For years while planning for early retirement, I did what so many of us do: I defined early retirement as the absence of work, not primarily as the presence of things I didn’t have time for while working. (Eventually I saw the error of my ways, and gave more thought to what I wanted to make time for, not just what I wanted to subtract, and wrote about it here.)
But, fundamentally, it still felt like taking the step of retiring would be to draw a line down the center of my life, hard and fast: work on this side, no work on the other.
Of course that’s not actually how it’s turned out. And, looking back, I honestly don’t know why I ever thought that I would want to live a life devoid of any tasks that look like work. A life free of formal employment? Hell yes. A life free of the need to work for money? Absolutely. But a life with no writing, no creating, no bringing people together, no striving for big goals? How boring that life would be. (For me, at least! That doesn’t have to be true for you. Though if you’re pondering this question, perhaps consider my “high school rule.”)
I frequently get the question, “What has been the biggest surprise in early retirement?” And the easy answer is how much I love working now, or at least certain kinds of work that meet the high school rule. I’ve written this plenty here, and it’s not what this post is about, but it’s worth saying over and over how different work feels when it’s entirely on your own terms, which all of my work is now.
Even better, most frequently my work now doesn’t involve money at all. Which, it turns out, is a beautiful thing. (I broke down the relationship between work and money in detail on my transparency page.) And that’s what this post is about: not just separating the work I do from the need for money, but separating it from money altogether. And, taking it a step further, how being able to do that allows you to get to know yourself more deeply than most people have the opportunity to do.
The last year and a half has been different than I imagined for all those years while saving for our early retirement, more than anything because of Work Optional. I spent time I didn’t envision spending writing it, then a few months later editing it, then a few months later still doing final review, then a few months later doing pre-release publicity, then post-release publicity, and then book events I’m still literally doing this week, more than four months after the book came out.
I’ve loved virtually every step in the process, and I would never trade it for some other use of the time, but it’s still for sure different than the first 18 months of early retirement that I thought I’d be looking back on. We’ve undoubtedly traveled less than we would have, if not internationally, at least domestically and to go camping, and I skied much less the last two years than Mark did, including missing perhaps the best snow Tahoe has ever seen because it fell during book release week. (Not to worry. Mark got after it.)
But despite having made some big trade-offs to devote all that time to the book, the thing that strikes me so strongly is that all the hustling the book has entailed has felt zero relation to every job I’ve ever had.
I don’t think that’s just because it’s work I did for myself, that I was passionate about. I’ve never had an entrepreneurial spirit – in that way, Mark and I are the same – and I can’t imagine feeling the joy in doing the work the book required if it was something I was passionate about, but that I also needed to succeed financially.
In other words, though I’ve sometimes called early retirement “entrepreneurship for wimps,” meaning it’s a way to launch whatever business calls to you with the world’s biggest safety net, I think the true privilege of early retirement is even more powerful than that.
One of the biggest lessons early retirement has taught me thus far is that work is its most joyful not just when you have the freedom to fail financially, but when finances don’t come into it at all.
The Economics of a Book
To explain this properly, let me share a little bit about the economics of traditional book publishing, which is different from self-publishing. When you self-publish a book, you bear all the upfront costs, including editing, layout, cover design, indexing, etc., but then you make a majority of the book’s purchase price when someone buys it. When you publish traditionally, as I did, you typically don’t pay for any of those things, and you get an advance, which is short for an advance against royalties.
Depending on the size of the advance, you have some number of books you have to hit before you ever “earn out” that advance and begin to see actual royalties. And 70 percent of authors published traditionally never earn out, so the advance is the only money they ever make off the book.
I’ve always assumed that Work Optional wouldn’t earn out, just because most books don’t, though of course I have always made it a goal to earn out so that publishers would be eager to publish more books by me. But I’ve also committed that any royalties I earn from Work Optional would go to charity or our donor advised fund, so either way, I’m not personally profiting from book sales.
So all the money attached to the book hit our accounts before the book was even out in the world, when my real hustle for the book had barely begun. And all the work I did to finalize and promote it had no possible monetary benefit attached to it at all, something I’ve never experienced before.
But that hustling to get the word out about the book, and what makes its message different from other personal finance and self-help books out there, was some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
I can’t imagine that would have been true if I was remotely invested in the book’s financial success. Instead, I can focus on things like the incredible notes I’ve gotten from readers, which is a much more heart-filling metric.
The “Work” of Creating Community
An even better example of the complete separation of work and money – because it involves no money for me at all – is the community-building I’ve been doing, namely with Cents Positive, the retreat I launched last year to give women a space to talk about financial independence. (Big announcement on 2019 events coming this week!)
I decided to create Cents Positive because I heard from a lot of women that they didn’t feel there was a space that existed to talk specifically about their concerns, and I realized that I was one of the few people in the early retirement community with the time and experience to make it happen. So I did. And I decided at the outset that I wasn’t going to do it for profit, in part because money and creativity don’t mix for me, in part because we no longer need the money but mostly because I wanted to price the event as cheaply as possible, so that attending it doesn’t set anyone back in reaching their financial goals.
And making Cents Positive happen required a lot of effort. From getting site bids, to setting up ticketing, to coordinating catering and events, to creating the event agenda and arranging speakers, and then to moderating the whole event, it was plenty of work.
But it never felt like work, of course because I was passionate about the cause, but even more, because I had zero need for it to be a financial success. If everyone who attended had told me afterward that they’d had a lousy time, my ego would have taken a big hit, because I am emotionally invested in making it a worthwhile event, but I didn’t spend any brain space at all thinking about how I hoped people had a good time so that they’d want to do it again and I could grow it in 2019 and grow it a little more in 2020 and on and on. I could just focus on the one thing and be totally present in the event.
The Personal Evolution That Follows Separating Work and Money
In general, unpaid work is a major problem in our economy. Unpaid internships preference students who can afford not to get paid, which perpetuates class structures because so many students get left out and therefore have less impressive resumes, or don’t get their foot in the door with that company that doesn’t pay interns. Our undervaluing of women’s labor is closely tied to our terrible family leave and child care policies. So I’m certainly not saying that everyone should work for free. Quite the opposite! I think if you’re working, as most people do, because you must, you should push for every penny you deserve.
But, once you no longer need it, you have not only the privilege, but the power, to consciously choose to separate work and money for good.
Perhaps the best way to think of it is not unpaid work, but karma-paying work, or happiness-paying work. Because even without money coming into the equation, you’re still getting paid.
I’ve written before about volunteering in early retirement, and that’s something I hope everyone embarking on a life of more free time will consider, because the need is so great. But I’m not just talking about volunteering your time. I’m also talking about creating something short-term or long-term that’s entirely to your vision and that’s completely disconnected from money.
Not only does doing that allow you to experience that rare sensation of separating work and money, but it also allows you to get to know an entirely different set of motivations within yourself. Society trains us to rely on extrinsic motivation, motivation that comes from outside ourselves. Whether it’s grades in school, medals or trophies in sports or paychecks at work, people outside of us are generally the gatekeepers telling us our worth, or at least telling us what they think we’re worth. Taking money completely out of it goes a long way toward helping you shift toward intrinsic motivation, motivation that comes entirely from within you, and that lets you be the arbiter of your self-worth.
I always cared about doing a good job at work for reasons that went far beyond money, not the least of which was my love of gold stars. But money was still in there, and that skews things. Getting passed over for a promotion isn’t just a hit to your ego, it’s also a hit to your wallet or to your future financial goals.
Without money in the mix at all, you get to know yourself in a very different way, because you finally come to see what’s actually important to you. What is your intrinsic motivation? Is it to have a positive impact on others? Is it to experience joy in the process of doing the thing itself? Is it to create something that you can look at in the future and enjoy? Is it to feel yourself get better at something, even if you’ll never win any medals for it? Is it like Alex Honnold says in “Free Solo,” that it’s to experience perfection, even if just for a moment?
Looking back, it’s clear that part of why I love this blog so much – and why I’m still writing it despite no longer having a journey to early retirement to chronicle – is that it’s joyful work that’s entirely separate from money.
We can know ourselves well while working, but most people are never lucky enough to get such a clear picture of what motivates them in the absence of judgment from others. If you’re able to get to know yourself at that next level, it’s an incredible gift.
Categories: we retired early