what the financial independence movement misses
The FIRE (Financial Independence – Retire Early) movement is all the rage on the internet these days. Among physicians it seems especially popular with the younger crowd (<50 years old), though people of all stripes are interested. I have been perusing many of the various blogs on the topic for months. I have found something rather unsatisfying in the movement’s discourse.
I want to make this clear: I am not opposed to financial independence or retiring early. It is a worthy goal. I have used many of the discussions on financial discipline to improve my own financial position. For instance, I now spend about 40% of my take home income paying down my student loan debt, which is the only debt I have.
Like so many things in life, the reality seems to be in middle. I do not believe that FIRE is inherently unmindful, yet I increasingly believe it can be slippery slope out of a mindful life.
In much of the discourse surrounding FIRE, the accumulation of money dominates the discussion, seemingly suffocating the reason for financial independence – a rich and rewarding life.
Physician on FIRE seemed to touch on this in a post last year:
If I had discovered the FIRE movement as a medical student….I might have spent the last fifteen-plus years wishing life away. It would have been awfully tough to embark on a career with the express goal of finding my way out of it. – Physician on FIRE
The basic tenet of living in mindfulness is living entirely in the present, as the present is the only moment that truly exists. The opposite of “wishing life way.”
Much of the discussion about achieving Financial Independence seems to be of the “when I achieve FI, I will be happy because I will be able to X.” variety. This is textbook living in the future.
Being mindful doesn’t mean ignoring the future. On the contrary, when planning for the future, being mindful requires being 100% present in the act. But, spending 10-20 years of your life doing something you dislike just to have a future you like is NOT mindful.
You don’t have to wait ten years to experience this happiness. It is present in every moment of your daily life. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Addicted to delayed gratification
Doctors are really good at delayed gratification. It is probably our primary coping strategy in life, especially early in our careers and training. I can’t help but feel that a good number of physicians pursuing financial independence are falling back into the mindless trap of delayed gratification.
In particular, millennial physicians have arrived at the end of a long stretch of delayed gratification (training) and found the reward lacking. Instead of doing the hard, soul searching work of learning to live in the present, I can’t help but see a retreat back into the protective shell of delayed gratification.
They put their nose back to the grindstone, hoping in vain that life will reward them afterwards.
Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
I want to reiterate, I do not think think that people should life fiscally irresponsible lives and “treat themselves” with frivolous spending on things that don’t bring happiness. The pursuit of financial independence builds multiple useful skills: mental and behavioral discipline, learning to be happy with less, and long-term focus.
However, I do not feel the value of the skills comes from achieving financial independence. Their value is only truly realized in the pursuit of a meaningful life. A meaningful life is not easy, and happiness is not omnipresent therein.
We only have so much time and energy in our lives. While I am in favor of sound financial decisions, avoiding debt, and maximizing savings, pursuing that goal to the exclusion of other aspects of life robs the present to give it to the future. It is worth reiterating, we never actually get to live in the future.
Remember, even Moses never made it to the Promised Land.
FIRE isn’t good enough
My main beef with the FIRE movement is actually that simple. FIRE is not enough. If the benefit of being financially independent is that you don’t feel enslaved to your job, that can be accomplished without having 25 times your yearly expenses saved. Unless, achieving financial independence is actually just about the money.
On the other hand, maybe others aren’t looking for anything more and I am the outlier.
“The greatest gift life has to offer is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Saying that being free to stop working at any time makes work better is like saying that being free to leave a marriage at any time makes the relationship better. Maybe that is true, but as a married man, I don’t think that it is.
If you aren’t happy with the work you are doing, being free to quit isn’t going to make it better. You’ll just stop doing it. Finding work worth doing is the solution, not having more money saved.
In retrospect, I may have lucked out that I hadn’t reached Financial Independence when my daughter died and my partners treated me like shit. I probably would have just left Medicine entirely.
I still have not healed my wounds with Medicine. But I am being forced to try because I have not FIRE’d. I am having to try to find happiness in the wilderness, instead of just wandering until I stumble.
I might have left Medicine an embittered, grieving former physician if I had had the chance. Instead, I had to look around and forge a way forward.
In the end, Financial Independence should be the natural byproduct of a disciplined, well-lived life. Achieving FIRE does not make your life disciplined and well-lived life.