past). I could just follow my heart or gut.
And that’s when I dubbed my early retirement work philosophy the “high school rule.”
Meaning: If there’s something I could do that looks like work, I’ll do it if I would have happily done it for free in high school. If not, then it’s a hard pass.
Work That Meets the High School Rule Standard
That’s how I know I’ll keep this blog going: because writing is something I’ve always done, usually for free. That’s how I know that podcasts will be a part of my life for a long time: because I did lots of unpaid public radio internships and have loved the form for decades. That’s why it’s easy to say yes to speaking requests, because I did forensics and debate and mock trial and pretty much every form of talking they’d let me sign up for.
I know those three things are my “work” priorities in early retirement, and I feel thankful for that every day. What an incredible privilege to be able to focus my work time on projects wholly of my choosing, exactly the things I’d do even if no one was listening or paying.
As for other work projects, they have to clear a high bar. If they involve writing or speaking but also lots of busy work that I wouldn’t choose to do? Pass. If they involve early morning conference calls or lots of sitting in traffic or things I wouldn’t have chosen to do at any age? Pass.
The Benefit of a Rule with a Name
Calling it the high school rule has helped make the line clearer. There are some opportunities that have come along that have sounded cool on the surface, and I’ve been tempted to say yes, while knowing that there might be some annoying aspects, too. But high school me is much clearer on what sounds fun and interesting, and she’s better at saying, “Nah.”
Adult me lives in gray areas and nuance, but high school me knows what she wants to do and what she doesn’t, so I have put her back in charge.
If I hadn’t named the rule, and was just following the fun, I’m positive I’d be taking on some stuff right now that I wouldn’t ultimately be happy about. Stuff that was a little bit fun and a large bit annoying. Stuff that goes counter to the whole idea of early retirement.
So, for me, that’s the power of having a rule and naming it.
What’s Your Work Rule?
I’m always curious how people evolve in their journeys, like how we moved from never wanting to work again to wanting to do work we’d choose with money as no object. Have you experienced something similar? Or evolved in other ways in your journey?
And do you have a rule like our high school rule for work? Or other thoughts on what separates the yes answers from the no answers when opportunities come along? Or see no need for a rule and just listen to your gut in each moment? Let’s chat in the comments about how that decision-making process goes for you, or how you imagine it will go when you get to your early retirement!
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Categories: we retired early