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.


Modern Medicine is Mindlessness

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were
a nuisance… [then] we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

can mindfulness and modern medicine coexist?

Often, especially when I practiced primary care, I felt the need to accomplish a task to get to the next one.  My task-oriented nature repeatedly stole my present and gifted it to the future.

Prescription refills, prior authorizations, signing documents that have nothing to do with patient care – all exploited this weakness.  I was always to trying to wash the dishes to have clean dishes.

I could not seem to live a minute of life while at work.

Joshua Tree NP – NPS Public Domain

After I had decided to quit my job, I went on a solo grief retreat in the Mojave Desert.  Among the joshua trees and cinder cones, I finally returned to the present.  I read the Miracle of Mindfulness for the first time.



While reading, I had a revelation: the basic structure of modern medical practice sabotages mindfulness.

working on self-compassion

In current practice, organizations expect physicians to welcome any and all intrusion into their work in the name of patient care.  However, increasingly non-patient centered tasks fall into this category.  Seemingly, the system has learned how to manipulate our value system.  Suddenly, anything anyone wants done is a reason to interrupt.

Sadly, even before I lost my daughter and things took a turn for the worst, I felt an intense pressure to try to fix what I found unpalatable in my worklife.  I put the pressure for resolving my discontent with the system entirely on my shoulders.

Now, I am no accomplished mindfulness practitioner.  In the Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the relative ease of being mindful alone on a walk in the woods rather than in company.  I should not have realistically expected myself to find a way to mindfulness surrounded by the least mindful workplace I have experienced.

every system is designed to achieve the results it produces

It is unfair to expect a novice in mindfulness to advance as a practitioner in such an environment.  Shift work has helped relieve me of this burden, an under-appreciated reason for its increase in popularity.  I can focus on medicine while at work, and focus on washing the dishes when not.

I hope someday I will be mindful on the scale of minutes or seconds.  On the other hand, isn’t that too much to ask of a novice?  Yet, that is what our system demands of doctors. Burnout is the natural outcome, not an occasional, unfortunate byproduct.

Nonetheless, hospital executives seem to think that a half-day mindfulness seminar is good enough to prevent physician burnout.  A lecture and some breathing exercises checked the box, no need for changes to systemic processes or organizational culture.

Thich Nhat Hanh- Public Domain

“Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. [emphasis added] Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

welcoming, recognizing, and treating ourselves equally

Part of learning to be in the world is coming to terms with our own frailties.  At first, I viewed my current position of a traveling critical access doctor as a transition until I found a new permanent practice.

I had phone interviews for perhaps a half-dozen practices.  A funny thing happened: by the end of every interview, I no longer wanted the job.

After having this epiphany, I eventually accepted I currently don’t have the level of accomplished mindfulness to face the mindlessness of modern medical practice.  In the middle of a busy clinic or call day, I just don’t have the mental discipline to wash the teapot like a baby Buddha or Jesus.

I then asked myself a second question, “Should I want to?”  I am still working on that answer.  So far, in my grieving state, I am just not willing to work so hard just to be able to survive the barrage of dysfunctional practices that are currently de rigueur.

An opportunity to not only survive medicine, but actually thrive, may someday yet appear.  We, as physicians and patients alike, can only hope.