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 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!
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Categories: the process