Your Early Retirement Expectations Are Probably Wrong.

My friend Steve over at 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.

Sez he:

“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.

And finally:

“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.”


  1. Source.
  2. 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.

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit or email

22 thoughts

  1. ER Dude – I’ve been reading your blog for several months, and I just wanted to leave a comment to hopefully inspire you to keep up the good work. I have no doubt there are many others out here like me that really enjoy your take on the ER life.



  2. “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.”

    I will make a poster out of this quote. Thank you, you made my day 😉

  3. This is a thoughtful post. I found myself doing more and more outdoor sports while I was at my job. Was it for escape? Maybe. Partially. Now that I’m semi-retired and only working 20 hours a week I find that I still like doing the same activities, so maybe they are my true identity. But I also find that I don’t put as much anger-energy into them. I used to come home from work at 5:00 angry/stressed etc and get on the bike to “burn it off”. Now I still get on the bike but it’s less to channel stress and anger and more to enjoy it.

  4. This is deep dude…”I got depressed for days when I finally realized I’d worked so long and hard for a job I didn’t want.”

    This is almost me…except I enjoy the “job”, I don’t enjoy having to do it with 99% of the people around me being morons. Life’s too short to expend energy navigating this level of morons

  5. It’s so much easier to calculate withdrawal rates, limiting expenses and planning the financial side, than the psychological side of FIRE.

    Some great points made above.

    Still thinking about this line “true identity is no identity at all”

  6. I’ve never put my identity in my career. It’s a means to an end. When I can achieve those same ends without the job, then I’ll retire.

    1. You ran Boston in 2013? How’d you like it? I ran it back in Y2K and had the time of my life. All those people cheering for 26.2 miles…and then that sense of pride crossing the finish line…

      1. I did. 2013 was my first Boston. One of the happiest days of my life – and the saddest due to the bombing. I literally cried when I turned on Hereford and Boylston. The finish line was glorious!

  7. Good one ER dude. Your job is a business transaction indeed but since it is a very looooong business transaction (involving decades of your life), it is human nature to be emotionally invested in it and to derive self-identity from it. It’s in some ways akin to marriage in the sense it also involves compromises of a different kind to stay employed. What’s important to remember even if you “steal back” the hours your job takes from you, you should guard against other mundane activities stealing the hours in piecemeal again. I often say FI is mandatory, but RE is optional.

    While ‘work expands to fill the time’ maybe a well-worn cliche, it is rarely recognized that chores also expand to fill the leisure! Not everyone is able to replace all those work hours (that were remunerated) with activities sufficiently rewarding in other ways to more than make up for the lacuna of not having a paid full time job, which was keeping them engaged for 10 hours a day. Idle thoughts can also invade an otherwise work-engrossed mind. The slow atrophy some people face in a life of leisure after giving up a tolerable job isn’t worth all the leisure hours gained. If the job is intolerable, causing significant mental or physical stress, it’s another story but that distinction is important in my view.

    1. When people ask, “But isn’t FIRE too risky?” it’s hard not to reply, “Risky as opposed to what? Spending the next forty years behind a desk at a job you don’t like regretting all the opportunities you’re missing in life?” It’s a cold thought.

  8. Wow! Great post. I heard you on a podcast which led me to your blog.
    I’m blown away by this piece. So happy to hear there is no true self. I was afraid I was missing it. Now I can stop looking and be content. Happiness is in the now. All you have to do is acknowledge it.
    Thanks, ER Dude!

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