I’ve been retired for more than a year now. That feels weird to say. I spent years dreaming and planning for the end goal, and it’s odd to realize I’m in the thick of it now. One of the biggest motivators for retiring early was the awareness I had of how few years I have to left to live, and a question about what sort of things I wanted to experience and work on while I still had my health.
Well, it’s been a full year since I started this chapter of my life.
Am I happy with my activities in retirement? Overall, I would say yes. There’s a lot of loafing, and sunning, and self-reflection. But I always knew I would want to have some component of work in retirement, and adding that piece to my retirement picture turned out to be harder than I imagined. Here I define work as a sustained effort expended to make progress of some sort, which is not necessarily a paying job. It could very well be learning and playing an instrument or creating art. I knew I wanted some sort of ongoing improvement/element of creation in my life and I envisioned retirement as one idyllic single snapshot of myself working on sequential passion projects. Real life had other ideas, though, and I discovered there were several distinct stages to my view on work and meaning in retirement. I document my struggle to find the right fit for my retirement life here.
The First Few Months
The first month I retired, life was pure bliss. A weight had been lifted off me, and I was ecstatic. It was an endless vacation! I would wake up and just lay in bed,marveling that I had nowhere I needed to go, nothing I needed to do. My mind would flit through all sorts of options for the day: I could have a relaxing lunch outdoors. I could hit up one of the finest museums in the country, or even hop a train somewhere like Philly or Boston. My newfound freedom made me positively buoyant. Again, the sensation I noticed most was the feeling of a weight being lifted off me but I hadn’t done the work to fill the space in my life yet.
Month two was not nearly as great. Once I had gotten used to the weight being gone, my desire to engage in something creative or productive began to make itself known. I realized I was still left with a jumble of values and emotions though that prevented me from proceeding. I had had plans of how I would spend my time after I retired. I was going to write and work on self-exploration. I had loved self-improvement books growing up – I credit them as a major part of my success in career, money, and relationships – and I wanted to be a voice in the space. That was the plan. But I didn’t account for the fact that in the intervening years, I had been working and exposing myself to a whole other set of values. I had to buy into those values to some degree in order to advance, and now that I was retired I was left with two warring sets of imperatives.
Warring Values: The Authentic vs. The Familiar
Deep down, the things I would describe as important in life are community, a project where I felt I was contributing some of value, self-exploration, and time dedicated to just being, whether that meant lying on the floor contemplating the ceiling or sitting on a bench by the water.
What I had spent years absorbing in the “real world” and in my career was that money is a scorecard of the value you’ve delivered to the world. If you couldn’t generate money from the stuff you were working on, well then it wasn’t very valuable, was it? Some might even say you were just working on a vanity project.
I am not saying the real world is actually this way. I am saying that for whatever reason these were the bits and pieces I had unconsciously picked up. And that sucked. What I wanted to pursue deep down was at complete odds with this set of values. I wanted to do work in a space – writing – that was notorious for paying very little. Very few people get enough of a following to break through the ceiling, and even when they do the pay is nothing like it is in finance.
Couple that with the fact that I was leaving a position that was in the winner’s circle of its field. I would be comparing my progress in the new, overall less lucrative field with the position I left. It was a recipe for disaster. I could see then why some people, particularly folks high up in their organizations, might decide not to retire after all, even when they could. You give up a lot more than just the money. You give up a sense of success. Money is an easy thing to measure, which makes it an easy barometer to borrow for measuring success, even if it is imperfect at capturing the essence of the matter. In order to ditch my old barometer of success (more money = closer to retirement, respect in the eyes of others, etc.) I had replace it with some other framework, one which didn’t paint me as an immediate loser in my own eyes.
I was full of anxiety during this period. In truth, I was inconsolable. I would talk to a close confidante, and for the space of half an hour they would bring up all sorts of examples to showcase the distortions in my thinking. Was Mother Teresa’s work valueless because she wasn’t paid for it? On one level I understood what they meant. But on a visceral level, it had very little impact.
I started to compromise. I started thinking about new careers that had a more certain, narrower band on income than writing or other entrepreneurial activities. I thought that maybe I could be a psychologist or a financial advisor. That way I’d get paid a salary of $60k+ and still get to do work in the self-improvement space in some way. It wasn’t that I needed the money to pay the bills, but I needed the money as a sign of the value I was contributing to the world. I even for two really awful weeks considered getting another job in my old field. My husband gave me a truly bewildered look when I told him that I was thinking of going back. It was going to be different, I said, because I the type of investing firm I went to would be different. Yeah… that was a dark two weeks.
I cycled through ever-widening career ideas, options that took me farther from what I actually wanted to do. I thought about starting a startup. We invested in all kinds of successful companies at my old job. Since we were constantly looking for and celebrating business successes, I developed the impression that starting a successful business was an all-impressive accomplishment. These people got to walk around like tiny gods. There were profiles of people like Evan Spiegel of Snapchat – even younger than I was – who had generated hundreds of millions of dollars of value and affecting millions of lives. What was the idea of writing compared to that? If I were going to do something risky, I should at least pursue something that would pay off huge if I were to succeed. Pay off monetarily, that is.
I would like to say that I sorted through all of this quickly, and arrived at an enlightened state of living.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Month two turned into month three. Things got better. I admitted to myself that I really had no desire to be the CEO of a start-up. In actuality, almost everything required by that role were things I disliked about my old job. The constant phone calls and meetings. The salesmanship. The networking. I have a really good friend who is a two-time entrepreneur, and when she describes her days I feel like I need to take a vacation on her behalf. Very little of it sounds exciting. I liked the idea of being an entrepreneur that way I liked the idea of being a hero in a story book, but the actuality of trekking across the desert, battling monsters, and being harangued by a wizard/mentor/master sounded like the worst kind of torture.
I gave up the idea of starting a startup, but none of my options seemed perfect. I grew jealous of someone I knew who I felt had it all. This friend seemed to have a job that he loved, and it happened to pay a lot of money. I resented the idea that I had things I loved, and things that I was good at that made money, but with little overlap. If I could only get rid of the belief that money = value contributed to the world I could live happily ever after, but I couldn’t. So I resented that I was cursed to like things that made no money, while there were some blessed few who happened to get the intersection of love something/good at it/makes a lot of money.
Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back was that I was upset at myself for feeling this way. It felt ungrateful. Here I was having won several major lotteries in life – loving parents, a great education, a wonderful partner, a chance at early retirement – and instead of jumping for joy I was bitter over the fact that there was one lottery I hadn’t won.
The Path Forward
Writing this all down makes me exhausted. Living it was worse. In the end, what drew me out of it was applying the philosophy I have towards money to this broader problem in my life. I am a big believer that small, steady contributions of effort are the key to success. What I needed to do here was ditch the grand vision and the pressure to make one perfect decision and just go with something and start making small efforts. Heck, I might decide after writing for a month that I actually hated it, and then I would have gone through all this angst for nothing.
I started writing this blog in August/September. I never stopped. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Interacting with people in the comments is my one of my favorite parts of the whole process. And when I get an email from a reader saying how I inspired them to make changes in their lives, or telling about their individual motivations for trying to better their financial lives and getting to share tools and ideas that save them thousands of dollars, that’s a level of meaning that makes this work intoxicating. Let me tell you something. Nobody ever shook my hand and told me I’d changed their lives or inspired them to make strides toward their dreams when I was in finance. I get giddy every time I get a letter like this, and they come somewhat regularly these days.
The State of My “Work” Today
How am I feeling about my “work” these days?
From an objective standpoint, I spend about 3 to 6 hours on the blog per week. It’s one of the only routines I’ve kept in retirement – we’ve established how I have less discipline than a lemming, so I consider 6 hours a lot. Since the beginning of this year, this blog has had almost 400,000 page views and over 100,000 visitors. Blog traffic tends to spike and dip, but on an average month there are certainly over 8,000-10,000 visitors and 40,000-50,000 pageviews.
Will this stay steady, even continue to grow? I don’t know. I’m new at this. I’m told by several folks that that kind of growth is unusual for the first 8-10 months. What do I know? All I can do is keep reporting on the ride as honestly and thoughtfully as possible. Right now, I can say that the blog has more than exceeded my biggest hopes for its ability to reach people and make a difference in their lives (small for some, larger for others).
I have a slew of other hobbies I haven’t spent much time describing in this post, but they include a stint doing horseback riding lessons, house hunting (at several hundred hours, I consider this a hobby of its own), cooking, reading every bad fantasy book ever written, and sniffing out NYC’s most unique restaurants. These activities make make my heart full even if they don’t generate money that would make my old self feel accomplished.
Overall, I’ve found that the warring between those two sets of values has lessened. The wholehearted set – the ones focused on contributing value in a space I’ve loved myself for years – are slowly winning out. I still sometimes freak out over whether I’m doing enough and ask myself if I can’t indeed measure things by the amount of money they generate (this usually leads to an hour with my free therapist, The Husband, and some stress-eating of the world’s unhealthiest onion chips). Overall though, I’m happy with my progress on this front, and I view each week as a way to exercise my brain into the mindset I want it to have.
Where I’m Going From Here
I have been so so happy with the work and projects I’ve been pursuing in retirement. These days, the hobby I think most about is the blog. I have big dreams of how much more this blog can contribute to the world. I want to double down on deep content for the Money Habit Library and multi-post series that can get deeper into both the strategy and tactical advice for implementing new money systems. That may require a change in how much time I spent on this project.
I have also thus far said no to a lot of lucrative opportunities for the blog because 1) they seemed like a lot less fun than writing and 2) I was afraid given my warring values that this would lead me to unconsciously prioritize what was more “commercial”. The only thing I’ve done so far on this front is is find a way to connect with some of the products I’d been using in my life and loved, and I did that because I wanted to pay for hosting as well as the quickly growing bill from my email service provider as the subscriber count started growing into several thousand. I like the idea of stepping up my game here, though, and finding a way for readers to passively improve the lot of others in the world as they improve their own lives through this blog. That means finding ways to monetize and donate the proceeds to charities that support causes we as a community believe in. I would love for this blog to support the message of doing well and doing good in the world at the same time. There’s something poetic to me about a reader making a change in his/her life that puts them thousands of dollars closer toward their goal while also furthering the economic position of others (sneak peek: Heifer International is a top contender for my charity of choice).
In short, expect to see some updates soon on the direction of the blog. Well, expect a potential giant yawning silence as I close on my first house, move, and discover all the magical wonders of Home Depot (spackling? wood putty?). Then we’ll get rolling.
See you on the other side.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.