Mindfulness and the FIRE Movement

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.

I do not think people trying to FIRE are jerks, but I also don’t think the pursuit of FIRE is particularly mindful.  

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

minduflness’ role

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.


13 thoughts on “Mindfulness and the FIRE Movement”

  1. “Saying that you 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.”

    Agreed. Realizing that I had financial independence only magnified the downsides of practicing medicine. When I felt working was mandatory (I needed the money), all those little things bounced off me. Now, I tend to get more irritated with the little annoyances that tend to come at us from multiple directions.

    I still find value in working as an anesthesiologist, but it’s not as rewarding as it once was. Keep up the good work here. I like the angle you’re taking.

    Also, I’m sorry to learn about your daughter’s passing. I cannot imagine the heartache.


    1. PoF,

      Thank you for the words of encouragement and condolences. It has been tough year, but things keep moving. I have enjoyed rummaging around your blog over the last year.

      I know I a lot of people in the FIRE movement are working jobs that were not originally a calling, and I see the desire to FIRE a little more there. I am not saying that all MDs should just suck it up because “patients need you, etc.” But, I would prefer that medicine were in a state where the majority of us WANTED to continue to practice. I know that my current gig is out of the ordinary for a lot of physicians. I have a ton of control and flexibility in my schedule and am largely immune from productivity concerns. I can push 2 weeks worth of (normal Family Medicine) earnings into 4-5 long days, which isn’t available to everyone. There is benefit to doing something few other people want to do.

      Either way, I am increasingly seeing a way forward where I could enjoy the benefits of FIRE (flexibility, decreased workload, pursuing other passions, etc) by simply living well under my means even if I don’t have the full 25x costs. Life is rarely an all or none proposition, after all.

  2. Great thoughts on financial independence. Finding something worthwhile which earns a person money, in which one feels fulfilled and adds value to society, is an amazing achievement.

    1. thanks for reading! I think a lot of discontent in younger physicians comes from the realization that 11 years and $200-300k in student loans doesn’t automatically get one those things. And if that kind of delayed gratification doesn’t get you what you want, what will?

  3. You’ve put into words one of my greatest beefs with the FIRE movement. I’ll have to scratch off this idea on my list of things to write about 🙂

    We keep flitting from goal to goal in an effort to find purpose in our lives, when really we should focus on being here, in this moment. We know how fleeting and precious these moments are, and yet we waste them chasing the next big thing.

    So glad you’re adding your voice to this chorus!

  4. This is a big reason why I slant pretty much exclusively towards financial independence and leave out the “RE”.

    I also spend a lot of time writing about how it’s not really money we should he chasing after. That certainly isn’t the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to live a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. They are related in a way in that financial independence can buy you that time. It can also buy you part time or no time, if desired.

    Either way you can’t have wealth without a life well lived. Otherwise it’s pointless. That’s why the tagline of my site is “wealth & wellness” and why I spend about a third of my time writing on those topics.

    All that to say, FIRE without a purpose is pointless. And I agree that it can make you hate your job if that’s your ultimate goal. It’s all about perspective.

    P.s. I like the site. Keep up the hard work!


    1. TPP,
      Thanks for reading and the words of encouragement. Figuring out how to blend meaningful work, being a good and interesting person, and fiscal discipline without letting the pursuit of fiscal discipline overwhelm the rest seems to be harder than I feel like it should be. I think it just speaks to how money and status obsessed our culture is that stepping off the assembly line seems uncomfortable, because all of the pressures are aligned to keep you in the harness. We’ll see how it goes.

  5. Just discovered you blog courtesy of Millennial Doctor who asked me to put in on my physician finance blog feed that I call “The Hospital” on my website (which I did, and I believe we are now up to 73 physician blogs running on it).

    I definitely identify with your point about FIRE and that some people miss out if they are only looking at the goalposts and not actually living life during the journey to FIRE.

    Delayed gratification is indeed something we have ingrained in us. However time is never promised. Who knows who will be around 5 years or 10 years from now. It would be awful to live a life of denial in hopes of getting to that goal post faster and never make it in the end because of a life cut short.

    Like everything in life, you need moderation. Some saving, some living, some spending.

    1. Thanks for reading and adding my blog to the feed! Time is never promised. My daughter taught my wife and I that in the most powerful way imaginable. I think there is value in self-denial regardless of ever getting to the promised future. Yet, to severely restrict oneself just to hopefully have a future where you don’t have to work doesn’t inspire me.

  6. Some very thought-provoking ideas.

    I do know…for me…reaching a point where I had the ability to say “no” to things really changed how I felt about practicing medicine.

    (FI allows you to be more selective…)

    I think this ties in well with your post on “assembly lines”. Many of us have a “craftsman” within.

    Medicine has the potential for the doc to be a “craftsman”….and that “in the moment” being a craftsman is very rewarding.

    Can we find a way to reclaim that “craftsman” moment in medicine?

    1. I am always on the lookout for such ways. In primary care there are a few emerging models, Direct Primary Care is one, but the call burden is a little too intense for me right now. Iora Health is another interesting model whose progress I follow, but I have decided I still need some time to recuperate before trying to make another go of being a craftsman.

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