A human life has seasons – it is written in the cycle of life, we aren’t Immortals, dying through accident alone. The gateways between these seasons was often marked by rites of passage in earlier generations, but the modern First World has few rites of passage.
But life is still a journey. You can close your eyes and pretend it isn’t, but like all parody the Trainspotting song gets its edge because it does contain a kernel of truth. Many of our life choices are taken on autopilot. Some of this lack of deliberation is necessary – there simply are some important stages that the newborn has to master in the difficult progress from mewling and puking infant to the arbitrary stage of 18 we call adult. There is a dynamic tension in all of us that balances preserving the comfortable status quo against the effort necessary to challenge old forms, to break free of constraints, challenge habits and develop as human beings.
Consumerism doesn’t do meaning well, and if you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the one at the very top, self-actualisation, is the one element that you can’t buy or outsource, by definition. Consumerism becomes increasingly ersatz the higher up the pyramid you go, but it doesn’t run out of road until the apex.
In this journey through the stages of life, often you cannot progress until you surrender old forms. Thus it is that the parents of a newborn must surrender some of the hedonism of the DINKY lifestyle. Many years later tears well up in the mother’s eyes as she waves her son goodbye as he steps into the world to become his own man. It is a transition for him, but also for her too, we have no shared Western narrative for maiden/mother/crone[ref]Crone is terribly perjorative in a youth-obsessed world, I mean it in the way referred to in Wikipedia as “a Croning is a ritual rite of passage era of wisdom, freedom, and personal power”[/ref] or the masculine equivalent boy/man/sage or wizard[ref]I’m sad to observe that fewer of my gender seem to pass into the wizard stage, though it is hardly as if the mythic landscape of Western culture lacks the Gandalf/Luke Skywalker role model, and RPGs seem full of it. We aren’t getting lost because we’re in a pathless land[/ref].
Consumerism doesn’t favour introspection and a search of meaning, and it actively discourages personal growth, because it always needs you to look outwards for satisfaction of your wants. There’s nothing to sell, otherwise 🙂 MMM summed this up well as the Poisonous Pitfall of Piss-Poor Lifestyle Planning. Look at how much is sold to young and middle aged men to encourage the puer aeternus who “covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable”.
Indeed, an awful lot of ultra-luxury seems to be marketed towards these ideals of independence and freedom as expressed in Stuff. The irony doesn’t escape me that some of the aims of Financial Independence are seeking to live life without boundaries and limits, finding restrictions (on one’s time) intolerable 😉
In many of the myths of Europe, there is the story of the hero starting his journey as a young man, going out in the world to earn his fortune. Precisely how we have turned this, in an age of relative richness, into working for The Man until you drop is a puzzle. Some of this is because because of the endless aspiration to Stuff and Experiences. Some of it is because we have engineered certain kinds of inequality into our economy such that an increasing number of people will never have the opportunity to decide what Enough looks like because their lifetime earnings won’t be enough to compete with the credit-inflated value of some necessities.
And so I offer to the FI community that making your fortune is good, as a first step, but the hero of our myths of old does not simply make his fortune and then sit on it, or play cards into his dotage, In the modern world work is often the way to making your fortune, but once you have this, then its work is done. To progress the traveller on the journey of life must release old forms. For most people working for The Man, their legacy as a human being will not be their work[ref]If you’re a Nobel prizewinner or otherwise advance human knowledge or art in your work, maybe. Tim Berners-Lee was working for the Man, part of his legacy is you can read this[/ref]. People who retire often believe they will be sorely missed but most organisations self-heal rapidly.
Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening be a lie.
Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
As the slave grows accustomed to his chains, so it seems the wheel grows accustomed to the shape of the rail for thirty of forty years, perhaps even fifty if we count the guided track of the education system in childhood. For long a path is trodden, but as Jung indicated, it slowly begins to lose validity.
The seeker of financial independence speeds up the process. Recently I passed through Imperial College where I did my first degree in Physics many years ago. The alumnus office provided me and Mrs Ermine with a fine cup of coffee gratis and a place to rest a little. It’s strange to think that when I last passed this way here I had maximum human capital and zero financial capital. Over the ensuing thirty years I exchanged that human capital for financial capital – in the words of our fairy tales, I made my fortune.
Now the value of my human capital is zero – nobody is going to pay me more or less because I have a Physics degree. It has become worthless, but it has done its job. Surrender and redemption are part of the cycle of life. Work is now an old form for me. In many of the earlier posts on here I ascribe leaving work early to the world of work changing. It did, but now I also see that I changed – things and ways of doing things that used to be acceptable to me became less acceptable. I resisted the change, because I had a conventional viewpoint that I would make this change at 60 (which was the normal retirement age for The Firm). Resisting change in personal development always causes pain, but here I took the pain up front. Exchanging my human capital for financial capital doesn’t trouble me, I don’t hanker after the ‘meaning’ of work. It was a phase of life, it is done, and I’m with Carl Jung there. I want to deepen, to develop, to understand more. I will probably affect other people, and share some of the journey. It’s more open-ended than the world of work, and that is a good thing.
If they are successful, and if they know how to know that they are successful, every striver for financial independence must one day ask themselves
What do you want now?
If the answer is ‘more of the same’ then you may have to tarry awhile at this waystation of Life. Retiring is a change, and to do it well you must change. The change is hard, because you have followed the track of ‘work’ and the meaning and setting that gave you. Change comes easier to the young – your change into work was easier than perhaps your change out of it. Little wonder, then, that so often the new retiree seeks to replicate the comforting rituals of work.
I see it a lot, and it puzzles me. Mistersquirrel calls some of it out with
Have viable alternative pursuits. One of the side-effects of working in a regular job is that there isn’t actually much time left over to do things.
Now self-development is a strange thing – everybody comes to it by the shortest distance they can manage, even if that path is messy and indirect. Many get stuck somewhere, because the process of knowing who you are, what you stand for and what you value is not easy. M Scott Peck said
The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
Work is a stage of life for some people. Retiring is a challenge, and I would estimate that of the people I’ve observed[ref]most of these are from my parents generation, being an early retiree myself, I don’t have much data from my own peer group[/ref] more than half get stuck because they cannot surrender the work-self that they built up over decades. They still value themselves by what they did. Even the Ermine retains Chartered Engineer status at a modest cost, because I haven’t yet come to the conclusion that I will never do engineering professionally[ref]I use professionally in the sense of ‘for money’ as opposed to looking for a job in it, which I view as extremely unlikely[/ref] again.
Only once you surrender the old truths and ideals can you further the process of individuation and enter the next phase of life as Carl Jung intimated. People’s paths are many, and there is no one True Way, but I choose to go forwards, to surrender the old to gain new insights in the game of Life.