The Purpose of Life

A guy recently put this question to a financial independence/early retirement forum I hang out in.

“I feel like lots of people derive their worth from their career. I feel like when I hit FI I will just want to go hiking, game, go to the dog park, read. I won’t accomplish anything that society would deem worthy of my life.

I guess my question is how do FI people deal with not being a productive member of society? I’m afraid I won’t accomplish anything that society would deem worthy of my life.”

Here’s what I wrote back:

Hey, my friend…after eleven years of FI/ER I think I’ve finally worked out an answer that satisfies me, so let me share it with you.

Clearly you feel guilty for wanting to do what you like. But fortunately that guilt arises from trying to measure up to an ideal that doesn’t even exist. You can safely forget about it. And it turns out there are indeed ways you can use your preferred pursuits altruistically, which is another way to get past that desire for external validation.

Bear with me.

You’re grappling with a moral question: “What makes a good person?” There’s no single answer. “Society” isn’t consistent in its attitudes towards individual “worth,” and you’re noticing that it doesn’t give much of a shit what your attitude is, either.

A cop might say living the life you describe automatically makes you a productive citizen, whereas, I don’t know, Mother Teresa might’ve told you to get off your ass. (Yes, there are things everybody can agree on, like: child molestation is grievously wrong, but let’s paint with the big brush.)

So whose standard do you try to measure up to? The cop’s, or Mother Teresa’s? Well, the obvious answer is “your own,” but to sort out what that means is a damned difficult thing, making it sound to me like lack of self-knowledge is the source of your angst.

I mean: why do we choose Snickers bars? We choose them because they’re made of fat and sugar and chocolatey heroin. Simple. But why do we choose a particular career?

Let me give you an example of why, when dealing with the big-ticket items, it gets very important to have a clear understanding of your deepest and innermost motives rather than knowledge of some arbitrary societal yardstick. The external standards just won’t do. Like so:

My wife got an electrical engineering degree because it seemed $$$ and stable. She worked in that field for around a decade until she matured some and attained a much deeper level of self-awareness than she’d had in college.

And Jesus Christ, did she get miserable. Within the space of a few short months she finally admitted to herself that she hated electrical engineering and wanted out. Deep reflection helped her understand that while she thought she’d taken the job for the $$$ and stability, the satisfaction actually arose from her needs to please her parents and feel validated as a woman by society. So dig it: she was standing there in a cage she’d built herself, and had her own key in her own hand, but she was afraid to let herself out.

Because, like you, she felt guilty for wanting to do what made her happy.

So leaving that career and dealing with the resulting guilt was painful, but deal with it she did (counseling and consultation with close friends and non-parental loved ones.) And having done so, she’s now a better and happier person.

Meaning: yeah, put yourself under the microscope, but also know that you’re the one crafting the lens. You CANNOT please society, so why feel guilty for failing to do so? Moral standards clash, most people couldn’t care less what you do with your life, and the very construct itself is so driven by advertising and marketing and pop culture and celebrity worship and media bias and so forth that any standard you attempt to derive from it will be tainted.

Let me shoot something by you. You said:

I feel like if when I hit FI I will just want to go hiking, game, go to the dog park, read.

You say that as if it’s shameful, but your assumption is false. Being early-retired does not automatically make one a non-productive member of society. Viz:

How about leveraging your pastimes into Big Brothers/Big Sisters? There are kids out there who have little or no exposure to positive adult role models. Hiking, gaming, taking them to the dog park, and reading books with them are wonderful ways to get them that exposure

And imagine the power of reaching one kid. One kid who grows up to be, instead of a convicted felon, an individual who’s community-minded and family-oriented and concerned with social justice.

Do you see the multiplier effect? You touch that person and that person touches countless others. All because you spent time sharing activities you enjoyed with another human being.

Does that satisfy the societal definition of “productive”? Fuck it; who cares? The question is, does it satisfy yours? I’m guessing you’ll think it does, and if so, would pursuing it assuage or even destroy your guilt?

That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head example. Big Brothers/Big Sisters may or may not be the thing for you. Either way, that’s my advice: fuck societal standards. Pretty much the best you can hope for in terms of societal productivity is to share your preferred pursuits with others in a mutual beneficial way, and if that means establishing a clinic for lepers in Calcutta then so be it, but it’s also OK, as you say, to

>try my hand at my own consulting gig, maybe 20 hours a week.

Because make no mistake: using your talents and skills in a field you enjoy in order to help others and get paid while doing it is wonderfully productive and worthwhile.

Mother Teresa, incidentally, is a perfect example of how it’s impossible to please society. She fell under intense criticism from the city of Calcutta for giving it a bad name, as if the city didn’t care about its own misfortunate citizens, and she also got lambasted by elements of the Hindu right for offering equal treatment to the “untouchable” caste. If she’d buckled to societal approval, she wouldn’t now be a candidate for sainthood.

This self-reflection you’re experiencing is a GOOD THING. This is, IME, a REQUIRED STEP on the road to FI/ER. And even if they never achieve FI/ER, people who don’t travel the path you’re on will flounder until the day they die.

So I can’t tell you the meaning of life, but I can certainly tell you that you’re on the correct path. Good for you. Moral angst isn’t a bad thing; don’t fight it or feel ashamed of it.

And therefore go forth and do thy thing, my man…you sound like someone who’s undergoing the very process of self-reflection that leads to being “a good person.” Hope that helps.

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

9 thoughts

  1. I was linked to your website and really like your perspective. Your comment that not being able to imagine what to do with your life after you reach FI is probably the reason you are still working had me nodding my head. My husband and I have now reached FI (yeah). While I have a ton of hobbies, he mainly plays video games. I told him it is ok to play games but he feels like it’s a waste of time. I sent him this article with the suggestion to consider something like BB/BS. Then, he can play video games and help someone who could benefit from being around a responsible adult. Thanks for planting a seed. BTW, would be great to be get feedburner or something to follow you via email.

    1. Hi, Rachel…thanks for the reply. First off, congrats on getting to FI. Let me ask you about an email list: the social media angle is what I’m still trying to figure out. My Twitter feed is going OK, I guess, but do you think it’s really productive in terms of time spent to set something like that up? I have no idea, unfortunately.

  2. This resonated with me SO much. I’m extremely glad to have found you via the Root of Good! 🙂

    It isn’t that I feel like I’m going to be useless or unable to ‘change the world’ when I retire (I already try to treat everyone with exceptional kindness everywhere I go), but that big brothers / big sisters idea is amazing.

    I also sympathize with your wife and her EE job–a high school buddy of mine went through a similar thing, but he was able to pivot ~4 years into his career and became a video game concept artist.

    Anyhow, I am looking forward to going through the rest of your archives! Thanks for putting virtual pen to paper!

  3. Ah, my husband is a video game artist. He loves it. I’m a research scientist. Blech. Your article conveys my thoughts exactly. I like your writing!

  4. just finished reading a book i hated, Halftime, by Bob Buford. (too much wading thru moralistic treacle.) the useful bit is the paradigm of bisecting one’s life into an accumulative half and a significance half. FI/RE requires mastery of two arts: the mathy bits used to plan one’s Dilbert-cube escape, and the hippie-dippie mastery of existential blues: defining the “to” of retiring to. if i am to help the unfortunate, i should not set an example of being a leech (unless i go into–either party–politics). thus i cannot skip the first–acquisitive–acts of the play wherein i build the foundations of industry and frugality.

  5. Wow, do I ever identify with your wife’s story. After some growth and self-reflection, I realize that I am in a field that is counter to my personal values. And it makes for a miserable employment experience. Now I just have to figure out what to do about it.

  6. Greetings. I am deep into pondering these issues, as my wife and I are both sensing a natural end to our working lives.
    We have asked ourselves, as your correspondent did, how it will feel not to be “productive” when we retire. Tentatively, my answer is this:
    The issue of being a “productive member of society” feels like it misses the point. Society, I think, has nothing to do with it. What we actually fear is that we will lose that quiet pleasure of being actively engaged in a job. We fear that we will be bored and inward-turned, filling empty hours simply entertaining ourselves. The “productive member of society” notion is just code for “doing something I find meaningful.”
    As the existentialists told us, meaningfulness is something different for each of us. But, as I look toward retirement, I can name the three core solitary pleasures that resonate with me: (1) the pleasure of thinking; (2) the pleasure of creating; and (3) the pleasure of physical movement.
    My guess is that if I devote the core of my retirement to these three pleasures (plus family/social pleasures, community-building pleasures, etc.), I will never feel that I am just watching Oprah, drinking Bud Light, and otherwise idly entertaining myself…and I will never feel guilty that I am not “productive.”

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