What are you retiring “to”?
It’s one of the age-old questions of retirement. With early retirement being two or three times longer than traditional retirement, it’s a question with an answer all the more important.
Studies come up frequently that attempt to tie early retirement with early death. The hypothesis seems to be that losing a sense of purpose developed through your job might lead to early death.
There’s also the possibility that the community you develop through work helps keep you from kicking the bucket early, too.
As a whole, the implication seems to be that we FIRE proponents need to ensure we still have meaningful work and healthy social circles without a traditional job.
How can we retire to something that provides us with the mental stimulation that purposeful work provides?
How can we create fresh social connections to develop a sense of community and belonging?
Belonging and Stimulation Without a Job
I haven’t worked in a traditional job since 2012. No office full of coworkers to mingle with. No one to praise my accomplishments with rewards and promotions.
I can feel that loss.
Up until about 2020, I was still doing significant part-time work. I still had social connections—even if they were digital—with my colleagues and clients.
Slack took the place of the watercooler and Zoom filled my screen with smiling faces that created connections and belonging.
So far as purpose, well… As Don Draper would say…
Yep, that’s what the money was for.
Running your agency can be incredibly profitable. That’s how I was able to reach financial independence by age 33.
Depending on your personality, though, it might not be what you need to feel a sense of purpose in your work.
Once work is optional, where else can we find belonging and stimulation?
The work you love
It’s said that you should seek to find labor you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
Naturally, we all attribute that “work” to a job.
Something we do for money.
The idea being…go find a job you love—be an artist, a musician, a vet—and you’ll be able to overcome the adversity a job so often places in front of us.
The words are nice, the thought is like a warm blanket.
Of course, most of us don’t get so lucky as to find financial success within a field we love.
We set that dream of doing what we love in the back of our minds, forever relegated to other childish dreams.
Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. Peace on Earth.
But what happens when the money really doesn’t matter anymore?
What if financial independence is a bridge back to at least one of those childish dreams?
Could the work we love not be a job?
Freedom without direction
Financial independence releases us from the obligation to toil for subsistence. Early retirement frees our most prized resource to be wielded however we choose—time.
Some of us choose to spend our retired days in soft comfort.
We devour the latest bestseller, binge hit-TV, and pre-order the next digital challenge at release.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I know I’ve done it plenty!
But, eventually, I believe, each of us will yearn for the community, stimulation, and meaning that a job once brought us.
I believe that one of the greatest ways we retirees can fulfill those needs is through volunteerism.
The benefits of volunteering
If you’ve been following along on our FIRE journey, you may have noticed in our recent monthly updates that Jenni and I just returned from a volunteer trip.
We spent a little over two weeks in Peru volunteering on a medical brigade. We paid our way which also paved the way for one of our most expensive months since we started writing. Over eight grand!
It was easily some of the best money I’ve ever spent.
Being part of a group of about thirty students and medical professionals with a noble mission and clear intention reminded me of the very best attributes a job ever offered me.
It was the distillation of what work should be.
At least, in an ideal world.
4 key benefits stood out to me.
- The volunteer work was collaborative and intense which demanded teamwork. This helps quickly foster social connections.
- With limited resources, the work commanded ingenious but frugal and creative outside-the-box solutions! This creativity, I’ve said before, answers a deep question: why do people work? Exercising creativity is incredibly stimulating!
- Our volunteer team broke through the insular nature of language and cultural differences to form an even bigger team with our local NGO group, our neighbors, and the towns we served. This combination of volunteers, local workers, and local residents created a sense of community.
- Seeing the outcome of this creative teamwork through the flesh and bone patients in front of us—thankful for whatever remedy we could offer—delivered a deep sense of purpose.
The anecdotal experience I had was that this volunteer opportunity delivered so much of the positive experience a meaningful job or career can have without all the drudgery.
That’s not to say volunteerism is without issue.
The darkside of volunteer work
We donated $1,000 per person to cover our room and board. Add in our flights to and from Peru, local transport, and a night or two in hotels along the way and it’s a lot!
We were easily at about $4,000 for the two of us.
Volunteering can be expensive!
There was some disorganization, unclear workflows, and lumpy demand.
Volunteers, individually, can come with their personal issues or lack of training.
And let’s not forget how fun it is to struggle to find a hot shower. Or deal with plumbing incapable of swallowing toilet paper. Mosquitos nipping at you through the night.
So Why Volunteer?
When you’re invested in something you care about, that you think is right, all of these difficulties are merely bumps on the road.
Planning for retirement also means planning for a life without work. That’s a good 2,000 hours or so per year that’ll be filled with something.
Each can and will be, resolved.
It’s not just living expenses you need to account for in your FIRE plan, but adventure too.
Finding meaning is a journey pursued throughout life. And sometimes it costs something to take the next step.
Dealing with inefficiencies and doldrums innate to every type of organization, even nonprofits, is just part of working with others.
Yes, sometimes volunteering can seem like work.
And yes, there’s often an organizational hierarchy, a schedule, and other requirements.
But this isn’t a job!
You don’t have to accept any of the demands!
The whole point of reaching FI and filling your life with other pursuits you love is that you get to pick how you fill your time!
Don’t be afraid to say no to volunteer gigs. Just because you love animals doesn’t mean you have to be happy toiling away, cleaning up literal crap in kennels to help your local shelter.
Find an organization and responsibility where you enjoy what you’re doing and feel it adds value!
Keep searching until you find that.
This is your time to relive those dreams of being a rockstar, an astronaut, or a racecar driver—well, at least the part about doing something you love!
You don’t have to worry about the pay and you’re not beholden to anyone but yourself.
Volunteering As A Vocation
There are countless benefits to volunteering I’ve hardly mentioned:
- Stretching your comfort zone to build resilliance in your character
- Resetting your lifestyle expectations to develop gratitude
- Developing new skills with the potential to find ones to master
- Exploring the world beyond yourself, beyond your home
I think that volunteerism can be the early retiree’s half-altruistic and half-selfish trick to securing purpose in their life.
Maybe you’ll find your life’s calling, your vocation, along the way.
A wise man once said…
“Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”— Frederick Buechner, Author
How will you define your vocation in life once you’ve left a job and career behind? I hope you can find satisfaction in pursuing a volunteer opportunity that awards you with meaning, community, and stimulation.
At the end of the day, you might find you’re helping yourself just as much as those in need that form the volunteer’s mission.
Appendix: Looking to Volunteer?
If you’re reading this and thinking “wow, that’s right up my alley!”—here are some resources to help you get started.
- We recently volunteered with FNE International in Peru; it’s a small NGO with a focus in Nicaragua and Dominican Republic as well
- Did you know the Peace Corps has a fairly new suborganization seeking professionals for shorter term international assignments? Check out Peace Corps Response
- If you do a lot of digital work (and enjoy it!), CatchAFire.org is a great place to connect with organizations in need
- Lastly, if you want to learn how to be more effective in your giving check out the Effective Altruism movement
In the comments: tell us about volunteer opportunities you’ve had! How has it affected your life?
Do you want to incorporate volunteerism into your FIRE life?
2 replies on “Why Volunteerism Could Be Your Life’s Greatest Vocation”
I like the idea of filling the working hours with a consistent volunteering opportunity for the reasons you mention. It helps foster a sense of purpose and community, and is especially rewarding when you feel that you are doing it because it’s something you WANT to do and not something you NEED to do.
I agree. I find more value in things I volunteer, rather than things I used to work with. It’s a pity life is “designed” this way.