For many people who achieve Financial Independence, “what next?” is a new career. Or maybe even the same career.
After I sold Get Rich Slowly, for instance, and obtained financial freedom, I slowly reduced the amount of work I was doing until I was doing none at all. For a while, it was fun to have no commitments. I browsed the internet, read comic books, met friends for lunch. Kim I left for our grand roadtrip across the United States. But even before leaving Portland last March, she and I had both begun to recognize that I lacked a sense of purpose. I was aimless and adrift.
“When we get home,” Kim said, “I think you should get a job, even if it’s just a few hours a day at Starbucks.” I agreed that seemed like an excellent idea. Instead, I started Money Boss while on the road. That gave me work and purpose again — the same work and purpose that gave my life meaning before. (Now, of course, Money Boss has been folded into Get Rich Slowly. In fact, this article originally appeared on Money Boss more than three years ago!)
Or there’s Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme. After reaching Financial Independence at age 33, he spent four years pursuing hobbies like sailing, bicycle repair, and writing. Then, at age 37, Jacob un-retired for a few years.
“Financial independence allows you to do what you want whether that’s travel, raising children, saving the world, or playing golf. That’s what’s important,” Jacob writes. “What I like to do is solving impossible problems.” When he received a job offer that involved solving impossible problems, he took it. It gave him meaning and purpose. It was the right choice for Jacob and his circumstances.
Finally, there’s Jim from Wallet Hacks again. Jim is a serial entrepreneur. He’s always starting businesses, even though he doesn’t need the money. His work gives him meaning:
After I sold my last company, I felt a sense of emptiness when I woke up in the morning. I used to get up, excited to start the day because I had all these ideas in my head for what I wanted to try, projects I was working on, and people I needed to talk to. My sense of purpose, which was tied to my work, was taken away.
I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I thought about what was important to me, what I really enjoyed about working outside of the paycheck, and realized that I work because I enjoy a feeling of accomplishment, I enjoy learning a new thing, and I enjoy overcoming challenges. So I set out to build a new work life for myself that touched on those…any income was an added bonus.
In his excellent book Work Less, Live More, author Bob Clyatt calls the lifestyle that Jacob and Jim and I have chosen “semi-retirement”. We’re financially independent but opt to keep working. “Semi-retirees learn that a reasonable amount of work, even unpaid work, keeps them energized, contributing, and sharp,” writes Clyatt.
(Clyatt says that semi-retirement is also a great option for those who haven’t yet achieved FI but are getting close. It’s a way to scale back your career, to make a gradual transition from full-time employment to something more casual.)
“When you’re Financially Independent, you should make decisions based purely on your personal values,” Mr. Money Mustache once told me. “You should make your decisions as if money didn’t matter. You should ask yourself: If you could live anywhere, where would you live? You should choose to do work that you’d do even if you weren’t getting paid. And you should make buying decisions as if everything were free.”
But how do know your personal values? Most people have a vague understanding of what’s important to them, but lack clear goals and purpose. That’s why I like the following exercise, which is designed to help you discover meaning in your life.
To complete this assignment — based on the work of Alan Lakein — you’ll need about an hour of uninterrupted time. You’ll also need a pen, some paper, and some sort of stopwatch. When you’re ready, do the following:
1. At the top of a blank page, write this question: What are my lifetime goals? For five minutes, list whatever comes to mind. Imagine you don’t have to worry about money, now or in the future. What would you do with the rest of your life? Don’t filter yourself. Fill the entire page, if you can. When you’re finished, spend an additional five minutes reviewing these goals. Make any changes or additions you see fit. Before moving on, note the three goals that seem most important to you.
2. On a new piece of paper, write: How would I like to spend the next five years? Spend five minutes answering this question. Be honest. Don’t list what you will do or should do, but what you’d like to do. Suspend judgment. When your time is up, again spend five minutes reviewing and editing your answers. As before, highlight the three goals that most appeal to you.
3. Start a page with the question: How would I live if I knew I’d be dead in six months? Imagine that your doctor says you’ve contracted a new disease that won’t compromise your health now, but which will suddenly strike you dead in exactly six months. There is no cure. How would you spend the time you have left? What would you regret not having done? You know the drill: Take five minutes to brainstorm as many answers as possible, then five minutes to go back through and consider your responses. When you’re ready, indicate the three things that matter most to you.
4. At the top of a fourth piece of paper, write: My Most Important Goals. Below that, copy over the goals you marked as most important from answering each of the three questions. (If any answers are similar, combine them into one. For instance, if “write a novel” was one of your top answers to the first question and “writing fiction” was a top answer to the second, you’d merge these into a single goal.)
5. The final step requires a bit of creativity. Label a fifth piece of paper My Mission. Look through your list of most important goals. Does one stand out from the others? Can you see a common thread that connects some (or all) of the goals? Using your list as a starting point, draft a Mission Statement. Your Mission Statement should be short — but not too short. It might be anywhere from a few words to a few sentences. Take as much time as you need to make this the best, most compelling paragraph you can write.
When you’ve finished, set aside your Mission Statement and walk away. Go about the rest of your life for a few days. Don’t forget about your mission, but keep it in the back of your mind.
After you’ve had time to stew on things, sit down and review what you’ve written. How does your Mission Statement make you feel? Can you improve upon it? You want a vision to give you a sense of purpose that drives you day-in and day-out, through good times and bad.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve thought a lot about people who set (and achieve) big goals but then lose their way. This happens all of the time.
Many people spend years digging out of debt only to fall back into the pit. Or there are folks like me who manage to lose fifty pounds but then gain it all back. (I’ve done that twice before. I’m in the middle of a gain right now — but I’m trying to put the brakes on.)
I think the big problem is that people forget to ask themselves, “What next?” They have a plan to get out of debt or to lose weight, but they don’t have a plan for what follows. I think another issue is that people pick the wrong goals.
* Your aim shouldn’t be to get out of debt. Your aim should be to boost your personal profit; debt reduction then becomes an inevitable side effect.
* Similarly, your target shouldn’t be a specific weight. Your goals should be to eat right and to exercise thirty or sixty minutes each day. If you do this, fitness will follow.
A similar issue faces folks who have set the goal of achieving Financial Independence. They’ve set themselves target, which has no real meaning in Real Life, and once they succeed at reaching it, they’re lost. They come to the realization that their goal was arbitrary, that it ought to have been a side effect not a primary aim. (It’s curious to see so many FIRE bloggers lately move to “un-retire” and return to work precisely because they were floundering to find direction.)