If you’re reading this, then financial independence is probably a goal of yours. Yet, most people who accumulate a pile of money big enough to retire upon keep on working if they are able. Why? They may truly love their job and be willing to work for free, they may worry that they won’t have enough, they might decide they’d rather have nicer things, or they may simply not have fully considered a life after paid work.
The problem is that reaching your “Number” is like finally buying that big house or fancy car or 100,000th social media follower. There is never a point at which you can say “I’m here! I’ll be forever happy and satisfied from now on.” It is always tempting to keep reaching for more. As the saying goes: If all you care about is money, you’ll never have enough money. If all you care about is social prestige, you’ll never have enough social prestige. You are forever stuck on the hamster wheel.
The article Redefining Success So It Doesn’t Crush Your Soul touches on many concepts related to this puzzle.
It’s high time to redefine success. Success is not something that you reach—not something that is outside of yourself, just down the field. Success is creating a life you want to live in right now. The great tragedy, Fromm writes, is that “man misses the only satisfaction that can give him really happiness—the experience of the activity in the present moment—and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it—the illusory happiness called success.”
According to decades of psychological research, a successful life is one in which your basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and income are met and in which you have a sense of autonomy, mastery, and belonging. A life that is not about enduring means you can’t stand in order to reach ends you are supposed to want; but rather, about selecting pursuits based on how much you’ll enjoy the process of doing them.
Happiness is not a goal. It is a side effect of how you spend each day. Imagine a day where money is not limitless, but it also doesn’t matter to your wellbeing. You can pick to “work” on something you both enjoy and find meaningful, while also spending time with people you love. What would that look like? I completed a similar Dream Day activity in 2005, and the improved clarity definitely helped.
Starting out, I thought of financial independence as a race to a fixed goal. Track numbers, plot them on a chart. I’d work hard, save hard, reach my net worth target, and finally turn in my resignation letter and disappear.
Looking back, what worked better was a gradual transition between two versions of the same sustainable lifestyle. To build up your assets, you have to enjoy your daily process so you don’t burn out, while also maintaining a gap between your income and expenses. Invest that excess money into productive assets (building a private business, buying stock shares of public businesses, rental real estate, etc), and over time your choices expand. You can work the same job but less hours, work a different job with lower pay/lower stress, decline promotions, or simply do nothing (much rarer than you think). Part of this is the ability to be content with your non-work lifestyle and expenses. Life should just keep getting better and better, instead of you simply wanting more and more.
But it all starts with that work lifestyle, which requires something meaningful, moderately enjoyable, and pays well. Even with an aggressive savings rate, you’ll need to work for more than a decade, so invest money into yourself first! Get a job that is more interesting, more enjoyable, or just pays better. Use your money to take time off, switch to a entry-level job in a different industry, go back to school full-time, or spend nights and weekends working on new skills. Perhaps find a government-based job with a secure pension agreement if that fits you.
I plan to advise my own kids to spend their 20s in this manner. Live cheaply and invest in yourself. An emergency fund is important, but after that – What are you willing to spend 80 hours a week doing? Take the job that opens up future opportunities. Work with a great mentor. Study hard and don’t settle until you finally get into your target professional school. Work 80 hours a week because you (and maybe your friends) are building a business from scratch. Take asymmetric risks with big upsides and minimal downsides. Find your joys, and don’t waste money on the rest.
I’m still working on improving my own daily routine. I look back onto my 20s as a special period because time felt so abundant before you have others to support (partners, kids, parents). Having dependents also makes it harder to take risks and change your life. These two factors help explain why life satisfaction is lowest in your 40s. Yet harder doesn’t mean impossible. My father went back to school in his 30s and didn’t finish his schooling until I was already 10 years old. I constantly remind myself that I will eventually think of today as “back when I was young”:
Bottom line. Financial independence is not simply a faraway number like accumulating $1,000,000 in 30 years. Most important is figuring out how to enjoy the process by creating a content lifestyle that is meaningful and aligned with your values so that saving regularly doesn’t feel like a constant struggle. You want life to keep getting even better as you go vs. simply wanting ever more.
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