While preparing for retirement, personal growth happens. Since my early retirement journey began in late 2014, I figured it’d be a race to the finish line. Sprint fast to get through the next hellish 5 or 6 years, not caring about being a better employee whatsoever. I was worried I might not reach that finish tape, and get canned for losing focus (or growing a mustache…)
Well, here I stand, a little over four years later. Still employed and staring down a likely promotion, of all things. Strange as that sounds, I think it’s probably more common than not for FIRE types. Chances are, if you’re driven to make, save, and invest your money wisely, you might just wind up applying that same drive and determination at work.
There’s this wonderful post by an excellent writer in the FIRE community, A Purple Life. Basically what’s laid out is a journey of career callus-building. See, we enter the workforce as young adults and have to learn over time how and when to say “no”.
We have to build up our EQ and muster the resilience necessary in order to become a better employee. A Purple Life is realizing that the pursuit of financial independence offers the unanticipated benefit of workplace confidence and control.
Purple’s post plots a timeline of the various jobs she’s held these past five years. With each gig, she’s recognizing an emerging capacity to manage the bullsh*t. Is that the key? Give yourself a long enough runway to learn and grow, until you’re able to control and flip the situation into a sustainable one?
I’d bet most of us don’t reach this “level of control” until our mid-to-late 30s. For many of us, it really can take several years (if ever!) to fully rationalize our value to an employer, and feel secure in the hamster wheel. That’s how the corporate journey has played out for me at least…
Not Ready for Prime-time
In my 20s, work sucked. I enjoyed interacting with most of my colleagues, but I was a punk. I had a problem with authority and a penchant for making excuses. Not a good mix for advancement. In one instance, I simply walked out of a meeting when I disagreed with my boss on some trivial point. Everyone else, it seemed, was a better employee than me.
In another, I lost my cool with the same boss over a computer server outage. I was focused on resolving the problem. His beef was that I hadn’t notified him about it. A lot of yelling at each other later, my career path at that company veered quickly into lay-off country. (He was a bit of a punk too. And got canned a year and a forced transfer later.)
I reasoned with myself that I’d be employed until age 60 or 65, so I had plenty of time to figure it all out. Good thing, because I found that work still sucked in my 30s. At least by then I had started to catch on to “the game”. That’s the cool thing about experience and reflection: Wisdom accumulates in the willing brain.
With intent, we actually can and do change. I found myself vastly improving how I interacted with people and how I handled difficult situations. Of course, for that growth to occur, you first have to be self-aware enough to recognize that you commit the occasional f*ck-up.
In my 40s I finally landed in a role that better suited my strengths. Finally, I could perform at a high level. It only took 18 years to get to this point. And sadly, those preceding 18 years (which included a lay-off in the middle) left a bad taste in my mouth for Corporate America.
Sure, I know how to operate and excel, finally. But even today, all it takes sometimes is the slightest setback for me to question this entire corporate scene. That’s when I reach for FIRE. (It spells “Relief”!)
How Pursuing / Preparing for Retirement Compromises Job Performance
The worst thing that could happen? You get the bug to retire early and you start acting like a jerk at work. (Or a jerk at home, which I suppose is even worse.) If you’ve only got a year or two to go, maybe this part of the post is a moot point. But if you’ve got 5, 10, or 20 years ahead of you, take heed…
The pursuit of early retirement can be a big distraction. Back in 2015, I spent wayyy too much work time devouring blog posts by Mr. Money Mustache. That was also the year I turned down my most recent crack at a promotion. This cat was like, “Nope. I need more time to read blog posts.” I couldn’t be distracted by the added responsibilities that a promo gig would require.
Actually, the promotion was turned down because of the twin kiddos back home. I had a crazy notion of wanting to maintain a reasonable work-life balance.
Distractions, whether they’re early retirement blogs or daydreaming about all-day bike rides can and should be avoided. But there’s another trap to steer clear of: the trap of a devil-may-care* attitude.
After you’ve read through the annals of MMM, you might begin to think, “You know what, I’m smarter than all of these suckers around me. And especially my boss. I’ll show ’em…” And before you know it, you get a pink slip for bringing a flip attitude to work and shirking your responsibilities.
*Synonyms for devil-may-care include: reckless, rash, incautious, heedless, impetuous, impulsive, daredevil, hotheaded, wild, foolhardy, audacious, nonchalant, casual, breezy, flippant, insouciant, happy-go-lucky, easygoing, unworried, untroubled, unconcerned, harum-scarum.
That last one, harum-scarum, is choice.
Why the Pursuit of Early Retirement Makes for a Super-Star Worker Bee
Here’s the fun part. You might actually discover, with that curious and insightful mind of yours, that a headstrong pursuit of early retirement translates into better performance at work. How ironic is THAT?? Here you are, plotting and scheming a magical day when you can shock the hell out of everyone with your resignation notice.
Instead, you start to get plumb assignments and promotions. How’d that happen?? Maybe it’s because your riding to work habit has you energized for the day. That and you’re now avoiding the dreaded and stressful clown-car commute (NOT a great way to start your day).
Maybe you just plain have hope since stumbling upon the early retirement option (whereas before, you felt beholden to at-will employment until age 65…?) The twist here is that again, it’s all about control. You come out of early retirement bootcamp with a newfound sense of ownership of your career situation. And largely, that’s because you now have your sh*t together with respect to money.
I like to project my own experiences as theories that hold water, so please by all means “call out the leaks” in the comments below. For now, hear me out. There are some very real opportunities to shine at the office, assuming you apply yourself (Walter White said to Jesse Pinkman).
Distilling it all down, here’s a few nuggets of armchair wisdom on how the pursuit of early retirement makes you a better employee:
- Freewheeling with Financial Concepts, spreadsheets and forecasts: In the process of becoming better stewards of our personal finances, we become more proficient with managing the company’s dollars. Funny how that works, but it’s true. Wasteful spending on projects? Not on my watch!
- Crushing it with Confidence: The closer you get to early retirement, the less worried you are about messing up. You are free to take risks. I’m not suggesting an approach that’s devil-may-care, or harum-scarum. But you find your voice among leaders and are more apt to put forward ideas in a calculated, well-conceived way.
- Ramped-up Relatability: You’ll notice more empathy and camaraderie with colleagues. Why? Because you’re bringing your FIRE tribe-building skills with you to the office. Not only that, but you’ve eliminated so many distractions in your own life, that you can finally listen with intent to others, and a good listener is typically in short supply.
- Doubled-down on Discipline: You now wake-up at 5AM. Every. Day. You can choose to write blog posts, or, get through all of your work emails and hammer out your goals for the day. You’ll even have a head start on your boss. And for extra credit, you make an effort to ride your bike to work on consistent basis.
- Pontiff of Prioritization — work and LIFE: The FIRE ecosystem offers a wealth of wisdom on economizing our lives. Cut out the excess (cut the cord and downsize). Focus on what’s important. Get organized. Pursue minimalism, without going overboard. Pursue simplification in your tasks and projects, just like we do with investing by sticking with easy-peasy index funds.
A Better Employee: Closing Remarks
It’ll be telling as time goes on to see how Corporate America responds to the FIRE movement, if at all. There’s already tremendous pressure on the job market with many skilled gigs difficult to fill. As a hiring manager, I’d find it awfully depressing to have to settle for “iffy” talent.
Will executives and HR influencers make the necessary changes to entice good workers, who’d otherwise retire early? Their work is cut out for them. But some, like Base Camp CEO Jason Fried feel it’s entirely within reach. I’m anxious to pick up a copy of his book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. 40 hour work week? Preposterous I say!
A Purple Life sums it up quite well:
…the benefits of pursuing FIRE are not just monetary. It’s not just about reaching financial independence or early retirement. Even incremental steps down the FIRE path seemed to have profound impacts on my life. Not only do I feel more financially secure each passing day, but through this journey, I have been able to seriously reflect on what kind of career I want and strive for it instead of being afraid what an authority figure might think.
These last few posts have brought out a bit of the skeptic in me. I’m finding that I like getting out of the house from time to time, and that I can tolerate the game at work most days. I’ve recognized there is some ebb and flow to my career journey and I happen to be in a pretty decent place today. It sure took a while to reach this point, and it is suspicious how it occurred towards the tail-end of my 5-year exit plan.
Will I retire early as planned next year? It’s too soon to tell, but I put my odds at 50-50. Not because I can’t or won’t have the means, but because I might have found a way to make the hamster wheel pay off. Maybe it helps that my wife and kids have their daily routines – that I feel I should play my part to suit up for duty. Could be something to that.
But until I’ve found my real and ideal struggle, absent a career, I might just keep on ambling along with these new and useful skills I’ve honed. Thanks to a pursuit of early retirement. Stay tuned…