winter is coming

It is August, California has recorded the hottest temperature on Earth at the aptly-named Furnace Creek. I just can’t imagine 54 degrees. I went there in 1993, and overheated my rental Grand Am in the 1500 meter lift up from Zabriskie Point through Daylight Pass, with the heater flat out and all the windows open. In July…

Nevertheless, in Blighty there is the hint of Autumn in the air in the changes of the natural world. Birdsong has changed from the frenzy of the breeding season, perhaps most clearly and commonly with the Robin, which sings a song that sounds in a minor key to me, which we associate with mournfulness, though of course this is pure anthropomorphising. The retired Ermine is more physically active than the working Ermine. Earlier this year in lockdown there was an edict from the government that you were permitted to spend an hour walking. I stayed with some of this, while I don’t do it every day I cover about three miles. Walking is good for reflection and rumination – in the heat of summer I started earlier, and there is some reward to doing it before wrangling anything that needs an Internet connection to happen.

I get to know the small area better, and living in a small town it is easier to get out into the countryside by shanks’ pony. The transition between town and country is sharp, I cross the liminal space in about fifty yards. Earlier in the year I got to know the territory of some of the blackbirds and robins by their individual song. Now these ranges are more fluid, and I hear the lovely sound of flocks of goldfinches who have swelled their ranks in the breeding season, feasting on the seed-heads. Although the swifts have gone some time ago, the swallows are still swooping over the fields with their chattering sound.

Swallows chattering hawking insects over the fields as I come to the main road

The bold song of the chaffinch has been replaced with the double finch-finch sound of their alert call, and the lovely arrow-like white tail feathers flicker in the morning light as they make their swooping flight away from the paths into the trees. I have seen herons courting and the odd egret drifting lazily on the summer breeze.

Egret
Egret, another type of heron. Probably a Great White, this was big and the wildlife trusts say they are in the area

I have learned that the sound of the wind in the oak is not the same as the wind in the ash or the willow. In some ways it is reminiscent of the almost animistic approach of my primary-school self, where I knew a very small area intimately. I cover more ground, and there is far more natural variation in the natural world of the Levels than there was in the urban landscape of New Cross. When I checked the size of my childhood world on Google Maps the size of my patch was amazingly small. Continue reading “winter is coming”

extreme FIRE and how to live well

Monevator has a diverting ding-dong started last year that tried to split off the financial independence from the retire early part. I get it, nobody should be made to retire early if they don’t want to. I didn’t take part in it because much of it was a rhetorical construct. In the end being FI is necessary for you to retire, but it’s not sufficient reason. If you don’t want to retire, well, just don’t.

This is a particular case of the general question how does one live well?

This has occupied philosophers and religions since we found ways to have the opportunity to ponder such questions. There are as many answers as querents.

These answers diverge more as you get older. You had much more in common with your schoolmates that you do with the people you work with at 30. This divergence in aims, goals and lived experience continues throughout life. The branches of the decision trees fan out to more and more widely spaced points as they cascade. You are the product of all those decisions as well as what happened to you outwith you control.

FIRE is one aspect of this general problem, but first we should acknowledge that life is a journey, not a problem. It involves change. Your fifty-year old self is not the same as your 20-year old self. If you had good fortune and played your hand well, your fifty-year old self with be deeper, happier, wiser, more tolerant and gentler than your 20-year old self. If not, well, all sorts of other outcomes are possible. By no means all are bad, people are adaptable as hell, provided they don’t ossify first.

Let me call this “out in 20 years approach” extreme FIRE, xFIRE, in  homage to the grandaddy of FIRE, Jacob Lund Fisker, of earlyretirementextreme. He was a great exponent of FIRE ASAP, and his manifesto gives you it straight between the eyes

I posit that most people can attain financial independence in less than 10 years and in less than 5 if they are truly determined. I also submit that many people are not willing to make the necessary changes.

I lapped this up, because guess what? I wanted out in 3 years. Yesterday would have been better, but the numbers showed 3 years. He was a great inspiration.

Worked for me. But I didn’t do it starting at 20. I had almost paid off my house. I had a decent company pension scheme. I was 12 years from normal retirement age, at the then white-collar retirement age of 60. So while I used a lot of ERE’s xFIRE methodology, I built it on a very different foundation.

If you are 20, that option is really tough, and the risks are very high because your retirement is 40 years long rather than the more normal 20.

If you’re a footballer, you better get it done and dusted by the time you are 35. If you work in industries where burnout is rife, like law, finance and IT, look around your office. If there’s nobody over 50, don’t aim to be the 50-something exception in 20 years’ time. Don’t fight the obvious evidence.

Everybody else under 30, take a step back. and think. There are two main columns to the FIRE methodology.

Don’t be a financial muppet

The first is ‘don’t be a muppet’. Don’t buy anything with debt except a house and the tools of your trade, which may include education though not always. All else pay cash and do without until you have saved enough.

Fail to do that and stick it all on 20% APR revolving credit card debt and the best that will happen is you only pay 20% extra for everything you buy. It’s that simple. Don’t be a muppet. There are other aspects of don’t be a muppet to do with consumerism and spending. All of these, twentysomethings, knock yourselves out and take it all the way. There is absolutely no downside apart from the months of cold turkey when you catch up with your previous muppetry and pay it down. If this is unrealistic (the debt is high multiples of your monthly salary) then seek outside help with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Debt Stepchange or the Money Advice Service.  Just make sure it’s a non-profit and never consolidate loans on your mortgage. You heard it here first. JFDI. It’s never too early or  too late to stop being a muppet.

You will observe nobody’s talked about early retirement so far, and financial independence ain’t on the horizon. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for FIRE to stop being a muppet, but even if you are happy to work till you drop start off with not screwing up. Anybody wanting to lend you money is looking to make money out of you, and their gain is less money you can spend on what you want. Don’t be a muppet.

The second column – take back control of the track of your working life

There’s significant privation to be gone through in becoming finacially independent (FI) earlier than normal in the FIRE sense. It appears Monevator’s definition of RE means people want to quit the rat race after 20 years1. You’re looking to do it in half the time it will take most of your colleagues. You want a good reason for taking such an iconoclastic path. All other things being equal2 your peers will have a lot more disposable income than you. Humans are social critters, you’ll feel that. I only did it for three years, I felt it!

This is all part of this “what does living a good life” conundrum, and people seem to miss out that fact that what looks like a good life changes over your lifetime. It’s more obvious in the early stages: Living a good life at two means not shitting on the carpet, but that’s probably not quite enough to make the grade at fifteen. Once we’ve nailed the muppetry, to see if the view of xFIRE is worth the climb, we need to broaden the frame of reference.

The seven stages of life

What does a well-lived life look like? It depends.  I did sciences rather than arts, and philosophy is firmly on the humanities side of the Two Cultures so I start from the wrong side of the tracks. But a general education, a life’s worth of reading and an inquiring mind hopefully compensates a little for my absence of Oxbridge PPE…

There’s a lot of woo in this, but the stages of life are found across human endeavour and through the ages – Shakespeare’s All the World’s a stage, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Carl Jung’s work on individuation.  In the spirit of holding contradictory viewpoints a la Scott Fitzgerald, I thought I’d run with it, because the metaphor speaks to the human condition.

Your twenty-year old self should be different from your fifty-year old self, else you aren’t doing something right. I would hate to have the concerns of my twenties now. I struggle with some of the reincarnation bits of that, but compared to the Immortalist society freezing their heads in search of the Elixir of Life 3, who am I to call it.  Savant cryogenicist man-children like Ray Kurzweil  didn’t invent this. Old men looking for the Elixir of Life is a search thousands of years old, ever since terror management theory became a thing in the Palaeolithic.

Old men have been looking for the Elixir of Life for millennia. This is the White Rabbit making the Elixir on Life on the Moon, from ancient China

What I liked was the resonance with my observation of humans changing over the stages of their lives. I have passed through some of these stages – the forecast of a fall in grades in the third stage (adolescence) surprised me, but it was true of me in the lower-fourth, and looking back, for those reasons. As indeed was the quarter-life crisis, which overtook me at university in my second year undergraduate level. All those angsty Millennials writing in the paper have a point that some things are tougher now, but being twenty to thirty is always hard because you’re taking on a lot of change, most of which is new to you, and you are changing your social role in the world.

The adult stages of life are indistinct in our culture, but they are still there, unsignposted. The modern world is delaying some of these stages of life compared to previous generations. “Adult” children seem to remain dependent on their parents beyond 30 to a degree that would have been shocking in the past.

The adolescent to mid-life FIRE-aspiring you must throw switches that route your life differently from your peers. But the facts of FIRE don’t change – if you haven’t got your shit together and started along the track by the time you are 30, you ain’t retiring by 45. Retiring by 55 is ten years early and very doable. 50 can be done with serious effort, but ERE does have a point. Most people won’t want to take the hit.

So young pup, give up a little bit of life now if you can, so your older self may have a choice, though I confess I am with Monevator – don’t kill yourself to get out in 20 years.

I am closer to Monevator than I thought on xFIRE, even though I used it

I disagree with him on some things, like that work is a meaningful part of life in and of itself. In one respect I agree. There’s a nasty hair-shirt streak developing in the xFIRE ethos.

My younger self would have struggled with suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon in my 20s. At the start of your career you have greatest freedom of action and least to lose by trying a different track. To sign away twenty years of your life to trying to get away from a working situation you detest is selling yourself short. You owe it to yourself to ask if that’s the best you can do.

I lived the counterfactual view: 20 years of your life is far too long to stay somewhere mediocre when you only have maybe 40 healthy years left – get a new job first, your house is burning down! I was OK with London apart from the price of rents and houses, but I wanted more money and more interesting work, so I changed job three times in the 1980s, improving my situation both in terms of pay and congeniality.

I never solved the housing cost problem so I left London, because no job I could get was going to solve the housing problem for me. I’ve spent a lot of time bitching about work here, but for 27 out of thirty years I was okay with work. There was enough interest, people were good in the main, and particularly in the early days at The Firm I was learning a lot of interesting new things from some really bright people. I could still have made a decent fist of being a gentleman aristocrat if I’d had a trust fund, but work wasn’t a terrible second best.

I used xFIRE at the end, but that’s a very different thing from using xFIRE for 20 years. What’s wrong with xFIRE from the get-go is that you are telling your young self that the next 20 years is going to be hell. Form may follow thought. Just as work isn’t a panacea or even a serviceable reason for living, it may not need to be hell either.  Provocatively, perhaps xFIRE is more suited to desperate old gits at the end of their working lives than Page 1 of the Book of Working Life for twenty-somethings 😉

There’s a Jungian stages of life aspect to this too. Susan Roberts says

The young person’s task is to get into the world

Early adulthood asks us to establish ourselves in society — through vocation, relationship, and a stable material life. Now the idealistic youth must bank his or her fires in order to adapt to the world on its terms. Hopefully, in all the striving for worldly accomplishment, the twenty- or thirtysomething will not lose sight of the original vision, but find ways of working his or her gifts in spite of the compromises demanded by reality.

suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon is an avoidance technique. In the world but not of it, not quite failure to launch but probably not engaging. While I reject wholeheartedly that work is the non plus ultra of meaningful achievement in the second half of life, perhaps it has its role in the first half. Roberts’ description is a decent account of the accommodation I found with work – I wanted to rise above the first technician job, the second studio engineer job, I wanted to design, to innovate, to originate, which is why I eventually aimed at research. I did not lose sight of the original vision. For twenty years I lived it.

Having given that point, I am now going to take a pop at some things that are red herrings in my view.

well-paid part-time as FIRE-lite? Yeah, right

Here’s a canard. You don’t have to go nuclear on your career, you can just do some well-paid part-time work. Nothing I have experienced in three decades of the world of work supports this view. There are inherent problems with part-time – other people will be learning faster because they are full-time. They will get better quicker other things being equal. People bitch about there being a penalty for taking time out of the workforce but it’s not rocket science. Practice makes perfect.

I lived this prejudice. The Firm was dead keen to reduce its costs by encouraging part-time working in the 2009 crash. I didn’t entertain the idea for a heartbeat. If my career was flaming out, then at least full-time I could make the most of the last years – three years gone part-time was probably equivalent to another ten years shelf-stacking at Tesco to make up for the money I wouldn’t earn. I’d still be there. There was a second fear, because if they can get along fine with only half of you, there’s an obvious extrapolation to be made.

Of course we officially applaud people taking time out to do more important projects in their lives, but if it’s my business that takes the hit when you’re telling me that your choices in life are more important to you than my company I hear the message. I’m likely to take the line that I’ve very happy for you, but don’t do your important project at my cost. Fortunately, I’ve never been anywhere near being in charge of HR with such unreconstructed views, but I didn’t originate this, and I’ve seen some small companies stiffed that way. There are some great paying part-time jobs, but not as many as full-time. Why is this? Part-time cleaners are interchangeable. Part-time CEOs? Not so much. It’s also a right pain in the arse for full-time workers to interface to the particular part-timer with domain knowledge on job-shares and continuity sucks. Which are all part of the reasons why part-time work generally pays less, if you don’t want to hear it from me, hear it from the office of national statistics4.

If you want a high rate pay, go full-time for better odds. Low pay is 2/3 median, high pay is over twice the rate at 1.5  median

So when Monevator nonchalantly says you can save yourself the trouble of saving up a quarter of a million pounds if you can earn £10,000 p.a. for the lifestyle you want, I think WTF? I can’t even think of something I could do to earn £10k p.a., other than work in a shop. I could probably earn more than that if I worked full time, but from what I’ve seen of the world of work it has become more demanding and always-on rather than less. Don’t fancy that much.

OTOH, if contracting is your taste, then I can see there is much less of a problem. I believe indeedably uses this method, favouring recreation in the warmer months and work in the colder ones. Hats off to him for innovation.

Some of that objection to part-time is I have no desire to go contracting. Contracting comes with self-promotion and always hustling, and I’d rather crawl over broken glass than hustle. I have done occasional hit and run jobs since retiring. I earned an higher hourly rate with one than my working self ever did, but not on a sustained basis. And having to do 10k worth of that a year gives me the creeps, indeed having to do anything for x amount of money gives me a very bad feeling indeed. What part of financial independence am I missing here? FI for me is not having to sell my time for money. End of. To paraphrase Kate Moss

No consumer shit tastes as good as financial freedom feels

I have enough to buy more consumer shit than I want, and arguably consumerism is/should be a little bit less important as you get older. Erich Fromm summed it up in the title of his book, To Have to To Be. When you are young, Stuff makes more difference to your life, because you start out with now’t – you first kettle and your first chair and your first house make a huge change to your lifestyle. That lessens with time.

There is an argument that stuff bought you better security in the past than it does now

The percentage of workers who are freelance instead of salaried grows each year. House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market. […] the greatest wealth now comes from the accumulation of invisible capital, not physical stuff: startup equity, stock shares […]

Meanwhile, crisis follows crisis and mobility now feels safer than being static, another reason that owning less looks more and more attractive.

Some of us are cut out for that part-time required sort of FI-lite (thin FIRE? sputter? unFIRE? extinguished? never ignited?) , but I’m not one of them. I had a working life as a full-time employee with no break between getting my first job and leaving work for the last time other than a one-year MSc.

I’m an all or nothing guy here. It would be a bit rough to work thirty-five hours a week for less than my money does sitting on its backside. That isn’t a good message for me. Easier to work a decent job at a decent rate and parlay your savings into a decent stash than work some shit job.

Now that’s just me and my unreconstructed ideas about work that were probably set forty years ago. I could see the rationale for elective spend, if you need to work part-time for essential spend then you ain’t FI. If part-time working nets you 10k so you can go on holiday more often and that lights your fire, then have at it.

Do what thou wilt, and harm ye none.

Your time gets more valuable as you get older

Supply and demand. There’s less of it left, bud. The young just don’t get this, because, well, they’re young.

As a well-known vinyl record from my youth said

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

I would agree with Pink Floyd that the fourth stage, midlife, is where may people stall. Overly invested with the meaning that served them well for 20 years up to then, they freeze rather than abdicate that source of meaning. For some (more often chaps) it’s work, for some it’s the contents of the nest that if done right should become empty in the natural order of things.

At least becoming overly invested with work doesn’t do anybody else any harm. Helicoptering your kids can seriously arrest their development, much must happen between the third (adolescence)  and fourth stage else Philip Larkin’s prognostications of This be the Verse may come to pass. You will recognise those children later on – arrested at the puer aeturnus stage. The gold of character is at times forged in the furnace of adversity.

As an example I did not gain understanding from the crisis of confidence in my third year at university. After many years I did eventually learn to let it go, it was a product of time and stage, not a curse set to play out again and again.

Had an external force alleviated it, however, then like getting a childhood illness in adulthood, the injury may have been worse because the transformation would not have happened. I wonder if our Western societies fail us in having no real rites of passage across the stages of life, particularly those early ones. Passing your driving test or getting your first credit card don’t really match up to slaying a boar, or a walkabout. With no model of transformative challenge, is it any wonder that Western adults can freeze at the crossroads of midlife, clinging to the empty shells of old forms that have served in the past, but now stand in the way of change?

Midlife is a big hazard, because you are established enough that you can get away with stalling it, clinging on to past glories. Compared to the fusillade of transitions across childhood, you’ve settled in steady as she goes for 20 years and think you have it sussed. The words of Carl Jung indicate the problem: What is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.

The problem isn’t that the world changes. You do. Worse still, the tendency is to regress, to capture a lost youth but without the innocence. This inflates the sales of sports cars and persuades flabby men with a beer gut that their Russian bride thinks he’s 21 year old hunk.

In her section finding lasting values in the afternoon of life, Susan Roberts says:

Few of us today have the financial resources to become renunciates, and so we may have to keep working into our elder years.

Hmm, having this option is what FIRE is all about. It’s an option, and just like a stock option, it is an option, not an obligation to retire early –

But whatever our outer activities may be, our attitude needs to change if the afternoon of our life is not to be one long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people.

[…] a flowering of its qualities of imagination, depth, and understanding. With nothing to prove and no one’s approval to seek, the old person may gain a delicious freedom to return to the original vision first kindled in him or her in youth. He or she may then become a character, a wise old man or woman, and ultimately an ancestor, a bearer of values that outlast the fleeting concerns of the present moment.

To reach this point, one must submit to the archetypal tasks required by each stage of life. By allowing the deep processes of nature to work on us, the acorn of our destiny may grow into the mature oak tree of our fully-realized individuated self.

Clinging to the chimera of you are what you do may not be the best way of doing that. But in my observation fewer than half of those who make it to old age achieve individuation.

And yes, I am making the case that perhaps the meaningfulness of work is a truth that may be more of the morning of life than its evening. It was in my case. It was much more important to me at the beginning of my career, a big part of who I was, neither of my parents had gone to university and my Dad worked with his hands. As I grew older it mattered less, I have now rendered unto Caesar the value of a working life, exchanging my human capital for financial capital. It is time to move on, to embrace the seasons.

It really doesn’t matter whether you retire or not at some point earlier or later than anybody else. To make it possible5 your  younger self needs a motivational story. “just suck it up for as long as you have been alive and there will be a pot of gold over the rainbow” is not inspirational.

If your older self thinks the same about work as your younger self your development has become arrested, and you will not individuate. The hazard of that is of a long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people. You may, of course be fortunate enough to avoid physical decline and die in your sleep. You may project all your energies into the grandchildren. It is not mandatory to deepen as you get older. Just try and avoid the embittered Victor Meldrew, eh, for all our sakes.

Your older self may come to the same conclusion about early retirement as your younger self, but if the reasons are different, that is good. Let the option lapse. Give your freedom fund to your kids, or the cats’ home, or shovel it out of a helicopter over your home town. Your younger self will have lived a bit less large. Insurance against adversity always costs.

I have seen people who fall apart after retiring. Often they fall because their sense of meaning is bound up with work. What was true in the morning failed them in the evening. Some struggle because they are skint, or they become infirm. Some fail to maintain their human relationships and web of life, or don’t build these up before they retire. There are many ways to screw up in life, ain’t that a thing? That perhaps many fail does not mean all will fail.

Happy New Year to y’all, and a cautionary tale of work I came across.

I had been in the States working on a project when it became apparent that an internal takeover was going to bust my project in Feb 2009. Americans look after their own, while The Firm now owned that subsidiary this work was going to move over there and out of my division. Project work was drying up due to the financial crisis.

Your job gets more brittle as you get older

One of the problems you tend to have as you get older is that you specialise more. You also get paid more, if you are any good. That makes the shape of the sort of holes you are going to be a good fit for quite specific and therefore rare. Monevator nonchalantly says

get a new job first, your house is burning down!

That’s a young man’s game. It might be an argument for living in London6 rather than Ipswich, because your pool of potential alternative employers is larger. Selling up and moving would cost me a year’s wages, and we owned a smallholding at the time. I just didn’t have the get a new job option – there wasn’t more than 10 years of work to play for. So I chose to play a weak hand, as it happened quite well.

I was fortunate enough to be able to use a different legacy skill for my final project, But before I got that project, I faced this exchange which summarised the working environment. Let’s call the chief scumbag Graeme F, he was my division head’s boss7. GS stands for generally satisfactory, the performance management mark of 3/5 (average). My boss had made mine “needs improvement” before I got that work. I had already applied for voluntary redundancy, though it would have been premature. The shithead GF demanded a conference call with me and my division head just before 17:30 hours because he “had some news he thought I’d be interested in“. These are notes made at the time – the first thing I did next day was buy a telephone recording coil so I would have an incontrovertible record of that sort of intimidation should it happen again.

Friday March 6th 2009

GF: [We are] Raising the bar next year. will be harder to improve GS

Me: This sounds like a threat to me (this was verbatim, I could hear the bullying sneer in dear Graeme’s voice.)

GF no, effectively saying how it is

Me: okay carry on

GF: you cannot get [voluntary redundancy] on a GS

Me:  outline that I am going away from that anyway, outside opportunity needs [VR] to work, time has passed, [The Firm] looking better, new projects etc

GF: but we may be able to do something else for you

Me: ok

GF: offers three months’ salary plus gardening leave to go

Me: that is not enough

GF: seems taken aback

Me: I will not change the course of my life for such a small amount

GF: reiterates stuff about raising the bar

Me: I say ok I hear what you say, sorry if the news didn’t get to you, wasting time etc

Graeme didn’t meet his target that day. Three months VR after 20 years was derisory, plus I would have lost an advantageous Sharesave. I was at the very outset of a three year journey out, I couldn’t get there from here. Another entry in the log celebrates my division head (who brokered this delightful meeting as the offer of a great opportunity) getting the bum’s rush without VR. How did that happen?

Finished at fifty is a thing

They even made a TV programme about it. All sorts of people will holler in yer ear if you don’t like you goddamn job so much go get on your bike git a new one you lazy bum. Hello IDS, Digby Jones, I’m looking at you . The trouble with that specialisation is my division head was shit outta luck as far as finding another job for a division head at a FTSE100 like The Firm. There weren’t any, and there was a large pool of competitors – the guys the CIO had let go in the days before. The CIO’s management style was to call all division heads one after the other into the office, and ask each one to describe a weakness of the just departed fellow. A commenter elsewhere described the CIO’s modus operandi as

replacing British IT workers with resource from India here and remotely –  decimate the workforce.

Lots of guff about new tech, agile, under the hood it will be nothing but using the cheapest IT workers they can get.

That sort of environment, young fellow, is why your older self needs a RE ejector seat and parachute. He may earn more as he gets older, but his position gets more brittle as it gets more specialised, and more susceptible to hatchet men like that CIO.

I was able to switch direction out of IT and use a legacy analogue RF electronics skill on my final project, which is how I was left standing after that division head left. More by luck than by judgement, a specialism that fitted another set of odd-shaped holes was in demand at that time. So after three years I brought the damaged wreckage of my career to a successful landing and was even glad-handed on my leaving do as having left on a high. It could easily have gone differently, and I would be stacking shelves rather than writing this.

You don’t forget that sort of learning in a hurry. What I learned was never rely on selling your time for money again, it makes you a hostage to fortune.

Even if that hadn’t happened, I was already past the apogee of life, and hopefully the individuating self would have gotten the message through:

Self, you need to start looking for new ways to be, because what is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie

In my life one of those things was work. Had that crisis not happened I would still be working, running on the old default assumption of working to NRA. In hindsight that would have been a dreadful waste of my time.

We are all headed for different waystations on the branching railway lines of life, maybe this will be different for you. But if you see no things that were desperately important to you in the morning of your adult life become less so, then ask yourself how you are so invariant in the face of change. The sun is making its way across the arc of your life. Change with it, for the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.


  1. I am a RE failure by that definition, I worked for 30 years, so 10 years behind schedule. I am still a long way to getting my State Pension, and not even at the NRA for my works pension 
  2. One of the tenets of the FIRE movement is that not all things are equal and many people spend like muppets or carry revolving debt. All this is true, but you just can’t bring the difference in lifestyle down to zero by spending smarter though perhaps it won’t be half their disposable income. 
  3. For some reason unbeknownst to me extremely bright materialist rationalists are drawn to cryogenics likes moths to a flame (for example). It is possible I am just too dumb to understand, but it seems obvious to me you must not lose state. I do not find it impossible to conceive that humans could live forever, but I’d say you must not die first. Reanimating a hunk of meat strikes me as a hiding to nothing. Sure, future alien visitors might be able to recreate humans from DNA like Jurassic Park, but these would be new humans, not the deceased living again with all their past memories and foibles, in the same way as your children don’t remember your schooldays, first love or skills in Latin though they may look like a mini-you. 
  4. ONS ASHE Fig 5 
  5. Parents can try, but there be dragons in that territory. The dead hand of parental capital coming at some unspecified time to transform their lives easily robs the children of agency, because it doesn’t seem worth it for them to make the effort to try and save something that will be lost in insignificance to the inheritance. There is a similar problem with the legions buying lottery tickets – Lady Luck seems to be a harsh mistress when she pays out, because the recipient has not learned the value of the windfall. No idea how the aristocracy used to fix this problem, though it seems they did as many estates have been in the same ancestral hands since 1066 
  6. Just kidding. I left London in 1988, and my career went titsup in 2009. That’s twenty years of outrageous London prices I haven’t had to pay in rent, I left there because I couldn’t afford to buy a house. That Guardian millenial’s lament that “House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market.” held true before. I had a decent job and savings, but I was living in one room. 
  7. Researching this on Linkedin, it is probable that Graeme F was a hired gun brought in from elsewhere in The Firm to ping people out from my campus. I guess like management consultants on the cheap, outsiders will be more ruthless because they don’t know anybody locally 

Monzo, metal cards and bullet journals

There are intrepid folk like RIT and TA flaying fees on their investment products. Quite rightly so. Anything to do with storing and processing your money should cost as little as possible, subject to delivering a satisfactory service. After all, your money is embodied life-force. You exchanged hours of your life for it, and you want the leak in the tank to be as low as possible.

Oddly enough, when it comes down to credit cards, this seems to escape people totally. I can live with over 20% APR on my credit cards because I don’t pay it. I pay them off or I use promotional deals. If you carry debt on a credit card at 20% off, that’s like every store you buy things from using that card having a big notice – Anti-Sale – pay 20% more for everything. However, clever marketing folks being what they are, there are even more methods to separate credit card users from their money – even if they don’t pay interest! Step forward modern fintech fast-movers. Y’know, the guys that don’t come with lots of legacy Big Iron in their IT systems, who can most fast and break things, and rip you off on the Q.T. , make you feel special about the colour or materials your credit card is made of. The thing replaced by that whizzy fintech app is on your phone so you don’t need to use?

The Ermine  failed to understand why some of da yoof chooses to spaff £72 p.a. for a Hot Coral Monzo card. It’s not a one off. I sparked up You and Yours on the wireless1. The programme was mainly about Greta Thunberg, but there was a segment about money saving.

handsome Monzo CEO in front of the colour he’s managed to separate his customer from their hard-earned money for

Apparently as well as rushing some punters for a brightly coloured card, Monzo is ripping off their even vainer customers charging a premium for a Metal card, as are Revolut. I was tickled to hear Alexander, a fresh-faced and insecure twenty-something digital media wallah opine that a metal card is also more environmentally friendly, well, no use of plastic, innit? Dude, if you are in the presence of a fire, piss on the nearest bit first. That’s your food packaging and Amazon Prime packaging, not a 5×9cm piece of plastic you replace every three years… Continue reading “Monzo, metal cards and bullet journals”

Work is not a job, and the web of life

Over at Retirement Investing Today there’s an intriguing differentiation between work and jobs. I confess that I never thought about either until mid-teens, and conflated the two. Let’s hear it from RIT

Soon after joining it became very obvious that while there were some pieces of meaningful work (where I define work as something you do for purpose) the vast majority of what I was going to be doing was just a job (which I define as something you do because you need the money) and right now I don’t need a job.

You know how listening to someone speak, somewhere in the back of your mind there is a guy with a tape recorder taping the incoming soundstream1. Every so often you have a hey I didn’t quite get moment and yell down to the guy in the depths of your brain “Hey, roll tape and gimme that again”

Well, there must be a similar process in reading, I had gotten past that section on to

Living it again enabled me to see that the role, my industry and my own needs had changed beyond recognition and at some point, much like the boiled frog, my meaningful work / career had actually predominantly become just a job with me just not noticing.

before it occurred to me that this was a way of looking at work that was seriously new to me and something I had missed through a lifetime of work 😉

RIT approach to work and investing is in some ways the yin to my yang, or perhaps the other way round. Anyway, he is a steady and rational investor of the passive kind. He had sufficient overview of his industry to lay out the distant early warning system that picked up the sound of incoming thunder early enough for him to plan an exit strategy

I originally pursued FIRE as back in 2007 I saw some changes starting to occur that made me think my job at the time would eventually be outsourced to a low cost country.

Whereas I discovered I was in trouble after The Firm took a stake in an outsource and my work turned into a job (in RIT’s parlance) and then started to become seriously shit.

When a Job is not Work

I confess I never sought meaning from work, this is still something I don’t get. What I wanted was for it to be interesting and above all to be enough to live on. I saw leisure time as the time to chase meaning. It has not escaped me that this seems to be an atypical approach to work nowadays. Perhaps it comes from a working-class background, people don’t carry bricks or fix cars as a source of meaning in their lives. These were jobs, though people still think of it in terms of going to work.

So I am intrigued by RIT’s taxonomy, and perhaps what I called a requirement for work to be ‘interesting’ was what many people call ‘meaning’.

Certainly as time went by micromanagement became more and more a feature of the workplace although I rose a few levels up the greasy pole. When I started at The Firm I could sign off up to £500 of spend, when I left two decades later and some layers up the tree I had to get return train tickets authorised in advance to London (where the project was). There was much more job in my work.

A company doing white-collar work used to be a group of people working together to a common goal, there was more leeway and co-operation. Nowadays it’s a bunch of work units performance managed to an inch of their lives, measured individually against following processes. No surprise that there’s less esprit de corps then 😉

RIT’s experience and description of retiring and returning to work and then leaving it again confirms my prejudice that once you walk away  from a professional job you become pretty much unemployable in that sort of thing.

The work is all right, it is the job part that sucks. Filling in timesheets, getting authorisation for spend, all hands events where lying bastards lie blatantly to you and it’s not the done thing to call them out on it or ask “why is this going to work this time when it failed the last three times it was tried here?”

Those locked into the hamster wheel make the best of a bad thing I guess and say they get meaning from this and good luck to them. An Ermine in The Firm would be a very dangerous thing indeed, because a company runs on a shared belief system that does not necessarily correspond with reality, and it doesn’t need troublemakers highlighting the dissonances.

There seems to be an increasing trend to corporate belief in the principles of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret2 – the current UK government seems to also be a fan of the modus operandi of wishing for what you want really really hard and it will happen. Perhaps there is truth in “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad“.

Companies avoid dissent in the ranks against the obvious stupidity of the latest management fad with the simple threat of economic sanction – do it our way and don’t rock the boat else you’ll lose you job. The financially independent think to themselves ‘so what’ and also ask themselves how they could better use their time.

Others say contracting is the way and many people make a success of that. You don’t have to buy into the corporate ethos. I could never see that as a reliable source of income of the sort I’d have the balls to raise a mortgage against. I wasn’t even aware of it as a possibility for the first decade or so of my working life, BPO wasn’t a big part of the companies I worked for at the time. Mrs Ermine, who comes from a different background, has no trouble with the notion. It ain’t me.

When Work is not a Job

… it’s called volunteering. Presumably nobody volunteers for things they think are without worth, and the great advantage volunteers have over employees is they can walk off the job at any time with no downside. As an aside, that can make managing volunteers really tough. When the task in hand is obvious – like clear this brushwood, then one volunteer is better than ten pressed men. And employees are pressed – they show up because they need the money 😉

But when the job is obscure, or controversial, like shooting deer3 in woodland, or will have a result in the long run, or just lacks feelgood factor, well, give me paid staff any time.

There’s a feelgood story about these deer in Captain’s Wood, but I have been sworn to secrecy about deer in other wildlife places… If it’s a dirty job, then use staff, not volunteers.

By RIT’s definition, though not by mine4, a while ago an Ermine did about a week of work. I can’t say the process agrees with me, getting up regularly for a particular time malarkey isn’t to my taste these days. It was a long video job shooting unpredictable stuff under awkward light. You have to make a lot of decisions quickly as an event starts5, because professionals can get away with zooming the camera in vision but I am not talented enough to do that, though I can track action serviceably enough with a sort of fluid head.

Much has improved in this biz since I worked as a studio engineer at TV Centre in the 1980s, the cameras are sharper, better, smaller, lighter. The combination of optical stabilisation and software post-stabilisation makes handholding without a Steadicam feasible6, indeed I was amazed I could raise the camera on a monopod four feet above my head and still get a usable result. So I learned a combination of practical stuff and people stuff, and hopefully the result will make people happy.

The web of life

I am far too conservative to make RIT’s sort of move. The place you worked is not necessarily a good place to retire – London is the classic case in point. It’s easy to feel poor there as the joint fills up with the super-rich. Simple economics also points that way – people congregate where there is a higher density of well-paid work. This tends to push the price of accommodation and some services up. We had someone from New York stay with us and they were amazed at the low cost of wine. Even American wine, which is illogical, it’s come a long way and we have significant alcohol taxes.  Her perception was that the discount was a lot more than the 20% due to the fall in the pound. Presumably stores in NYC can charge higher prices because the market will bear them.

I stayed where I had worked for several years before moving westwards. Although the move was logical for someone interested in ancient stones and occasional hillwalking, we had commitments and a retiree should take a lot of time to ponder their web of life before moving. Before we moved we had made contacts in this area and taken on some common projects, expanding who we know. I personally think with contacts that matter you need to have physical connections with – see them, walk with them, do things together, eat and drink together, celebrate significant events. In the flesh.

During your working life these connections are easier to make7. You usually are in the same place as the people you work with, and share breaks with them. People who have young children also connect with other people with similar age children, and coincidentally this tends to be in your working life due to the vagaries of human biology. As an (early) retiree you are probably past those opportunities, so you need to take a lot more care about moving. The aspect of who is as important as where.

The ‘nearer to the grandchildren’ trap

Beware one trap regarding the who and where, though it seems to be particularly for those around 60. The first time I saw this I though that was just tough luck, but I’ve seen it several times now. Some people move away from an existing web of friends and acquaintances and somewhere they know to be closer to their children and new grandchildren. It all sounds idyllic, and they can help greatly with childcare in those pre-school years etc. But while those ties are strong, it seems to start unravelling roughly when the grandchildren start going to secondary school and being more independent.

You don’t want to be stuck in a place where you have no other friends and are too far away to see your previous friends who have drifted away as you start entering the hazard of having lower mobility or not being able to drive, that seems a very lonely row to hoe. Particularly if you are unlucky enough for your children to have to move for work, as can happen. So if you are going to do that, make non-family connections in the area a priority too. Do things with other people, seek shared interests.

Non-family connections matter too

Modern work is inimical to non-family connections in many ways. For starters, you move away from your home town, often for university, very likely for work. So far so good, as you are still in the early phases of life where making connections is easier. You may make connections through work or children, but compared to previous generations jobs are less stable, and people move for work more often. Childcare seems to take up more energy that it used to do. Work oozes past the 9 to 5, seeping through smartphones and computers into a low-level background load.

This is a hit for very early retirees, because their peer group is largely still at work. I don’t know what the answer is. Moving to an area where there is less employment because it’s cheaper may not be wise, because this tends to skew the age distribution too. Philip Greenspun tackles this in where to live for early retirees.

You can, of course, take the digital nomad route – you can reduce your costs and see a lot of the world that way. Great if it is for you. I did a reasonable amount of travelling for work for a few years. About once a month was great. I was single, and could extend the journeys with some extra vacation allowance and have many fond memories.

More than that and it became wearing. Being ill on the road is particularly tough – and this was only things like the flu and gutrot.

I can’t imagine a more alienating and lonely experience than travelling all the time, but it seems to have a great following, particularly with Millennials. A chacun son goût…  I would suggest at least say try it for six months before building it into your future permanently. It seems to work for some.

All this is tougher to get right for the very early retiree. You have to live with the results for longer, you are making some connections many people make in the workplace, and you are an atypical retiree. That is not a reason not to do it, but it’s a task that needs more getting right that simply for an early retiree. People look at me as an early retiree and assume I was lucky. Whereas if I were 40 they would file me under the category ‘alien being’.

Even as an introvert with less need for human connection than average, this much I know. Early retirement is not all about the money. Humans are social creatures. Make connections, and do things with your fellow people. Having more time to do that is one of the gifts of not working.


  1. apparently this tape recorder guy in the depths of your head is a real thing, a bit like the job VT did for TV studios when I worked there – they were banished to the basement of TV Centre. So says the Guardian:  “Audiobooks, by contrast, exploit our “echoic memory”, which is the process by which sound information is stored for up to four seconds while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole.” 
  2. I have never read The Secret but it seems a take on the earlier fad of  cosmic ordering. Humans are storytellers and to some extent you do make your own world, but there are limitations to how far that will take you. If you want to step beyond those limitations then you probably have to dedicate time and effort to improving your art of changing consciousness through acts of will. Even with that there are going to be hard limits somewhere ;) 
  3. I have never seen Bambi and don’t see anything wrong with shooting deer, but it’s a real tough one for conservation organisations who really don’t want the public to know they shoot deer to stop them browsing new growth and generally buggering up forest management. 
  4. I wasn’t paid, so it’s not work in my book. But it was interesting, so it sort of falls under RIT’s definition. Certainly wasn’t a job… 
  5. Too many people tried this previously on automatic settings, which looks ghastly in tough light. But on manual, you get to rack levels yourself, in real time. In my TV days there was someone solely dedicated to racking and colour balance 
  6. There are now gizmos you can buy that use motors and gimbals to do the chicken-head thing and I may get me one of these. Paradoxically I had an easier time holding the monopod at the bottom with the camera raised over my head than with the damn thing on the ground and holding the head. Either I improved my art over time or there is something weird going on. Bird necks are amazing, I once videoed a hunting kestrel through a telescope, and the bird’s eyes were held steady it seemed the rest of the bird body moved around in the wind. 
  7. This article posits a counterfactual for millenials, I don’t know if this is a peculiar pathology of London where most journalists seem to be, because the millenials I see don’t seem to suffer such a shocking dearth of friends. I do agree that when your cohort start having children is a massive nuke for school/college friends if you are child-free. You do start seeing some of these again in their  mid-fifties for some of the reasons this article takes the piss out of Fern Britton

What Colour is your Parachute

I read my first copy of Richard Bolles’ seminal job-hunting tome What Color is your Parachute in the late 1990s. The big cheeses at The Firm had decided to move away from research, and out of electronics towards development and software. I was wondering if I should stay with my first love, which was electronics design, or stay with the Firm.1

Parachute is a great resource and a good read. At the heart its message is as old as the Delphic Oracle itself – know thyself. Around that message, however, is a good periphery of tactics and perspective. There is only one problem. Parachute is a weapon of contemplative reflection. You can’t use it under fire, IMO, and when do most people turn their attention to looking for a job?

When they either need a job right now, or are fearful of losing the one they have already.

I’m not looking for a job, despite Monevator exhorting the early retiree to get their sorry ass back to the workplace for a day a week. Although Britain is a post-Christian country, the feeling that the devil makes work for idle hands seems to run deeply through the personal finance community. I’d fingered Calvin for the problem, but it seems the ‘work and suffering is good for you’ meme runs deeper than him

Here in the West we have a lineage of puritanical belief systems that still leave their mark, and all forms of Christianity teach that suffering brings us closer to God.

Niall Ferguson made the case a few years ago that this Protestant work ethic is the reason that the West is cock of the rock, his crystal ball didn’t show that the fire was burning out rapidly. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Read widely – library ebooks don’t have late fees

The Ermine reads widely, particularly as the library lets you borrow ebooks for free, and a little munging with Calibre gets that onto a Kindle which makes it easier to read in the park, or a particularly favourite little beauty spot near me with a swing seat and a glorious view. So when I saw a copy of WCIYP 2018 I thought I might take a look at what’s changed over 20 years

Billed as a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers, it is an interesting read. It has been nearly thirty years since I last applied for a job in the open market2, and getting on for eight since I applied for an internal job, so much has changed. The first part of the book is about the conventional approach, and why this doesn’t work. This is the method the DWP push the unemployed into – registering with Monster jobs and scattercasting CVs3. I’ve only actually ever once had a CV work, and this was at the very beginning of my career, and even that was responding to a newspaper small ad which invited applications with a CV.

The problem with resumés and CVs is that they only work when employers are finding it tough to fill jobs. Continue reading “What Colour is your Parachute”

A FIRE approach to air conditioning

One of the advantages of being an employee is that The Man usually air-conditions your cubicle. Well, for knowledge workers, anyway, rather than, say, brickies or landscape gardeners. And the heat is on in England at the moment.

Way back when, in the 2003 heatwave DxGF and I bought a standalone air conditioner and we thrashed that unit, but it used a horrific 3kW to sort of chill one room. It seems to take far more energy to cool something down through a certain temperature difference than it does to heat it up by the same difference, I guess these things are dreadfully inefficient, particularly standalone units that try and pump out the waste heat carried in air as opposed to dual systems with an inside and outside unit with the waste heat carried in a circulating liquid. So you get a 3kW heater in the room to add to the load. Not only that, you have to open the window a crack to get the exhaust hose out.

We were grateful for that in 2003, but it made an unconscionable noise and power was cheaper in those days.[ref]Americans will be tapping their heads, and go just get damn split system aircon, but I wonder how you have any hearing left. When I arrived in LA after a long flight and got to the motel the room aircon unit was on, and I thought I can’t hack this racket, so I turned it off. You don’t do that in LA in July – not getting any sleep was preferable to being fried 😉 Airconditioners I’ve come across in Europe are usually made by Japanese firms like Mitsubishi and are much quieter, but that thing was an all-American GE unit and made a terrible noise. Elsewhere in the city aircon seemed unwholesomely rowdy until you got to a Fortune 500 company offices or a bank. I guess people just get used to the noise.[/ref]

Dunwich beach

So it needs some lateral thinking. I need a large body of water, and the North Sea will do. Time to park myself down by the waterside and chill out to the waves –

and the peaceful sound[ref]the intermittent rumbling is sadly the wind, I only had a handheld rig as I wasn’t expecting to do any recording.[/ref]. There was a pleasant breeze off the sea – it was almost too cold.

I did look around and wonder why the other punters weren’t at work – some were retirees but half seemed to be families. I can’t really moan that the beach was teeming like Benidorm.

So the ermine air conditioning isn’t really that portable. But it does have some extra features, like the fine ruins of Greyfriars Friary

Greyfriars, Dunwich

and it seemed rude not to celebrate the moment with some fine dining

Local strawberries and cream from the Friday Street farm shop just off the A12

Londoners travelling up the A12 for a weekend break may want to note the  Friday Street farm shop, which is a few hundred yards detour off the A12 on the London-bound side. The strawberries and cream set me back £3.23 which I thought was a good deal for quality in both items, and they have a good range of foodie delectables. I paid roughly twice that in fuel. There are some that may carp that you can’t spend £10 for gratuitous decadence every day, but I have done my time of ultra-frugality now. No nightingales to be heard in Dunwich forest, where I’ve heard them in previous years, it’s probably too late in the season now

Dunwich is noted for mostly having disappeared into the sea. In 1250 it was a rich port town of 4000 souls. Since then the sea has gnawed away about 1.5km of the coastline, so most of the old town has fallen into the sea. It is now a village of about 100 people.

The last surviving gravestone from All Saints church, lost to the sea. This was Jacob Forster who departed this life March 12th 1796, age 38

The sound of the sea is not far from Jacob Forster’s grave. It’s coming for him after two centuries of undisturbed repose…

Mr Money Mustache will no doubt consider seeking air conditioning an act of pusillanimous weakness, but the trouble is that no part of Britain is very far from the sea, and in a maritime climate it always really wants to rain. Even on a hot day with blue sky – the inherent desire to rain results in high humidity. So things like swamp coolers work fine at the lower latitudes of LA, but are a waste of space and money here.

In LA at the same temperature this would be way down towards the 40% mark

So I am leveraging the fact that I own my own time, and summer is a good time to live like a king, reasonably cheaply. Strawberries and cream by the seaside is pretty good 😉

Incidental rant: why doesn’t Britain have proper cadastral records?

I came across this notice walking from the car park to the Friary:

No cadastral records, no bloody clue

Every other European country has a definitive land register of who owns what. But not in Britain. Because all the land was seized in 1066,  what the King didn’t keep for the Crown was handed out to the aristocracy, which hoards it and passes it down the generations, much of the land in the UK is not on the Land Registry, so you get situations like this.

In any French village you can ask to look at the cadastral records at the Mairie to know who holds a piece of land. Isn’t it about time that we sorted ourselves out and demanded of the aristocracy and anyone else that it bloody well registers every single claim to every piece of land it asserts that it owns, and if no claim is made after 10 years then tough shit, it belongs to us all? After all, if it isn’t registered then Lord Warburton-Smythe can simply make sure everyone looks the other way when his sprog Jimmy Warburton-Smythe-Pollock take over that part of the family estate when he pegs it because no bugger knows about that acreage, because it isn’t on the records. Decent cadastral records would help catch sneaky buggers avoiding inheritance tax and would be a prerequisite to introducing a land value tax. It smacks of dire incompetence not being able to find out who owns what of a scarce and finite resource, and one every other civilised country has solved. But since the lack of transparency serves the aristocracy perfectly well, they won’t let anything be done about out it, the piss taking bastards.

Over 50s are big spenders on home and lifestyle into retirement and beyond

Be afraid, people, be very afraid. Saga[ref]I am very happy to say Saga haven’t yet detected from my spending patterns and personal data held by advertisers that the Ermine has crossed the 50 turns around the sun mark despite me being closer to 60 than 50, I have never received junk mail from them[/ref] tells us the over 50s are big spenders. It’s the beyond retirement that I’m intrigued by, have these profligate silver surfers found a way of borrowing from their own cold dead hands? I’m sure the intergenerational foundation would have something to say about that, but Saga?

I’m sorry, but by the time you’ve gotten over 50. you shouldn’t be in the business of borrowing for frippery, For sure, you shouldn’t be paying down your mortgage if there are better things you can be doing with your money, like socking it into a pension or investing it. But if you want a new kitchen, and need to buy that sucker on the never-never, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Now there is a case to say YOLO, but only if you can be sure that you can outrun your debts. The advantage a young person has in going YOLO and living beyond their means is they have human capital in spades – their future self gets to work longer or harder to redeem their overspending. The finished at fifty, not so  much.

For a fifty-something to play the YOLO game effectively, you need to be able to know the year you die. Now you can determine that, but it’s all going a bit Logan’s Run

Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run

and often involves Dignitas. I’m personally of the opinion that a sentient being ought to be able to choose that option, but terror management theory generally induces most of us off the way of the Cylopes. It really would make retirement planning a damn sight easier, but the option is still an uncommon choice.

So many new cars, Saga surfers, so few holidays, WTF?

Saga say these over 50s buy three new cars in the decade 50-60 and yet only seven foreign holidays, which strikes me as odd, what’s with the materialism grizzled citizens of Saga-land? Mind you, Saga are one of the few banks to advance a loan based on income both from a pension and from savings and investments. The trouble is the usurous 7.9% APR. I’ve groused before on how an retiree is a loans pariah, even when the aim of the loan is to use tax allowances, indeed a 7.9% APR would be tolerable to get a 20% uplift. But not if you have to be a homeowner and it’s secured on the house. Although taking up a use it or lose it tax allowance is a reasonable sort of thing to borrow money for, it becomes non-reasonable if you open yourself up to the risk of losing your house or becoming a forced seller.

Paying nearly 8% for a new kitchen or car before you have saved for it is just foolish in my view. and by the time you are into your sixth decade you really ought to have learned better. Unless you have a good reason to believe your future self will be richer than your present self, just don’t do it.

The 50s is a very tough decade for the FI crew to get right

This decade is tough for many reasons. You can’t get hold of your pension savings until your are 55 and rising, so a whole chunk of your savings may be sterilised, the old silo problem again. You are fast running out of human capital – it very much depends on the field you have been working in, but openings at the sort of salary you were on if you can consider early retirement may be rare. Your financial risk exposure to redundancy is high, and you have less time to catch up if it does happen to you. You may be at a peak of child-related spending unless you had your children very early in life. One of the notable features of the early retirees from The Firm before 55 was that they were mostly the child-free, and being out of the university expenses meat grinder was probably a big part of that.

Retiring before 55 runs against the general way people do retirement, and it’s a more critical decision because just as you cut the power you have the longest glide path to sustain. It’s a hard balance to get right. Looking back, it is clear that I underspent in the early years following retirement in 2012. Compounding the error I earned a few lousy bits of money in a few one-off hit and run jobs and then picked up a steady income from some technical stuff and bookkeeping until last month. I never recognised these amounts as any useful amount of money, because they were typically less than 10% of what I had been earning when I was working, and I didn’t trust them, so they formed no part of my budgeting. But they seemed to make a surprisingly large contribution to the slowing of the fall in my networth, which was aided by the stock market being tremendously kind to me across the years 2009 to now, until I could make it with just my DB pension because I could defer it long enough.

Much as I was a purist in that the aim of retirement was to bust The Man right out of my life, I discovered that it was freedom from the rules and the bullshit that I wanted, only later did I find it was also the freedom to do other things, which is why it is time to get work right out of my life again as my pension savings come on stream. No SHMD The Returned for me 😉 I am no longer self-employed as of this month, now that I have collected my second and last year of Class II NI contributions purchased at the spiffing price of £150 p.a. When I was on PAYE I was paying over £5k p.a. and the cheeky barstewards made those years count less for being contracted out. It’s not necessarily the last money I will ever earn, but I will favour no-commitment one-off hit and run jobs in future.

I don’t know what the personal circumstances of all these profligate Saga spenders are. This extract doesn’t convince me they are that well off –

Lenders have been short sighted by turning down people by looking only at earned income which is one of the reasons we launched Saga Personal Loans, to give more people access to credit they can afford in order to live the way they want to.

Perhaps Saga haven’t targeted me because I am simply too poor, not because I have cleverly dodged their tracking mechanisms. But if their fifty somethings are borrowing money to do up their houses and buy three new cars in 10 years, then these guys aren’t that rich either, and they certainly aren’t living within their means. I spy trouble ahead for these indebted consumers as their human capital rapidly dwindles. The ermine may look poor to Saga, I’ve never bought a new car in my entire life, never mind three after retiring. But I am rich in a way that these silver borrowers aren’t. When I buy consumer goods on credit cards I pay them down in full each month as the statements fall due. Saga’s big spenders are rich in cars and kitchens, I am rich in self-determination. Each to their own.

 

How work is stealing leisure from us

I’ve never come across the concept of serious leisure before, but a bit of Internet ratholing brought me to the Serious Leisure Concept, which takes a look at how people spend their spare time, should they be lucky enough to have such a thing in their lives. The site is heavy on sociological speak, but they break down leisure time occupations into

Casual Leisure

the sort of instant gratification, hedonistic and gormless thing that gives leisure a bad name – watching reality TV etc. It’s a bit wider than that

[Casual Leisure] is fundamentally hedonic […] Among its types are: play (including dabbling), relaxation (e.g., sitting, napping, strolling), passive entertainment (e.g., TV, books, recorded music), active entertainment (e.g., games of chance, party games), sociable conversation, and sensory stimulation (e.g., sex, eating, drinking). Casual volunteering is also a type of casual leisure as is “pleasurable aerobic activity,” or casual leisure requiring effort sufficient to cause marked increase in respiration and heart rate (Stebbins, 2004a). Casual leisure is considerably less substantial, and offers no career of the sort just described for serious leisure. In broad, colloquial language casual leisure, hedonic as it is, could serve as the scientific term for doing what comes naturally. Yet, despite the seemingly trivial nature of most casual leisure, I argue elsewhere that it is nonetheless important in personal and social life. (my emphasis)

Well, yeah. You need the yin to balance the yang in life, and going without shooting the breeze and eating is taking austerity too far.

Southwold from the coffee shop with a distant view of Sizewell. Casual leisure happening.

I think we all get this side of things. The other two categories were interesting additions to the taxonomy:

Serious Leisure

is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting, and fulfilling and where, in the typical case, participants find a career in acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience

They then break down amateur, hobbyist and volunteer down further, but the essence of this type of thing is that it isn’t an immediate and known win like getting a coffee, you must put something of yourself into it to get something out of it. I found this sort of thing more rewarding after retiring, for the simple reason that you have more time to hone the art. I screwed up a little in being shorter of money in the first few years of retiring than I am now – don’t pay off your mortgage early if you want to flatten your income profile 😉 But I would go as far as to say getting into serious leisure will improve your experience of retirement no end. I’m not comfortable with their use of the term career, but perhaps that’s because I have BTDT, unlike Jim I have absolutely no desire to climb another greasy pole. Like him, I did not leave the rat-race as an elective  move towards the positive goal of FI, although perhaps I had the advantage of having a three-year run-out period.  That nobbled any fond nostalgia for the hell on earth that the modern management practices have turned the professional workplace into for my INTJ type. Either way, I hope they don’t mean career in a work sense, but it is of course true that there is an arc of progression from noob to wizard-guru as you hone the art and craft of your serious leisure pursuit.

I think I want to do more of this. And perhaps less idle surfing, though I do love coming across new ideas and poking a curious ermine snout into the vagaries of this world. I recently got back into video editing and shooting, partly for a short job with some travel coming up, and I was amazed at the improved performance and the way editing and compositing, even 3D compositing is done routinely. I whiled away most of today learning what has happened in this field since I used Premiere around 2007. Is that serious leisure or idle mucking about? Dunno.

Project-based leisure

is a short-term, moderately complicated, either one-shot or occasional, though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time. Such leisure involves considerable planning, effort, and sometimes skill or knowledge, but for all that is not of the serious variety nor intended to develop into such. Nor is it casual leisure. The adjective “occasional” describes widely spaced undertakings for such regular occasions as arts festivals, sports events, religious holidays, individual birthdays, or national holidays while “creative” stresses that the undertaking results in something new or different, showing imagination, skill, or knowledge. Although most projects would appear to be continuously pursued until completed, it is conceivable that some might be interrupted for several weeks, months, even years

I was unable to work out if I do any of this. I do pursue some projects over time, but I can’t see how “continuously pursued until completed fits in”.  That starts to get to sound suspiciously like work 😉 One needs a good few leisure projects, and cut between them. That sort of dissipation wouldn’t be tolerated at work!

There are some real-life examples on this page – this one was from participant Meghan

how one person sees their leisure activity in this taxonomy

I was surprised that so many listed travel in their project-based leisure, I’d have put it in casual. But they did the course so they know better, or maybe their travel isn’t like mine. We also have serious sample bias here because all the respondents are undergraduates, they have yet to join the treadmill of the rat-race and they probably don’t have children.

I got on to the serious leisure site after reading about the demise of the weekend, which is much more the typical narrative that you hear, basically it’s ‘Leisure – what’s that? We work all the hours given us and on the weekend we drive the kids here there and everywhere in between doing the laundry etc etc”. I recognise two of the themes from her piece. The first theme was the much greater freedom I had as a child that seems to be the case for children now, and also the opportunities to fill my own time without structured events. Having children was something people did and fitted into their lives when Katrina Onstad and I were children[ref]I would hazard a guess she was a child less long ago than I, perhaps Canadian kids kept their freedom to roam longer than Brits[/ref], it seems to be much more all-encompassing now.

The other theme was the way people don’t seem to have hobbies any more.

Hobbies are declining, but a hobby is exactly the kind of activity that adds value to the weekend. Stamp collectors and basement inventors may not be cool, but they know the benefits of becoming fully immersed in an activity and losing track of time – that rejuvenating “flow” state

The students were anomalous in that they did have hobbies. When I was growing up in what by modern standards would be a poor area, many of the adult working neighbours had hobbies, they were often creative but low-cost. Many of the guys actually made furniture[ref]Look at this Popular Mechanics from the 1970s for how common making furniture this was – I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of making something accurately enough out of wood to be fit for being in the house[/ref] using hand tools, others made models, and some of the women made clothes[ref]this was the 1960s and 1970s, remember[/ref], presumably both clothes and furniture were much dearer in real terms than they are now. I’d say there’s more consumption and casual leisure now compared to the other types that there used to be.

We’ve imbued work with the job of giving us meaning, and it seems to rob us of our leisure time in so many ways

I recognised another pathology mentioned in Katrina Onstad’s weekend article –

A friend used to make beautiful earrings occasionally. Almost ritualistically, she would buy the beads, and carefully craft the small, coloured jewels in a quiet workspace. Then came Etsy. Now she makes beautiful earrings and sells them, ships them and manages this business along with a full-time job and a family. What was leisure became labour. The side hustle is a weekend thief, but in a time of stagnant incomes, many must choose income over time.

I’ve seen that too. I made some ultrasonic microphones because I wanted to differentiate bat sounds and ended up selling some of these because people wanted to do the same. It was okay, but I was working at the time, so it was a weekend time thief. More recently I had been doing the accounts for a small operation and recently finished that – the time commitment was low, but the relief on finishing up is worth far more than the income. It’s unpleasant enough doing my own tax return, life is too short to see more of the taxman’s tiresome demands on behalf of others.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there must be an old tape still playing out from childhood or early adulthood that income = security, and worse than that, only income from selling my time = security. Perhaps when I finally draw my works pension in a couple of years I will chill from that. Intellectually I can see that I will run out my SIPP in a couple of years, this year it paid me with whisker of the HRT threshold, but I don’t really regard that sort of saved money as an income. There is learning to be had here. I’m not averse to doing the odd hit-and-run job, the microphones were that sort of thing, but I need to avoid regular commitments – the sort of thing Katrina’s Etsy friend ended up with. There is a lot of recommendation to turn a hobby into your job, and yet some good reasons not to.

Much of the point of hobbies and leisure interests is that this isn’t work. The fun with the microphone was developing it and looking for bats with it and hearing the differences, it was solving the problems. After making one or two, the novelty palls, and I’m not good at repetitive things, it’s the fun of the chase of design I liked more. I guess the lady with the earrings may have the same thing – making a new one is the buzz, mailing them out and dealing with returns, not so much perhaps.

There’s a more subtle problem. The business world tends to kill creativity in its search for continuous improvement and optimisation, it strips out the places to play. Although it isn’t creativity in the artistic sense, the design part of problem-solving is a form of creativity, if it isn’t up against the clock IMO. As a young research engineer/scientist I covered many more areas than I did as time went on. Part of that was The Firm shifted quite heavily away from research to development and then into IT, specialising and compartmentalising the workforce as it did so. But I think there is a wider trend towards specialisation – the mantra of concentrate on your core competencies and outsource everything else. In the more vertically integrated scientific and technical companies I worked in 30 years ago I got to learn electronics, I got trained to use a lathe, milling and shaping machines and oxyacetylene welding not because this was what I was going to be doing but because they didn’t want their researchers to run the workshop staff ragged with requirements that couldn’t be made. Companies now would probably outsource all that sort of stuff unless their primary function was mechanical engineering.

That may be more efficient, but it’s much less interesting. Pursuing a hobby doesn’t demand hyper-efficiency, because it is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. There’s reward to be had in the tides of a hobby, in the ebb and flow of the creative process. These meanderings may not be efficient, but they are part of the fun.

Sick of the daily grind but can’t wait for FI? Try a new angle from Andy at Liberate Life

Many of us in the financial independence/retire early space want to get financial independence because we want freedom from the Man taking over all our time. However, attaining financial independence takes a long time and it’s a tough slog. Retirement Investing Today has reached the finish line in his early forties after nine years of this. RIT even asks himself is he an outlier, I would say he is. I am less of one, but I went three years with no holidays and working hard and spending as little as possible to get out in my early fifties. What you have to go through to get to being able to retire early isn’t fun before, though it is afterwards 😉

It also concerned me that a lot of the narrative on here isn’t very widely applicable to people starting their working lives now – after all I started work thirty-five years ago. I think Andy has a lot to offer this cohort, because while work has changed, it isn’t all adverse change, and some of his ideas may help play that hand better in the modern world. Andy challenged me in the narrowness of my vision regarding work – his persistence in the face of a curmudgeonly and stuck in it’s-ways Ermine can be seen in this comment thread

Getting to financial independence is about earning and saving, and it pays to get that right, both in terms of earning as much as you can and saving as much of that as you can, but I’d say that more than half the battle is getting control of your headspace, knowing what you are doing and why. The younger Ermine was called out as a spendthrift wastrel and compared to many in the PF scene he was, although he avoided the general category error that is consumer debt which dooms many to a life of wage-slavery.

Andy is offering a different take on this. More choices open up when you separate the requirement for independence from financial independence and retirement

Andy has looked at the financial independence/retire early (FI/RE) scene with fresh eyes, and he observes a lot of independence can be had before financial independence. He is an inspiring example of someone in the FI community who isn’t working in finance[ref]I have nothing against people working in finance in London. But you’re a breed apart because of the pay levels, and the rest of us need hope and inspiration too ;)[/ref] in London, but is getting freedom of self-determination and control of how he spends his days. Andy is in his early thirties and lives with his charming wife and two delightful young children in the beautiful surroundings of Devon near Dartmoor.

Andy from liberate.life with the rolling Devon countryside in the background
Andy from liberate.life with the rolling Devon countryside in the background

In particular, he is of the view that many of us miss the point in focusing on the distant goal of financial independence. You can get a lot of independence and a lot of resilience from The Man by looking at working and earning a living in a wider way.

So I decided to find out more, and visited him down in Devon, on the way to looking at some prehistoric stones on Dartmoor. The rest of this post is an interview with Andy about some of his ideas on life and work.

An Ermine interview with Andy from Liberate.life on how he separates independence from financial independence.

The title of Andy’s site says it all – his aim is to liberate life from the limitations of working for The Man on one side, while at the same time not deferring all gratification until he is as grizzled as an Ermine, because his kids will have become adults by then and he’d have missed them growing up.

Changing your thinking patterns is never easy, and a lot of how we think about money and work was set quite early on. In the interview I ask Andy about his vision of what a good life is, and he talks about how mastery of his destiny is important to him and what he has changed to get closer to that, and his different take on financial independence.

More ideas from Andy on how to liberate your life

Andy’s website liberate.life is both about the how and why, but he offers more targeted way to help you make the changes:

a free email six-part course on how to quit the rat-race in 18 months*

one on one coaching* on how to become more entrepreneurial, and how to test new business ideas so they show whether they are likely to succeed sooner rather than later.

Andy can help you liberate your life with his one-on-one course, if you are open to new ways of thinking, and have the talent and drive to make changes. He is open about the scale of the challenge and the rewards. Andy’s approach is to steadfastly challenge limiting beliefs about work and earning, so you can use your ability to add value to other people to the full. Hell, he has even got the grizzled Ermine to think about doing some kind of paid work, just for the fun of it[ref]Note: I am interested in the research field and it benefits people I care about. I am not The Returned 😉 [/ref]

He’s even more persistent in delivering the message in person. Resistance is futile – the world of work has changed, and agility and lateral thinking in the face of change are what helps get ahead now IMO.

What did I learn from Andy?

I should acknowledge I haven’t done his course, but we did talk for a long time. I’m not his target audience because it is too late for me. I had to solve the financial independence conundrum on my own. And yet it’s clear that both my limited history and the nature of leaving the workforce left large regions of limiting beliefs:

Limiting belief 1: A view that selling is a sleazy occupation and I have never done it and have no place in it

This is as a result of my limited experience- I have only ever worked for four companies, and three out of the four were very big firms. I was far removed from the front line. Selling is an essential part of making any enterprise work, and my concept of sales and marketing was a combination of Arthur Daley, Spanish boiler-room telephone sales scams and used car vendors.

Now if I look back at my career I have sold ideas and strategies to people, but if we ignore that as lost along with the career, I then looked at designs and services I have sold to people outside my main job. And discovered that because I had always conceptualised sales as the spoken word, I had ignored sales I had made through the written word – a few thousand pounds on articles (ignored because I have been reading journalists decrying the death of print for years), and also a few pieces of equipment sold because people had chased me down to buy equipment after I have published technical articles on new opportunities and techniques.

In particular, because outside work I generally influenced through the written and not the spoken word I missed that I had already been selling through widening influence in the way of writing technical articles, even if I did make my customers chase me down and articulate their requirements as a request.  I am clearly of the Ralph Waldo Emerson mousetrap school of thought here 😉 If I wanted to take this further I would carry on in that line, using influence by contributing original articles to special-interest organisations and getting sales from that. I had missed seeing all of this because selling is done verbally in my beliefs. It is theoretically possible that using social media I could expand this, although I don’t have to. I use Google to publicise my articles[ref]this blog is an exception, I don’t really know how people find this, though I am glad you do, and I tip my hat to fellow bloggers who I believe are the main route[/ref], and by choosing to specialise in niche areas it works for me. I don’t SEO or all that malarkey – write decent stuff about technology I am interested in and choose small pools. Decent writing matters. I’m never going to win the Booker prize, I am wordy and not always focused. But in these small pools I am competing with engineers, not with Shakespeare, JK Rowling or even Dan Brown. ’nuff said.

Limiting belief 2: Quite serious blind spots regarding working and earning

These came around because of the way I reached FI, running away from something rather than towards it. You shouldn’t do that generally in life, and I was saved from the boredom that afflicts many who retire to get away by the return of an inquiring mind. That exit left marks from the experience that work hurt a lot at a particular time of weakness, and this was generalised. In fact it was the absence of control that hurt, if I had been in a position to turn round to the boss who tried to shaft me and say

“Quite frankly, if that’s how you feel then you can f**k right off and stick your performance management where the sun doesn’t shine, if you want to do things in such a stupid way then be my guest and find some other sucker to cover for your failure to look ahead”

I probably would have felt fine and dandy about the whole thing. Obviously I would then still be working, arguably wasting precious time of my life to earn money I didn’t need so it’s perhaps best that it happened that way.

So I ended up with the feeling that the whole principle of selling some of my human capital for money ends up as pain, as opposed to the specific example at that specific time did. I inferred the general from the particular, and you shouldn’t really do that from one data point, it’s bad epistemology.

I am sure there are other limiting beliefs, but I’ll vouch for Andy’s tenacity in hauling those out.

So there you go, particularly for younger cohorts for whom the journey to FI looks very long and hard. As the man says – Sick of the daily grind but can’t wait for FI? Take a look.

*Disclosure – Andy contributes to the Ermine’s beer fund for signups through here, but this won’t cost you any extra. I never promote something I don’t see real value in, I scrapped Google Ads from Simple Living In Suffolk years ago when they flashed offers of Wonga et al to unsuspecting readers. Having met him, Andy seems to play a pretty straight bat, judge for yourself.

Earning and working are different things in a post FI world

Before they are financially independent, most people work to earn the money to buy the stuff they need and want, it’s how 21st century capitalism is meant to work at the moment. It gives rise to the term ‘work’ – something that you have to do otherwise bad shit happens, like you end up with all your stuff thrown out on the pavement.

1609_evicted

Because it’s something you have to do for many years, many of us get Stockholm syndrome with work. Inveterate story-tellers that humans are, we tell ourselves that work is innately a Good thing and lends meaning to our lives. Let’s take a fine example of this from someone who I’m generally in agreement with, other than in this aspect of life:

But I believe almost everyone will benefit from having an ongoing economic relationship with society while they can – even if only for a day or two a week.

Monevator

I’m the poster child for disputing this paradigm. I consider it a limiting belief, and have taken pot-shots at the Calvinist work ethic every so often on here. The beauty of financial independence, however, is that you get to have the choice of whether to work or not. Over at SHMD, Jim has decided that he missed work, so he went and got himself a job, even though he doesn’t need the money.

Now I have never missed work, ever since I handed in the tools of an office-worker’s trade way back in June 2012. There is, however, a general psychological principle

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves

Carl Jung, MDR

I would generalise that to everything that irritates us… I don’t think it’s particularly personal in this case. If Monevator and Jim and 99% of the rest of the FI world want to work till they drop, good luck to them. It’s just the concept that work is an inherent good that gets my goat. As a society, we are going to have very serious trouble and mental distress with this meme if the robots and globalisation really do take half our professional jobs in the coming years, unless we have a social revolution that probably involves bending some of the axioms currently underpinning society. Hopefully one of them will be work = meaning 😉

I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.

Hermann Hesse , Demian

In order to live intentionally, therefore, I need to separate the beliefs coloured by past experience from my current experience, and my temperament had the past experiences not happened. Otherwise I will live in an imaginary prison, boundaries that once had value but have no more.

What does the word Work mean to me

It means a lack of freedom, it means grind, it means being trapped. It means earning money, it means selling my time for money, it means restrictions on my time. It means doing stupid shit like justifying my existence, it means filling in time sheets that have no bearing on reality, paperwork just because. Because humans are devils with their recency bias, this litany of woe is because the most recent experience was largely negative. But for 27 years out of my 30 it also meant the opportunity to travel, to do good interesting stuff and to build capital across my working life as I slowly exchanged human capital for financial and social capital. If I were to allocate the experience of my years evenly, then only 10% were bad, maybe 12% if I add in the six months I was unemployed between graduating into Thatcher’s first recession in the 1980s and starting work.

So it’s easy to see the limiting belief. Work = pain, and I need get as far away from that as possible. Even in 2009 I intellectually knew that was an extreme view, but one that because of where I was in my working life I could get away with. The power of the intensity of feeling galvanised me to clobber wasteful spend and save and take the necessary risks with extreme prejudice, and reach FI 8 years early.

What I did not realise was that simplification also distorts

and it is the distortion that clouds much of my thinking when it comes to the topic of making money

I think the word ‘work’ has picked up some unnecessary bad connotations […], especially as we’ve transitioned out of the years when ‘the recipe’ (grammar school -> degree -> job for 40 years -> pay your dues -> final salary pension scheme) still worked.

liberate.life in this comment on here

I was that grammar school guy, son of a maintenance fitter, who went to university, got a degree, then worked only four real jobs[ref]excluding casual crap before leaving university – kitchen portering, repairing radios and TVs and odd-jobbing[/ref], have a final salary pension scheme. It worked for me. I was able to retire early because I saved roughly half the notional capital behind my FSP, but having the FSP effectively gives me a massive bond-like holding, which means my risk tolerance with stock market investments is insane, because the FSP will keep the wolf from my door.

Liberate.life is the counterfactual to my experience – younger and more dynamic, but electronics engineering is the field the younger Ermine worked in. And yet he is yin to my yang – he can sell, and freelances, and as I read this it looks like the antithesis of everything I know about work. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing half the image right way up and half of the reflection upside down. I’m damned if I know which half is off but I suspect it’s mine 😉

So it was time to investigate the subject of work and money deeper. For a long time the obvious issue, that I associate work with pain, simplified things too much

I associate specialisation with success with work

For 25 years I was working in a big company, and in a big company hierarchy. Big companies tend to narrow people down into specialisms in engineering, because they have enough people that they can do that. I pursued some technical interests after leaving work, and have some of this on a blog, when I read it back it is a whole load of random bits and pieces on all sorts of subjects as I flit from one are of interest to another. Mine is worse on that front than your typical engineer’s blog, they at least tend to have a reasonable common thread for a few posts. As someone who is financially independent I can afford to pursue my whims, but if I were looking for staff and I saw that sort of character, I would think Jack of all trades and master of none, and file the CV in the round filing cabinet on the floor.

I haven’t even stayed with electronics and software, a few weeks ago I offered to fix a generator on a no fix no fee basis. I was pretty sure that Google was going to be my friend, the world is full of Honda GX small single cylinder 4-stroke petrol engines and Google is full of people who are describing faults and getting hints on how to fix them. The fault was the engine would run for about 20 seconds and the die. Google told me this was likely a blocked breather vent in the fuel cap, which I confirmed by unscrewing the fuel cap as the engine was about to conk out. Whereupon it ran fine[ref]Obviously you shouldn’t run an engine with the fuel cap open because petrol vapour is inflammable and invisible so don’t try this at home.[/ref] 😉

TFS identified this sort of mentality as a ‘scanner’ but twenty-five years of working in big companies has taught me to identify it as ‘dilettante’. Apparently it is more tolerated in today’s world of work, a kinder term for that sort is multipotentialite. It is more tuned to today’s world in some ways, because better communications means provided you can search well, you can gain the benefits of other people’s experiences by covering masses of ground. You just couldn’t do that before the Web, you couldn’t find enough different people to talk to, and it would have taken ages anyway. Multiple tabs were made for that sort of approach to finding stuff out – cover masses of ground, fast.

lots of tabs is the way to search - untill you run low on memory
lots of tabs is the way to search – until you run low on memory

So I have uncovered some unhelpful associations, and indeed at some level I despise that generalist tendency because for 25 years that wasn’t how to have success at work. It is possible I played against type for a quarter of a century because I prized security and stability and did not know how to manage money over more than a monthly basis. I always needed an answer to the Micawber question, and a regular income made that possible. I struggled with that while running several years from savings, in hindsight I didn’t spend enough. The generalist tendency occasionally caused me grief at work and probably slowed my rise up the greasy pole, on the other hand even in a big company you need people who can cross domains. It tended to work well in good times but be awkward in bad times.

But since I have the drains up I may as well keep on digging at these unvoiced assumptions…

 I associate a steady stream with income – I am virtually blind to feeling uneven income is income

I can’t really relate to income that comes in unevenly in dribs and drabs, because for 30 years income arrived in roughly the same amount each month, apart from overtime (in the early days) and bonuses (in the last couple of decades). It’s still a little bit of a mystery to me how a string of lousy £50 here, £100 there dividends in my ISA adds up to a good few thousands of pounds of income when rolled up over the year. I was able to jump over the uneven lumps ≠ income in the ISA because there are so many of these minor transactions I can think of this statistically. Many people work really hard to make their dividend income spread evenly across the year, this sort of happened naturally for me, although slightly peaking in Q1 and Q3. You can have 20 companies working for you in a HYP, but I would defy anybody to work 20 part-time jobs or even have 20 streams of income, that sort of diversification is hard to have with many income streams.

At a gut level I don’t really consider the sort of hit and run one-off jobs like the generator as income. For sure, Quicken adds them up for me so I can declare this, as long as I keep my pension + earnings below the personal allowance I am chilled. Last year I was able to toss a lot more than the usual £3600 in my SIPP because these things added up to a fair bit more than that. But it doesn’t feel like income, because it is unreliable and lumpy.

I associate earning money with work

and worse than that, I associate earning money with selling my time for money. So these one-off jobs don’t feel like work which is good, but they don’t feel like earning money either, which is bad. I don’t trust them, so I just bung the result into SIPP and live off the steady income from the SIPP, because I can’t budget with variable lumpy amounts. By a curious twist of fate a retiree older than 55 can put all their earnings into a SIPP in one year and get it bumped up by 20% to extract the next year, provided they don’t draw more than the personal allowance. I’ve only got another few years worth of that before my main pension shoves me well into the normal tax bracket, but I may as well enjoy the windfall while it’s there.

And yet together with the income from the ISA these odd jobs will start to add up to about the national minimum wage. It was not so long ago that I was chuffed that the dividend income from the ISA matched what I would have got from jumping through the hoops to get JSA (£71p.w so ~ 3700 p.a.) and yet the rate of increase of the ISA income per year is creeping up[ref]in fairness that was written nearly six years ago when the best you could put into an ISA was about 10k p.a. Some of the win in getting to three times that was the fact Osborne turbocharged this to time and a half, the time honoured magic of Saving Hard at work rather than any particulalry sharp investing chops[/ref]. I don’t draw an income from the ISA because I don’t need to – I want to pump that up as much as I can before I enter the regular BR tax bracket in a few years, since it is tax-free income.

I have lived in a big-company bubble for 25 years and it has limited my vision

I owe liberate.life some beers for widening my search. Because the similarities of the engineering skillset (naturally separated by 25 years or so due to the age difference) and yet pretty much everything else looking like a counterfactual, he’s shown me a set of limiting beliefs I was unaware of. More surprisingly to me, they aren’t particularly due to the trauma of the nutty performance management usage and abusage I took in 2009. That does exist, and has it’s own consequences. The idea of following Jim SHMD’s path and selling my time to an employer to draw a salary brings me out in hives. I’m not gonna go there, and I don’t need to.

But unassociated with that, my concept of making money was massively narrowed by my experience of working life, the unchallenged assumptions of that grammar school kid who followed the default track. Now that I am grizzled of fur and sufficiently past the finish line that I have options all the way up to and including doing nothing, I can zoom out and ask myself the question – is there a better way?

Perhaps I should turn the telescope round and ask myself what do I want out of earning money. I have identified a project where I could use a bit more money. It doesn’t directly change my own lifestyle, so my greatest fear of earning more through selling my skills doesn’t apply – that fear is that I would earn money, inflate my lifestyle with Consumer Crap™, get locked into it and lose the delightful freedom of FI. I am happy with what I will have, my lifestyle will inflate somewhat anyway as my income increases once my main pension starts. I don’t need to earn more money to raise my lifestyle. Although once I believed that I screwed up discharging my mortgage early which meant I took an income suckout for the last four years, now I am on the other side I’m not so sure that I regret taking the suckout over the convalescence period. but that’s easy to say from the other side of the mountain. I got a significant ‘pay rise’ this when my DC pension started in June and will get a massive ‘pay rise’ when my non-deferred pension starts in a few years. Breaking the link between making money and my own lifestyle gives me detachment which can distance me from the suffering normally associated with ‘work’.  It is one aspect of the freedom to that financial independence is about, once you have spent the time integrating the freedom from.

So what do I want from off-piste opportunities to make money?

It is a subset of asking

I think I would feel truly fulfilled if I spent most of my days…

a subset for the simple reason that I have command of my time, being FI. I will do other things that fulfil me, this does not need to replace my use of time, but it needs to add, or at the very least not take away.

  1. I want to earn through doing something that is congenial
  2. and interesting
  3. has some originality or novelty
  4. creative in some way[ref]it doesn’t have to be engineering – for the past few years I have been makingsome money from photography and from sound recording. But trends in the wider economy are running away from those sorts of things[/ref]
  5. with decent people who aren’t dickheads in general[ref]Everybody s a dickhead sometimes, it’s part of the human condition, and that’s OK. Persistent dickheadery is what I want to avoid[/ref].
  6. that helps people or causes that I know or care about personally
  7. that is specifically something I bring to the party from skills, temperament or talent if any
  8. I want to spend less than a day a week on this, but I favour that being in all-or-nothing chunks with long gaps in between. Part of this is that I am limited by the tax system, I don’t want to work for the government 20-40% of my time. I have done my share of that over the last 30 years.
  9. I don’t what to sell my time for money. Obviously doing something creative takes time, but I don’t want it in the form of billable hours, more billable results
  10. I don’t want to ever see performance management. An engineer’s work speaks for itself, should that be the field I use
  11. I don’t want regular or ongoing time commitments. Hit and run jobs are what I  want, get in, do, then get out
  12. I don’t want to carry a smartphone all the time
  13. I am happy with no fix no fee and no guarantee of regular work – but if you aren’t there regularly for me there’s no guarantee I will be there for you 😉 and yes, that is sort of at odds with 9
  14. I prefer to sell Mind, not Stuff. Stuff gives warehousing and cashflow problems, and regulation is a bitch. It’s not hard and fast though.
  15. I do not want to be derivative or routine. I don’t want to be a replaceable work unit. No chuntering out ebooks or matched betting which seem common fave side hustles in the PF scene. I am rich enough not to have to do this, and old enough to know my time is limited.
  16. no franchising, if I am not original enough to make a decent return then I will just walk away

and if I do do this, I want to earn a lot more than the minimum wage for the time I do spend on it. Unless it really is so much fun that I don’t mind, but I’m not building that assumption in from the off. I am not volunteering. I don’t do that, particularly the sort of staffing job. I have done one-off data analysis and design stuff for the RSPB, but not under the usual volunteer x hours a week, it was task-oriented.

Unfortunately the logical conclusion is freelancing or contracting. I have no experience of that at all, zero track record, no domain knowledge, I am an introvert and can’t sell. So I have never done this in a big way although I did have a multimedia/web design company on the side in the early days of the WWW mid 90s to early 2000s. But selling was my weak point and when the major customer changed technology I folded the company. I read this and think ‘bloody hell, I can’t do any of that’.

Not only that, but it appears that small companies are where the most likely chances of success are. I have worked for a small company, a 10-15 man band, but it was at the very beginning of my career 34 years ago. Small companies are like the past – they are a foreign country; they do things differently there.

The Ermin place of work at my first company. The duff sensor heads are lined up on the back wall. I don't have a good explanation for the can of wifebeater on the bench, perhaps were were celebrating a big Egypt order. 'elf 'n'safety would shut this joint down i na jiffy. We used to wash PCBs in boiling Arklone, a CFC with the instruction 'don't fall down, else you'll stay down'. The vapour was heavier than air.
The Ermine place of work at my first company. The duff sensor heads are lined up on the back wall. I don’t have a good explanation for the can of wifebeater on the bench, perhaps we were celebrating a big Egypt order that came in around this time. ‘Elf ‘n’safety would shut this joint down in a jiffy nowadays. We used to wash PCBs in an open tank of boiling Arklone, a CFC with the instruction ‘don’t fall down, else you’ll stay down’. The vapour was heavier than air.

I had some bizarre engineering experiences in small firms, two stick in my mind. In my first company, the design engineer swore blind that a virtual earth amplifier had a high input impedance. Now at 22 I didn’t know a lot, particularly when to keep schtum and STFU, and I had been testing these blasted things which used to want to take off and oscillate more often than not. That’s bad in an optical sensor. But I did know that a virtual earth was a low impedance input. So when there was much head scratching in a meeting as to why we have more duds than good ‘uns I go and pipe up “but a virtual earth is a low impedance – the clue is in the name”. I was dead right, and the clue is indeed in the name, but there was a deathly silence and the assembled multitude digested the unwelcome fact that the lead designer had goofed, as pointed out by the rawest recruit. Seemed a good idea to move on from there after a year…

The second was when I was the lead engineer on a project at The Firm, and we had contracted some clever fellows in the Cambridge Fens. These guys had minds like planets, and I had told them the average TV sound in expected typical audio levels of 0.7Vrms. For some reason they decided they only needed a peak to peak level of 1V, sadly convention has it that the peak to peak amplitude in this case is 0.7×(2×√2) or nearly 2V. The passage of time had gentled the Ermine’s needle-sharp teeth and I had learned that it pays to nudge people to coming to the conclusion that perhaps a mistake had crept in somewhere. But I confess I had to look it up in a textbook after a meeting where one of these guys a lot brighter than me was declaiming that the signal was entirely correctly 1V, he really believed that. They were awesome at digital stuff, could pull their set-top box code apart and have it have it changed in a few hours. In a bigger company somebody else would have been in charge of all that fuzzy analogue stuff and this challenge to basic engineering fundamentals wouldn’t have happened, particularly in front of the customer 😉 Small companies have much more of a heady mix of absolute brilliance and the occasional absence of fundamentals, in my limited experience of them.

For many reasons I would be a fish out of water trying to apply what’s left of my skills in this different world. I have no knowledge of the terrain, and I don’t know if my passport is good for the country. To my advantage I don’t have to succeed, though of course that may work against me too, perhaps I will not have sufficient fire. It’s not looking good, but I have one key advantage. I am not desperate – I am financially independent. Even at the moment the amount in my current account slowly creeps up month on month and I need to toss it into the Nationwide every so often to win 5%. As a result my risk profile is very different from normal, I can screw up a few times and let it go.

There are other odd wrinkles, take this perfectly reasonable recommendation

To free yourself from the grind, be defined by your strengths

I can see that might work when each piece of work is won anew, ie there is no history, it’s obvious to play to your strengths. But in my career I achieved many wins by fighting down weaknesses – it is this which turned an introverted young Ermine into someone who could speak in public and lead international teams. Even in the specific realm of personal finance I had to fight down the common get rich quick belief that trading is the way to make money with stocks, and come to understand that the noisiness of the information, the abnormally high likelihood of infrequent outliers and the high frictional costs mean that often the less you do[ref]inaction on its own is not enough although Robert Kirby’s The Coffee Can Portfolio made a good case it was, inaction is necessary but not sufficient IMO[/ref] the better your long-term performance.

So there are many hurdles and mindset-shifts before I could turn freelancing for small companies into something workable. And surprisingly, none of them are particularly associated with the issues that finished my big company career. Why consider this route? Because the one thing I know I don’t want to do again is a regular job. I don’t have the time, there are all sorts of bad associations, and it’s not what I want to do with my life. Because that was the only way I knew of making money, I accepted I was never going to make money from my human capital again.

People have occasionally challenged that assumption. But it took time for the noise and hum from the crash-landing of my career to die down, and for me to see an opportunity that wouldn’t lock me into a consumption lifestyle, so that I could see the remaining limiting beliefs. Whether it will amount to aught is unknown at the moment.

Andy’s liberate.life is a different take on financial independence, with less emphasis on the financial and more on the independence

In the personal finance sphere our weapon of choice is  of course personal finance, it is the Law of the Instrument. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s written in the term financial independence, hell, what other sort is there? Well, given the assumption we are talking about living in a First world consumer economy in the 21st century, that is.

We are aiming to save enough money to not have to work. RIT is the poster child for doing this relatively young, but his journey to FI was a pretty harsh ride. I’ve never earned anywhere near the amount of money I guess RIT earns, but I’ve never taken that sort of punishing schedule for years on end either. In my case, because I was naturally closer to the end of my working life, I could get away with focusing on the financial route to independence. You can become more independent, in terms of choice on how you spend your time, without becoming financially independent. The model I and most people follow, working for a company to get nearly all your income, is one of the least independent ways to get the financial capital you need to live life in a Western consumer economy.

Andy at liberate.life is a new kid on the PF block. Although it doesn’t apply to me, he challenges the principle that financial independence is an indivisible unit. His site is well worth a look if you are in this position

You made it! You’re financially comfortable. Your car is new enough to not break down all the time. You live in a nice house. If you have kids, they’re well dressed. People hold you in high regard and by society’s standards, you are a success.

So why the hell does your life feel like such a grind? At one point, you were young and full of optimism but now you just follow the routine, day in, day out. You don’t have any passion for what you do any more. You do it because you have to. You’ve got bills to pay.  You can’t see a way out of this before the sweet release of retirement at 60-something… and then you’ll be too old and worn out to live out the dreams you’ve always had anyway.

Now since I am not a million years off 60 I would dispute

and then you’ll be too old and worn out to live out the dreams you’ve always had anyway.

Bollocks to that, mate, remember that statistically happiness is U-shaped across the life cycle in many Western societies, so some of this is part of the human condition. But that proviso aside, he’s offering a freebie course in how to get FI[ref]for the sake of full disclosure I have done neither[/ref], and if you want to pick his brains specifically 1:1 interactivity is there if you pay him for his time.

In many ways getting to FI is a matter of asking the right questions as much as finding the right answers. The right questions can lift limiting beliefs into the light of conciousness. You don’t have to fight limiting beliefs if you don’t want to or need to. I’m not going to bother fighting the belief that working for an employer has become a soul-destroying issue of gamesmanship and playing the game with meaningless metrics that strip out the joy of solving problems sometimes otherwise known as work, because I don’t need to. It’s probably not universally true, even for me now.

But now I have found a potential application for deploying the residual vestiges of human capital I may still have which won’t lock me into lifestyle inflation and consumer crap, it is worth challenging some of the limiting beliefs about making money other than just using my financial capital. And without a doubt, Andy helped me ask some of those questions, and I have found that the default answers were often wrong, inconsistent and incomplete.

So if you feel you have made it but want a way out go read some of his work, if only to ask yourself some awkward questions. You may not like the answers but they can serve you well.