When you retire early, you suddenly get to subtract a whole lot of annoying stuff from your life: your commute, conference calls, year-end reviews, whatever annoying paperwork your particular job entailed, ever visiting the dry cleaner again, the need to be connected at all times, and on and on.
But in addition to that, you also have more time and mental energy that you can put toward removing other pain points from your life. You can plan off-peak travel so you’re dealing with fewer crowds and the annoyances that accompany them. You can study when the grocery store is the least crowded and do your shopping then. If there are little things that bug you in daily life, you can figure out how to fix them. You can optimize every line item and tweak every knob, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Related post: The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel
All of those things undoubtedly sound good, and to a point, they are. We did not evolve to sit in traffic, check email at all hours and take criminally little free time away from work to recharge. Removing some of those unhealthy things is 100 percent good for us.
But the key words there are some and to a point.
Removing too many pain points from our lives risks actually doing ourselves harm in a different way: a life with no pain points makes us soft. And is that what you want for your early retirement, to go through it as a person who’s growing less and less resilient, who is so used to everything being easy that you become intolerant of dealing with challenges? Because that’s what we’re talking about.
I’ve noticed an interesting (to me) trend in the last few years: whether it’s on Twitter or in real life, I’ve heard some early retirees talk more about the indignities of various forms of travel. Of course, complaining about travel is the Official American Pastime these days, particularly complaining about air travel, but in several instances, I’ve witnessed certain retired people whose lives have become extremely easy and minimally stressful these days complaining at length about basic things like, “My flight was delayed and I missed my connection and got in later in the day than I planned and now I’m NEVER FLYLING THAT AIRLINE AGAIN!”
So sure, flight delays are annoying. Missing a connection is annoying. And maybe a customer service person was also rude to you in the process of getting all of it sorted out. But flight delays happen. They happen all the freaking time! If you can afford to travel by air and you still got in the same day you intended to arrive somewhere, I am of the opinion that whatever transpired in the meantime is not real hardship. (Unless you flew Frontier. In that case, I’m sorry.)
My point isn’t that it’s annoying for me to see or hear someone complain about such things. I have been through some truly gnarly things while traveling (as have most who’ve flown a million lifetime miles like I have), and people complaining about delays and misconnects mostly just get a friendly eye roll from me. And I’m using the air travel example because that’s so widely relatable, but I’ve heard quite a range of other complaints, too, from how virtually everywhere is too crowded to visit ever now, to it being an absolute necessity to have a duplicate of some gadget in your house because you use it in more than one place and hate having to walk a few steps to retrieve it each time.
My point is that, in these instances, these particular folks complain about routine travel happenings as though they are real hardship, which means that those things feel like hardship to them. And if things that aren’t hardship feel like hardship, that means your internal barometer for such things has gotten way off in its calibration. It probably also means that, if you’re in that situation, you’re probably feeling way more stressed about a routine happening than you should, which isn’t good for you either.
But most importantly of all, it kinda means that you can’t handle routine things anymore, or at least not in all categories. And isn’t the point of early retirement, for a lot of us anyway, to make time to experience more things, not to box ourselves into a smaller and smaller set of things that we can handle, as we gradually get more and more intolerant of even normal levels of stress?
Replacing the Soft Thoughts
I’ve noticed a little bit of this softening happening for me, too, in one particular area of my life: I don’t like hanging out at the beaches on Lake Tahoe or going to the more touristy areas when it’s even a little bit hard to park or to find an uncrowded spot to hang out. In the past, “too crowded” meant mostly just the July 4 and Labor Day holiday weekends. Then, the longer we lived in Tahoe, it started to mean “most weekends.” This year, I’ve noticed myself avoiding the busier areas virtually all days and at all times, even though there would still be plenty of space to have a good time. Maybe it’s because it would take a few extra minutes to drive there, or if we biked, there’d be more inconsiderate dog owners on the trail with off-leash dogs in the way. Are those things annoying? Sure. But are they hardship? Not even a little bit.
Fortunately, I’ve noticed this thinking, and I’m working now to fight back against it. Whenever I notice myself having the thought, “Ugh, it’ll be crowded,” I try to replace it with something like, “I’m super lucky to live somewhere so beautiful that so many people want to hang out here, and spending a few extra minutes in traffic is a small price to pay for the privilege.”
So far, it’s helping. And that wouldn’t be true if I couldn’t see the soft thoughts for what they are. Instead, I’d just be staying home more, and getting more intolerant of the normal conditions in the area where I chose to live because I love it so much.
It’s important to replace those soft thoughts, but first we must recognize when we’re growing softer.
What To Do Instead: Toughening Up
Of course, an even better course of action than just trying to spot soft thoughts is to work actively to toughen ourselves up a bit.
Thought the standard working life script is annoying in some ways, it also softens us in other ways. Even the frugal among us now have many conveniences in life that people didn’t have as an option a generation or two ago. I still a remember a time when none of us had phones in our pockets, and the internet wasn’t a thing. (Not for civilians, anyway.) And then, even when we got the World Wide Web, as you were legally required to call it in the olden days, you had to 1.) make sure no one in the house was on the phone, 2.) dial in to the internet using a thing called a modem, that was like a phone inside the computer, 3.) sit through a long period of digital monster sounds to signal you were possibly connecting, and only then, 4.) “surf” around graphic-free sites at a snail’s pace, only to get kicked offline and have to start the whole process over again just as you were about to get the info you actually wanted.
None of us would put up with that now. We expect to have fast internet at all times, with no lag while we connect. In matters of online-ness, we’ve all gotten soft.
So what to do about it? In the internet example, you could make the deliberate choice not to use it occasionally. Sometimes, when Mark and I are trying to think of the answer to some question that we feel like we should know, we’ll force ourselves not to consult our phones or Google. I’ve started to leave the house without my phone more and more. (Honestly, I mostly just miss the camera when I do that.) I’m sure there are better ways to wean yourself off the constant internet reliance, and if you have great suggestions, please share them in the comments.
But fighting against our reliance on the internet is probably a losing battle at this point, so it’s best to focus on the areas of your life that are particular to you. Only you know what ways in life you’re susceptible to softness, and that means tailoring your own toughening program.
My Toughening Program: Harder Travel
Though I traveled a ton while working, most of that travel was made easy by necessity. I had so little time to get from place to place that I had to fly the most direct flights, stay at well-located hotels with all the amenities even if they cost a lot more and take the most convenient transit options. I virtually never took mass transit if a cab was an option, and for the most part, stayed at hotels with 24-hour room service and concierge lounges. The travel was still taxing because of the volume and frequency, but it was easy.
And we’re creatures of habit, so I got used to the easy. Not to the point that I complained about flight delays and misconnects, because the best way to deal with that stuff is to laugh at it, but I started to find myself preferring certain kinds of hotels when I booked travel for me and Mark outside of work, or I’d find myself reaching for Lyft when I’d arrive in a city for a fun visit instead of figuring out how to get downtown on a train or bus.
Related post: Structure Your Life to Avoid Overspending
So in retirement, I’ve forced myself to get out of that easy travel pattern. Not on every single trip, and not with every single lodging choice, but most of the time. (If it’s a “work” trip like FinCon, I allow myself some easy choices because those trips are much more taxing.) The biggest symbol of that is shifting to staying in hostels instead of hotels, which have the nice benefit of being a lot cheaper, too.
This year alone, I’ve stayed in four hostels, in Portland, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia, and there will be several more. If you haven’t stayed in a hostel or it’s been a while, the main thing that’s “hard” about hostel stays is you’re sharing much more space with strangers than you do with hotel lodging. You’re probably sleeping on a bunk bed, shared with someone you don’t know, as well as sharing bathrooms, kitchen space, etc. If you cook (which you can always do at a hostel!), you’re doing your own dishes. You’ve very likely making your own bed, through the linens are always provided these days. It’s not “hard” in any real sense of the word, but it requires an adjustment if you’re used to having all your own space and everything done for you when on the road.
But that adjustment is totally worth it. Just as being “selectively hardcore” about something is totally worth it, like we are about keeping our house cold. When you force yourself to get out of your comfort zone a little bit, you can actually watch yourself becoming tougher, which really just means able to handle a wider range of situations. The first time I shared a bunk bed with someone who kicked the bed frame during the night, waking me up, I fumed about it the whole next day. Now, I barely register the “offense” before going back to sleep.
Of course, hostel travel is not actually difficult, it’s just a few degrees less convenient than hotel travel. You are more likely to have convenient places to plug in your electronics in a hostel than in even the fanciest hotel, for example, and the wifi is always free.
But you will get woken up sometimes by someone on a different schedule, and you might find it weird to brush your teeth next to a stranger doing the same. For someone like me who enjoys my own personal space but also wants to travel to places in the world where personal space is not to valued (or possible), hostel travel forces me to get accustomed to having other people around more than I might prefer, while hotel travel would keep me isolated in my own little bubble, becoming increasingly less able to tolerate crowds and crowded places.
And sometimes making life a little “harder” than it could be results in wonderful surprises. Case in point: Right now, as I type this from my last night in my current hostel before returning home, I’m listening to a fellow hosteller practicing Debussy on the piano in the common room. And he’s good, so I’m basically getting a free concert. That’s never happened at a hotel. Before that, I talked to a traveler from Australia about her favorite beach in Borneo, and got several other ideas for some of our upcoming trips.
Tomorrow, I’ll ride a bus to the train station, and take the train to the airport, completing this trip without ever getting in a car, which is certainly a bit more onerous than calling an Uber, but doing so will remind me that I’m still capable of navigating public transit in places where I don’t live, an important life skill for someone who values travel as much as I do. And when I arrive home, I’ll do so knowing that I can travel anywhere, not just to places with cushy hotels, easy-to-hail cabs with English-speaking drivers and ample personal space. (We wouldn’t have done well in Taiwan if we couldn’t figure out how to deal with places where no one spoke English, and we’d have hated Japan is we couldn’t handle crowded trains.)
I encourage you to look at your own situation and your own priorities and to ask yourself questions about how you could see yourself getting soft or how you’ve already gotten soft. Explore whether you find yourself wanting to avoid the very things you want to do most. And when (not if) you find those areas, make a plan to toughen up. Because the whole point of writing your story is to expand your options, and you can’t do that if you let your comfort zone shrink ever smaller.
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Categories: post-retirement process