My greatest fear about FIRE1 is that it doesn’t work. That FIRE doesn’t make me happy. It turns out to be a mirage. The dream dissolves and, in a desperate attempt to retrace my steps, I go back to my old job. The lifer who walks back into his cell.
To me, this is swallowing the blue pill.
Every time one of these FIRE-ees announces their return to work, I think of another soldier falling to cannon-fire amid the thinning ranks of a Napoleonic line.
I take it personally, I suppose. Why? Because if it happened to them, it can happen to me.
I’ve banked a lot on FIRE being ‘the answer’.
Let me level with you:
- I’m riddled with doubt about how this will go.
- I will consider it a profound personal failure If I return to my old line of work because I can’t find anything better to do with myself.
I’m nervous about making this work because the stakes are high.
What’s up for grabs is living a life doing things that matter to me and those I love.
As opposed to pouring my energy into hitting corporate targets that loom over everything like a dark star.
When the FIRE goes out
What goes wrong when the FIRE dream dies?
- Boredom – life is too quiet, challenge disappears, domestic tasks don’t translate into self-worth, leisure without measure is like eating junk food 24/7.
- Lack of social contact – everyone’s at work, there’s a loss of comradeship, isolation sets in.
- Status anxiety – it’s too soon to be out of the action. There’s a sense of being sidelined, no longer needed, being a disappointment to oneself, the community and those judgy types who ask, “And what do you do?”
- You’re meant to be happy – but what if you’re not happy after FIRE? “If this is bliss then I might as well be paid to be miserable” seems to be the way the thinking goes.
I don’t think falling into these existential tar pits is inevitable, but I am definitely vulnerable.
Here’s how I plan to keep the FIRE burning
I’ll need some stress – not the chronic stress I experience at work, but I’ll need a challenge in my life that makes me experience discomfort. This will mean setting myself a task that I won’t already know how to achieve, or be innately good at. It’ll involve learning new skills. It’ll mean committing to the task (perhaps publicly), so that if I pull out then I’ll think less of myself.
Community – if I spend all day with myself then I’m going to go nuts. I need to be of use to other people. To focus on their needs and not my own for a while.
It’s important to keep one’s expectations in check here. This isn’t about solving world hunger. If you can change one person’s life for the better then it’s worth it. Though you may never know the difference you’ve made.
FIRE gives me the chance to find a deeper sense of community than ever before.
Physical – I’ve worked in an office all my adult life. Air-conditioning, monitor tan, sitting for eight hours or more a day. I’ve stayed relatively fit but, god, the balance is all wrong. I want to be active for hours at a time, not an hour a day.
I want to chop wood, walk, cycle, dig, take up a martial art.3 It’s use it or lose it time for me, and operating purely in the knowledge economy means losing it.
Nature – I need to spend more time feeling the elements on my skin. I want more woods, water, heat and cold, dawns and dusks.
New skill – it’s time to try something I’ve never taken on before, something I’m curious about. Perhaps it’s something I wasn’t particularly good at in the past: maths or a foreign language. Perhaps the skill-challenge can tick my nature and physicality boxes, such as growing my own food or learning survival skills.
As long as I stretch myself then this will deliver my stress-dose, too, because I’m a sucker for imposter syndrome.
A project – this will add structure to my week, giving it a backbone that everything else can hang from. Writing for Monevator and trying to make more of it in cahoots with The Investor is an obvious example. Renovating the house with Mrs Accumulator is another.
A project needs to be absorbing enough to soak up the hours. It needs to give me a sense of building towards something and having made progress each week.
Later on I can research / dabble in new projects as I understand more about who I am in my FIRE incarnation. Could I get involved with the green economy? Tree-planting? Rewilding?
Fun and relaxation – there has to be time for just aimlessly arsing about. No goal, no growth. Just time that’s mine to fritter away. As long as this is rationed like a toddler’s screen-time, then I shouldn’t turn into a Doritos-munching, couch-blob sitting in his pants all day long.
Family – Yep, they’re gonna get more of me. Unlucky!
Ideally the above becomes a self-supporting system of goals and behaviours that keeps me right side up as I adapt to a life of FIRE.
The overarching goal is to chisel out a better version of myself. Someone I’m happy to be, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
That’s going to require experimentation and likely stumbling down roads I didn’t expect to take.
None of this conflicts with the false FIRE belief that purity depends on whether you’re paid or not.
It does conflict with the false mainstream belief that retirement means doing ‘nothing’.
It’s impossible for healthy humans to do nothing. And I’m fine with being paid to do something I want to do.
The key difference between the next phase of my life and the last is I won’t do anything just for the money, or to polish the CV, or to ‘fit in’.
I think it will take at least two years to adapt to my new life. Every major change in direction I’ve taken has been followed by a massive crisis of faith. Like an earthquake followed by a tsunami.
I’ve wanted to cut and run but have always held on. Breaking through the pain barrier has always been worth it eventually, but it may feel tougher with FIRE because theoretically everything’s meant to be rainbows and unicorns from here.
Life isn’t like that, which is something I need to remember when doubt gnaws at my mind like it’s a chew-toy.
Take it steady,
P.S. Here is a list to help you think about the things you really want to do. I can’t remember where I got this from, but it’s so good I’m just going to share it as is:
- What can we do together?
- What do you enjoy / value?
- What did you enjoy as a child?
- How would you like to make a difference?
- How would you like to serve others, what’s the best way you serve others?
- What would you like to be really good at?
- What could you do for hours and never tire of?
- What makes you happy / would make you happier?
- What talent or skill could be built on?
- What challenge excites you?
- What have you never gotten around to doing?
Hopefully someone else recognises this list and we can credit the original source. If you have a link to the original then please share it in the comments!
- Financial Independence Retire Early.
- And before them, will-they won’t-they return to workers like RIT, YFG, SHMD.
- I dabbled with Tai Chi in my twenties but it got squeezed out amid everything else.