There’s something that every person approaching retirement will struggle with: still feeling useful when they’ve left their career or business. Understanding this is key to enjoying retirement.
For many of us, our employment becomes part of who we are. It’s not only how you might define yourself in casual conversation (“So, what do you do?”), but also the company you keep. Your work colleagues become friends. You spend tons of time at your place of employment and your social circles expand based on these connections.
The direction you choose for further education, technical certificates, and greater specialization often grows from your work.
Technicians are inspired to become Pharmacists.
The guys and gals that start by changing the oil in your car grow to become Master Mechanics (and, at least the shop I worked at in high school—often made over $100K/year!).
The career path you’ve chosen becomes a key ingredient to your identity as you invest more of that severely limited resource: time in your life.
Giving that up, redefining yourself as something new—often as you’re approaching middle age as an early retiree—isn’t a clear or easy task.
Not Being Defined By Work
If you make a drastic shift from 40 or more hours per week toiling to retirement, you’ve opened up a huge chunk of time that needs to be filled with something.
In fact, by cutting 40 hours of work out of a typical 112 hours of waking time per week, you’ve freed up about 36% of your waking life.
Or, as a more cynical way to look at it, you’ve cut out more than a third of the character you’ve created as your identity.
What will you transplant into that space to create the new character that is you?
- Expand all your existing passions, hobbies, and interests to let them fully define your identity?
- Trade your existing professional character for another that fully defines you (from General Practitioner to Doctor Without Borders or Police Officer to Self-defense Instructor)?
- Let a single interest envelope all of your time—to become a writer (or blogger!), YouTuber, or musician?
Who will you decide to become?
An intentional life
It might seem like the smaller jump is to decide to simply let the rest of your life fill the newly freed time proportionally than to become the architect of an entirely new life.
But the reality is that, in either case, you’re making the decision of how to fill the free time you’ve earned through financial independence and pulling the trigger on early retirement.
What’s most important is that you intentionally make that decision. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that what fulfills you—what makes you a content and well-adjusted person in early retirement is to move to a quiet oceanside community, surf, and read the days away. It’s okay to enjoy the little things.
Similarly, your early retirement could be filled with objectively more work than what your career had. The star surgeon might find through experimentation that what satisfies them in life is to operate in medically-deficient small villages of the world under challenging conditions.
It might be what makes them feel like they have a life worth living, which is ultimately our purpose.
For example, focusing on creation as a core tenant of the remaining work I do has helped me find purpose and an answer for why I still work. Enjoying retirement doesn’t have to mean you’ll never work to create anything again.
Early retirement is an experiment
The RE part of FIRE does not define what’s next. Retiring early is merely giving you the choice.
Aside from what spending your investments might support, that choice is unlimited.
In the context of FIRE, retiring early doesn’t mean sitting around watching TV any more than it means you have to contribute meaningful creation back to society.
As long as you’re not hurting others, do what you want. Define yourself as who you wish to be.
If you lack direction—fear not—your goal is to use your freedom to find the answer.
Your early retired life can be an experiment in living. A process to figure out what enjoying retirement is to you.
A malleable life
And really, if you’re striving for early retirement at all, you’re likely looking at dozens of years of life ahead of you with little structure or clear progression once you cut the income cord.
The life of early retirement you find solace in at 40 probably won’t be the same as at 50 or 60. That’s not a quirk of early retirement as much as it is of aging.
Be open to a retired life that looks very different when you begin than from how you end it.
My yearly theme for 2021 (rather than a New Year’s resolution) is “discomfort”. Part of stretching my comfort zone this year is to take a deeper look at what I incorporate into my semiretired life and what I want the fully early retired version to look like.
What’s Enjoying Retirement for You?
I’ve set the stakes for what retiring early can be. But what about what it should be? I can only offer a subjective take, but I’d love to share what some of my experience has been and the wisdom I’ve gleaned from other’s anecdotal experiences.
Let’s circle back to my opener for this article.
Those of us who reach retirement (at any age) will struggle with one key loss that a job provides: a feeling of being a useful member of society.
Aside from defining part (or even a majority!) of our identity, work offers a sense of belonging within society through the leverage of our efforts to create value.
No matter whether you’re cranking out widgets or doing brain surgery, work helps define our value to those around us—and we reflect their belief by integrating our “production value” into our identity.
Once you’ve extracted this part of your identity from yourself by leaving your work behind, will you also have extracted your usefulness to society? And if so, how will it affect your mental well-being?
Risk and identity
Confusingly, it’s not uncommon for depression to strike when folks retire. Traditionally, I think it’s fair to say that men tend to tie their identity to work even more so than women. This tendency likely explains why the risk of depression as it’s associated with retirement is even stronger with men.
My point in bringing this up isn’t to suggest that retirement is riskier for men, but rather than to highlight a likely explanation for it: people who more closely tie their identity to work, who then retire, suffer a greater risk of depression.
It’s drilled into us from an early age to follow a path that creates an apex of “usefulness” in society late in life:
- Go to school
- Start making widgets
- Buy, buy, buy to create work dependency
- Get hitched, make babies
- Become an expert in widget making so you can teach others
- Very briefly retire to the golf course and onto the dirt
While it’s reasonable to suggest that much of society’s technological progress and destruction of poverty has arisen from this lifelong specialization, I’m not sure about where it leaves our internal self—ever dependent on an identity created through work.
It doesn’t surprise me to see a correlation between the extrication of this part of our identity through retirement and rising depression.
What’s the best way to combat the risk of depression through retirement?
Well, I think the answer to that is pretty simple.
You need to create a life where your identity is increasingly disassociated from how you earn a living. Keep work at work and define a life outside of it.
A diverse life
A smart person on the path to FIRE carries diversified investments: broad index funds, some bonds, and less geographic dependency through international investment.
Sure, you might be able to make it big through individual stock investments (whoops!). Or maybe through a big bet on crypto coins.
But the point of diversification and risk mitigation is to offer you as many chances at success as possible so you can absorb all the failures.
The mindset of someone reaching for FIRE is that they only need enough money. You don’t need to aim for the fences when a base hit will do.
So why not adopt the same mentality for your sources of satisfaction, fulfillment, and contentment in life?
Diversify. Experiment. Try new things that you could possibly consider incorporating into your identity. Things which you have control over.
Taking risks in life is sometimes a necessity. But basing your identity on a singular source—especially one in which your employer has significant control—is a risky endeavor of dependency.
In the context of life, striking out can really suck.
Define What’s Valuable to You
Achieving financial independence offers you a choice—one that you get to make when you want. For some of us, especially those on a path to FIRE, the choice to retire creates its own set of options.
It’s no longer “do I like this enough to keep working and make a cushier retirement?”
Rather, it’s “what in my life is more valuable to me in pursuing than retaining this part of my identity?”
The key here is that you decide.
Society dictated what was valuable for you to divert your time to as you achieved financial independence. They did this by delivering an income proportional to the value you brought.
But once you’ve released that dependency, you define what’s valuable to do with your time—the key to enjoying retirement.
- Will you care for your aging parents?
- Might you learn how to DIY maintenance and repairs to avoid buying new?
- Could you produce your own food?
- Do you divert more of your time into becoming an all-star parent, never missing another dance recital?
Society would assign very little monetary value to those things, but how do you value them?
We might internally assign much higher value to things than we do to a paycheck. And those values might not match what society thinks of them.
But that’s alright. Retirement is divorcing society’s thoughts on how you should spend your time or its value from your own.
Instead, you become the director of the value of your time.
Do you struggle with feeling worthless in retirement?
Do you feel like you need to be a “useful member of society” to be content with life?
What do you think the keys are to enjoying retirement?
Let us know in the comments!