Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him… We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.
– Willa Cather, My Antonia.
In all the talk of financial freedom/independence, we often forget to address the underlying fallacy in that assertion. Freedom or independence is impossible and possibly not even desirable.
We can be independent of many things. We can be independent of debt, wage work, even the power grid. However, that independence always comes with a cost (except maybe debt).
If we save enough money to stop working, we become dependent on the market, the value of the dollar, etc. Living off the power grid makes us dependent on sunshine, a gasoline generator, or our own ability to cut, split, and stack firewood for heat.
Indeed, living off the grid is satisfying not because of the freedom from industrial society. Rather, the connection to the natural world that it provides satisfies the soul.
Besides, connections and interdependency are essential traits of humanity. We need community, belonging, and purpose to live rich rewarding lives. Independence and freedom should not be the goals.
Rather, the things of which we desire to be free are often creating harmful relationships. We should not spurn connection, but those things we are connected to which are harming us.
The Value of Work
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. – Theodore Roosevelt
I have started reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. I am not very far in, but it seem our desire to be free stems from our devaluation of work. Our society has been chronically and inexorably devaluing work since Henry Ford.
As work itself is devalued, the Corporatists are able to alter it in ways that make it less and less rewarding for individuals. They buy our silence with increased remuneration so we can pay for things we don’t value.
We cannot value a thing if we don’t respect the work inherent in its making.
The reward of operating a drill press repeatedly in the same way day in and day out is far less than building individual pieces of furniture which can you can admire in completed form and be proud of.
In my own craft of doctoring, we see the finished product – healing and the healing relationship – increasingly being pulled from our grasps as physicians. The system is cubiclizing our craft.
Our patients, so accustomed to this reality in every other part of their lives they do not seem to care all that much. As long as they get their product, a Z-pack for a viral cold, narcotics and benzodiazepines for the pain of existence, unnecessary orthopedic procedures, they are satisfied customers.
The sad thing is, I could make more money doing 30-40 of those visits in a day as a medical automaton (and I have witnessed plenty of physicians who are doing so) than I could truly trying to heal.
Freedom vs. Fulfillment
While I think financial independence is worthwhile, by focusing on the end-goal we often forget to do the hard work of examining why we desire them in the first place.
This desire stems from a deep satisfaction with our work. As a people, we seem to inherently no longer find satisfaction and value in our work. Now, some might argue this is just Millennials being lazy.
However, isn’t it just as possible that something in the world of work has inherently changed over the last 50 years? That work is literally not what it once was.
Two trends are crossing right now. The trend of devaluation of work has continued unabated since Henry Ford and is reaching parts of our economy that were previously immune. This trend is intersecting with an increasing realization that money and consumerism lead to empty lives.
What is a person to do in an economy which requires us to do a thing we find repulsive to buy shit we don’t want? FIRE is one answer, but it simply postpones a reckoning.
We actually want fulfillment, and if we put the barrier of financial freedom between us and fulfillment, we increase the likelihood we will never get there.
Oh, So Many Red Herrings
Why do so many bloggers who have reached financial independence keep blogging? Because it is a path to connection and creative work.
We can obtain both of those things before FIRE. We do not have to postpone a meaningful life until we have “Fuck You Money.”
What pushes people who have enough money to stop? Not the number in the bank, but the dissatisfaction the work provides.
So, like most things in life the problem isn’t money or lack there of, it is more difficult. It is life, and it is much more difficult to rearrange one’s life and build meaningful work and relationships than to keep working for Fuck You Money.
The system is extremely adept at using money to keep us on the gerbil wheel. Even Fuck You Money can just be another carrot to keep the gerbil wheel cranking.
Accumulating money cannot be the answer to our existential woes, since it is clearly the cause.
Courage is not the Absence of Fear
The position of strength that John Goodman talks about in the Gambler does not require a a dollar amount. It requires courage, discipline, and clarity of purpose. We can learn and practice these things without a lifetime of money in the bank.
I said Fuck You (not literally, I do not recommend that) with over $300,000 in student loans and similar sized mortgage. What I had was Fuck Me Money, not Fuck You Money.
I still made the decision from a position of strength because I understood my marketability and cared more about the health of my family than anything else.
A year later, I have no mortgage (renting), and my student loans are over $100,000 smaller. We live in a 1500 sq ft house without air conditioning, the bumper of my work vehicle is kept on with duct tape and baling wire, and we are much happier.
Again, it had nothing to with a number and everything to do with living a life more true to ourselves.
So, go ahead, get that Fuck You Money, but don’t neglect connection and work worth doing in the process. If you do, you risk ending up all alone with no bills.