Doing the Thing That Scares You

Today is a significant day in my early retired life: it’s the day that Work Optional, my first book, turns one year old. I feel like I should be able to say that it feels like just yesterday that the book came out, but it doesn’t. It feels like years ago. 2019 was the longest-feeling year of my life, in (mostly) the best ways possible. And by any measure, it was one of the most memorable.


Celebrating one year with Work Optional

I’ve also recently celebrated other milestones: two years of early retirement as of the end of 2019, and five (!) years of blogging here as of two weeks ago.

All those milestones make it a good time to reflect.

An Ecuador Encore

Before we get into those reflections, I’m excited to share that I’m headed back to Ecuador this summer for more Chautauqua fun, and for those able to spend on the travel and event fees (a great deal for the all-inclusive package, but still real money, of course!), I hope you’ll consider joining me. I found Ecuador to be such a welcoming country where I felt super comfortable even with my beginner Spanish skills, and the event itself is something special: a time to bond deeply with new friends in a beautiful setting. You can go just for the event week, or add on extra time to tour the mainland, see the Galapagos Islands or hop over to Peru or Bolivia next door. I’ll be there for both weeks this year, which each offer something different, but both feature some of my absolute favorite people in all of personal finance land:

Week 1: August 22-29, 2020 – Join me, Kiersten Saunders from Rich & Regular, Kara Perez from Bravely (and my The Fairer Cents cohost), and Cheryl Reed who organizes the Chautauquas — all three incredibly smart, rad women who are a blast to hang out with, too. Last year, I was a part of the first Chautauqua with an all-women speaker lineup, and this year we’re taking it a step farther and offering week 1 as an event specifically for women (which of course includes trans women and nonbinary folx who relate more to the female experience). I recognize that not everyone can take a week off from life and fly to Ecuador, so don’t worry! I’m still going to offer Cents Positive retreats this year at a lower price point. Stay tuned. But if you can swing it, nothing replaces that week in the Ecuador, and last year we had some really wonderful discussions among the largely women participants.

Week 2: August 29-September 5, 2020 – Join me, JD Roth of Get Rich Slowly, both Piggy & Kitty from Bitches Get Riches and Cheryl Reed. Week 2 is for everyone, and like last year, we’ll be digging into life purpose and post-FI life, and you can get one-on-one time with any of the speakers to talk about your specific plans or anything else you wish. JD, Piggy and Kitty are all genuinely fantastic and funny humans, both for their knowledge and insights and for their excellent company, and I know week 2 will be a blast.

If you’re interested in either week, check out the Chautauqua site for all the info you need. I’m excited to meet some of you in Ecuador!

Other Places to Engage

I’m blogging here less often than I once did, but I’m still very much around if you know where to find me. Come join the discussion in these places:

  • Instagram – I do a Q&A on Saturdays in Instagram stories, and regularly post stories from early retired life, including lots of photos from my travels and DIY projects, like a recent tutorial on growing sprouts at home on the cheap.
  • Twitter – I share lots of relevant content and discuss post-FI life with folks on the platform.
  • The Fairer Cents – The podcast I cohost about economic inequality, particularly as it pertains to women. It’s not a FIRE podcast, but we cover all kinds of things applicable to those who think about money and care about the world.

A Time for Reflection That Pushes Me

Since the promo period ended for Work Optional, I’ve been reflecting. A lot. The recent finale of The Good Place resonated with me like crazy (don’t worry, no spoilers, but go watch the whole series if you haven’t!), because the afterlife is in so many ways a perfect metaphor for early retirement. And the questions that arise in both cases are (apparently, since I’ve never experienced an afterlife), “What comes after you’ve checked everything off your list? What’s there to give life meaning when everything is perfect and easy?”

I haven’t achieved everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve, but I’m sure coming close, at least on the stuff that’s more brain-focused than physical. (Nowhere near checking off climbing El Capitan, for instance. I probably need to let that dream go.) I had a career I’m proud of, I retired early, I got published in my second act, I got to give my dream talk at FinCon last year, I’ve gotten to travel to so many interesting places, I’ve had more time with friends and family, I’ve become functional in multiple languages and the list goes on. I’ve been so, so fortunate. I know it’s crazy to say, and it flies in the face of everything I’ve ever written on the topic, but the truth is that I could see getting a little bit bored if I just keep doing more of the same, if I just keep living this charmed and easy life. Not bored in a day-to-day, “what am I going to do to pass the time?” sense, but bored in a big picture, “what does it all add up to?” sense.

Related post: The Most Important Early Retirement Indicator // Boredom in Early Retirement, Part 1

Related post: The Importance of “Chapter Overlap” // Boredom in Early Retirement, Part 2

Related post: “Won’t You Be Bored?” and Other Questions You Hear on the Road to Early Retirement

Deep down, I know that what I’m really craving is a new challenge. I love this blog and I’ll keep writing here, but continuing to write about early retirement is not a challenge. Doing the same activities over and over is not a challenge. Traveling where the traveling is easy and comfortable is not a challenge. Honestly, even doing a lot of challenging things is not a challenge, because I know I can do them, or at least I know I can learn how to do them.

Related post: Don’t Let Life Get Too Easy in Early Retirement

What I’ve realized in my reflections that I need most now is a real challenge, which to me, means something that I am not sure that I can actually do, something where failure is a very real possibility.

In other words: something that scares me.

Just as I’ve written that we shouldn’t let ourselves get too comfortable in retirement, I’ve realized that that includes redefining what a challenge even means. When I took on the task of writing Work Optional, I saw that as a challenge, most especially because it was something I’d never done before. And it absolutely was an undertaking. Researching and writing 80,000 words is no joke under any circumstances, and more so when you’re creating a cohesive flow for people and weaving together both life and financial concepts. But looking back, I don’t see it as a challenge any longer. So long as I sat down and did the work, I would arrive at the finish line. There was never a question in my mind of whether I could actually deliver what I’d promised to my publisher, though like any writer, I absolutely doubted the quality of what I was writing at various steps along the way.

In the last year, I’ve come to understand that big task and challenge are not necessarily the same thing. And while non-challenging big tasks still ask a lot of us, I see now how important it is to include real challenges in early retired life, too. And that means diving into things where the conclusion is not foregone before we’ve begun, where the possibility of failure is real and where we’re at least a little bit scared.

Doing the Thing: The Collision of My Purpose and My Fear

For virtually all of my life, I’ve wanted to be a part of making the world better. Back in high school, I was president of the environmental club, leading all the way to my 16-year career in political and social change consulting aimed at helping good causes be successful. It’s the same desire that drives me to spend time on The Fairer Cents podcast despite not needing to earn money: because I want to engage more people in conversations around economic inequality. The desire to help, however I can, is woven into my being, and I now find myself with time to spend on that.

Related post: What Do You Want Your Tombstone to Say? // Defining Our Purpose

While I’m proud of Work Optional, much of it even happening in the first place was dumb luck. I happened to have a big enough blog at the time when FIRE got popular enough to warrant multiple publishers investing in books about some version of early retirement. I didn’t make the movement get trendy, and I didn’t invent any of the mathematical principles that underpin it. I didn’t have to fight hard and swim upstream to get published. I simply found a different way to frame it all and talk about it. And I’ve checked the “get published” item off my life list. It’s done. I could easily stop there. Or I could write additional straightforward, non-challenging personal finance books. But that’s not ultimately where my passion lies, and the thought of doing that doesn’t scare me in the least – or, it does, but only that I’d be afraid of getting bored.

Related post: Behind the Scenes of WORK OPTIONAL: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, Now Available Everywhere

Where my passion lies is in making the world better, and what scares me is taking on a much more ambitious, much harder to crack book topic. The last year taught me that that’s what I need to run toward, even though I could easily coast through life. But in the vein of the Shawshank Redemption quote, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” I don’t want to coast. That feels like getting busy dying. I want to truly live in early retirement, and that means pushing myself.

I’m excited (and scared) to share that I’m doing exactly that. I officially have a publishing deal to write my second book, tentatively titled Spend Like You Give a $h*t, which my agent described perfectly in the deal announcement:


I know this will be a hard book to write because otherwise it would already have been written. Tons of books tell you how to be an environmentally responsible consumer, but the book I desperately want to read myself does not exist: one that helps us think about how best to use our money in a flawed economic system in ways that don’t harm the planet or other people, the piece so often missing from environmental discussions. Sure, we could all just stop consuming entirely, but then what about the billions of people who need some form of consumption to earn their livelihood?

There is not a single easy answer in what I want to cover, and that’s the part that scares me most. But I also think we badly need a book like this given where we are with rising inequality and a worsening climate crisis, and I’m determined to make it happen. I’m sure that others have thought about writing a similar book, but fear has convinced them not to take it on, and I’m trying instead to lean into that fear. Leaning into it feels like getting closer to my highest purpose.

The new book won’t come out until late 2021, and I’ll share when the pre-order option is available, sometime next year, so this will be a longer road than Work Optional was. I don’t know yet where that road will lead me, whether it will be scarier than I think, less scary or something totally unexpected. Whether I’ll feel like I’m at a dead end and curse myself for taking it on. Whether I’ll feel happy or sad or just relieved when it’s done. But I’m doing the thing. It feels hard, and that feels right.

Doing the Thing That Scares You

Not everyone has a blog or aspires to write books, so the lesson here isn’t a literal one. Your goal isn’t to do the thing that scares me. It’s to do the thing that scares you, whatever that looks like, and whatever that means to you in each season of life. Writing this book is what scares me and feels like getting busy living now, but a few years down the road, it could be something entirely different. I’m open to that, and excited about it. Honestly, taking on this daunting challenge makes me feel more excited about the future, because it’s exhilarating to know how much I can still learn and grow and push myself. That’s something I hope I can always continue. Leaning into the yang so the yin will be that much sweeter. I will know at the end of my life that I tried, that I gave a sh*t. That’s what I want to be able to look back on.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What scares you but also speaks to you in some way? What lines up to your higher purpose but feels unachievable, but is worth considering anyway? I encourage you to really think about this, or even if you’re far from financial independence, to get yourself comfortable with the concept, so that when those scary ideas come up, you don’t dismiss them out of hand. Please share your thoughts!

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38 replies »

  1. The second book sounds amazing! I can’t wait to read it!
    I often think I would like to write about living a ‘tread lightly on this earth’ environmentally conscious blog, but I get scared of losing my anonymity. I am very anti-‘surveillance state’ and sceptical of social media, so am I being true to my values by staying quiet…or just a lazy ass scaredy cat? Honestly cannot tell.
    I appreciate you putting your story out there!

    • Ditto! I often think about writing about many things I care about but am not sure if writing is my thing (I don’t enjoy more than commenting) and going about my business of doing things true to my values and quietly is part of who i am… but I honestly can’t tell either! Maybe we should figure out that part!

  2. I am about to embark on a scary step. I am taking a year’s leave of absence from my well-paid (compared to most areas of the nation) job as a school librarian in northern VA. This will be the first time in my working life I will not have a steady, reliable paycheck. (Thus the leave of absence rather than resigning outright. SCARY!) But my job currently leaves me deeply dissatisfied every day. The bureaucracy of this public school system (and others in which I have worked) make it almost impossible to do the things that I became a school librarian to do. I am fortunate that years of good pay, a supportive partner, and the ability to move (maybe temporarily) to a lower cost of living area are making this possible. My goal is to renew my spirit while exploring if I can make my way in the world in another, less fatiguing way.

    Additionally I credit you specifically, after having spoken to you at a DC meet up just before you retired, as well as the FIRE movement in general with causing me to seriously consider that there might be another way. I do not know if FIRE is in my future. But I do know that a change is the only way to prevent me from becoming the cliche, cranky librarian.

  3. I would say the thing I struggle most with when spending in alignment with my values is how to invest. I struggle with putting money into companies that are not as environmentally conscious or socially responsible as I would like. Even “ESG” funds are often invested in companies that I think are at odds with my values (paying unfair wages, etc). I like the diversity and relative ease of index funds. I don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good, and want to invest for the future. I’d like to invest with an eye toward people, planet and profit, which seems impossible at this time. I don’t know whether it’s best not to put any money into companies I don’t believe in, or to advocate for change in what already exists.

  4. I was thinking that I’m in a unique situation, but after reading Rebecca’s post above I am reminded of how much I appreciate the community you built Tanya. Thanks for bringing so many similar people together, even virtually in your comments.

    Today is the first day of my “sabbatical.” In quotes, because I really never have to go back to work–I can call it early retirement if I want. However, like you Tanya, I know that after some time to rest I will need a challenge, a sense of purpose. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I will.

    I love your book idea, and look forward to reading it. It is definitely one of the things I have thought deeply about, because I am in such a privileged position to be able to FIRE. We have so much. Spending it on travel and a nice home is lovely, but when you understand that there are so many with so little, a thoughtful human will reasonably want to do more.

  5. Your next book sounds amazing. I love the premise here! I feel like my job challenges me in a lot of ways that constantly feel a bit scary. This is good, but I’d also like to take on something that would make me feel more accomplished. Writing a book seems like this to me, especially because it seems scary in conjunction to my full-time work. I hope to get to it before I turn 30, but I really do need to make it happen!

  6. Great post, Tanja – you’ve been missed!
    I semi-retired last summer and will be fully retired (age 52) in a few months. In the first 6 months of semi-retirement, it became clear that the things I had dreamed of having time for (hiking and making art, for instance) are great hobbies, but on their own will not provide a meaningful life for me in retirement. (This is strictly a personal thing – no judgment about what is or is not meaningful for anyone else.)
    At first I was stunned and disturbed by this, and spent a good bit of time wondering what was WRONG with me. it didn’t take long, though, to realize that for me a meaningful life has always involved giving back.
    The challenge now that I’ve sorted this out is that my husband, who has been very happily occupied with hiking and other projects during retirement over the past year, does not share these feelings and is NOT keen to have our “freedom” curtailed by my taking on new projects of my own.
    This too will work out, as we have a supportive and equal relationship, but it has been another surprise – very different things are going to make for a happy retirement for each of us. I envisioned early retirement as a time of togetherness, and that is true, but it is also going to involve me striking out on my own to some degree – not only doing new things that scare me, but negotiating for that time and space in a way that wasn’t necessary when I was working.
    I’ll be really interested to hear what others have to say!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your retirement experience! I can relate very much even from a different phase of the journey. My husband and I are about 1 year from early retirement financially and struggling with the life part to identify a vision that resonates with both of us. I currently have a career that I’m super passionate about and leaving that has to be for something that I feel will do the same or more for the greater good than what I’m doing now. Retreating to a life that’s all about me and my nuclear family doesn’t feel like what I’m called to do with the incredible opportunity of FI and skills and talents that I’ve been given. Work meets a lot of needs for me now that I’m going to have to figure out how to meet in other ways if I leave the rat race. Reading Tanjas post and your comment really helped me see that! If you have any advice for the planning phase of retirement let me know! I’m conflicted on whether to just go on faith and retire without a plan or if that’s super irresponsible…

      • Being a year out, you’re in a perfect place to do some planning. To the extent possible while you’re still working, try to live on your retirement budget, and pay attention to areas where your spending might actually go UP once you retire – taking classes, travel, etc. takes time and some money. Discuss with your partner, to make sure you’re on the same page (whether the activities you envision are solo or together), the time commitment and any expense. My husband and I are really different (I’m almost always game for a social event, to volunteer to help with a project, or to go to a show or meal out, and he isn’t), and that has caused some friction. I wish we’d talked and thought more about this.
        Also, try to think about the needs that you know are getting met through work right now, and start to create or strengthen the non-work relationships and activities that will fill those needs when you’re not working.
        See Tanja’s blog post on transitioning stepwise into retirement and avoiding boredom in retirement.
        Good luck! This last year of work will fly by!

  7. Very much enjoying the new direction for the blog! The question of what to do when you don’t have to do anything is a crucial question for people who are near (or at) FIRE and I appreciate your willingness to address it. And it isn’t just for early retirees. My mom faced this question after a traditional mid-60s retirement from her work as a finance director for a SoCal city. She spent one year traveling with her husband, returned home, and promptly got bored. Her solution was to connect with a friend who placed government workers in temporary positions, which turned out to be perfect for my mom. She would sign on with a nearby city that needed an interim financial officer, work for a few months helping them navigate through whatever challenges they were facing, hand off to a new permanent hire, and then spend a few months doing the “retired” stuff that she enjoyed. It’s an example I keep in mind as I approach FIRE myself.

  8. I love it Tanja! I think it’s a very important topic to discuss and learn. We need to talk more than just the typically FIRE topics like saving, investing, etc.

  9. Le sigh at the Chautauqua. That sounds like such fun. Alas, my 2020 is almost all about someone else (getting through the worst time of their life to date with serious repercussions) and there’s very little of me to go around, so it’s not for me this year. Double sigh.

    But even though I can’t do the big cool retreat, or work on my Big Scary Thing right now, I’m working on a smaller scale version of it. This year, I’d like to write an essay that’s a paid publication, not just writing on the blog.

    I cannot wait to read your book! That concept is most definitely one of the biggest things on my mind these days.

  10. I will definitely read that book! I think a lot about my purchasing habits, even as a minimalist, we do need to buy some things and participate in our modern economy. I prioritize purchases in this order: 1. local, 2. packaging (none, non-plastic, reusable), 3. sustainable sourcing, 4. organic. It feels harder than it should. I mean what is worse: that the item traveled a long way in a heavier glass container, or a short way in a plastic bag? How should I minimize our carbon footprint when we consume what we need? Plus, I really question the luxury items that we chose to consume, like travel and electronics. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years and have no kids, so I feel that I can use some of my carbon footprint on things I don’t need, but that enhance my life. I find it’s hard to feel good about it though.

  11. Congrats and love the new book topic! I love a good challenge too but am often discouraged by limiting beliefs or imposter syndrome. However, I have found that more than my fear of doing that next big thing is my fear of complacency. That is the absolute last thing I need in my world right now.

  12. Damn, you may be the most busy work optional person I know. Sounds like a meaningful topic you are passionate about. I wish you happy writing with sustained inspiration

  13. Wow, wow! You inspire me and I love how forward you are. I love how you call out the FIRE community on some of the BS that can harm followers.

    I’m already excited about your book! It’s so challenging to do ‘right’ by the environment sometimes.

    A Danish friend was with us in Vegas and he’s a plumber and they are so careful with water waste and just waste in general. As he examined our suite and multiple shower heads , etc – he looked around and said “Is what we do even worth it? What we save as a tiny Country gets erased by just one of these hotels…” I say every bit makes a difference, but it’s hard to believe it at times…

  14. I’m very excited to read your new book! Hope I can wait that long😀
    Any project that is new scares me. I always get nervous about doing new things and trying new things

  15. I CANNOT WAIT FOR THIS BOOK OH MY GOODNESS!! Tanya, this post is so poignant. It wasn’t until I was reading it that I realized I’ve also been settled into a comfortable routine, not pushing my boundaries (I’m not retired yet, but why should that stop me). This is so inspiring to read, thank you!

    PS. The Good Place Finale!!!! My husband and I both cried. The whole series has been so phenomenal 🙌

  16. I don’t read a lot of personal finance books because they seem a bit redundant to me. But this book topic is so intriguing and much needed! Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing how this is a scary step for you, and also the reason that is attractive or even necessary for you. Best wishes for the writing process!

  17. I am so excited for this next book, Tanja, and so thrilled that YOU are going to be the person to write it! I think we need this book right now – something that will offer solid, evidence-based advice on how to make a meaningful difference at what feels like a pretty scary and uncertain time. Really looking forward to reading it.

    As for my own scary things: this is the year that I’m tackling some running-related challenges/projects. It’s not THAT scary, but there is a lot of uncertainty involved. I’m not actually sure I can run the distances I’ve signed up for. I’m not sure I’m fast enough. I might fail spectacularly. But I’m willing to give it a go and see what happens! (and have some fun in the process.)

  18. Do you have a set schedule for your book writing task? I’ve heard that writing one page a day is a fine way to get that magic 300 pages within a year, once you’ve got your outline figured out and such…

  19. Congratulations on all of the milestones and your determination to make the world a better place. One day I would like to something similar, but rather than making the world a better place I want to help people in some capacity. I don’t know what that entails yet but I do not it would involve taking a lower paying job or retiring, both of which scare me! Nice work on having the courage to pursue your dreams. PS. I love the book title.

  20. Tanja,

    I don’t have any insightful comments. I just want to tell you how helpful your blog is for me, and am always grateful when you are able to give some more of your insights.

    Have a great weekend,


  21. One of the questions that often comes up in the FIRE community is, what would the world look like if everyone retired early?

    The answers mostly seem to involve pursuing your hobbies and interests, as well as contributing or giving back to society in one form or another.

    In your post, you make the following statement – “…how best to use our money in a flawed economic system in ways that don’t harm the planet or other people, the piece so often missing from environmental discussions. Sure, we could all just stop consuming entirely, but then what about the billions of people who need some form of consumption to earn their livelihood?”

    Interestingly enough, about a week ago I stumbled across a subreddit called Antiwork. It can be a bit extreme (for me anyway), but they have also asked a similar question that many people in the FIRE community have asked, “How would a country/world function without work?”.

    You make the comment that we could stop consuming entirely, well what if we all stopped working entirely?

    Now we can’t really stop consuming or working entirely, but I think we can all agree that there is a lot of waste out there, whether it be through consuming or working. A reduction in either or both would surely help the environment.

    (Can I post links?)
    Here is an interesting (and also long) read that I came across regarding Antiwork/Post-work:

    And another interesting article regarding the nuclear family, which seems to be intertwined with all of this:

    Like you mention, there is not a single easy answer when it comes to rising inequality and a worsening climate crisis.
    Congratulations on your new book, and I look forward to reading about your take on, “transforming the planet and its people”.

  22. Again, congratulations on the new book deal! That is rad and I’m so glad you’re making it happen.

    I agree that this is an area that is not discussed enough: bridging the reality that consumption is here to stay in some form, and a very very big one, and the fact that the consumption is putting the human race at risk and hurting a lot of people, even while it sustains them.

    I can’t wait to read the book, friend. All the best and thanks for being such an inspiration.

  23. Hi Tanya! I’ve been trying for about a year to get a hold of your values-based budget planner that was supposed to be an incentive for people who pre-ordered your book (which I did, and I emailed my receipt to the address you said we should use). I’ve followed up multiple times by email but I’ve never received the planner. Is there any way to get it? I know it may seem like a small thing, but every time I start to pick up your book, I remember I wanted that planner, and I feel bummed out (and a little abandoned!) because I never received it. Can you help? Thanks!

  24. Years ago I read Half the Sky which was an eye-opener into the hazards of the overly simplified boycott-as-change-agent method. I can’t wait to read what you discover/ share regarding best practices for effecting change without throwing people who depend on these (very flawed) systems to live. In particular, I’d be very interested in an exploration of how to make purchases in a best-to- less ideal descending system as it’s not possible for all of us to spend in a perfect manner every time (if there even was such a thing.) The quandary of where to spend limited funds for the most impact (or least impact as the case may be), with the most bang for the literal buck is *real.* For example, “high-quality, wear-forever, ethically sourced fabric/labor” clothing is something I ache to implement, but can’t possibly do so every time I need a piece. I for one find most of the ethical brands to produce clothing suitable for 20 somethings: boxy- need to be a stick-figure, (unflattering to mature, curvy folks) styles. I admire the work they are doing but it’s for a very limited body type and/ or not suitable for a work environment (looking at all those short dresses and mini-skirts.) I have a 5 year old who outgrows clothing every 6 months and wears holes in the knees of his pants every couple of weeks. But I’m also a single mama who works full time (and is TIRED) so taking off of work to peruse the (inevitably) 9am-5pm bi-annual resale events or hiring a babysitter every week so that I can scout all the local Goodwills is also not viable. And that’s just clothing! (My solution thus far: buy really good basics that play well with eachother and don’t go out of style, accept hand me downs with enthusiasm, care for our clothes as well as possible with non-toxic washing powder, utilize all the “extend the wear” tools at my disposal such as depillers and a sewing kit, and wear them for as many years as I can/ pass along once I’m done. Rant over.) All to say, I look forward to what you uncover as I long to spend with more intention, but need the already-reasearched/ digested and manageable guide on the best way to do so! Thank you for leaning into this fear so that the rest of us (and you) can benefit.