Ambition Doesn’t (Have to) End at Retirement // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, financial independence retire early, happiness, adventure, purposethe process

Ambition Doesn’t (Have to) End at Retirement

Last summer, I had a a soul-ascending-from-my-body experience when I got to have a phone date with someone I respect enormously. That someone was Vicki Robin, and one of the things she said on the call was this: “Ambition doesn’t end at retirement.”

We went on to talk about a great many other things, most especially how we can make the financial independence (FI) movement more inclusive, not just in terms of ethnic, racial and gender diversity (which we still unfortunately lack, though less on the gender side than many still seem to think), but in terms of making FI something that is within reach of a much larger share of the country, or even the world. Creating the economic circumstances that would make the FI idea one that many more people are in a position to entertain.

I came away from that conversation feeling inspired (stay tuned), but that ambition line has come back to me again and again ever since.

My unified theory of early retirement is that there’s a certain slice of the population who are lucky enough to find their purpose through their work, but for all the rest of us, early retirement gives us a way to live out our purpose without mandatory employment getting in the way.

I don’t believe that playing Fortnight all day is many people’s purpose. Nor is kicking it on the beach for months on end. I’m sure there are a few folks for whom doing those things and only those things will bring lasting contentment and fulfillment, but for most of us, we need more than that to feel that we’ve spent our time here in a worthwhile way. And needing more is the exact definition of ambition, a connection Vicki’s words helped me make.

Ambition Doesn’t (Have to) End at Retirement // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, financial independence retire early, happiness, adventure, purpose

Ambition and Retirement Co-Exist Naturally

The idea of retirement and ambition coexisting may feel a little uncomfortable, because all this collective baggage exists around what “retirement” even means, all tied up in one particularly toxic idea. I get angry when I hear people say you can’t be retired if you also work a little, not because I care what the self-appointed retirement police think, but because it’s an ultimately ageist argument telling older people to sit down and shut up. It’s saying that when you retire, you’re supposed to entirely opt out of society and stop thinking you may play a role in it (outside of, perhaps, church and grandchildren), which is ridiculous. It’s pegging a person’s worth to society entirely to their career status, which is not only ageist, but classist, too. (If you doubt that, just see any news article on early retirement, and the high percentage of commenters describing early retirees as deadbeats or mooches, along with anyone else who doesn’t work. The implication: if you’re not working, you don’t get a voice or have rights. Work is how you prove that you have worth.)

I believe the exact opposite: You can contribute to society at any age and regardless of your employment status. Let’s repeat that, because it’s worth saying twice.

You can contribute to society at any age and regardless of your employment status.

You can contribute if you’re young and not yet in a career path. You can contribute if you work for yourself. You can contribute if you don’t work at all. You can contribute regardless of which boxes you do or don’t check.

Which is the whole point, right?

The point of saving in a focused way for all those years is that you get to decide exactly how to spend your time after you leave a career, and if you feel compelled to spend that time contributing to society, then hooray for you.

All it takes to accept that retirement and ambition comfortably co-exist is to let go of the idea that formal employment is the only way to contribute to society. I’d bet that you’re already there.

The Freedom That Comes from Embracing Ambition

While not every moment of our journey to early retirement was fun or easy, looking back, I’m glad that it took us several years to get here, because some of my proudest career moments came in those last few years. I’d always been a career striver, and realizing that I’d already received my last promotion freed me to be a better advocate for others at work. It freed me to stand more on principle and less on concern for my own career. Knowing I had an exit date freed me from being ambitious on my own behalf, and let me be ambitious on behalf of other people and other ideas. None of that would have happened if I’d seen retirement and ambition as anathema. They happened because, instead, I asked, “What opportunities does being in this position give me?” And the answer was that I wasn’t going to get promoted anymore anyway, so I could spend my political capital at work on things beyond myself.

And now, in actual early retirement, I find myself asking the same question: What opportunities does being in this position give me? That’s an ambitious mindset, and that’s exactly what we all should be asking ourselves at every stage of life, not only while traditionally employed.

Though this first year of early retirement hasn’t looked much like what I expected, most of what I have done this year has been in answer to that question, pursuing opportunities ambitiously to live my purpose that have grown out of being in the position I’m in. Not just writing a book, but writing a book that takes the early retirement conversation in a more purpose-focused direction. Taking on more volunteer work and leadership. Creating a much-needed space for women to talk about FI without judgment. Growing my podcast to push the discussion forward of who is truly included in our economy.

None of which is to say that everyone’s early retirement needs to be equally ambitious. I am a naturally ambitious person, someone inclined to see a problem and think not just, “Someone ought to tackle that,” but, “I can tackle that.” So me quickly filling my newfound free time with new projects should surprise no one. But everyone is free to embrace their own ambition in early retirement and to let the question shape your days: What opportunities does being in this position give me?

Sometimes it will give you the opportunity to travel for months at a time, and that’s wonderful. But sometimes it will give you the opportunity to use your special talents to benefit society or benefit others, and that’s even better.

One of the great things about early retirement is that you truly get to choose how to channel your ambition instead of having that choice arbitrarily made for you. In formal employment, what we aim for is implicit: the next level, or more money. That’s it. We’re given only a narrow track for how to exercise our ambition. But without that artificial constraint, we’re truly free to aim for whatever target speaks to us.

Ambition Can Take Any Form

Just as I’m naturally wired to jump into tackling problems, I’m also inclined to focus most of all on societal problems. But others are certainly wired differently, and are inclined to engage their ambition in any number of other ways. The key is knowing that it’s okay – in fact, that it’s good! – to be ambitious in retirement, whether that’s early or traditional retirement.

Letting how you answer that question about opportunity in each season of your retirement guide you is a great place to start. Are there problems that you’re now uniquely positioned to solve, by virtue of having more free time than most people? Are there products you could create that you now have time to conceptualize? Are there roles you could play in the lives of others because you no longer need to work a traditional schedule? And even: are there ways I could make money off the things I enjoy doing anyway?

Asking yourself those questions is embracing the ambitious mindset, and it’s a great way to live with purpose.

What’s Your Retirement Ambition?

What do you dream of doing in early retirement that’s ambitious? For those in the saving years, has aiming for financial independence freed you up to be ambitious in any different ways? For those already retired, has anything about your ambitious surprised you? Please share your thoughts!

Don't miss a thing! Sign up for the eNewsletter.

Subscribe to get extra content 3 or 4 times a year, with tons of behind-the-scenes info that never appears on the blog.

No spam ever. Unsubscribe any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Categories: the process

22 replies »

  1. I have a goal to start some kind of charity or organization to get poorer people (maybe focus on kids) kids outside and healthier. The obesity crisis is only getting worse, and it saddens me that for the most part is a curable thing. It’ll be a challenge for sure since many similar things have been attempted and by others, and failed. I’m always entertaining ideas,and then throwing them out. That’s my big ambition.

  2. I think ambition is far more important in retirement than before it because retirement takes away one of the biggest drivers of growth and purpose – your job. You went to work, you did a job, and grew in that job because you had to – it paid the bills and you could easily take that purpose as your own. When you retire, that gets taken away and you need your ambition to give you a new sense of purpose.

    While you can’t play Fortnite all day or sit in the beach, once you do that for a bit I think most people will search for a sense of purpose (driven by ambition) because you can’t play Fortnite all day and sit on the beach. :)

    If you don’t have anything, and are still searching, it can be a very scary and empty experience.

  3. I have always struggled with ambition. In the business world I did not aspire to the very senior levels – the costs to your time and soul seemed very high to me and well above what I was prepared to pay. So, a long time ago, I told my (very good) boss I had no interest in his suggestions of further promotions for me. He was actually delighted as it meant I stayed with him and he could just let me get on with what I was good at with minimal oversight so he could focus on the other things he was responsible for.

    However, I guess I must have had some ambition as I am comfortably FI. Having quit my job a few months ago I have recently discovered all these wonderful FIRE blogs. One of the biggest conclusions I have made from reading the blogs is that the RE part of FIRE only really exists because it made up a nice buzz word. If you are hard working and disciplined enough to get to FI at a young age then , in my opinion, you are pretty unlikely to actually do the RE part. So, you may change direction (either a bit or totally) and what you decide to do may not be economically the most valuable thing you could do – indeed it may have an economic value of zero – but you are very unlikely to simply put your feet up.

  4. I love the inspiration to make an ambitious contribution and very much agree that formal paid employment is not a requirement to do so. Look at the position of First Lady or the many society women of yesteryear raising funds and attention for their pet causes while their husband’s or family’s income supported them. It may be tough to make a meaningful contribution to others while playing Fortnite on the couch all day though… Seems like many types of contributions require something that resembles work.

    Using the terms housewife/househusband, long-term unemployed, stay-at-home parent, volunteer or similar just doesn’t have the same humble brag rare unicorn effect on others (or the media) as calling oneself early retired, although all describe the Webster dictionary definition 1b of “retirement” which is “withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.” Considering the “from active working life” portion of the definition, it may be a stretch for the term career change to be a synonym for retired under the current accepted definition, but maybe the FIRE movement change or add to the current definition.

  5. Having FIREd nearly six months ago, after 20 years in Software Engineering Management, I am finding one challenge to be figuring out how and where to focus my ambition. So far, I am pursuing a mix of volunteering (at animal shelters), pursuing creative passions (writing), and evangelizing FI (e.g. trying to start a local FIRE meetup). On a lighter note, I am also encouraging one of my cats to blog (it turns out he is a better writer than I am).

    At the same time, my two kids are still in middle school, so I am super-sensitive about overcommitting or over scheduling myself. I don’t want to fall into the trap of recreating the hamster wheel from which I just escaped and want to leave ample breathing room for self-reflection and unexpected opportunities.

  6. Okay I LOVE your discussion here about the flack early retirees get as being problematics for traditional retirees as well. Just because you’ve hit any age / life situation does not mean you have to exit stage left.

  7. Can’t agree more. Now you are retired, you have more time and freedom to do what you want. You should have more ambition and wanting to do things that would (possibly) change the world! Ambition certainly doesn’t end with early retirement.

  8. I have no idea what Fortnite is! I am busy with elder and childcare at the moment and a few years (or less!) from FIRE. I am looking at defining what I would like to do, as I have overcome many difficult obstacles that have driven me hard and had me grow, I will need big challenges in retirement. I would like this project/passion to be in addition to family responsibilities, as that give me joy, and I have recognized that I need more (somewhat guiltily). I reached out to a meetup group in Toronto about going over the exercises in Vicki Robin’s new book, was a bit of a tepid response. Will keep talking and thinking about it : )

  9. This totally speaks to me. So many plans, so little time. I’d love to get really involved with STEM programs for middle school kids (particularly girls since they’re less likely to go into STEM fields). Right now, all I can really do is volunteer at the occasional robotics competition or Girl Scout gathering. I’d also love to find a way to help others get on their own successful financial paths but I don’t even know what that would look like right now.

    And then there are the day-to-day drivers: family time, crafting, skiing, hockey, gardening, yoga, volleyball, bowling, travel… I feel like even in retirement there won’t be enough time in the day!

  10. I used to be so ambitious at work, but now that I have “the number” saved, it is hard to be motivated by interesting projects and money alone. I was inspired about what you have written about advocating for others at work. I’ve been starting to speak up to hopefully move my industry away from the long hours and embrace job shares and other flexible work arrangements. Though I don’t need to work full time any more, I only take projects with fun people, and I’m working on a giving plan so that the money I earn can go to good use. These days, I want to spend my ample free time on low ambition pursuits like learning an instrument, drawing, volunteering, reading, yoga, cooking, gardening etc. Sometimes I have a hard time accepting that it is ok to let go of the ambition and just do what makes me happy.

  11. I like the article but what if more and more people started achieving FI. Who works at Starbucks, who pumps gas, who works at the vet? I see an issue here does anyone else?

    • Society certainly doesn’t need Starbuck or gas guzzling vehicles anyways and I’m sure there will always be plenty of animal lovers to take care of our pets whether they are paid to or not. People that don’t need to work menial could be freed up to start solving real problems like climate change.

  12. I’ve been thinking about this topic since it came up at Cents Positive. Great to read your writing on this! I could definitely see how retirement would help realize one’s ambitions more efficiently.

  13. This >> “see any news article on early retirement, and the high percentage of commenters describing early retirees as deadbeats or mooches, along with anyone else who doesn’t work. The implication: if you’re not working, you don’t get a voice or have rights. Work is how you prove that you have worth.”

    Isn’t it a shame that we have to deal with this. Great post and enjoyed it. My ambition is to keep inspiring others with my writing and photography. The remaining balance of my time used for volunteering as a director on two boards, hanging out with my dog and being in the outdoors.

  14. The first thing that came to mind after reading this blog was JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. To me ambition and inspiration are closely related. It can be personal inspiration and ambition or it can be broader – spouse, immediate family, friends, country, world.

    After being retired for 6 months I decided to go back to work and to use the additional income as a largely a charitable thing. My wife and I will give away ~50% of what I earn while re-employed. While my time was important there were several good causes that required money now. We established a well funded charitable giving fund, but wanted to do even more. The “One More Year” fund concept was inspired in part by Mr.FireStation’s blog. It has been so fun and gratifying to be able to give even more to people and causes that are dear to us.

    As Tanja’s blog and several of the earlier posters commented – it is liberating when you are no longer focused on personally getting ahead but now focused on helping develop others and promoting them and their strength.

    Keep up the good work.

  15. This makes me smile! I’m a super ambitious person, and I know I don’t want to be tied down to a 9-to-5 forever, but I also have such a negative relationship with the word retire that it’s important for me to restructure the conversation, and I appreciate your insight into this!

  16. Real nice blog! My first visit here. I have only been blogging myself since July at age 67 (yes that is not a typo). Although I have no hope of matching anything like this site, I do enjoy blogging!

  17. Seeing what you can do from your current position to help others and the world is part of why I love this blog (even if I’m months behind). Thank you for continuing to write and share your journey.

  18. While ambition doesn’t have to end with retirement, watching FIRE blogger after blogger over the last 6 years go from posting multiple times per week pre retirement to a few times per month or less post retirement seems to show that the relax and enjoy life part of retire early is a more common experience than the ambitious get out and change the world experience. IRL I see plenty of retired people who get used to the slower pace of retired life and complain of being so busy if two one hour appointments happen to fall on the same day, when a few years earlier they could fit in those two appointments around an 8 hour work day with ease. The world could use more ambitious people to make it better, and there are enough needs and broken spots to find a cause that speaks to you.