My friend Steve over at ThinkSaveRetire.com split the workforce a little over a year ago—at age thirty-five—and he just did a good introspective piece on the gap between what he paid for and what he got.
“I’ve had an early retirement surprise or two. The only real regret I have after retiring early is that I didn’t do it sooner. This freedom is amazing. But, I would be lying if I said that everything’s working out exactly as I had anticipated. It is not.”
Eeeeeyup. For good and ill, that’s how it works. Hence the title of this article.
I was Steve’s age, give or take a few months, when I myself blew the office doors off their hinges and stepped across the threshold. And in the thirteen years since then I often find myself a stranger in my own life, because when you cross that final line you’re no longer the…
Well…Steve’s article is light in tone, but it raises some heavy questions. Lock your tray tables.
Steve finished the above paragraph by writing:
“…I’ve learned quite a bit about myself since calling it quits.”
Yeah, man…when you give up your career you deliberately destroy your life, or at least the identity-construct that defines it and passes for it. You accept and actualize the fact that you’re not that.
Which is healthy.
But the trouble is—and here’s where people get hung up—you have to recognize you’re not this, either. Not a prospective early retiree. When you think that way you’re in many ways defining yourself as the opposite of your career.
Which means you’re accepting a false dichotomy for the truth of who you are.
To that point Steve writes:
“Quite simply, [the thing that surprised me most] has been the realization that the things I thought I enjoyed were nothing more than an escape from full-time work. I had no idea I was creating an alternate reality away from my full-time job.”
And he goes on to elaborate that:
“The things that we do – things we think we enjoy – are nothing more than an excuse to focus on something else – something other than full-time work.”
So this question’s directly for you, Steve. If that’s the case, then weren’t you deluding yourself for all those years? Even lying to yourself? Your life outside your career may have been an alternative reality, but so was your life within it! And you knew that, because you were working so hard to get away from it!
So if both halves of your life were caught up in these self-delusions…then who were you, exactly? And what does that say about who you are now?
Back to you, readers. You’ll hear people say, “I can’t imagine what I’d do if I retired.” That’s a throwaway line, shallow, but at heart it speaks to the fear of destroying the career-centered self-identity they inhabit. The right thing to ask yourself isn’t what would I do…it’s who would I be?
And that’s why retirement can be so scary. The self shies away from contemplating its own destruction, yes? Because to destroy the sense of self is effectively to die…and that’s where the fear really lives.
Check out this quote from Psychology Today:1
“[T]he most basic function of the self-consciousness system is awareness of the processes that are influencing the individual. Individuals with high levels of insight know how they feel, what makes them tick, when and why they have conflicts, and what they need to feel fulfilled. Individuals with poor insight engage in more primitive psychological defenses like denial, and either are clueless about who they are or try to convince themselves they are something they are not.”
Seems clear, then, that having a higher level of self-awareness can be a shortcut to a life situation as happy as you imagine early retirement will be if/when you get there. A shortcut a hell of a lot more attainable for most people than a financially secure early retirement, in fact.
We’re banging on Zen Buddhism now, but you need to know that if you work as hard for self-awareness as you do on your early retirement plan—through counseling, spirituality, or wherever else you go for wisdom—you can escape that professional/personal dichotomy altogether, admit that your true identity is no identity at all, and achieve happiness in both sides of your life. Find more meaning in your work and more joy in your play.
So again, do you really need to bust your ass to jettison your career to find happiness, when you could very well be happier where you are?
Honest to God, if I’d truthfully answered that question before I retired, I’d probably still be employed. I got depressed for days when I finally realized I’d worked so long and hard for a job I didn’t want.
Steve goes on to say:
“The job steals eight to 10 hours a day from me. Without the job, I get those hours back to use as I see fit. And, that part is true. I do have those hours back. I am in control.”
Operative words here being “steals.”
You know, I thought that way once, but much later I realized there’s no such thing as the gift of time. Your job’s a business transaction. You may want to sell your time to these people and they may want to buy it from you…so when you feel desperate for the door—really desperate—remember: if you want your freedom that badly, the door’s right there. Nobody’s hiding the keys. All else is a matter of compromise.
“Even grocery shopping[,] I relax and enjoy the moment as much as I can. And trust me, with the sheer volume of hate I have for grocery shopping, relaxing during that ungodly experience isn’t easy.”
Aw, Steve…I’m sorry to hear that. Grocery stores are fun, man…they’re sociological petri dishes a mile wide. Perfect environs for Jane Goodall-caliber people watching. I learned that back when I was in college, when I worked summers slinging fish in the seafood department of a Kroger’s.
I came home smelling like cod every night, which made the cat2 shin-scrubbing horny to no end, but despite the little bastard’s false affections it was still the best job I ever had.
That was in large part thanks to my boss, a big aging funny-as-hell Alabama redneck named Larry…who, after retiring from the Navy, decided he needed structure in his life. He took his job seriously and worked us hard but he was the kind of guy who assumed you were competent and if given something to do, you’d do it correctly within a reasonable amount of time.
But he never minded giving you a hand if you admitted you were in over your head. And if he tried to call you in to work because somebody missed a shift, and if you said you couldn’t because you had plans with your girlfriend, then hell, he’d take the shift himself. Navy don’t pay no overtime.
Naturally he hired like-minded crew, so I was happy slinging stanky-ass dead fish for twenty or thirty hours a week. And if it hadn’t been for this friggety prosperity gospel I’ve been afflicted with—not the Christian sort, but the notion that birth-school-work-death and the supposed security that comes with it is One True Way—I’d still be doing it for a living.
Which brings us to the end, I think; the theme of this article and the message Steve inspired me to pump out. It’s a quote from Terence James Stannus Gray, a Taoist philosopher who wrote under the pen name Wei Wu Wei.
“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”
- My cat’s name was Satan. He died of diabeetus, and—I presume—ascended the rainbow bridge to heaven, where I’m sure the angels were flabbergasted by his nametag.